Science·What on Earth?

How grocery stores could produce less plastic waste

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at what grocery stores in Canada and around the world are doing to reduce plastic waste, and how electric-car batteries can be re-purposed.

Also: The second life of electric vehicle batteries

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • How grocery stores could produce less plastic waste
  • Heated debate over the Australian wildfires
  • The second life of electric vehicle batteries

How grocery stores could produce less plastic waste

(Laser Food)

Many Canadians are frustrated by the overpackaging of food and household necessities at the grocery store, where they are often found in plastic bags, wrap, boxes and trays.

Trying to reduce that packaging is quite complicated, said Brianne Miller, co-founder of the Vancouver zero-waste grocery store Nada. "The way that our food system is designed inherently does have a lot of waste in it."

The good news is that grocery stores around the world — both small zero-waste shops and larger chains — are finding solutions. Here are a few highlighted by Miller, as well as in a new report by Greenpeace Canada that shows how supermarkets can move beyond single-use plastics and packaging.

Laser-engraved fruit and veggies. Packaging on produce often carries info such as its country of origin or price. Even unwrapped fruits and veggies usually have a plastic sticker with that info. Spanish company Laser Food offers an alternative, using lasers to remove a microscopic layer of skin from the produce and imprint a label (see photo above). This "natural branding" is currently being used by retailers in countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium.

"Nude food" suppliers. Wholesale foods often arrive at stores already encased in single-use plastic. Miller says her grocery store spends a lot of energy sourcing and talking to suppliers about solutions, such as shipping food in reusable containers. She said retailers have "a huge opportunity to dictate how products come to them," though it hasn't happened yet with big chains in Canada. In New Zealand, the Foodstuffs supermarket group has launched a project called "food in the nude," which involves working with suppliers to stop wrapping most fruits and vegetables.

Bag or takeout container rental programs. Many supermarkets charge customers for plastic bags, a way of encouraging them to bring reusables. Greenpeace reports that some supermarkets, such as Carrefour in France and A-Mart in Taiwan, offer bag rentals for a small deposit and launder them after use. 

Package-free personal care products. Most of us buy shampoo, soap and detergent in plastic bottles. But refill opportunities are becoming available from St. John's to London, Ont. to Vancouver. Package-free bars can also replace liquids such as shampoo.

Reusable container programs for food. Some big chains, including Bulk Barn and Metro, have introduced programs allowing customers to refill reusable containers with things like dry goods or meat. Miller said this is "a super-easy, really actionable way" for supermarkets to get started in reducing waste. A system for takeout food containers, called reCIRCLE, operates in grocery stores and restaurants in Switzerland.

Sarah King, Greenpeace's head of oceans and plastics, said that focusing on the reusability of packaging is the key to reducing waste from grocery stores. "If you're only using it once, you're creating waste."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Idling is clearly a topic of fascination for many What on Earth? readers. 

"Your article on idling misses a critically important point: traffic signals," wrote Paul Harwood. "Although voluntary idling may be addressed through bylaws, etc., involuntary idling is a far bigger issue. In addition to generating the waste of a lot of fuel, idling via traffic signals generates a huge amount of emissions."

Stan Whitson said, "I agree that idling is not warranted at higher temperatures, but what about when it's -20 Celsius and the vehicle is sitting outside? The engine has to warm up long enough for the heater to produce heat to warm the interior of the car. It's not safe driving a vehicle with frosted windows."

Dennis Henderson believes "we need to start looking at the root cause of why cars have to sit there and idle. A huge part of the problem is cities are sprawling, people ... sit idling, caught in rush-hour traffic for an hour to an hour and a half to two hours a day while inner cities have blocks and blocks and blocks that are laying in disrepair or vacant. These areas should be redeveloped to stop urban sprawl."

Finally, Ted Mitchell made this point: "Disappointed that your discussion of idling only looked at CO2 emissions, which are not directly harmful to humans. The pollutants that are harmful, namely particulates, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and stinky, partially combusted hydrocarbons, all have huge variations based on fuel type, engine age and emissions maintenance. It's not at all an exaggeration to say that one old diesel truck idles out more pollutants than all the new gas-powered cars you can fit on your street."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Australian wildfires

This season often brings brushfires to Australia, but this year's outbreak has been more severe than in the past, hitting the country's most populous state, New South Wales, and threatening its biggest city, Sydney. The latest outbreak has intensified the debate about climate change in Australia, which continues to invest in coal production and was recently found to be one of the worst-performing countries in the G20 in terms of climate targets. When coal-supporting Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked whether the fires were exacerbated by climate change, he dodged the question, prompting a blistering rebuke from Carol Sparks, mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council in New South Wales. "Why isn't he saying, 'Yes, it is climate change?' Why isn't he saying, 'We will do all we can to help?' He is our leader. He should know better."

(Peter Parks/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

The second life of electric vehicle batteries

(David Elderton)

In his pursuit to completely get off fossil fuels, David Elderton (above) has switched anything with a motor — from his car to his chainsaws — over to battery power.

Even the three-bedroom home he shares with his partner on B.C.'s Salt Spring Island is powered, in part, by a battery from a (wrecked) Tesla Model S he bought last year. It charges via solar panels mounted on his shed.

Elderton said the battery, which is the size of two large coolers side by side, can keep the lights on for up to five days with conservative power use, and about a day when almost everything is running.

Elderton is part of a community of do-it-yourself electricians giving batteries from electric vehicles a second life. "It's a good feeling not to be buying gas anymore," he told CBC Radio's Day 6.

A study published last week in the journal Nature found that while the electric vehicle "revolution" is crucial to a greener future, it presents a battery waste management problem. With the International Energy Agency forecasting more than 130 million electric vehicles on roadways worldwide by 2030, manufacturers, startups and enterprising DIYers like Elderton are looking ahead to keep EV batteries from the landfill.

Like a cellphone battery, electric vehicle batteries lose capacity as they are charged and discharged. That means less range and more frequent charging, but that doesn't mean the battery is necessarily ready for the dump.

"Once the battery degrades to, let's say 20 per cent below its nominal capacity, then you can actually use it, repurpose it for stationary applications," said Olivier Trescases, who heads the University of Toronto's Electric Vehicle Research Centre.

This year, Nissan began powering streetlights in Japan and a stadium in the Netherlands with used batteries from its Leaf cars. In 2015, General Motors took on a similar project at  data centre in Michigan using Chevy Volt batteries.

DIY builders have used old EV batteries in their homes as makeshift powerwalls (which are rechargeable lithium-ion home batteries). Particularly crafty ones have even fitted sailboats and classic cars with electric motors for a silent ride.

Researchers suggest that second-life solutions are preferable to direct recycling. Given how valuable batteries could be for stationary storage, Trescases suggests that in the future, EV batteries could be built with repurposing in mind.

Established companies and startups are already gearing up for what they say is an oncoming onslaught of spent batteries from the first commercially available electric vehicles, which are expected to reach end of life by 2025.

According to Jessika Trancik, an energy systems researcher at MIT, second-life solutions and recycling of the battery packs could be a key element in eliminating one of the main barriers to EV adoption: sticker shock.

"Finding either a way to capture the value in the metals in the battery through recycling or … finding valuable second-life applications can reduce the upfront cost of electric vehicles," she said.

Jason Vermes

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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