I have long been baby stepping my way to reduce plastic use in our family. Contributor ‘Becca has a passion for waste reduction, so I asked for her advice on different ways to reduce single-use plastic in areas I was still working on. -Katie
This post is from KS Contributing Writer ‘Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photos by her son Nicholas Efran.
The enormous effect of single-use plastic on our environment is getting a lot of attention! The European Parliament voted to ban many single-use plastic (SUP) items, increase plastic-bottle recycling requirements, and put more of the responsibility for plastic pollution on the manufacturers.
Here in the United States, some cities and states have banned or restricted certain SUPs, and lots of people are changing their habits to avoid using SUP. Even Teen Vogue is running a series of well-researched articles on plastic.
It’s about time.
Not only is plastic made from irreplaceable fossil fuels, not only is it inefficient to recycle and lasts essentially forever in landfills, but it also gives off harmful gases when breaking down in the environment, releases both endocrine-disrupting chemicals and micro-particles of plastic into our food and cosmetics, and kills animals.
Yet plastic is everywhere! In any store, any aisle, you’ll find some kind of plastic used as packaging, if not in the products themselves. It’s really hard to avoid it completely.
The facts are staggering:
- Worldwide production of plastics increased more between 2000 and 2010 than in the previous 40 years combined.
- At the time of writing this article, the plastic discarded each year is almost equal to the weight of the entire human population.
- About half the plastic produced each year is single-use products like shopping bags, plastic utensils and dishes, straws, wrappers, and blister-packs.
- More than 8 million tons per year of that discarded plastic ends up in our oceans.
- If current trends continue, by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
Plastic is great stuff, though, right? Crucial objects in our everyday lives–like power cords, running shoes, and lots of medical equipment–really work best when made with plastic, and in some cases there simply isn’t any other material that’s anything as effective and durable as plastic.
That’s why I’ve been focusing on avoiding the instant garbage of single-use plastic. If we cut back on those “disposable” things used in situations where a reusable thing or a renewable material could be used instead, we’ll have more petrochemicals left to make durable plastic products and the SUP items we really need, like surgical gloves.
When I wrote up my strategies for reducing SUP in your life, I admitted that grocery packaging is the source of most of the SUP in my own trash and recycling. Katie also wrote about how and why to cut back on plastics, focusing on the containers you use to store and serve your homemade food.
Now, we’re looking at how to reduce SUP grocery packaging, zooming in on some items Katie mentioned as particularly difficult for her. I was surprised by some of the groceries she tends to buy in plastic–compared to my own buying habits–and I realized that a lot of this comes down to one main idea:
Make the Choice to Limit Your Options
Sometimes, you just have to tell yourself that the non-plastic package is the only kind you’re allowed to buy. Don’t even look at the SUP options. Tell yourself that if the store doesn’t have any peanut butter in glass jars, you just won’t buy peanut butter today.
Make new rules for a few types of food right away, and then once you’ve gotten used to that, add a few more. Just like the “new normal” standards you’ve been setting as you move toward more healthful eating, you can make new rules that work with your budget and your most urgent priorities–and once you get used to those, you can take on a few more new rules.
I’ve made rules like this for myself about many eco-friendly choices:
- I only buy plant-based dish detergent and laundry detergent. (Here are my recommendations!)
- Household paper products must be made from recycled paper, without chlorine bleach. (Here are my tips for buying toilet paper.)
- I scan a menu for vegetarian options before I’ll even consider ordering meat.
- I don’t drink bottled water. (All right, I’ve made exceptions in emergencies…a total of 7 single-serving water bottles in my whole life!)
- Coffee for brewing at home must be organic and fair-trade. (I’ll drink coffee someone else made–but I’d much rather have a real mug than a plastic-lined cup!)
A rule that I won’t buy any plastic-packaged groceries just wouldn’t be feasible with the options we have today
So many products have outer shrink-wrap at least around the cap, or the cap itself is plastic with a plastic sealing strip you tear off and throw away…steel cans are lined with acrylic or polyester, which is plastic…glass jars and bottles have plastic lids or metal lids lined with a sealing strip made of something called “plastisol” which is a kind of plastic…there’s no escape!
I’ve had to work out rules for individual foods, based on what choices are available at what price and other considerations like buying organic or locally-made. There are lots of foods that I only buy from bulk bins, filling reused containers.
There are lots of foods that I only buy in a “less plastic” package such as a glass jar. Then there are some foods that are hard to find in anything but plastic, so I get the largest package I can use (less plastic per unit of food)–and when I do find that food in glass or metal or cardboard at a tolerable price, I stock up!
