Room for Change: The Pantry



Breaking habits and cutting down on plastic

I’ll be honest. I find all the pictures of people’s glossy, zero-waste kitchens with perfectly labeled Mason jars to be obnoxious, and, for the most part, dishonest. Do these folks really have not one piece of single-use plastic in their kitchens? Not even a plastic trash bag? I don’t believe it. I also don’t like the feelings of guilt and shame these photos tend to elicit. 

So let me say this: If you have plastic in your pantry, or any climate-change-contributing product in your fridge or pantry, it is not entirely your fault. 

Plastic food packaging is nearly inescapable. Want blueberries, but not in a plastic package? Good luck! In most places, if you want plastic-free blueberries, you can get them from your garden, farmer’s market, or a friend, for about a week a year. When I was a child, we bought our berries in green cardboard cartons. What happened? Well, it turns out there is big money to be made in putting your blueberries in a No. 1 plastic package. (Note: While No. 1 PET plastic can be recycled, the EPA reports only 29.1 percent is. At most local transfer stations. plastic fruit containers cannot be recycled.) According to the World Packaging Association, the revenue of the global packaging industry is more than $500 billion. That financial incentive is hard for the food industry — in every phase of operation — to work against. Though I have tried, I have not figured out how to entirely play the non-plastic game. 

As far as I know, there is no short, easy answer to curbing your waste in the kitchen. Of course, COVID-19 has made it that much harder. Because of COVID-19, per the board of health, the use of bulk bins at many markets has been suspended. This means there is no way for Vineyarders to purchase food such as oats, flour, rice, or nuts in bulk. If you decide to order these items, it is extremely challenging to find a place in the U.S. that ships bulk food without the use of plastic.
This all said, there are still things you can do to move toward having less plastic and less waste in your kitchen. And I will do my best here to inspire you to aspire to move in this direction.

As with everything, awareness and willingness are the first steps. Be honest with yourself about your willingness. Overreaching and making this strenuous for yourself and your family is not going to lead to success. Maybe, like me, you still want an occasional batch of fresh blueberries. Fine. It does not have to be, nor should it be, an all-or-nothing.

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So let me say this: If you have plastic in your pantry, or any climate-change-contributing product in your fridge or pantry, it is not entirely your fault.

The easiest way to become clear about what you can and cannot give up is to assess your kitchen plastic habits. Open your fridge. Where do you see plastic? Do you buy mushrooms in a container with shrink-wrap? Do you put lemons in a plastic bag? Do you buy onions in plastic netting? You can make great strides with your plastic reduction in the produce aisle with relatively little effort. I generally put my fruits and vegetables directly into the cart — even my lettuce heads — because I am going to either peel or wash them anyway. And I put my herbs in a reusable mesh bag. Over time, this eliminates a ton of plastic. 

Beyond the fruits and vegetables, what else is housed in plastic? Juices? Mustard jars? Cheese! I don’t know of any cheese that doesn’t have some kind of plastic in its packaging. As I’ve said, there are some things that are going to be hard to replace. But mustard in glass is an easy swap for mustard in plastic, and so much better for the planet, as glass can be reused and recycled.

Next, take the same trip through your pantry. How much is in plastic? Again, some of it is unavoidable. I cannot find crackers that don’t have some kind of plastic sleeve. When I did a deep dive on companies making zero-waste crackers, there were recipes, not brands. In other words, if you want zero-waste crackers in your kitchen, make ‘em. 

Then, assess your can habit. Cans are tricky. While they seem better, and may result in less plastic getting into our oceans, the production of one aluminum can release about twice as much carbon dioxide into the air as one plastic bottle. Yikes! Can the cans as much as you can. 

As you are looking around your kitchen, ask yourself, Am I the kind of person who will wait in line to get meat from the butcher, to put either in a glass container or have them wrap it in paper, rather than the prepared meat wrapped in plastic in the case? Maybe the answer is some days yes, and some days no. That’s OK. You may discover that you get better meat and poultry when you do ask for it, and that encourages the habit change as well. 

