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One Can Challenge: Buying groceries with less packaging

EnviromomchallengeAh, packaging! It's hard to believe there was ever a time when Americans bought and consumed food that was not individually packaged, hermetically and safety sealed, shrink wrapped in plastic, vacuum packed, pre-washed, pre-cooked, sliced and diced, and doused with artificial colorings, flavorings and additives to preserve freshness!

Food was just animal, vegetable or mineral. It had dirt on it. It was bloody. It came from the earth, and you actually knew where it came from, or even had a hand in growing or raising it.

Woe to the marketers. Dirty and bloody are hard sells to many of us. Even my kids, who I've tried to brainwash as much as possible, have no idea where food really comes from. Ask them, as a friend recently did:

Q: Where does milk come from?
A: The store, silly!

Oops. Survey says: a cow, or a goat, or soy beans, hemp or rice (depending on your milk of choice). But no -- aside from the one preschool field trip to a farm, they've never been near a real cow. The only milking they ever witnessed involved me and a breast-pump, and suffice to say that wasn't pretty. So how can you argue with a couple of kids who drink a gallon of cow milk between them each week that comes regularly from the grocery store in a plastic jug, marketed with the Organic Valley label, a "best by" date and its nutritional analysis spelled out on a label? What does that have to do with a mooing, grass-eating bovine?

So therein lies the problem. How do you buy food that contains less packaging? It's a tough one.

Walk down the aisles of a regular American grocery store and you'll find a mind-bending array of packaged food and drinks:

  • Beverages come in a plethora of packaging choices: plastic jugs, plastic bottles, glass bottles, multi-layer tetra/aseptic packs, aluminum cans, cardboard gable boxes -- in sizes ranging from the gallon to the individual serving
  • Metal cans of precooked and precut veggies, beans and fruit, usually lined with BPA
  • Plastic bags, films, and wrappers for chips, crackers, granola bars, cereals -- often tucked inside a cardboard box for shelving ease
  • Cardboard or polystyrene foam egg cartons
  • Frozen foods encased in plastic bags or films packed inside wet-strength freezer boxes (that can't be recycled)
  • Plastic cups/tubs with lids for puddings, yogurts, margarine, dips, deli items, salsas, sauces, etc.
  • Pre-cut and weighed meat on polystyrene trays, wrapped in plastic film
  • Prewashed produce in plastic bags or rigid plastic containers (some made from corn or PLA)
  • Precooked whole chickens or racks of ribs in rigid plastic containers

So what's a conscious food consumer to do? Return to caveman days and slay our own woolly mammoths? Is there any way to feed your family but avoid the excessive food packaging that's become the norm?

Here's are some ideas to REDUCE food packaging:

  • Buy in bulk with minimal processing. A bag of beans from a bulk bin in a reuseable bag cuts down greatly from a steel can of cooked beans with a paper label
  • Cut out the middle man and shop close to the farm. Buy from farms, farmer's markets or wholesalers such as Azure Standard. At farms and markets, bring your own reuseable bags, egg cartons, etc. when possible.
  • Select products based on packaging you can recycle (if your area has glass recycling but not plastic, opt for the pickles or jelly or peanut butter in glass)
  • Make your own. I recently started making my own granola, which costs a lot less and tastes really yummy. There's no limit to what you can make on your own: jam, peanut butter, bread and baked goods, frozen veggies, frozen waffles, dried fruits, cheese, yogurt, butter, etc. All it takes is the time to learn how and practice. It'll have way less packaging -- whatever you decide to make on your own.
  • If you buy juice -- buy frozen concentrate and mix it with your own tap water (lots less transportation cost associated with shipping, and less packaging to throw or recycle)
  • Shop the outskirts of the store to avoid all the shelf-stable packaged junk. Foods with high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats are some of the worst food-like products foisted on consumers. How about a little Pepsi with that Barbie cereal? Anyone, anyone?
  • Avoid individual serving sizes. Unless you are on a feeding tube, there is no excuse for a Go-gurt. And can anyone explain to me why there is a need for an individually wrapped prune? As parents, the marketers get us hooked on this concept from the minute our babies start eating solid foods. There are single-serving baby food jars and yogurt containers. Convenient, yes. Easily recyclable, no. As far as baby food goes, you're better off with something like frozen cubes of food like Happy Baby, or making your own.
  • Let's talk about convenience. No wait. Let's stop thinking about convenience when shopping. If something is being marketed as convenient, it's probably not good for you or the environment. I really doubt that the mom who packs a Lunchable and a juice box for her kid really has a less stressful day than mine. I usually make a sandwich, fruit, yogurt and water bottle for my kids. It doesn't take that much time to pack or wash the durable containers. I will not kid you. There are not many ways to RECYCLE or REUSE a Lunchable plastic tray.
  • Food is for eating, not for packaging. Debate rages on whether corn-based plastics are the next big green thing. I think they're not. Food should be grown to be eaten. You can bet your bottom-dollar that the corn grown to become ethanol or PLA is not organic. Did anyone see King Corn? The other thing is that if you do have plastic recycling in your region, it is for petroleum-based plastics. PLA is a major contaminant in standard plastics recycling. Do not be fooled by the "corn-based" or "compostable" or "biodegradeable" label.
  • For meats and fish, if you have the butcher do the cutting at the counter, it'll be fresher, and packaging is minimized (butcher paper vs. foam tray and plastic wrap).
  • Use tap water, and drink mostly water. Except for milk and/or pure juice for the kids and beer and/or wine for the grown-ups. If you do give your kids milk or juice, limit how much they get. We've greatly reduced our consumption by limiting them to one small cup per meal (all refills are of water). They haven't died yet, and still seem to be growing adequately.
  • When you dine out, bring your own durable take-home containers

So once again, the key in the kitchen food packaging domain is to REDUCE.

REUSE glass and plastic containers with lids for bulk packaging or pantry storage. For example, when we buy a big container of shredded Parmesan cheese at Costco, we clean and save the container and use it in our pantry for granola, or bulk nuts, or flour, etc. Glass jars and lids can be reused many times for freezer jams.

REUSE yogurt cups, foam meat trays, rigid plastic salad containers. Preschools and non-profits will use these items again and again for toy storage, sorting and art projects.

RECYCLE (as your local recycling markets allow): glass; non food-soiled paper, labels, boxes; plastic and glass bottles; aluminum and metal cans/lids.

COMPOST food-soiled paper products.

There you have it. Lots of small steps that can be undertaken by any family to REDUCE the amount of food packaging we are bringing into our homes. Do you have any REDUCE, REUSE or RECYCLE tips to share regarding food packaging?

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