Here’s another main idea for reducing SUP in your life:
If You Reuse It, It Isn’t Single-Use
Of course, this doesn’t let you off the hook!
Plastic things that are designed to be used once are not very durable, and they become even less safe for food use as they get scratched-up and exposed to heat from washing (even if you hand-wash at a lower temperature than the dishwasher). So you’re not going to get a lot of uses out of most plastic things, and it’s still better if you can buy a safer, more eco-friendly package in the first place.
But let’s say you’re in a restaurant and your server, without asking, brings everyone a plastic cup of water with a plastic straw already unwrapped and in the cup. Take those home and wash them, give the straws one more use when you make smoothies, and stash the cups in your car for those times when you want to get a drink of water from a faucet or split a large bottle of juice between several people.
Even one reuse is better than throwing away another round of plastic!
I’ve occasionally purchased a giant plastic jar of pretzels or something so that I can have the jar. I’ve also gotten some of these by asking my kid’s day camp to save jars for me. When we buy a 5- or 10-pound plastic bag of rice or pasta at Gordon Food Service, we immediately open it and pour the contents into jars.
Food stays fresher in these than in an open plastic bag, and it’s protected from bugs and the less-ambitious mice. (The mice that plagued us in 2012 chewed through some of our plastic jars!)
Because they don’t have to be washed often and are protected from sunlight in our pantry, these plastic jars last many years. We recycle one thin plastic bag every 5 pounds of pasta instead of throwing away a plastic window and recycling a cardboard box for every pound. And we don’t worry much about chemicals from the plastic under these storage conditions, for dry food that we use within six months.
We like the convenience of a plastic squeeze-bottle for serving honey. Rather than buy all our honey in those, though, we buy one squeeze-bottle and refill it with bulk honey from a reused glass jar. The bulk honey is locally made, so we’re supporting our local economy at about the same price per ounce as a small package of non-local honey like the cute bear-shaped bottle. (It does cost more per ounce than the cheapest giant plastic bottles.)
My church keeps a basket in the kitchen for containers that can be reused, and several people bring in their empties. When I need a container for leftover cold food, coffee grounds or veggie scraps I’m taking home to my compost bin, or any non-food thing that needs containing, I grab one of these. (Avoid putting hot food in containers that aren’t meant for hot food, though!)
Some of these containers get many uses before they get recycled or thrown away. But, again, even one reuse is better than putting those leftovers on a plastic-foam plate under plastic wrap!
Are Glass Jars the Solution to Everything?
I love glass jars! You can get them for free when you buy food packaged in them, and then you can reuse them many, many times. Unlike plastic containers, glass gets truly clean in the dishwasher and doesn’t retain odors. It isn’t damaged by heat and doesn’t leach chemicals into food.
It’s true that glass is fragile. However, I pack most of my workday lunches in glass and sometimes smack my bag against things as I commute by public transit–and in 15 years, I’ve only had one jar full of food break and one empty jar break on the way home.
We use glass jars constantly in our kitchen and break about one per year, maybe less. Most jars last until the lid gets rusty or stops sealing. Even then, you can use the lidless jar as a drinking glass, to hold pencils, etc.
But speaking of lids, the seal inside a metal jar lid is plastisol, which is typically made from polyvinyl chloride, one of the most dangerous plastics. Dang!
However, in reading many articles about the dangers of PVC, I never once saw jar lids mentioned as a source of exposure. I’m going to keep on thinking of glass jars as a safer alternative to all-plastic packaging. But when I open my jar of lunch and find some food on the inside of the lid, I won’t lick it off! Of course, you should discard lids (recycle them, if possible) as soon as the seal is visibly damaged or starts leaking.
Glass jars are a great way to store food after you’ve opened its original plastic package. The process of plastic releasing chemicals into food is gradual, so the longer you leave your food touching plastic, the more bad stuff it will absorb.
I bought a 2-pound bag of powdered sugar and made frosting for a small cake, so there was a lot left over. After pouring it into jars, I quickly cut up the empty bag and added small pieces of clear tape to make labels quickly!
When you’re done with a glass jar, it can be recycled into new glass jars. But many recycling programs are no longer collecting glass because it breaks easily in the rough handling of recycling bins, and broken glass contaminates the other recyclable materials, as well as being dangerous for workers.
I’ve been buying milk in returnable glass bottles–I paid $2 per bottle the first time, and now I trade in my empties for a $2 discount on each bottle of milk. The dairy washes and refills the same bottles, instead of melting them to make new bottles.
