Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Packaging Versus Price: How Do You Decide?

The Conscious Shopper apologizes to any subscribed readers who read this post on Monday, came to the site to comment, and couldn't find the post. I accidentally hit the publish button, and once you've done that, there's no taking it back from the RSS feed. Grrr, Blogger...

A month or so ago, I wrote a guest post at Fake Plastic Fish about how much money I save by trying to reduce my plastic waste. Some of the numbers really surprised me: $440 a year by using stainless steel bottles instead of buying bottled water; $260 a year by making my own yogurt instead of buying it every week; $125 a year by shopping the bulk bins instead of the canned foods aisle.

The article revolved around my savings at the grocery store, but I've saved money by avoiding plastic in other ways too - frequenting the thrift store, shopping on Craigslist, choosing not to buy at all...

Admittedly, there are times when avoiding plastic costs more. For example, I could run down to my local Walmart and pick up an insulated PVC lunchbag for my kindergartner for about $10. Or I could buy a stainless steel PlanetBox for $60. That's a big price difference, but when I feel like I'm investing in something that's going to last a long time, I'm generally willing to pay more.

But what about when the plastic-free item costs more but isn't necessarily better?

The other day I stopped by Trader Joe's on a quest for a specific item someone had told me about, and as I was swinging up and down the aisles, a price tag caught my eye: $1.39 for a pound of organic pasta. My internal price book started dinging: "Savings! Savings! Savings!" It wasn't a sale, just the everyday Trader Joe's price, but a whole $0.60 cheaper than the organic pasta at Whole Foods or Kroger. Except for one little detail...unlike every other cardboard box of pasta in the country, this pasta was packaged in a little plastic bag.

Being the over-organized, spreadsheet-lover that I am, I estimated how much I would save by switching to the plastic-wrapped Trader Joe's pasta, and the savings came out to a whopping $30 or $40 a year. That's all.

On the other hand, if I had a choice between buying a shirt for $60 or the same shirt on sale for $30, I would choose the savings, hands down, every time.

But is the $30 savings worth the extra plastic in my trash bin? Or phrased the opposite way, is it worth paying $30 a year just to save a measly amount of plastic?

The Trader Joe's pasta is just one example; I face this type of dilemma all the time. Should I buy vinegar in small glass jars, or save by buying the huge plastic jug? Should I buy my carrots naked, or save by buying 10 pounds of carrots in a plastic bag? (or potatoes, apples, and oranges?) Sometimes the plastic packaging wins, and sometimes it loses. Honestly, it mostly depends on my mood.

How do you make those decisions? Do you choose packaging or price? Even when the savings are very small?


Shona~ LALA dex press said...

Funny, I was looking at those plastic bags of TJ's pasta in my very own pantry last night. Sometimes the plastic wins as I try to maximize the food budget. ALTHOUGH I was flabbergasted when I discovered that bulk organic oats are less/ lb at Whole Foods than the waxy cardboard boxed w/ plastic top non-organic oats I have been buying for years, even with a coupon AND the store savings (market research) card. I made some bulk bags from linen tablecloth I never used, know the tare wt. AND make sure they remember to knock off the .10/ bag. I don't beat myself up for the plastic gallon bottles, etc, I just look to reduce + eliminate where I can + it's amounted to a lot since I started examining it.

Billie said...

Honestly, I have to say that I spend more money avoiding plastic than if I purchased without paying attention to it.

Naked carrots are considerably more expensive than in a plastic bag. Meat is more expensive at Whole Foods where I can get it in my own container than at Shoppers and the list goes on and on.

But I would rather spend a bit more money on food and still hopefully have a planet when I am old than save money now to have no planet later.

abbie said...

This is a great post about an issue I have been pondering for a bit now. I did a packaging blog series in March for my One Small Change challenge and this brought on a ton of plastic packaging issues.
I am a bit more picky when it comes to plastic packaging. I do try to seek out glass and metal when available, but I definitely prefer non-plastics when the product is fatty (like mayo) or acidic (like lemon juice) because these items tend to leach plastic toxins into the foods we then consume.
I try to buy things that aren't packaged at all, though this isn't always avoidable in an on-the-go-snack-size society.
It is so frustrating that protecting the environment is sometimes out of our budget. I frequently try a change in perspective and examine what I might purchase with that extra cash instead of buying glass. $1 for a glass mayo jar, and less in our landfill, or a $1 on a throw-away item... our family should be so lucky to even have a choice. :) Thanks for a great post!

