Sarah Nichols points out the recycling code on a tub of plant-based butter in the Hannaford supermarket in Topsham. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

On a recent fall day, environmentalist Sarah Nichols of the Natural Resources Council of Maine went to the grocery store, ready to demonstrate how to buy food with less plastic and less packaging.

We’ve all seen how plastic gets into waterways and kills animals. Plastic in landfills remains intact for hundreds of years. And while plastic burned at waste-to-energy plants is considered better than landfilling, anything burned creates troublesome emissions.

Better answers? Recycling is good. Reusing is better. But best is finding ways to not possess plastic at all.

On this recent shopping day, as she looked down the aisles at all the packaging, Nichols sighed.

“It’s everywhere. It looks unavoidable. It’s not the consumer’s fault. It shouldn’t be this hard,” she said.

For now, it is.


But a statewide effort to change that is in the works. A new law looks to have Maine Department of Environmental Protection staff work with producers to encourage packaging that can be recycled, and looks to have producers who create packaging — which becomes our trash — to help pay for the disposal of their packaging.

The goal is less waste, enhanced municipal recycling and a system that no longer relies solely on property taxpayers to shoulder all disposal costs.

Release of a report to Maine lawmakers on how best to make that all happen is scheduled for Dec. 16.

Until then, there are steps shoppers can take to decrease trash and plastics they generate, Nichols says.

It takes a commitment, she says, backed by determination, attention to detail and some planning.

Sarah Nichols of the Natural Resources Council of Maine puts a head of broccoli in a reusable canvas produce bag at Hannaford supermarket in Topsham. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It’s a cultural shift. Planning what you’re going to eat for the week, making food from scratch, and buying in bulk are the best ways to reduce food packaging and food waste,” she says.


(And if you reduce your food waste and eat what you buy, you can spend less on food.)

Nichols recommends making a meal list for the entire week, then buying ingredients you need for those meals. “Otherwise you’re going into the store just grabbing stuff.”

There are benefits to planning every meal and cooking your own meals, Nichols says.

It not only reduces your grocery bill, it can result in healthier eating, because by making food from scratch using fresh ingredients, you’re eating less processed food and avoiding the often long list of ingredients it carries.

Planning every meal can seem hard at first, but it gets easier once you get into a routine, Nichols says.

Here are some of Nichols’ other shopping suggestions to reduce packaging.



Reusable produce sacks are available for purchase at Hannaford supermarket in Topsham. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Every fresh vegetable or fruit doesn’t have to go into a plastic bag.

Just place your bananas, five potatoes, four apples or two tomatoes into your cart, Nichols says. Ditto for a head of lettuce. “I wash them when I get home.”

For string beans and other loose vegetables that do need bagging, “I always bring reusable produce bags,” Nichols says, adding she wishes grocery stores would offer reusable produce bags for sale in the produce department.

For people who want lettuce ready to eat that comes in plastic tubs or plastic bags, Nichols says No. 1 plastic tubs are better. The lettuce stays fresher longer and No. 1 plastic tubs are recyclable; plastic bags are not. “They’re trash.” (Look for the number in the triangular recycling symbol on the package.)



Many shoppers buy meat and poultry in plastic or foam trays wrapped in plastic.

A better way, Nichols says, is to get the same chicken breasts, hamburg or beef from the butcher wrapped in paper, reducing the plastic volume in your trash.

Meat department staff will sell consumers the same kind of meats and poultry that are on display in the trays. Just ask.


State law requires stores that sell food wrapped in plastic or plastic bags to also recycle that plastic for consumers. These barrels are at Hannaford supermarket. Bonnie Washuk photo

Some people are concerned that as of April 22, 2020 — Earth Day — Maine will be among eight states to ban plastic grocery bags. Consumers will pay 5 cents for a paper bag if they need a bag and don’t bring their own bags or totes to the store.

But, Nichols says, a lot of other plastic bags used in food packaging can be reused.


Use that empty bread bag (or bag from your English muffins, hot dog rolls, carrots, etc.) for something else: your sandwich for work, for refrigerator food, or for other food uses. And remember: You can always rinse it out and use it again.