I hope that we’ll soon see many groceries packaged in glass or metal containers that we return for refilling. It’s a lot more energy-efficient than making new single-use packaging!
Meanwhile, there’s a more hands-on way to give each container a long career in food packaging:
Buy from Bulk Bins with a Reused Container
If you have access to a store that sells useful stuff in bulk, this is one of the greenest ways to buy: Bring a bunch of empty containers to the store, and bring home a bunch of food with no new packaging at all!
My guide to shopping at a food co-op includes lots of tips on buying from the bulk section. It’s usually similar in price to packaged food, and some things like spices and tea leaves are much less expensive. Refilling a two-cup jar with wheat bran costs just nineteen cents!
Here are some of the bulk-bought foods found in my house on the day we happened to take photos. Most of these jars held peanut butter or salsa originally. I’m not sure where that black-lidded one came from, but the one on top of it is from fruit spread (juice-sweetened jam).
You can see that some of our co-op labels are looking worn or have been edited when a price look-up number changed. We use each label as long as possible to minimize waste.
East End Food Co-op’s bulk section also offers many types of granola, oils, dried fruits, nuts, soy sauce, and even some cookies and crackers in bulk–as well as some things shown in other photos below.
Now, let’s look at what alternatives to SUP are available for the specific grocery items Katie wants help with–and look at the non-SUP food packaging my son and I pulled out of our own kitchen and pantry!
Spices and Herbs
Buy the pretty little glass bottle just once, and then refill it in the bulk section! Most spices and herbs are about one-sixth the price when you buy them without a bottle! My co-op sells empty glass bottles, too.
Sometimes I use a bottle for a different herb than was in it originally, so I have to cover the front label, like I did for the parsley you see here. When I’m refilling a bottle with its original spice, I stick the co-op label on the back so the nice picture on the front of the label is still visible.
That thyme bottle at the right has been in my partner’s household since 1992! One of his then-housemates made the label out of masking tape, and we just wrote the co-op bin number on the back of it. It’s held up amazingly well–but of course, a bottle that always holds the same variety of dried herb doesn’t need to be washed, only wiped off if it gets dusty.
If there’s no bulk department or store near you, buy spices and herbs in the largest quantity you can use within a year or three. (If you have a small family, consider splitting your purchase with friends.) Amazon has many great options.
Look for minimal packaging, like a plastic bag instead of a plastic bottle with shaker cap. Refill your attractive, conveniently-sized glass bottle from the big package, and put the rest into a glass jar for pantry storage.
Spices used in ethnic cuisine tend to be available in larger packages at lower prices in ethnic grocery stores. For example, a bag of coriander that refills the little glass bottle 8 times costs just 99 cents at an Indian grocery store!
Couldn’t resist that big plastic shaker-top bottle of oregano for only $1? Convert the empty bottle into cute and thrifty scouring powder!
Oils in Glass vs. Plastic
Years ago, I made a rule that I only buy olive oil in glass bottles. Trader Joe’s has the best price, and their cheapest olive oil is great, virgin or not. My local supermarket also has some olive oil in glass bottles; you just have to look hard for it amid the plastic.
In the co-op’s oil department, glass bottles outnumber plastic. They also have olive, safflower, sesame, and canola oil in bulk. But their prices are high enough that I tend to buy oils elsewhere–sometimes in plastic, I’ll admit.
My glass rule is specific to olive oil because that’s the oil we use most. I simply don’t bother price-comparing to the plastic jugs at Costco or the big metal cans at the Italian store, because I’m only allowed to buy olive oil in glass, you see?
Coconut oil is easy to find in smallish glass jars at the co-op or the supermarket. But because we use a fairly large amount of it and it doesn’t get rancid like other oils, I can’t resist buying the 84-ounce jar from Costco at a much lower price per ounce…and that’s a plastic jar.
I scoop out of it to refill my glass jar that I keep in the kitchen. I reuse the big plastic jars for rice/pasta, cookies (after cooling), or bringing a batch of coleslaw to the homeless shelter.
But I’d love to have an 84-ounce glass jar! I could store a whole batch of soup in that, or make iced tea in it…and it could go in the dishwasher instead of being washed by hand!
I’m with Katie in hoping that Costco switches to glass jars for coconut oil. Let’s all contact Costco and ask for it!
I buy my olive oil from HERE (Use the coupon code STEWARDSHIP for 10% off at Wildly Organic).
