Why do supermarkets shrink-wrap cucumbers?Home » Latest issue » Good, issue 1 » Good start » Why do supermarkets shrink-wrap cucumbers?
The more we try to live a low-impact life, the more we notice the things standing in our way. Why do they do that? Why can’t I do this? Is this okay? Is everyone else this blimmin’ confused? Well, yes. Just as well we’re here to help, then.
So, why do supermarkets shrink-wrap cucumbers?
For once, you can’t blame your local supermarket for getting carried away with its plastic wrap—telegraph cucumbers are wrapped way back at the greenhouse.
Produce department supervisor at Mt Albert Pak ‘n’ Save, Beverley Gock, says there are a couple of reasons why greenhouses shrink-wrap telegraph cucumbers.
The first is to differentiate telegraph cucumbers (the ones with skin you can eat), from short cucumbers (with tough skin that needs peeling). The second is that it helps keep the cucumber fresh.
But growers don’t wrap individual apples to keep them fresh, or to indicate that edible skin is beneath the wrapper. We turned to Turners and Growers, where Dennis Patel had another two reasons for us: “They go soft,” he says.
“They get floppy. It’s hard not to be naughty, isn’t it?”
“They’ve got a very soft, delicate skin. In Europe they sell them un-wrapped, but they don’t grow them as big as we do here.”
Ever-suspicious of unnecessary packaging, we triple-checked with Naturally Organic, supplier of organic veggie boxes to the Auckland region.
Yup, they shrink-wrap their telegraph cucumbers too, “for freshness.”
If you want your cucumbers unwrapped, we suggest you buy them direct from your local farmer’s market—or grow them yourself.
Could the mercury in energy-efficient lightbulbs harm me or my family?
Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) each contain about 4mg of mercury—about 0.4% of the mercury in a single old-fashioned thermometer, and a whole lot further away from your mouth. It’s also less than the mercury released by a coal-powered plant to generate the electricity used by an old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb.
Mercury is toxic, but it’s safely contained inside the lightbulb—and even if the bulb breaks, the amount of mercury in a single CFL isn’t a health hazard. The broken glass is much more likely to hurt you, so wear gloves to clean up a breakage.
The problem with energy-saving bulbs is in their disposal en masse. Hundreds of CFLs being dumped in the same landfill will eventually add up to a lot of mercury, so when your bulbs eventually die it’s important not to put them out with the rubbish. Instead, ring your local city council to ask about disposal; some offer a Hazmobile collection service, others have drop-off points. A few Shell service stations also take back the bulbs, but not all of them, so phone first.
Don’t let the hassle of disposal put you off: you won’t have to deal with it often, as each CFL should last about eight years.
Why can’t I buy appliances without all that polystyrene packaging around them?
The short answer: the polystyrene is there to protect the appliance in transit.
For the long answer, we asked Fisher & Paykel’s recycling manager George Gray and product marketing manager Miles Webster whether F&P would consider using biodegradable alternatives to plastic-based polystyrene, like cornstarch ‘eco-foam’.
Encouragingly, the company has already tried it. Unfortunately, the environmental advantage of cornstarch (it dissolves in water) was its packaging downfall for F&P.
Exported appliances are subject to a wide range of temperatures, says Webster, and the moisture in the air in both hot countries (such as Thailand) and cold European climates creates dampness that causes cornstarch foam to deteriorate. F&P also tried cardboard pulp packaging, but found it added too much weight to the boxed appliances.
So, polystyrene it is—but F&P is doing its best to tackle the packaging problem from the other end. When you have a new F&P appliance delivered, the delivery van will remove all the packaging, whisking it straight back to F&P HQ for re-use (in other local deliveries) or recycling (the polystyrene becomes coat-hangers and fruit punnets, among other things). They’ll also take your old appliance for recycling, no matter what brand it is.
Why can’t I recycle Tetrapak cartons or the tops from my plastic milk bottles?
The good news is that if you live in an area served by the Auckland or Manukau City Councils, from 30 June this year you can recycle your Tetrapak cartons and milk bottle tops, as well as plastics with all recycling numbers (1 to 7) and even pizza boxes. They haven’t relaxed the rules; rather, the two councils have teamed up to contract the services of a new, state-of-the-art recycling facility in Onehunga.
The Visy Recycling centre, known as a materials recovery facility, is the most advanced in the southern hemisphere. It’s able to sort up to 160,000 tonnes a year, so it’s possible that other councils will contract the facility in future. Visy is an Australian company, with the advantage of size and international markets for on-selling the materials it recovers. (Yes, your recycling is sold; pulped or melted, it has value as a raw material for other products.)
The reason other city councils don’t collect Tetrapak cartons is because the cardboard is tough to separate from its plastic coating and foil lining, and so it is difficult to on-sell. It’s also hard to find a market for those small plastic lids—plus, stray lids can fly out of the baler used to compress the plastic. Heck, that could take someone’s eye out, and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience now, would you?