Or use those bags for non-food items, including storage, cleaning up after your dog, a make-shift glove for a dirty job, covering a paint brush in the middle of a project, etc. End single use of plastic bags, Nichols says.

And if you have plastic bags or plastic wrap you don’t have a use for, bring it back to the store to be recycled. Plastic bags and plastic film should never be put in municipal recycling because it can contaminate the load, but Maine law requires all grocery stores that sell food in plastic bags to accept the plastic back for their own recycling. (It must be clean and dry.) The containers are within 20 feet of the store entrance.

(We looked; they’re there!)

Glass jars can be reused to hold all kinds of things. Jelly jars can become drinking glasses. Cleaned out spaghetti sauce jars are perfect for storing home-made soup in the fridge. The same goes for plastic tubs if it’s cold food you’re storing.



Sarah Nichols shows the kind of individual packaging that increases the manufacture, use and disposal of plastic. Buying a large container of applesauce and putting it in your own reusable containers at home is not only cheaper but uses less plastic, she says. Bonnie Washuk photo

When possible, Nichols recommends buying supplies or food in large quantities, like a big bag of flour instead of a smaller one.

Nichols grimaces as she picks up a six-pack of individually packed — and wrapped — applesauce.  “This is our convenience culture at its finest,” she says.

If you want individual servings of applesauce or leftovers, invest in reusable containers.

And for drinks on the go, buy a six-pack of juice bottles one time, then refill and reuse them.

Or buy a 90-ounce bottle of dish liquid and keep it under the sink; use it to refill a smaller bottle on the counter.

We found a 90-ounce bottle of dish liquid for about $5 that would fill 11 small bottles. Buying large not only reduces the purchase of single-use containers, it saves on your grocery bills.


The same goes for liquid hand soap: Buy big and refill the small bottles you put on the sink and counter.


Or, don’t buy soap in plastic bottles at all. Go back to bar soap, which comes in less packaging and usually paper.

Using powder dishwashing detergent and powder laundry detergent — if you can find it — is more environmentally sound for a couple of reasons, Nichols says. It comes in cardboard containers; the big plastic bottles are recyclable, but they take up a lot of space in the recycling bin. And the liquid versions — of course — contain water, which is heavier to ship, increasing the product’s carbon footprint.

We found a few boxes of powder dishwasher detergent; powder laundry detergent was tougher to find.



Reusable wool balls sold at GoGoRefill in South Portland not only replace dryer sheets without creating waste every load, but cause clothes to dry faster, say advocates. Bonnie Washuk photo

Dryer balls instead of dryer sheets are a better choice environmentally because they’re not thrown away after one use. And because the balls fluff up clothes as they turn, they reduce drying time and use less energy.

And as for paper towels? Nichols uses “un-paper towels” that she makes herself out of discarded clothing or material, maybe like our grandparents. Her material of choice is old flannel. “I have a little basket in my kitchen.” The rags go in the wash and get reused.

Facts and tips for reducing plastics from the Natural Resources Council of Maine

Fact: Plastic breaks apart into smaller pieces, but plastic never goes away. World wide only 9% is recycled; most ends up in the ground, landfilled.

Fact: Plastic pollution is increasing, harming the environment, animals and getting into our bodies; growing evidence reveals microplastic is having a negative impact on health.

Fact: The weight of plastic on Earth is 29 times as much as all humans; if the trend continues, by 2050 plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean.

What you can do:


1. Refuse disposable plastic bags and plastics every chance you get.

2. Bring reusable bags to stores.

3. Avoid buying packaged food. If you must buy packaged food, look for glass jars or cardboard instead of plastic.

4. Avoid buying beverages in plastic bottles.

5. Keep a reusable mug and water bottle with you.

6. Say no to plastic straws.

7. Bring your own container for take-out or leftovers.

8. Avoid using balloons for decorations, don’t release balloons into the air where they’ll eventually land and be eaten by animals.

For more information:

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