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Precycling in the Sustainable Food Movement

Updated on April 20, 2015

Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

In the United States, recycling has become prominent in the last several decades.

Individuals, households and communities have come together to make recycling a daily exercise. It’s now common to find recycling bins on city sidewalks, in workplaces, and at neighborhood curbs.

But is it enough? Many would argue that it's not enough and that we can do better.

The amount of packaging waste generated in the United States is huge. Packaging typically is 10-20% of the cost of the non-produce items we buy. And a large amount of energy is used to produce and recycle packaging.

The bottom line - it costs a considerable amount of money and resources (energy) to create packaging and to later recycle it.

Can we do more to cut these costs, to protect our environment, and to work towards creating more a sustainable food environment?

Small groups across the U.S. are addressing these issues and coming up with solutions:

  • Improving recycling efforts
  • Invoking the practice of "precycling" (reducing waste by ditching packaging altogether)


How much of the collected recyclables are really recycled?

Those that recycle typically assume that their materials set aside in designated bins are, in fact, being recycled.

Research by watch dog groups have found that this is not always the case.

For example, Earth911 reported last year that some of the City of Chicago’s recycled materials were too contaminated with broken glass and/or food residue. That made them unfit for recycling and as a result those materials were sent to the landfill.

The Earth911 story raises important questions and sheds light on issues surrounding recycling.

United States Statistics

  • About 700,000 tons of garbage goes to landfills on a daily basis.
  • Packaging makes up about 40 percent of the garbage going to landfills.
  • 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away every hour.
  • The number of glass bottles thrown away every two weeks would have filled both World Trade Center towers.
  • The number of aluminum cans thrown away could rebuild our commercial air fleet every three months.
  • During the holidays, an additional 5 million tons of waste is generated - 4/5’s of that is wrapping paper and shopping bags.


Improving the recycing effort

The first obvious step is that, as consumers, can do better in the recycling collection phase.

In households or in the workplace, individuals can take steps to ensure that recycled materials are not contaminated when they are set aside for collection.

In large venues or events, this is a bit more difficult to address and monitor (e.g., city streets and event collection sites). To ensure that recyclables are not contaminated, additional staff needs to be hired to sort out the “clean” verses contaminated recycled materials and in the end the contaminated recyclables may still end up in a landfill.

Despite the hurdle, some cities are making these efforts. For example, at least one major U.S. airport hires staff to hand sort out clean recyclables from the trash in the airport terminal.


Precycling - an ongoing revolultion

Many individuals are taking steps to try to purchase items without packaging as much as possible - a concept known as "precycle". This is not easy to do. As consumers, we are stuck buying both consumables and non-consumables tightly sealed up layers of packaging.

On a large scale, one group is taking the concept of "precycle" to a whole new level. Their mission is to create a complete “package-free” and “zero-waste” grocery store - a first in the U.S. grocery industry.

In Austin, Tx, this new "one of a kind" grocery is called In.gredients (yes, there is a period in the middle of the name!).

The concept is simple - food is purchased package-free in order to create zero waste

Here's how it works:

1. Consumers bring clean containers from home.

2. Empty containers are labeled and weighed at the store. (If the same container is used in subsequent trips for the same product, it only needs to be weighed the first time around.)

3. The consumer fills the containers with the desired food from the bulk bins.

4. At check-out, the consumer pays based on the weight of added food.

VERY SIMPLE - No plastic packaging or paperboard going to the landfill or needed to be recycled.

Building such a store is not an easy task.

Modeled to some extent off of the co-op principles, food is presented to consumers in bulk. While most co-op stores do offer bulk foods like this, there is yet to be a co-op or grocery store that is completely package-free.

While some argue that buying in bulk like this may create health concerns - with proper care by the store and very defined rules, these concerns can be overcome.

In.gredients store just opened this year. Learn more about this type of package-free and zero-waste shopping concept HERE.

The benefits of precycling: health

There are major benefits of eliminating packaging. Several recent studies have found that chemicals used to create food packaging can end up in the food we eat.

Bis-phenol A (BPA) from some plastics is one that many may be familiar with. BPA is used to make some plastic bottle and it is used in the lining of canned foods and significant levels have been found to leach out from the plastic into the food. BPA has been linked to a number of cancers.

Phthalates are another class of chemicals that have also been found associated with foods, supplements and even medicines. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors - again linked to certain cancers and other diseases.

By eliminating the packaging these foods come in and using safe containers from home, the toxic level of these chemicals in the body can be drastically reduced.


The benefits of precycling: sustainable food

By drastically reducing the amount of packaging used, the amount of waste going to landfills is greatly reduced. The number of harmful chemicals, in turn, leeching into our environment is also reduced.

Sustainable food requires a sustainable environment. The continued wide spread use of chemicals in the long run harms the environment, making it harder to grow good quality food.

We, as consumers, often forget that a huge amount of energy, is required to make this packaging. It requires the use of chemicals that can often create harmful byproducts that are released into both the air and our water. In the long term, this reduces agricultural sustainability.

