I got to thinking about food waste after perusing a copy of Meghan Telpner’s UnDiet that I had borrowed from the library. In the book, Meghan talks about how, with respect to waste, “there is no away.” It’s quite a concept, really. When we are finished with something, we usually just throw it “away.” But where it away? In reality, it’s usually a big pit of garbage somewhere outside our city’s limits, where we pile up waste, build a berm around it, and hope not too many people complain about the smell. Out of sight, out of mind is the big theory there. But in reality, our garbage lives on, for years and years and years, likely beyond our lifespans. It sounds almost too ridiculous to be real – and yet it’s the destination, every day, every hour, of the things we throw ‘away.’ I thought then about food packaging, which is in many ways the most frustrating of the packaging conundrums.. Mushrooms in styrofoam containers, carrots in bags, cereal in boxes. It struck me that perhaps it was time to make some more changes. I’ve made lots of them before – vegetarian to vegan, healthy to healthier, packaged foods to whole foods – but despite them all, I hadn’t quite managed to kick food packaging to the curb.
I confess, when I first came up with this personal challenge for June, my plan was to go “zero-packaging” for 30 days. I said, Emily ol’ chum, if you can’t find a non-packaged version, you just won’t buy it. And you’ll make ALL of your own almond milk and crackers and granola and anything else you want that you might ordinarily purchased packaged, and you’ll be off to the races. But then my mind got to thinking, as it sometimes does: what about olive oil and coconut oil? What about things at the farmers’ market that sometimes already come in bags, like lettuce or herbs? What about products I don’t have the time or expertise to make, like miso or tofu?
So, I tweaked the plan a little. Instead of no packaging at all, which might end in me stressed and hungrily eyeing tofu in the grocery store, my aim for June instead is to become really food-packaging conscious. It has been some time since I’ve really turned a scrutinous eye to this part of my food process. I hope to find out if there are new ways that I can reduce packaging in my life and then I’ll share those tips and challenges with you in a later post. For now, my plan is thusly:
Try to REDUCE or ELIMINATE:
- food packaging that is not recyclable
- packaging from processed foods for which bulk substitutes are available (i.e. breakfast cereal)
- packaging for food products I can easily make at home, i.e. granola, almond milk
- packaging for produce (i.e. bags for carrots) or other items that don’t need to come in a package
What I’m allowing:
- coconut or olive oil in a recyclable jar (if I need to purchase some)
- reusable bags that I bring myself to the bulk store
- some bulk items that come in packages I will re-use for other purchases at a later time
- packaging for things like multivitamins, B12 supplements, etc.
- packaging for food for my cats
- BPA-free canned beans (I know, I know, this is basically a total cheat. Canned beans are so much more expensive and take so much more packaging energy, but in the summer, it’s already hot and humid here in Ontario, and thanks but no thanks I can’t have a steaming pot on the stove in my small apartment turning it into a sauna.)
Ultimately, the goal is to really take a step back and look critically at food packaging – what packaging is necessary? what is recyclable? what is reusable? what can be made at home? are there other places I could be finding alternatives, like the farmer’s market or the bulk store?
June is a good month to test this plan, I think, because most fruits and vegetables are available at the farmer’s market and anything that isn’t available at the market likely isn’t in season anyways.
What will I have to change to accommodate my reduced-packaging plan?
- store-bought almond milk becomes homemade almond milk
- cold multi-grain flake processed breakfast cereal becomes raw buckwheat groat porridge OR homemade granola (like this awesome buckwheat granola) OR cereal I have purchased from the bulk store
- sparkling kombucha becomes water with lemon (until I splurge on some kind of fizzer machine, which, let’s face it, will be never)
- organic produce will have to be found package-free – this means no baby kale in the plastic tub, and no herbs in prepackaged containers
I acknowledge, though, the varying levels of difficulty in reducing packaging. You may not live near a bulk store. You may not have access to a farmer’s market. You might find that the only produce available to you is packaged, and therefore, it’s eat a carrot and throw away a package or eat no carrots. I’m primarily testing this as a means of seeing what is achievable and what isn’t, for me personally, without undue levels of insanity. I would encourage you to do the same. Your challenge might not look like mine, and it might not look like anybody else’s, but the point is that you are trying.
It can be really easy to get stuck in a grocery plateau – you have the products you normally buy and the stores you normally go to and you just go on auto-pilot in terms of thinking about those products. I know how it goes. Routines create efficiency and it takes time and energy to re-focus on our habits and see if we can make changes. But challenge yourself to try something small: to find one alternative for a packaged item. To wash out and save a bag and reuse it for another purchase later. To shop once at the market and just see what can be found. Every little positive change makes a difference – one less piece of plastic in a landfill, one more person who knows there is no ‘away’.
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.” – African Proverb
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