They also have a lovely and pure brand of coconut oil HERE (use the code STEWARDSHIP for 10% off at that site!) – you can get refined, unrefined, and even a special extraction oil that is soooooo smooth for adding to oatmeal or eating by itself.
If you want BIG portions, watch for sales at Tropical Traditions on the 1 or 5-gallon buckets, or try Soaper’s Choice. Look for the “EV ORGANIC” coconut oil to get virgin or ORGANIC RBD for refined. The prices can’t be beat!
Nut Butter and Jelly
Buying peanut butter only in glass jars is a rule we adopted in 2001 when we realized that our plastic-jar peanut butter contained “hydrogenated rapeseed oil.” We’ve never looked back! Smucker’s Natural, made from just peanuts and salt, has become more competitive in price over the years; around here, Target sells it cheapest.
We buy most of our nut butter in new jars so that we can get the jars! They’re some of the best for reuse because of the straight sides, with few nooks and crannies for food to stick in.
We also have the option of dispensing fresh-ground peanut or almond butter into a reused jar at the co-op. This is the lowest-waste way to buy nut butter, and it’s delicious!
Jam is the item I was most surprised to see on Katie’s list. It seems to me that most jam is in glass jars, not plastic! But the very large, bargain-priced jars sometimes are plastic. Since strawberries, grapes, peaches, and cherries are among the foods with the most pesticides, I buy almost all organic jam, and that’s usually in glass.
Organic, glass-jar jams that aren’t all that expensive:
- Kirkland strawberry from Costco (Nice big jar, but it’s hard to get the label off…)
- Stonewall Kitchen (we like blueberry), sometimes available at Costco
- Trader Joe’s
- Crofter’s, when it goes on sale at the co-op.
Honey and Maple Syrup
I explained above how we mostly buy bulk honey at the co-op. Typically, on supermarket shelves, small jars of honey may be glass or plastic, but big jars usually are plastic–and it’s the big ones that have a lower price per ounce.
It’s the same deal with maple syrup: Glass bottles are pretty widely available, but they tend to be smaller and pricier than plastic. East End Food Co-op has bulk maple syrup, too–but I’ll admit I have a plastic jug from Costco in my fridge right now! It’s hard to resist that low price….
If you don’t have access to a bulk store, and you use a lot of honey/syrup, look for a local company that sells by the gallon–and if that gallon bottle is plastic, decant it into glass bottles/jars as soon as you get home. If you’re really buying directly from a small business, ask if you can bring in your glass bottles to fill on-site!
Do you love the honey/syrup at the farmer’s market, except for the price? Ask the farmer to cut you a deal on buying a larger quantity and/or providing your own container.
Finding Salsa in Glass Jars
Costco’s giant jug of Pace salsa is not just plastic but (last I looked) #7 plastic, the “other” category that could be anything! When I saw that, I immediately decided I was not allowed to buy this salsa, and that was that.
It’s just not necessary to buy plastic to get affordable, good-quality salsa!
- ALDI’s Casa Mamita salsa is just $1.19 per 24-ounce jar (5c/oz), and the flavor and ingredients are very similar to Pace. That’s our staple salsa.
- I buy Trader José’s once in a while because that size jar is so perfect for holding a lunch portion of leftovers! It’s still reasonably priced, at $2.29 per 16 ounces (14c/oz)–and it’s a delicious change of pace (ha ha!) from our usual.
- Market Pantry, the Target store brand, is $1.39 per 24 ounces (6c/oz) and also similar to Pace. The reason I don’t buy this brand more often is that its jar shape also is similar to Pace, and I find it hard to get all the salsa out of this funny-shaped jar and hard to reuse it.
Different Kinds of Dressings available in Glass
I wasn’t sure what Katie meant by “dressing.” My first thought was salad dressing, but doesn’t she make homemade salad dressing?
We do–and we usually shake it up in one of the glass Tropicana orange juice bottles with metal cap that I rescued during my big recycling project in 2001! They don’t make bottles like that anymore. We’ve been very careful to prevent the caps from rusting, but they’re nearing the end of their lives now…after hundreds of uses!
Anyway, in my neighborhood Giant Eagle supermarket I was pleased to see that most of the top two rows of the salad dressing section were filled with glass bottles in various flavors from 9 brands:
- Drew’s Organic
- Food Network
- Maple Grove Farms of Vermont
- Market District (store brand with a “foodie” slant)
- Nature’s Basket (store brand organic)
- Walden Farms
These are all sort of “fancier” and/or “healthier” brands and are, therefore, more expensive than some of the plastic salad dressings, but if you’re looking to avoid soybean oil or crazy-high sugar and salt, you’ll be shopping those brands anyway. As with nut butter, this is a case where getting a better product as well as better packaging may be worth spending more.
