Life & Culture

Can kosher shops save the planet?

Why do our kosher shops give away millions of plastic bags every year? Joel Clark investigates.


At a small kosher butcher in north-west London, the Friday morning trade is as busy as ever — a loyal customer base picking up the usual array of chickens, meats and chopped liver for Shabbat. Almost every customer emerges with at least one plastic bag; others with three or more.

At this butcher alone, more than a million plastic bags are dispensed each year — a favourable contract with a wholesaler gives the business 3.6 million bags every three years for just a few thousand pounds. When awareness of the impact of single-use plastics on the planet’s oceans and animals has never been higher, it’s not a statistic any outlet is likely to brag about, and the cheery owner prefers to remain anonymous.

“The truth is there is just not that much demand to reduce the use of plastic bags,” he says. “Some customers bring their own bags, and we do try to pack the meat in as few bags as possible. We would consider offering a ‘bag for life’ if there was more demand, but actually many of our customers seem less concerned about the environment than they used to be.”

It is surprising that Jewish customers should appear unconcerned, despite of the prevailing drive to reduce plastic waste. In 2015, the UK government introduced a law requiring all retailers with 250 or more employees to charge 5p for all plastic carrier bags. Since then, the number of bags dispensed has fallen by more than 80 percent, with millions of pounds donated to charity from the proceeds.

Meanwhile the television series Blue Planet II in late 2017 laid bare the impact of plastic waste on marine life. Government scientists have estimated that the volume of plastic in the seas will treble over the next ten years unless waste is drastically reduced. Research suggests as many as one million birds and more than 100,000 sea mammals die each year from eating or being tangled in plastic waste.

“We are commanded in the Torah not to waste and not to destroy, and we have now learned that plastic bags are destructive to land and to living beings. One has only to walk the world’s beaches, look at food products and consider research about plastics finding their way into the stomachs of birds, fish and mammals. We must do our utmost to bring about change,” says Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of New North London Synagogue (NNLS).

NNLS is one of a number of communities driving Eco Synagogue, a cross-denominational initiative established a year ago to provide practical support and advice to synagogues and communities to help them become more environmentally responsible. Developed in partnership with the founders of Eco Church and supported by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the project provides resources to help communities assess and improve their environmental impact across key areas of communal life.

While its main focus is on communities, Eco Synagogue has very recently begun to turn its attention to kosher shops and businesses. Few of these shops are large enough to be required to charge for plastic bags, but recent news that the government plans, subject to consultation, to increase the plastic bag charge to 10p next year and extend it to all retailers could force change in the kosher sector.

A packaging sub-group within Eco Synagogue has sought to open dialogue with butchers, bakeries, fishmongers and delicatessens. The response has been variable, says co-chair Rosemary Cohen.

“A lot of shops have said that they don’t want to upset their customers, and they believe that they would be upsetting them if they were to force alternatives,” says Cohen.

“Our objectives are for people —both shops and customers — to really start analysing what they’re doing. As a society, we tend to be very lazy. People want well-packaged food, they want it to look attractive and they don’t want to have to shop too often, which leads to significant plastic waste.”

In December, Cohen distributed an initial survey to a group of delicatessens, butchers and bakeries but received only two meaningful responses. While some have engaged verbally, there has been little willingness to consider alternatives to plastic bags and packaging at this stage.

Not only are they lukewarm about actively reducing waste, but there appears to be a disproportionate tendency to voluntarily dispense large numbers of plastic bags among small kosher shops. I tested this by going to three kosher outlets in north-west London, and buying just five items from each, including a bottle of wine or grape juice and a mix of refrigerated, frozen and dried products.

At each shop, the cashier dispensed plastic bags without checking if they were required, with one — Kosher Kingdom in Golders Green— handing out an astonishing three bags for just five items. Half a mile down the road, B Kosher Golders Green packed five items into a single bag, while Moshe’s Kosher Food and Wine in Temple Fortune used two bags for five items.

A spokesperson for Kosher Kingdom said the number of bags dispensed had been “drastically” reduced over the years and the company is in the process of looking into a new bagging initiative, but declined to give further details.

“Our packing of bags reflects feedback from customers, many of whom are extremely particular that items be packed separately. Unless staff are asked not to, this is how we pack,” she said. “This is an important issue to us as well as to many of our customers, and of course we are doing what we feel we can to tackle this issue.”

A fairly low level of customer demand to reduce single-use plastics is part of the challenge, and it is here that Eco Synagogue recognises it must focus its attention. As many Jewish consumers need to keep meat and dairy products separate, kosher shops may find it difficult to keep plastic waste under control. Not only are multiple plastic bags often used, but fresh meat and fish products typically come with several layers of plastic, polystyrene and cling film.

“Jewish law takes great interest in how animals are killed, but less interest in how they are reared, and in much the same way we have become obsessed with the laws of kashrut without giving due consideration to the impact our kashrut may have on the environment,” says Brian Berelowitz, co-chair of the Eco Synagogue packaging group.

“This is a huge issue but we have to start at the grassroots, lobbying the kosher shops to charge for plastic bags or at least encourage customers to bring their own. There is still tremendous willingness to give out plastic bags and this has to change,” he says.

While plastics may be the most effective means of keeping food fresh and keeping it kosher, there are other options. In the case of kosher bakeries, Berelowitz believes there is a big opportunity to reduce plastic waste – if 5000 families could be persuaded to switch to bringing their own challah bags, for example, and each had previously used two plastic bags per week, more than half a million bags could be taken out of circulation.

“The practices of synagogues, shops and businesses set an example for what families do at home. It is not easy to reduce the use of plastics in our everyday lives, but these struggles are terribly urgent and as a community we need to be much more aware of them,” says Rabbi Wittenberg.

Eco Synagogue has come up with prototypes for posters and stickers that encourage consumers to reduce their use of plastic bags and plans to begin distributing them soon. While enthusiasm among kosher shops to take proactive steps has been limited, some have said they would be willing to display a poster.

“We are still at the very early stages, but many businesses seem happy to have a poster up, because it informs customers without forcing their hand. If enough shops do it, we hope there will be an element of peer pressure that emerges,” says Cohen.

Jewish education teacher Laurie Rosenberg says the level of awareness at his school, JCoss, is rising, with young “Eco Warriors” responsible for collection recyclable materials from classrooms. The concept of “tikkun olam”, healing the world, is strong in the school, and he thinks the wider community should do more. “I’ve never seen a bag for life at any kosher store. The Beth Din should produce one and call it the ‘tikkun olam’ bag,” he says. He also points to the wide use of plastic plates and cutlery in the community. “It’s appalling. We should do far more to make people aware of the need to recycle.”

Laura Miller, a volunteer with Eco Synagogue agrees. “The huge challenge is getting people mobilised, active and engaged. The degree of change that is needed is high, both personally and systemically. For young people, this is the issue that will define their lives and if the Jewish community is going to remain relevant, it has to take action now,” she says.


Eco Synagogue is celebrating its first year at an event at New North London Synagogue on January 29


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