Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Getting the Plastic Out: Kitchen Edition, Wrap-up

Part I: Dinnerware and Storage

Before I start telling you about my efforts (i.e. frustrations) in reducing plastic food packaging, let me tell you about my big, falling-off-the-buy-nothing wagon purchase in February. One morning last month, C broke Z's sapphire blue Fiesta cereal bowl. Z was, understandable, upset. However, I assured him that I could get him a new one. While I was at it, I figured, why not order three additional cereal bowls and three more tumblers, so we can get rid of all of the plastic bowls and cups we use when the ceramic ones are in the dishwasher? And maybe get M a dessert-sized plate to go with his set, and E and Z each luncheon plates? With shipping and handling, it all added up to over $70. But if I spent $100, shipping would be free. So I threw in three more tumblers and three more cereal bowls and a cake plate for myself, which tipped the total to just over $100. Now if I had just driven down to the Cook's Emporium in Bath, I would have seen that the cereal bowls cost $2 more in the store than they do online, and I would either have bought only the bowl or nothing at all. Isn't it amazing how easily the Internet can trick you into spending way more money than you ever would in real life? The worst part is that the dishes came in a huge box full loaded with foam packing peanuts (despite my request for non-plastic or recycled packaging). I did drop them off at a mailing center for re-use, but so much for eliminating plastic!! (But don't they look purdy? And I have to say those tumblers are the best! Very heavy-bottomed so you have to try pretty hard to spill your milk, unlike plastic cups that tip over if you breathe on them!)

Here's the bag of plastic plates and bowls--destined for GoodWill--they're going to replace. I put the plastic cups in the bathrooms for tooth brushing and saved out a few cups, plates and bowls for outdoor dining and picnics. (The yogurt containers I'll save for freezing strawberries and other garden produce this summer).

I am keeping most of our plastic storage containers. They are handy for lunches, and since they're all #5 (polypropylene), I'm not too worried about chemicals leaching out of them (I know there have been some reports of chemicals associated with #5, but I spend all of my work days reading about chemicals in consumer products, and that's not an area where concern has risen above a few blogs). Plus, we never heat up anything or put hot foods in them. And, from a solid waste perspective, I think it would be unconscionable to just toss perfectly good items such as these:

When they do finally die, though (many of the lids are cracking already), I want to replace them with more of these:

I do love my Martha Steward Every Day glass storage containers (despite their plastic lids). Though I suppose I'll need to get more of the glass-lidded types. I'd love to get more antique ones like that blue Pyrex, but C hates them because they're not dishwasherable. For portable food (can't exactly pack glass in school lunchboxes), I bought E, Z and M each one of those LunchBots. I really like that they're rectangular(ish), rather than round, and this model has a divider so I can send them two things in one, but the paint started to chip off the lids, so I was not going to even consider getting more, until last week they (completely unsolicited--I hadn't gotten around to emailing them yet) sent me replacement lids. Apparently one batch had bad paint jobs. So if the new lids work out, I'll probably be buying more in the future.

And we do use some plastic bags--we don't buy them, but they make their way into our home in various ways, and we make use of them until they begin to fall apart. Here's our bag-drying system:

Part II: Food Packaging
I must say that trying to reduce (I don't even consider elimination an option at this point) the in-flow of single-use, disposable plastic in the kitchen department has been, for the most part, an exercise in frustration. I received this comment from Lone Star Ma on my previous kitchen post:

"I really don't get how you do all this stuff while working and raising kids. I would be impressed if you were an at-home mommy, but as it is, I am just baffled. I have one less kid than you do, and mine are girls, and so probably can go longer without getting hurt/fighting and I already get much, much, much less sleep than I truly need to, not to mention practically no exercise except in the summer/other vacations resulting in my dangerous fatness, and I cannot imagine forgoing all of the convenience crap that is sending me to hell for sure because I just don't think I can function well enough or drive my kids around if I cut the sleep allocation down to three hours a night. Are there two of you?"

Amen, Sister. No there are not two of me, and no I sure as hell do not make homemade crackers and cereal every weekend. That was, truly, a one-time experiment. Though the cereal was not difficult to make, it was time-consuming and it only made enough to fill one small (plastic) container--about two cups, I think, or, in other words, four bowls of cereal (M wouldn't even touch it because it looked soggy). No way in H E double hockey sticks am I doing that every weekend. So it was back to granola, which, I may have mentioned, I don't really think is all that healthful (all that maple syrup! And are partially-cooked grains even digestible??). One evening last week, as I was sitting down to sew, I remembered, "Oh, sh*t, I have to make granola!" And once I started making the granola, I remembered that the homemade deodorant that had been almost gone for a month was really and truly gone and since I was in the kitchen already, why not make more? And my commentary on all of this: "My life sucks!"