Broadening our definition of “dressings,” my son and I had fun seeing which of the many packaged sauces in our refrigerator were in glass bottles: hot sauce, steak sauce, and most of our Asian sauces.
Our ketchup and mustard are in squeezable plastic because the kids prefer it, but aren’t those also available in glass? I also wondered about mayonnaise, which most Americans use a lot more than we do. Here’s what I found at Giant Eagle:
- Heinz ketchup is still available in the iconic glass bottle, and the price per ounce is only a little more than the plastic bottles.
- Ordinary yellow mustard is only in plastic at this store. Some of the more interesting mustards are in glass.
- All the mayonnaise is in plastic except one brand that’s three times the price of the others!
A food co-op or other health food store will offer these condiments in glass bottles/jars…but probably at a higher price than most mainstream brands. If 32 ounces isn’t too much mayo for you, Costco sells Sir Kensington’s avocado-oil mayonnaise in a glass jar for $7.99 (25c/oz).
Vinegar is often used as a dressing or an ingredient in dressings, and most vinegar is in glass bottles–unless you buy by the gallon. I’m old enough to remember when apple juice came in a gallon glass bottle, and those were so heavy, I can understand why they might be unpopular with consumers and stock clerks! But it means that stocking up on your favorite ingredients often involves choosing plastic over glass.
They also have some delicious dressings to try.
Buying Cheese and Lunchmeat without Plastic
I’ll admit that cheese is something I still buy in a plastic wrapper that isn’t even recyclable. If you’re willing to spend more money on cheese, here are some less-plastic solutions suggested by my friends from What’s SUP, a local plastic-reducing campaign:
- When buying from a deli counter, bring your own reusable box (stainless steel or glass) and ask the deli worker to weigh your cheese, place it in your box, and then give you the sticker that would normally be used to seal the cheese into a plastic bag. You’ll need that sticker for the cashier to scan.
- At a farmer’s market, you may be able to get cheese wrapped in cheesecloth–you know, the stuff that got its name because it was so perfect for wrapping cheese in the pre-plastic era! Ask cheese vendors about the options.
- Depending on the variety of cheese, you might be able to buy a whole cheese with wax coating in a size that’s feasible for your family. Look for these at specialty stores like Pennsylvania Macaroni Company.
Lunchmeat is something I just don’t buy–my family eats a low-meat diet. But a reusable box at the deli counter works for meat, too, or any food that the deli worker can pick up in a sheet of waxed paper. Or you can use Mary’s recipe to try making your own.
In some stores, you may be able to use your own container for softer prepared foods like potato salad, too–weighing the empty container first so that its weight can be subtracted from your purchase, like I do with my containers for bulk food.
Minced Garlic Packaging
This is another of Katie’s requests that surprised me: Although I rarely buy minced garlic, I did buy some last fall when I spotted a great price at Big Lots, and it’s in a glass jar! It’s Spice Select brand, 32 ounces for $4.95 (15c/oz). I know Katie loves ALDI, and they have Stonemill minced garlic in a glass jar, 8 ounces for $1.79 (22c/oz).
I think the answer to this one is just to shop around. My local supermarket has minced garlic in plastic jars in the produce section…and Goya brand in glass jars in the “Hispanic” section.
Asian groceries often have several varieties of minced garlic, some in glass and some in plastic, and they tend to have low prices on larger sizes. (Indian stores typically have garlic paste, rather than minced garlic–they’re pretty much interchangeable in recipes.)
How to Store Raw Veggies Cut Up in Advance?
My answer would be, “Glass jars, of course!” but Katie told me she’s often storing so many cut veggies that she just doesn’t have the refrigerator space for rigid containers.
They’re much like ziptop plastic bags, but they hold up much better to washing; you can even clean them in the dishwasher! They aren’t damaged by heat (up to about 400 degrees) and are great for freezing foods.
They’re not cheap, but they will last for years, taking the place of many disposable bags. Here’s some detailed information on silicone safety.
CHALLENGE: Make a SUP-less Supper!
Look at the ingredients you’ve managed to gather without plastic packaging. What meal can you make? I’d love to hear the details!
My church recently held a public screening of the film Plastic Paradise, and we challenged ourselves to serve a full array of refreshments with as little SUP as possible. We had several choices of food and beverages for about 80 people, and the total plastic garbage was just a handful!