Going to the supermarket? Don't forget your shopping list, reusable bags and... plastic containers. Yes, since 1 January, when the Royal Decree on Packaging and Waste came into force in Spain, customers have been able to take their own containers in order to cut down on the use of plastic in shops.
It means that shoppers can ask at the meat counter for the chicken they are buying to be put in their own container, for example, and staff at the fish counter will no longer have to wrap products in paper for the customer to take home. There is only one condition, although it almost goes without saying: the container must be clean.
This new regulation is an addition to others already in force, such as the ban on providing plastic bags free of charge which was introduced in 2018. The new decree drawn up by the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge also includes some extra rules: for example, fresh fruit and vegetables which are sold whole must be available without packaging, and shops less than 400 square metres in size must dedicate at least 20 per cent of their sales space to unpackaged products.
The measure, although many customers are not aware of it, has been well received in general as it is seen as a small but effective way of helping to protect the environment. "We have loads of plastic containers at home, and we will use them in the same way as we bring our own bags," María Miranda told us at the Maskom supermarket in Churriana.
Staff at Maskom said that not many people are bringing their own containers yet but the company is publicising the possibility so more customers are aware that they can. At the meat counter, the butcher told us that three customers bring their own containers now. "They don't want their meat covered with plastic," he said. "I think it is a very positive move, as long as the containers are completely clean."
Ángeles Lorca, who lives in the Ciudad Jardín district of Malaga city, has been taking her own containers to the supermarket since the beginning of the month, although she gets some strange looks. "People who don't know me stare at me, but when I explain they usually say they'll start doing it too," she said.
Not everyone is so sure, though. One young woman we spoke to, Elena, believes it just involves more work. "If I bring my own container, they should charge me less because they are saving on wrapping," she said. "And a lot of shops are using biodegradable wrapping now so I don't think this is necessary."
Different business owners told us that it is up to consumers to make sure their containers are clean because the shops can refuse to let them use them if they are not, or if they are unsuitable. The shops are not responsible for any food safety problems which could derive from containers brought by the customers. "We can't guarantee that there is no cross-contamination," they said.
The Andalusian Confederation of Food and Perfumery Businesses (CAEA) said that shops can insist on their own hygiene conditions, and that for the safety of staff and customers it is better not to bring glass containers. "The consumer is responsible for the safety risks if they use their own container, not the shop," sources there said.
Although they preferred not to evaluate the measure, they do believe that at present nothing offers the same guarantees as plastic. "The material itself, from a food point of view, is safe and products in plastic last longer," they said, adding that incorrect disposal of the plastic is another matter, "such as when it ends up somewhere it shouldn't be because the person does not recycle it or put it in the right waste bin," they said.
This new measure was introduced at the same time as the government reduced the rate of IVA sales tax on foods. In general, shops are complying with the reduction, although direct checks will be maintained to ensure that this remains the case.
The Minister for Economic Affairs and Transformation, Nadia Calviño, said the sector appears very committed to the measure. "It is a collective effort to bring about not only a reduction in food prices but also something which benefits everybody in Spain," she said.