Wonder-ful said...

Our deciding factor comes from transport issues. I will only drive into town once a week if I can help it (sometimes, it's a two-trip deal if the cousins come down and it's a decision between them driving me insane...or making a second trip to drop them home in town)

There are certain things that I have to get in town and are my only reason for going to town. Things like Depends and bed pads (the only bed pads we like are at Wally world...*sigh*). So if they're out of the gigantic packages of (lets say Depends) then I have to ask myself: Do I want to wait and make another trip to town just so I can get the big packages (less plastic, cheaper) or just get more of the smaller ones and get the heck home.

And as always... I choose fewer trips than fewer packages. Considering each trip is a 50-ish mile round trip complete with fast food (the deal is, no Panda Express unless I go to town...fewer trips = less packaging). It just saves time, money and gas to compromise on the plastic sometimes.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Shona - organic dried beans (if you can get in the habit of preparing them) from the bulk bins are also cheaper than conventional canned.

@Abbie - You make some very excellent points, especially about avoiding plastic packaging on a product where the plastic would leach.

KaKi said...

Shona, when you use your own bags for produce and bulk bins, you can get a $.10 bag knock-off? Oh my goodness!! I have never tried that, nor have they offered that!!! Thanks for the tip!!

KaKi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shona~ LALA dex press said...

Went back to read what others were saying + want to respond to the bean suggestion: my pantry is so full of bulk items in French lidded jars (I had to start collecting these jars after having to toss a ton of bulk grains + teas due to some sort of bug infestation...the HORROR, not to mention the $$). Anyway, at one point the weight of the jars became so great that the shelves have started to sag really bad. I have rearranged them so beans are lower + oats + other light items are on the sagging shelves. My cereal addicted boyfriend just agreed to switch to bulk granola. Between the bulk bins + the Mountain Rose orders, my kitchen life is all about the bulk + the jars!

Condo Blues said...

I am moderation in all things but if something comes down to saving money if if it's only $30 a year I'll do it. I'm trying to clear out debt, save for some home improvements, and spend using cash only - no credit cards. I have to take all of my recycling to a city dumpster I am mindful of the packaging which means I generally go with the larger bulk container even if it's plastic because it generally saves money and is only 1 or 2 items I'm recycling each year vs. 12 smaller nonplastic items each year.

Pure Mothers said...

I choose non-plastic items over saving $ every time. I just get a terrible feeling in my stomach whenever I have to throw out plastic - or even recycle it b/c I know it is only getting down cycled and is just delayed getting to the landfill. If you join a CSA you will get all your fruits and veggies plastic-free. Now, if there is no other choice, then I get the plastic, but whenever there is an alternative, I get it regardless of cost. I want to support those companies who package in glass or paper/cardboard. I make up savings in other places. (I make my own homemade granola & cleaners, grow some of my own veggies, reuse wrapping paper or use cloth to wrap (furoshiki), composting cuts back on trash bag use, cutting back on meat saves $ too.

Eco Yogini said...

yep I think you hit it exactly right when you said it depends.

I think there is so much confusing out there right now about "what is best" and there are so many variables that it's tough trying to make the right decision.

We do what we can... :)

Eco Yogini said...

those are fabulous points about what TYPES of food we are buying with plastic!
sigh- so many factors.

Rosa said...

I choose less plastic over less money; my partner chooses less money.

For some reason, the exact same potatos at our coop, from a local grower, are MORE in bulk than they are in a bag. it makes him insane that I buy the bulk ones but it's only like 15cents a pound anyway.

KiwiLog said...

Hi! We loved your post over at KiwiLog and decided to feature it as part of our weekly mom blog roundup. Thanks!


Blog Widget by LinkWithin