Is it worth driving to a bulk food store?

Attempting to live more sustainably seems to come with a bunch of dilemmas. There are some areas where the evidence points quite convincingly in one direction (for example, riding a bike is better for the environment than driving, a vegetarian diet results in less greenhouse gas emissions than eating lots of red meat). However there are some areas that are a bit more ambiguous than that.

I have been making a proper go of Plastic Free July for the first time ever this year. More than any other area, it seems trickier to work out what the ‘right’ thing to do is when attempting to avoid and reduce plastic consumption. For example:

  • Is it better to buy goods packaged in paper or glass over plastic? The Environment Agency says perhaps not, when considered from the perspective of contribution to climate change.
  • Is it better to buy local produce, like berries, which are easily produced in the UK but always packaged in plastic, or imported unpackaged fruits like pineapple, which have to be transported from somewhere like Costa Rica?
  • Is it better to buy toilet paper that is made from recycled fibres here in the UK but packaged in plastic, or toilet paper made from recycled fibres in China and packaged in paper?
  • Is it better to walk to the local shops and buy goods packaged in plastic, or drive to the only town in the country with a plastic free store to buy unpackaged goods (even if it is a 120 km round trip)?

There are too many dilemmas there to tackle in one blog post, so I’ll just be focussing on the last one. However, one thing to keep in mind which is relevant to all these dilemmas (and others), is that we are making a values-based judgement when we choose to do (or buy or eat) one thing over another.

What does this mean?

As much as we try to quantify and compare environmental and socio-economic impacts of different options, the ultimate decision is largely based on what we choose to value. (Life cycle assessment is one technique for comparing options. This post might be a useful introduction to life cycle assessment indicators and what they mean.) A bunch of numbers on a page is compelling, but it is shocking images of adorable animals with stomachs full of plastic that have driven people all over the world to try to reduce their plastic consumption.

For many environmental issues (like climate change, overconsumption of resources, deforestation), the problems that are caused by our actions are quite disconnected from the actions themselves (i.e. it is difficult to relate driving to the shops right now with the drought that hits the other side of the world next summer). But when we see something like the iconic image below, we make an immediate connection with what we are putting in the bin and the problem it is causing, and then take action to make a change (even if it is just replacing a plastic item with a paper alternative).


The seahorse photo by Justin Hofman. I sourced it from the National Geographic article ‘We made plastic. We depend on it. Now we’re drowning in it.’ (highly recommend a read), but it is now shared all over the internet.

So is it worth driving to a bulk food store?

I was super excited to visit the first zero waste shop in Wales recently (you can read about the excitement here). I tacked it on to a family holiday and remember thinking that it took rather a while to drive there. I did some quick maths in my head and thought it would probably take about 8-10 litres of fuel to do the round trip from Cardiff.

The main concern I have around driving and fuel consumption is the contribution it makes to anthropogenic climate change. So naturally I made a spreadsheet to compare the greenhouse gas emissions from driving and those attributable to plastic consumption.  (You can check it out here, including background data and assumptions.)

I found that the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from a 120 km round trip from Cardiff to Crickhowell were equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacture and incineration of 8.2 kg of plastic (our non-recyclable plastic waste in Cardiff is incinerated, but the emissions from manufacture are much larger anyway). So in order to make it worth the trip (when considering the contribution to climate change), I would need to avoid 8.2 kg of plastic use each time. Put another way, a pasta packet weighs about 5 g, so it would be equivalent to the plastic of over 1,600 pasta packets. As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, we bought nowhere near that quantity of unpackaged goods!


Here is a nifty graph that allows you to determine the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle and plastic use (data and assumptions in the spreadsheet linked above). Based on emissions factors published by the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.
Of course, we don’t buy plastic free goods to reduce the impact on climate change. We do it because plastic pollution is also a massive global environmental issue. We see the litter in our streets and on our beaches, we see pictures of seahorses on social media, we see epic documentaries like Blue Planet II – these all encourage us to shift away from single use plastics.

But it still leaves us with a dilemma when the only options available have different (and not easily comparable) environmental impacts. As I noted above, what we choose to do is based on what we decide to value. It is possible to say that avoiding plastic is the most important consideration and therefore should be prioritised over all others (and I have seen some (unhelpfully mean) social media comments to that effect). Until such a time (hopefully in the very near future!) that a bulk food store opens in Cardiff, I think I am satisfied that shopping locally on my bike is a perfectly valid option – even if it means buying a few things in plastic for now.

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