For the environmentally minded shopper, walking down the supermarket aisle can seem morally conflicting or confusing. But with a few guidelines and suggestions, you can make the best grocery shopping decisions for yourself, your wallet and the earth.
Organic vs. Local
Assistant professor Phil Howard, who teaches in the Department of Community Agriculture, Recreation and Resources, defined organic food as food not produced with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. He said some studies show pesticide residue is lower in organic food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB, defines organic agriculture as a system that promotes biodiversity and soil fertility. Organic farming can’t ensure organic food is completely free of residue, but the methods minimize air, soil and water pollution, according to the NOSB Web site.
Howard said buying organic is a good choice for people in favor of supporting such farming techniques.
People trying to avoid certain chemicals can also buy organic, and know for certain their food is produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
“It depends on your values, what you want to support,” Howard said.
For hospitality business sophomore Emily Morris, eating organic food is the only choice. She said she can’t eat the salad mix in her residence hall cafeteria because the preservatives on it make her sick.
“My mom always told me organic food is better for you,’ Morris said.
General business administration freshman Becky Johnson doesn’t buy organic food because she doesn’t believe in the claims of organic certification.
“I don’t think anything is really organic,” she said. “They put chemicals on everything.”
Johnson’s parents are farmers who put chemicals on their crops. She said this helped influence her decisions.
It’s also important where food is grown. Howard said a lot of people try to look for locally-grown food because it hasn’t been transported great distances and the source farms tend to be smaller.
Packaging professor Susan Selke said while buying locally does make sense, the effectiveness is a matter of time and place.
“Fresh vegetables are good for you, but you won’t be able to buy many locally grown vegetables this time of year,” Selke said. “As with many things, there are tradeoffs.”
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Another aspect of food production is how it’s packaged and sold. In a culture of convenience — where milk is sold in single servings — it may seem more environmentally friendly to avoid excess packaging.
Buying less processed food, buying food in bulk, reusing containers, and bringing containers from home all can help reduce a shopper’s environmental impact, Howard said.
But Selke said the issue isn’t just about packaging, but the product.
“You can get more product with less packaging when you buy in bulk, but if you don’t use all of that product before it spoils, you’re not really saving what you think you are,” she said.
Minimal packaging sometimes means food only has minimal protection against contamination, Selke said.
It’s nearly impossible to buy package-free food, but shoppers can look for packaging materials that are easier to recycle. In East Lansing, clear glass is recycled but green glass is not. Although paperboard, the material cereal boxes are made of, is abundant in East Lansing, the city doesn’t recycle it because the value is too low.
Selke said packaging made with a single material is generally easier to recycle, but it depends on the community.
Paper or Plastic?
In the perpetual debate about which type of grocery bag is more environmentally friendly, the answer may be neither or both — it depends.
While plastic bags are made of polyethylene — a petroleum or natural gas-based plastic — and are not biodegradable, they’re cheaper to produce than paper bags and take up less space in landfills. While it’s possible to recycle plastic bags, only about 5 percent actually are recycled.
Paper bags, however, have a broader environmental impact.
Most studies show more water is used to make paper bags than plastic, Selke said. She said in states like Michigan, water probably wouldn’t be a deal breaker, but in drought-stricken areas, water use could be a more important production issue.
Morris’ mother always brought reusable cloth bags to the grocery store, a habit Morris has tried to pick up.
“I always want to bring my own bags to the grocery store, but I never do,” Morris said. “It’s harder to remember at school.”
Selke said she chooses to get plastic bags at the store, which she reuses as garbage bags.
“One message I try to get across to students is it really is true that issues are complex,” Selke said. “If you run across someone who is absolutely sure one thing is the best for everything, that person probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
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