By Donella Meadows
–March 21, 1991–
In the back of my car I keep a split-oak shopping basket. As we empty plastic containers, glass bottles, and paper bags in the kitchen, I put them in the basket. That way I’m always ready to stop at the Upper Valley Food Coop on my way home from work.
I bother to tell you the intimate details of my shopping habits in order to illustrate a great principle of the universe first articulated by economist Kenneth Boulding: Anything That Exists is Possible. I get tired of hearing that it’s impossible for Americans to cut down on packaging, to recycle containers, to eat healthy food, to support local farmers. Thanks to the Coop my neighbors and I do all those things easily.
I fill the paper bags from the Coop’s bins of grains, pastas, nuts, and beans. The glass bottles I refill with cooking oil. Plastic containers get reloaded with honey, molasses, or glops of “real” peanut butter from a vat in the back of the store. I pour dish soap from a gallon container through a funnel into the plastic bottles I’ve brought. I keep two dish soap bottles in use, so we can use one while the other is in my basket, waiting to be refilled.
This is the next step up from recycling — a big step for the environment. It’s called re-use.
Since recycling requires transport, grinding, purifying, and processing, it causes a significant environmental burden — though less of one than wresting new resources from the earth. Recycling can cut the flow of resources through the economy and out to the dumps by 20 to 50 percent. Re-use can cut ANOTHER 20 to 50 percent, at least. If I refill a peanut butter container five times, that prevents the manufacture of five more peanut butter containers — an 83 percent reduction in resource depletion and trash — and THEN the container can be recycled.
I could take egg cartons back to the Coop to be refilled too, but I happen to be one of the egg suppliers, so I run that cycle the other direction. I take empty cartons from the store and return them full of eggs. Customers get my superfresh eggs with superyellow yolks, from chickens that run around, eat green things, and live normal chicken lives. If you think there’s no difference between those eggs and the chicken-factory products you buy at the supermarket, I offer you a blindfolded taste test. At our house we’d rather go without eggs than eat the ones from the chicken factories.
The Coop goes out of its way to buy organic produce and to buy from local suppliers. I know the farm where the carrots are grown and the bakery where the flour is ground and the bread is baked. I know the lady who makes the ketchup and the forest that yields the maple syrup. Money spent at the Coop is much more likely to cycle through the local economy and create local jobs than money spent at other food stores.
The Coop takes in plastic yogurt containers to be recycled. It offers unbleached coffee filters and paper towels made of recycled paper and — the ultimate ecofreak product — “Envision” toilet paper, unbleached and recycled from 100% postconsumer waste.
The Coop gives no sermons; it lets you proceed toward environmental purity at your own pace. It stocks both organic and nonorganic produce, both local and nonlocal. If you forget to bring your own containers, or don’t want to, the Coop supplies them at a charge. A paper bag to hold rice or spaghetti costs a penny. A plastic bag costs a nickel, and a plastic peanut butter container sets you back a quarter. At that rate I bring my own containers, but even if I didn’t, I’d still spend less on packaging and generate less waste than I would at the supermarket.
At the Coop there’s no blatting Muzack or syrup-voiced recorded sales pitches. There are no primary colors or foot-high exclamation points screaming for your attention. You are treated as a neighbor, not as an object of marketing whose primal urges are manipulated all the way from the parking lot to the checkout counter. The difference in mood is so striking that those of us used to the quiet bustle of the Coop find supermarket shopping an assault and an insult.
I haven’t even mentioned yet that it costs less to shop at the Coop. Saving packaging takes about ten percent off the price of groceries, not counting the saved garbage disposal cost. Volunteer workers at the Coop get another 10 or 20 percent off.
No one has ever calculated what the environmental and economic impact would be if all American food stores operated the way the Coop does. Those who tend to see the world as a set of impossibilities dismiss the very idea. “Bringing back containers! Measuring out scoops of rice! I can’t be bothered with that stuff.”
Well, in my experience it’s not a bother, and I bet I’m as busy as you are. I’m probably lazier, too. All I needed to be a more environmentally responsible shopper was a set of simple new habits and a store that makes those habits easy. Such places exist, by the hundreds, all over this country. If they exist, they must be possible.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991