To really and truly eliminate incoming plastic from the kitchen would be a full-time job, and while I greatly admire what Beth at Fake Plastic Fish and Kyce at Old Recipe for a New World have done and continue to do in this realm, I am not ready to take on another full-time job. I can handle baking bread every week--I've been doing it for a couple of years and it is by now almost a mindless task (though I was cooking two other things in the kitchen last week while making bread, and I kind of forgot about the loaves, which deflated by the time I put them in the oven, so a bit of mindfulness would be helpful). In a pinch, I mix, knead and raise the dough in the evening and put the loaves in the oven to rise overnight; as long as I remember to get up early enough to put them in the oven, we can have fresh hot bread that morning. I can also handle making yogurt--if I make two jars at a time, I only need to make it every-other-week; and with out farm-fresh milk, it is completely plastic-free, as long as I don't run out of old yogurt before I start new. Beyond that, we make most of our food from scratch (pasta sauce, tortillas, soups, etc.). C even makes homemade pasta once a month or so (him being the one with the Italian genes). But still, we need ingredients for all of these things.

There are not a lot of bulk-buying options around here, but I do get many things through a natural foods co-op (or buying club). I buy flour (white, whole wheat and pastry whole wheat) in 50-pound (paper) bags and rice in 25 pound (paper) bags.

Coffee, though, comes in 4- or 5- pound plastic bags and tea (green and black) in one-pound Mylar bags. C is the coffee and green tea drinker; I only took up black tea recently.

Canned tomatoes (for our sauce and soup) come on a flat, shrink-wrapped. Next time, though, I think I'll buy the BioNatura pureed tomatoes in a jar. Even though there are 4 ounces fewer and the jars cost nearly a dollar more each, it will reduce our BPA exposure (the lids of glass jars still have BPA), and my plastic. I had already switched to glass ketchup and oil bottles last year, so that (other than lids and tamper-evident seals) all of our bottle things come in glass.

Spaghetti comes in a five-pound box, with a plastic bag inside. Ditto quinoa and red lentils. And cheese--we buy in five-pound blocks, you guessed it, wrapped in plastic.

And "splits"--where we break down a big case of something into smaller portions for people, usually get bagged in plastic, depending on who is doing the breakdown. At our co-op meeting, I quietly suggested we go plastic-free, but I think I need to get more assertive in may campaign.

I have also started buying a few bulk items from the limited selection that I recently discovered at a local grocery store. At first I agonized over how to package them--reuse old plastic bags? No, they get lost in my car and usually already have a different price label on them. Make cloth bags? No time, no time. Finally, I remembered one of C's relatives, for some reason, gave us a package of 100 brown paper lunch bags. The boys have reusable lunch bags, so they were just languishing on the craft supply shelf. Now I keep a couple of them with me, so that I can fill them up (and reuse them if I don't buy something greasy) when I'm at that store. The only problem is I usually just end up buying snacks instead of staples (and I do feel bad that I'm taking business away from the small, locally-owned health food store...which prepackages all of is bulk foods in plastic bags)! I have also found that the grocery store has the following unpackaged organic produce (most organic produce is bagged or shrink-wrapped on Styrofoam trays, which kinda defeats the point of it being organic, doncha think?): collards, Swiss chard, beets, lettuce, fresh herbs, scallions and sometimes oranges (though they cost way more than the ones at the health food store). I put these into a nylon grocery bag (which doesn't stop the moisture from leaking through, but who cares?).

The Bottom Line

The problem of our oceans becoming a soup of plastic bits is a global environmental crisis of ozone-hole proportions, and is going to require international action of the Montreal Accord stature if anything meaningful is to be done. But I don't see it as an issue that has even made a bleep on the radar screens of our world leaders. Which sucks, because plastic right now, for the consumer, is the default option. It is just too much to expect consumers to "vote with their dollars." Especially when, as far as I can tell, most people don't even get it, or care. And most of those of us who do, can't make a full-time job of avoiding plastic.

As for me? On Monday I sent C to the store to buy a (plastic) bag of breakfast cereal.


  1. You rock. I have been guiltily reading your posts (and occasionally surfing the Fake Plastic Fish blog) for a long time, but have felt too overwhelmed to do much of anything. I will write more about this later, but in a major coincidence of fate, I was looking up a major local environmental issue and found out that the refinery pollution that is hurting the neighborhood where I teach comes from a refinery producing...the grade of plastic in disposable water bottles. And it was a post on Fake Plastic Fish, about my own city, that happened to come up in my search and told me that. So I stopped buying water bottles about a month or so ago when it happened and have found stuff to replace them in the lunches (for awhile I had some steel bottles a long time ago but they got yucky and I had been buying the water bottles "temporarily" while looking for an alternative). Baby steps.

  2. I love your new dishes, and am envious of your glass storage ware---that's first on my list for when we can start buying (small, essential) plastic again. While I'm able to get in and out of our co-op without any plastic from the bulk aisle, I am well aware that many of the things I'm buying "waste free" are all at some point packaged in plastic. I think your experience is actually much more honest. Thanks for sharing so thoroughly and reflectively.

  3. I bought a bunch of those fiestaware cups about a year ago after reading this post. We have not broken even one, and they continue to make me unbelievably happy daily. Thought I should finally thank you, esp now since I think the cuppow you bought for C will be my husbands b-day gift. I am not a great commenter, but I enjoy your blog.


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