Banned: methyl bromide, an extremely toxic and ozone-depleting pesticide. Banned: genetically modified organisms. And as of April 25, 2009, banned: plastic bags, packaging, and utensils at the Ecology Center’s Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. The market has always held its vendors to strict standards of environmental sustainability and social responsibility, and on Earth Day 2009, Berkeley became the first farmers’ markets in the nation to ban plastics.
The ban was launched as part of the market’s “zero waste” efforts. No longer will customers find plastic
bags conveniently hanging from booths. Instead, at the customer’s request, vendors will sell BioBags,
compostable non-GMO cornstarch-based bags, for twenty-five cents each. Because the bags are not as
readily accessible, and because customers pay for the extra resource, it’s hoped that people will reconsider
what they’re consuming: that they’re paying not just for the product, but for the package.
Customers are also encouraged to bring their own canvas or brown bags, wash and reuse plastic bags from
prior purchases, rummage through the reusable bag bins placed at either end of the market, or get crafty and make their own bags at home. So far, customers have expressed overwhelming support for the markets’ movement toward zero waste.
But some farmers are frustrated with the change. “These paper bags are terrible,” grape grower Jim Schmidt says about the brown bags he now uses to serve his customers raisins in bulk. Because paper bags draw moisture out of raisins and dry them out after just a few hours, Schmidt recommends that customers quickly transfer the raisins to a glass jar as soon as they get home.
Schmidt confides that if he had the choice, he would rather use his USA-made plastic bags, which, when reused properly, can last a whole year, and he points out that BioBags are simply not as sturdy or durable as plastic. Although brown bags are biodegradable, and, when composted, they divert material from the landfill, Schmidt implores market management to consider how much more water and resources are required to manufacture paper bags than plastic ones.
Furthermore, paper bags cost three times as much as the plastic ones they replace. Schmidt believes a better alternative to requesting brown bags or BioBags at the markets would be to reuse plastic bags or bring glass jars, practices he has always encouraged his customers to follow—his customers receive an extra ounce of raisins if they bring their own bags.
Some farmers face additional challenges. For example, because Jim and Corie Brooks, who sell sprouts and wheatgrass juice at the Tuesday and Saturday markets, use a number of different containers for their
products, they now must purchase packaging materials from four different suppliers in order to comply with the plastics ban. For sprouts, they replaced their clear plastic bags with cellophane and also carry BioBags behind the table for anyone who requests them. They also adjusted the sizes and prices of their wheatgrass and barley grass shots according to the size of compostable packaging that was available from their new supplier. To accomplish this packaging change, they also had to change their signage and the way they pack the truck.
“It’s ironic when you consider the level of difficulty to adapt [to the new market policies],” Corie reflects.
She compares her small business to that of some of the larger farms that sell at the markets, noting that the
plastics ban is hitting the smaller businesses harder, both in terms of finances and organization. “The level
of expense is different for different vendors. The level of difficulty [for small businesses] is intense, and makes me wonder if the [environmental] impact these changes are making is significant enough to make up for the effort.” For example, Corie notes that thirty Ziplock bags make up less than an ounce of plastic—the couple will still use the Ziplock bags for presprouted legumes until an alternative is found. The alternative materials are not perfect either: BioBags melt when exposed to prolonged sunlight, and cellophane rips easily. As for expense, it costs thirteen cents for each new cellophane bag the couple purchases, compared to one cent for plastic bags.
Still, Corie is pleased about the market’s zero waste efforts: “The customers are thrilled once they learn the
explanation of why the price increased for wheatgrass juice. And Jim and I have been really excited to make
the changes.” As the couple continues to brainstorm ways to replace their remaining plastic packaging
with biodegradable alternatives, they hope that both customers and market management will not just
focus on going “zero, zero, zero waste,” but appreciate what the vendors are already doing to be more
environmentally mindful. The Brookses set up a compost bucket for the new biodegradable wheatgrass juice containers. They charge a deposit for wheatgrass trays and see customers bringing trays back for reuse. Both Schmidt and the Brookses want to see more customers bringing their own containers for reuse. It’s cheaper for the farmer, uses no new resources, and diverts more waste than recycling or composting.
Come to the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets and join the race to zero waste! And before reaching for that
BioBag, paper plate, or compostable tableware, why not bring your own utensils and Tupperware from home? It’s often said that “you vote with your dollars,” but it’s also true that you vote with the money you don’t spend on new resources. The farmers have done their part for zero waste—now, it’s up to the customers to take the next step.