I’m on a personal quest to reduce plastic packaging. I’d love it if I could eliminate it altogether, but for now I’m happy to move in the right direction. Yet even with this intention, I still feel like I’m drowning in the stuff! How do plastics keep creeping into our kitchens, our homes, and eventually our recycle/trash bins, and what can we do to make them stop?
It seems to me it boils down to four components: Awareness, Options, Habits, and Commitment. (I tried to make it come out as a tidy acronym, but that just didn’t work.)
Awareness: What does your personal plastic recycling/trash look like? Mine is typically full of annoying clamshell containers, usually from fresh fruit and the occasional deli item. Once in a while I get talked into buying muffins or cookies that come in plastic containers. All sorts of things come in plastic bags and/or wraps: bread, pita, English muffins, cheese, crackers, pasta, dry beans, bulk foods, etc. I try to reuse those bags at least once, but ultimately they all end up in the trash. And, of course, there are bottles and jars: mayo, ketchup, Braggs, milk, juice, salad dressings…
Options: Looking at your typical pile of plastics, what alternatives can you find? I could bypass most of the clamshell containers in my bin by consistently shopping for produce at Farmers’ Markets instead of grocery stores. If I made a point of having homemade baked goods available, my hungry teenagers would probably beg for store-bought items less often. With better planning, I could skip the deli items altogether. Planning is also the key to avoiding other packaging: if I buy dry beans and rice in bulk, remembering to bring my own reusable containers, I could eliminate the bags or cans they otherwise come in — but I have to plan the meal far enough ahead to soak the beans the night before (or find the instructions for my pressure cooker). Mayo, ketchup, crackers, bread, pasta and salad dressing can all be made at home, but they require time, patience, planning, and, in some cases, special equipment.
Here is where I think I should insert one sub-component: Priorities. Once you start looking, you’ll see there are all sorts of options for avoiding plastic packaging. But unless you have the luxury of making a full-time job of it, you’ll probably need to make some choices. I recommend tackling the “low-hanging fruit” first: if it’s easy for you to go to the Farmers Market for plastic-free produce, do that! Next, consider what would have the most impact. At my house, we don’t go through mustard very fast, so replacing that is lower priority for me than, say, finding a recipe for Ranch Dressing that rivals the stuff that comes with the kids’ favorite take-out pizza — in little plastic containers with little plastic lids. Add in things with high return. In my household, that would be things like homemade pitas — time consuming, but highly appreciated and valued over the store-bought variety. Then identify things that align with other goals you’re trying to accomplish. I’d like to be better about weekly meal planning anyway, so as I work on that it shouldn’t be hard to get in the habit of soaking beans and doing other prep work. Which brings us to the next component.
Habits. It’s one thing to try out a more sustainable approach to some aspect of life; it’s another thing entirely to make it the new “normal.” A lot of us sabotage our efforts by trying to take on too much at one time, quickly getting overwhelmed and resorting again to the same readily available conveniences we’re trying to wean ourselves from. This is the reason that Task of the Month programs focus on one area of change at a time, and allow a month to let that change become routine.
But, I hear you saying, there are so many things to change, and a significant impact is needed in an alarmingly short time! True enough. So the best we can do is find our own pace. For some people, the best approach is to overhaul the whole kitchen and all the food-related processes, figuring everything out at once. (If that describes you, please let us know what you did and how it has gone!) For others, a piecemeal approach works best. The important thing is to keep moving in the right direction as briskly as possible but without burning out yourself or your household. Remember, sustainability isn’t sustainable if… you can’t sustain it. 🙂
Commitment. Your success at making these changes (and making them stick) is going to depend upon not only your own commitment, but that of others in your household. It might be helpful to discuss your motivations with your family members, and see if they share your concerns. These days the internet is full of videos and written information about the heartbreaking consequences of our over-reliance on plastics that can be gently shared with people reluctant to get on board with new plastic-free routines. But if someone in your household is really resistant, it might be best to let that go, and work around them for now. In the long run, damaged relationships can be harder to fix than a household’s plastic waste stream. Patience and compassion, on the other hand, might give the person the time they need to come around to a new way of thinking and ultimately lead them to passionate advocacy for the cause!
If you’ve tried changing your plastic-related habits, leave a comment about how that’s worked out for you. There’s no judgement here: we’re all in this together, swimming against the tide, in need of each other’s ideas, support and inspiration. I hope to hear from you!