Alissa’s Eco-advice – Supermarket anxiety

By Alissa MacMillan

Eco-investigator and New Jersey native, Alissa MacMillan, seeks to find answers to your everyday questions about tough decisions we all face, when acting in the best interests for the environment. A freelance writer and philosophy lecturer, Alissa is a former features reporter for the New York Daily News and has been living in County Limerick for nearly eight years. Your queries on all matters environmental, are welcome.

This week, Alissa focuses on supermarket anxiety.

Q: I am trying to be eco-conscious in my food shopping, but I’m often confused. Do I buy the unwrapped sprayed broccoli or the organic wrapped, the UK potatoes in a paper bag or the Irish in plastic, the loose peppers or the pack of three, the oil in a plastic or glass bottle. The list goes on! How do I know what’s best?

A: Most of us have felt some form of option paralysis in the vegetable aisle when the environment is on our minds. Do I go organic, pass on the berries in the styrofoam, get my peanut butter in glass or the plastic tub?

When trying to decide, we can whittle it down to two factors, explains Dr. Ioannis Zabetakis, head of the department of Biological Sciences at the University of Limerick, namely the food itself and the packaging.

The first bit of good news: what’s better for your health is better for the environment. If you eat with an eye to more local produce and an awareness of the seasons, you’re actually shopping in a more environmentally friendly way, says Zabetakis, and it’s more nutritious.

“If it is grown in a greenhouse out of season then a lot of hormones and pesticides have been used,” he explains. Greenhouse foods are “less nutritional and less tasty than the food produced on the fields.”

If it’s local and seasonal, it also likely requires less packaging, which tells us a lot about how far the food has travelled from and where it was produced. We’ve heard it often, but, simply put, unwrapped is always better because we’re using less plastic (go for the loose peppers!).


Of course, it’s not always so simple. When food is travelling from the UK and the rest of the world, it comes in cartons and wrap, and we often have no other option. Zabetakis admits he just bought fruit from Spain, while I just bought lemons from South Africa – “a lot of greenhouse gas emissions have been produced for this to come here,” he says.

But we’ve got to eat and we needn’t leave the shop with a guilt complex. Packaging is the responsibility of the food industry, Zabetakis points out, and it will be up to them to make changes, but we can express to them what we want by making the best possible choices.

So, olive oil in glass or plastic? Always go for glass, Zabetakis advises, which is100% recyclable, while plastic isn’t.

What about the cheese wrapped in a layer of soft plastic or the one in the hard plastic dish?

“I’d go for the soft,” he says, but, again, it’s tricky. “Soft plastic is using less energy so it’s more environmentally friendly because production is different, but it is not recyclable at all, while hard plastic is.” But much less material is being used with the clingfilm.

“There are always advantages and disadvantages,” Zabetakis adds, but, as a general rule, the less packaging the better.

What about UK organic potatoes in a paper bag versus Irish non-organic in plastic?

“I would go for the organic,” says Zabetakis, the better packaging and organic winning out over the distance the product has had to travel.

Simply – Go as local, seasonal and plastic-free as possible, and, it turns out, what’s best for your body is also best for the earth.

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