Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Great Applesauce Jar Switch

Brian and I are what you might call semi-regular consumers of applesauce. It's not an item you'll always find in our fridge, like it is in some homes (typically ones with small children), but it's our go-to accompaniment for potato pancakes and similar potato-based dishes. So every couple of months, when we have a potato meal on the agenda, I'll stop by the local supermarket to grab a jar of applesauce, which then lingers in our fridge until (we hope) we remember to polish it off before it turns fuzzy. An extra perk of finishing up a jar of applesauce is—or at least used to be—that it leaves you with a nice glass jar, which can be useful for storing all sorts of things, from apple butter and lemon curd to refrigerator pickles to dry beans in the pantry. It also makes an ideal container for carrying soup to work in a packed lunch; unlike our Pyrex bowls, it has a lid that screws on securely, and unlike plastic containers with snap-on lids, it's safe for reheating in the microwave.

Thus it came about that last week, Brian asked me to pick up a jar of applesauce to accompany his Skillet Kugel. When I checked the market, however, I was chagrined to discover that the store-brand applesauce we usually buy was no longer being sold in glass jars; they were all plastic. Moreover, it looked like Stop & Shop was merely following the lead of the name brand Mott's, because all its applesauce was now in plastic jars too. I was baffled. Why, when consumers are increasingly concerned about the health and environmental impacts of plastic, would all the applesauce producers in the country suddenly adopt it instead of glass?

On the face of the matter, it seemed like plastic packaging must fall into the category of "stupid plastic"—the kind that's wasteful and unnecessary compared to other alternatives. But on the other hand, if all the manufacturers had gone to the trouble of switching to plastic applesauce jars instead of glass ones, there must have been some significant benefit to doing so. Curious about what that might have been, I dropped a line to Mott's via its website:
I have noticed that Mott's has recently switched from glass jars to plastic for its applesauce. Store brands seem to have followed suit. I was just wondering when this switch happened and what was the reason for it. With more consumers now shunning plastic due to health concerns, why switch to it?
I wasn't really expecting a response, but to my surprise, I got a call back from a courteous company representative within a couple of hours. She said that the switch from glass jars to plastic for all Mott's applesauce actually happened back in July 2013. However, stores that already had a stockpile of Mott's in the old glass jars would probably have used it up before starting to put out the newer plastic jars, which would explain why the Stop & Shop was still displaying glass ones until recently. As for the reasons behind the switch, she said there were several:
  1. Safety. Customers had expressed a preference for plastic because it's non-breakable—a particularly important concern for parents.
  2. Easier handling. The plastic jars are both lighter and easier to grip, and many customers find them easier to open.
  3. Transportation. The plastic jars are stackable, which means you can pack them more efficiently into trucks and onto store shelves. That, combined with their lighter weight, means that they require less fuel to transport.
It was that third point that really caught my attention. Up until then, I'd been sort of half-assuming that the glass jars, whatever their other disadvantages, were the greener choice. But as the rep pointed out, since plastic jars are lighter, it takes less fossil fuel to transport them to stores, which makes their carbon footprint lower. Low enough to balance out the environmental costs of producing the plastic and recycling it? Ah, well, that's a tricky question to answer. An article on the carbon footprint of packaging at How Stuff Works says it's "still mostly a mystery," largely because "the numbers to answer these types of questions aren't easily accessible for the average person." Likewise, a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer two years ago, comparing the benefits of plastic, glass, and aluminum drink containers, concluded that "Clearly, there's no one best choice for every person or every situation."

So overall, I can't really say that the new plastic jars for applesauce qualify as an example of "stupid plastic." However, I can definitely say that the switch to plastic makes the jars less useful for us, since they're no longer microwave-safe and also not as easy to clean as the old glass ones. So from now on, when we find ourselves in need of applesauce, the first place I check will be not in the canned-fruit aisle, but on the shelf where the store keeps its marked-down produce. If we can pick up a bag of slightly bruised apples for a mere 60 cents a pound, then in less than half an hour, our little pressure cooker can turn them into an applesauce that beats the commercial stuff hollow for half the price. True, we'll end up with a smaller amount than we'd get by buying a whole jar, but that's a good thing; it means we won't have to worry about using up the leftover sauce before it goes bad. And as far as packaging goes, you can't get much more eco-friendly than an apple peel.
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