Re-cycle path

Categories: Features

Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative journalist, the author of seven landmark books on food issues, including What To Eat and Swallow This, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the food chain. She talks about the urgent need to address our throwaway culture, and how Borough Market is paving the way

Borough Market’s food community has long been at the forefront of discussions around the sustainability and environmental impact of food. Customers are encouraged to eat with the seasons; question the provenance of ingredients; prize pasture-fed meat, wild fish and game as items of value rather than everyday staples; buy only what’s needed and eat every last bit of it. Traders are encouraged to espouse a philosophy that values quality and sustainability over profit.

The latest challenge for Borough is tackling the throwaway plastic culture and the sea of waste it generates. Since Blue Planet highlighted the shocking facts about how much plastic in fact ends up in our oceans—it has been found in the stomachs of a third of UK-caught fish—public awareness of the need to curb our dependency on plastic has soared.

Ready, keen, relieved
Theresa May says she’ll make companies eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042, but that’s too far off; the problem is just too urgent. It’s blindingly obvious that we must develop more plastic-free ways of getting through our daily lives and many of us, either as individuals or through the organisations we influence, are ready, keen, even relieved to devise ways to do so. We have the perfect opportunity not only to raid our past for tried-and-tested alternatives but also to come up with creative new ones that our grandparents could never have envisaged.

A typical trip to the supermarket these days generates enough plastic packaging waste to fill your bin in a flash. It didn’t used to be this way. When the first US-style supermarkets opened in Britain, their carrier bags were made of stout kraft paper. Milk in reusable glass bottles was delivered to our doorsteps. At school, we drank our break-time milk in miniature versions with foil, not plastic lids, sipping it through not a plastic but a paper straw. We never took drinks to school, we just quenched our thirst at the water fountain. Until the 1980s, most people shopped mainly at the local butchers, fishmongers, and greengrocer shops where brown paper bags, not white plastic ones, were the norm.

Until recently, this memory of a low-plastic lifestyle might be dismissed as quaint, Call the Midwife-type nostalgia, because we’ve gotten into the habit—or perhaps been encouraged into the habit—of believing that the vast volumes of plastic we end up with when we unpack our food shopping somehow or other reflect progress, and disappear relatively harmlessly in the environment.

Inscrutable recycling symbols
Councils do offer plastic recycling collections, which sounds reassuring, but such schemes are vague and full of exclusions: the bottle is ok, the lid isn’t, and so on. Food and drink comes swathed in layers of packaging with inscrutable recycling symbols that offer the naive grounds for optimism, so heaps of throwaway single-use plastic food packaging have insidiously become a ‘normal’ feature of daily life, engrained in our daily habits. But we have woken up, belatedly, to the fact that avoiding the need for plastic in the first place, rather than trying to recycle it retrospectively, is the way forward.

And this determination to reduce plastic is firing up exciting initiatives at Borough Market. As the foremost food market in the UK, Borough has an obvious responsibility to show how the time-honoured market model, far from being outmoded, can become a persuasive showcase for what a saner, more sustainable food future might look like.

One recent significant development at Borough Market was the installation of three new water fountains—to be drunk from and for refilling water bottles—as part of a pledge to phase out sales of single-use bottled water. Now, many traders are instead offering reusable bottles made from recycled plastic.

Generating good ideas
At Borough the concept of plastic reduction is really gripping the imagination. Already anything in the Market that can be recycled is recycled, now that a large number of fully differentiated, clearly marked bins collect waste from shoppers. Positive change is infectious, and merchants keep generating good ideas. 

Going further, the Market’s new trader selection process requires all product packaging to be entirely biodegradable, wherever feasible. In some cases, applicants have to find alternatives to their usual packaging.

Within Borough’s market culture, the pressing need to limit plastic feels like a snug fit, just as it increasingly resonates with us all. We haven’t yet stepped off the plastic treadmill, but at least we’re moving forward apace, with some heartening results.