Maybe I just love a grocery challenge, but I’m fed up with plastic packaging and I’m trying to come home with less of it.
I was so disheartened to hear about the contaminated loads of Canadian recyclables rotting in the Philippines and Malaysia. We can’t keep shipping out our garbage, “out of sight, out of mind.” We have to stop making and buying those products.
So far it is not going very well.
Last week, I bought my usual groceries. Call it the “control group,” if you will. My usual strategy has been noticing the plastic packaging and trying to minimize it, but not to the point of refusing to bring home my favourite foods.
The menu plan for the past week’s dinners was:
- Monday and Tuesday – nut loaf with baked potatoes and vegetables
- Wednesday – pasta with tomato lentil sauce (made large batch for the freezer)
- Thursday – popover (eggs)
- Friday – out (special occasion)
- Saturday – frozen pizza
- Sunday – out (Father’s Day)
Breakfasts were cereal, oatmeal and toast or bagels with peanut butter. Lunches were salads/crackers/yogurt (my go-to lunch Monday to Friday at work), leftover popover on Saturday and leftover pizza today.
I have mostly mastered buying the right amount of food and having no food waste.
Here is the plastic content of the groceries shown above:
- Plastic bags and wrappers for apples, grapes, lettuce, bread and pitas
- Plastic liners for 3 boxes of cereal
- Plastic milk jug, yogurt container and pop bottle
- 3 plastic-coated milk/soy milk containers
- 2 cans (all food cans are lined with polyester or acrylic)
- 1 jar lid (metal jar lids are lined with plastic, just like cans)
- Everything! (the larger containers are trail mix and cashews)
I checked and found out that elastic bands are still made from natural rubber, but they take decades to decompose, and I never have any further uses for them (or twist ties, or bread bag clips). But maybe I am just not creative enough: see these ideas for getting crafty with bread bag clips!
So, the problem is recycling. We had always been led to believe that if packaging was recyclable, it would actually be recycled and reused. Now we know that world markets for plastic recyclables have crashed and a lot of our recyclables are being landfilled.
The plastic industry says that its products keep food fresh, and they reduce transportation costs because the products are so light weight. All true. But if they are not made into new products, they last for eternity and that is unacceptable.
In the above photo from CBC News, Malaysian workers show “poor quality and contaminated” plastic sent there for recycling. Yet as Canadian consumers, we are told to put all plastic bags out for municipal recycling pickup. We are still told to recycle clean plastic wrap and bubble wrap. I have decided to use discretion. This article was helpful: Confused by Plastic Bag and Plastic Film Recycling? Clearly, the recyclers don’t want crinkly plastic bags like chip and pretzel bags, cereal box liners, and metallic wrappers like granola bar and protein bar wrappers.
The answer is probably to prepare all your own meals and snacks from scratch, but I have tried that and it wasn’t sustainable. For us, it took over 3 hours a day, not including eating time! (When these posts were written 7 years ago, we were still eating meat.)
Before I say what my next steps are, I’ll show you the groceries bought for the coming week. We decided to go to the farmers’ market and see what was available. It is impossibly early in the growing season, so the produce we bought must have been from greenhouses. There was one stall that sold locally-made cheese but it was all portioned out and sold in vacuum-packed plastic.
I have been drinking only loose-leaf tea for a few years now because most tea bags are made with plastic. This weekend I impulsively bought some loose tea from David’s. I forgot they used plastic bags – I could have brought my own container.
I bought supplies to make yogurt again: milk, starter yogurt and skim milk powder, all of which had plastic packaging. I had to buy a 750g container of plain yogurt because our local grocery store doesn’t sell individual servings, except 4-packs. I wasn’t going to drive to another store to buy a smaller yogurt.
After going to the market, we still needed to top up at the grocery store. I was unhappy that this dry cat food is now sold in plastic rather than heavy paper bags. The fresh bunches of carrots looked so dreadful that we bought a package instead. I realized my recipes for the week required a third bell pepper. Ataulfo mangoes were on sale. And we got some veggie sausage patties.
Today I revisited my local Bulk Barn to see what products I can buy there.
They now have natural peanut butter without sugar or salt. I buy oatmeal, lentils and dried beans there. They carry every kind of grain, flour and seed, dried herbs and spices, and dried fruit. For salty snacks they have pretzels, corn chips and cassava chips, but no potato or tortilla chips! For breakfast cereals they have Post Shreddies (which I do like) and lots of varieties of granola. They let you bring your own containers.
So far, I’ve found that none of the nuts from Bulk Barn taste as good as the ones from Costco, and they are more expensive by unit price. The Costco packages are huge, but nuts are a staple of our diets, so it’s a non-issue.
I didn’t make much progress in week 2. I need to make some hard decisions.
- Which products can I give up? Am I willing to do that? For example, could I do without tortilla chips? (Real tortillas and pitas come in plastic bags, too, so crisping up the real thing in the oven wouldn’t help much).
- How far should I drive to buy plastic-free products? For example, one shop has loose coffee beans and allows you to use your own containers, but it is 14 km away and I wouldn’t otherwise visit that neighbourhood. Should I stock up on coffee beans every few months?
- Which things should I buy in large quantities? Maybe buying huge boxes and jars of things from Costco is better than a lot of individual containers.
- Which things are worthwhile to make myself? You know I have a candy habit. Since I don’t plan to quit sugar, I wonder if I could control my consumption by only eating sugary snacks I make myself, like cookies, brownies and fudge? (as recommended in Mark Pollan’s Food Rules book). That way I can avoid “industrial foodstuffs” and their packaging.
Now that I know a little more about the naked foods available at my usual stores, I hope I can plan recipes accordingly from now on.
Up this week:
- Monday and Tuesday – veg stir fry with udon noodles and veg sausage
- Wednesday – pasta with lentil tomato sauce (from freezer)
- Thursday and Friday – curried chick peas and veg with couscous
- Friday and Saturday – eggs or pizza
Have you eliminated any foods because of how they’re packaged? Have you changed the way you shop?