That is what all of this is about: habits. Maybe we buy a brand because our mothers did. Maybe we buy something because we like the box. I am guilty of buying stuff out of habit or curiosity — not necessarily because I need it or am going to use it, which leads me to the first of my seven simple rules: 

Rule No. 1: Buy less 

According to the USDA, 40 percent of all food in the U.S. does not get eaten. Project Drawdown, one of the world’s leading sources for climate change solutions, compares this to 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gases. So this whole notion of stocking up does not serve us — in any sense of the word. As my family can tell you, I am obsessive about keeping my fridge and pantry clean and organized. Even with a focused effort on not buying too much, I still find uneaten, spoiled food. Things that have helped us get better at wasting less:

  • Shopping with a grocery list and sticking to it.
  • Reflecting rather than reacting as we shop. 

Rule No. 2: Swap it 

When you can, swap your products housed in plastic or aluminum for ones in glass or paper packaging — particularly with things where there are easy and delicious alternatives. These are easy wins. Sometimes the solutions to using less plastic are just yummier: bakery bread in a paper bag vs. the store-bought bread in plastic. A no-brainer.

Rule No. 3: Buy from the bulk bins 

This does not mean buying in bulk, because that will lead to food waste (see Rule No 1). When it is possible again, we can all bring our glass jars to bulk stores, weigh them, and fill them. Zero waste. Hopefully, other shops will follow this example, and follow suit. In the meantime, I am disappointed that so many of the small shops and farm stands here sell things like nuts, chocolate chips, and other products in plastic containers when paper bags are an easy and better alternative.

Rule No. 4: Challenge yourself

Every few months I give myself a goal. One challenge for us has been plastic bags. We stopped buying them, and I’m happy to tell you we are still alive. Yes, it is occasionally a pain in the butt, but we’ve found alternatives — Mason jars, silicone bags. Not using plastic bags continues to be our biggest challenge, as so much produce comes in prepackaged plastic bags. Pre-pandemic we could rebag our kale from the local farm in plastic bags, but right now it’s not an option. So we reuse these bags. 

Rule No. 5: Store it well 

Another irony of the zero-waste movement here in the U.S. is that while there is not a lot of attention to how the food is originally packaged, we have a zillion online stores selling us products to store our food once we have it — food huggers (they literally hug your food and serve as a cling wrap replacement), food stashers, beeswax wrap, Mason jars, silicone bowl lids, stainless steel boxes. All of these alternatives are worth investing in, if you will use them. In our house, Mason jars are a staple for holding everything from grated Parmesan to loose tea and sugar. While some are fans of the beeswax wrap, I find it tends to hold the smell of whatever food it is wrapped around. So I opt for silicone products, which don’t hold odors, and can tolerate super-hot water and soap many times over.

Rule No. 6: Dispose of it well — compost first, then recycle, then and only then trash 

Have a compost pile, use a friend’s compost pile, bring your compost to Island Grown’s compost site, or compost in your town’s composting program. It’s easy, and makes a huge difference. According to Project Drawdown, “Nearly half of the solid waste produced globally is organic or biodegradable. Much of it ends up in landfills; there, it decomposes in the absence of oxygen and produces the greenhouse gas methane … Rather than generating methane, the composting process converts organic material into stable soil carbon, while retaining water and nutrients of the original waste matter. The result is carbon sequestration as well as production of a valuable fertilizer.” (See how Dear Dot describes the benefits of composting: Composting and recycling will drastically minimize your trash output.

Rule No. 7: Invest 

While I am not a fan of promoting products, nor do I think we can buy our way out of this climate change mess, I do believe there are three products worth investing in: 

  • SodaStream — This product eliminates carbonated water bottles and cans, and it has pretty glass bottles to store your carbonated water in! The carbon dioxide cartridges are exchangeable and reusable.
  • Water filter — While we are blessed with incredible water here, if you have lots of iron or sediment in your well water (hard water), a water filter such as the Berkey is a wonderful tool, eliminating any need to purchase bottled water.
  • A coffee device that does not use coffee pods. Please ditch the pods! There are many incredible coffees out there, and so many coffee companies working to make coffee a more sustainable product. Please don’t involve your precious morning coffee with trash (see Dot’s advice, above)

I guess the other reason I have a problem with the pretty pictures of zero-waste kitchens is that they do not portray the reality of what it means to do the most difficult thing for us humans: Change. Change is messy, full of mistakes, uncomfortable. And that is ultimately what this zero-waste pantry effort is about: doing something hard now, so that it is a bit easier and better for all of us down the road. 

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Mollie Doyle
Mollie Doyle
Mollie Doyle is Bluedot Living’s contributing editor and Room for Change columnist. “My favorite form of travel is walking with friends. A few years ago, some friends and I walked across England. This year, hopefully, we'll be able to do the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.”
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