Ultimately we pay the price by creating an environment that cannot safely sustain quality food production.


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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @triciajean - that's great! I've always thought about bringing my own container for lunch bars like that but haven't tried it yet. I've seen many bring their own coffee mug for their morning coffee.

    • triciajean profile image

      Patricia Lapidus 5 years ago from Bantam, CT

      Great hub and ongoing discussion. I can buy most things using my own containers at my local health food stores. I brings items like apples, turnips, cukes to the cash register without bags. I bring my own containers for the lunch bar and bulk foods. I keep an eye on the contamination issue and wash food before refrigerating.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 5 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      It is really tough to find certain products that are precycled, but where we can find them, that's what we purchase.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @PegCole17 - I agree, the contamination concern is a big issue with bulk items. Especially with kids and their curiosity :)

      @ThePracticalMommy - yes, so much packaging with toys and even things like tools and household items. I miss the days when you could go in and buy a vacuum cleaner already assembled!

    • ThePracticalMommy profile image

      Marissa 6 years ago from United States

      I never heard of the precycling concept, but it's an awesome idea. I wish they'd use the same idea for toy packaging. I can't believe how much packaging is used for toys!

      Voted up and sharing!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      I like the idea of preventing waste as an added bonus to recycling. There are so many good containers that products are packaged in that go completely to waste. Some of these could definitely be refilled with the same ingredients.

      For the In.gredients concept, I hope a lot of attention is placed on preventing contamination of bulk food items, including not allowing the hands of the patrons in the refilling process. I look forward to reading your next article to learn more.

    • rsusan profile image

      Rika Susan 6 years ago from South Africa

      You would love South Africa, Kris! It is a privilege to be living in the stunning Western Cape. And we have beautiful weather (although a bit windy at times) with none of the extremes you guys have to cope with.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @rsusan - I'm glad to hear that it's going on a little bit in South Africa. I would love to visit there some day:)

      @Pcunix - I've not been in a Whole Foods yet but know enough about them to know they actually aren't all about "whole food" as you mentioned. I read in interesting piece on their marketing - all the work that goes into their displays to make their fruit and veggies LOOK fresh (when they really weren't all that fresh...months old in cases).

    • triciajean profile image

      Patricia Lapidus 6 years ago from Bantam, CT

      Good one, Kris. I find I can take my own containers for bulk and takeout and have them weighed just as you describe. Mostly I buy fruits and vegetables without any bags, just loose, and no one objects. Thanks for the encouragement. It's going to take the whole global village to clean up our ways.

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 6 years ago from SE MA

      I love the idea. I suppose it could actually save money, too?

      It doesn't matter - I'd support this 100%. I'd love to see Whole Foods actually become "Whole Foods".

    • MerCyn60 profile image

      MerCyn60 6 years ago from New Jersey shore

      Precycling is an interesting concept. It has been around for years but not in an entire store. I look forward to hearing more about the in.gredients store.

    • rsusan profile image

      Rika Susan 6 years ago from South Africa

      This is very useful information, Kris! I never knew that this was called 'precycling'. We are seeing small bits of it here in South Africa, but still in a very limited way. It sounds like something all consumers should learn about. It makes a lot of sense.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @Rochelle - thank for linking. I'll build a link back to yours!

      @Eliminate Cancer - I agree, it will be interesting to see how this translates on a larger scale in the U.S.

      Precycling actually is more successful in some countries - fewer big stores and more open market places. Consumers often go daily to market and rely less on processed packaged foods that last forever on shelves.

    • profile image

      Sunnie Day 6 years ago

      Wonderful hub. We precycle but never had a word for it but I like it..makes perfect sense. Thank you so much!


    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      It would be so great if Precycling was available now. It takes every single person to even make recycling a success. I really like the idea of doing away with packaging food, etc. altogether. Voted up on this excellent hub!

    • Eliminate Cancer profile image

      Eliminate Cancer 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Interesting, but as you mention - not really a new concept. I remember food co-ops from my youth, and the incentive was as much for reduced packaging and waste, as it was for healthier foods and reduced costs.

      It will be interesting to see how this translates on a larger scale.

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Precycling is an interesting concept, definitely new to me- thanks for the information!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Recycling is getting better, at least where I live. If you don't have to personally take your own trash to a landfill, you really don't have a good idea of what it really is.

      I hope you don't mind if I link this hub to my "bad wrap" hub about pre-packaged produce (and how much it contributes to waste). It fits right in.

    • profile image

      AfterAzria 6 years ago

      This is interesting, to say the least. I just hope that 'precycling' is more successful than recycling.

    • Attikos profile image

      Attikos 6 years ago from East Cackalacky

      Recycling has been a sad failure, a fantasy imposed by economic ignoramuses on everyone else. Why would pouring resources into another fantasy labeled "precycling" be of the slightest interest to any thinking person?