She tried to avoid plastic by shopping for a week. Here’s how it went
I didn’t see the thin plastic thread running between a leaf of my pineapple and its label when I put the pineapple in my shopping cart, during checkout, or when I unpacked groceries at home. It wasn’t until I cut the top off and pulled the tag that it hit me.
I had again broken the rules.
This damn plastic tie joins the long list of mistakes I’ve made in just a week trying to eat plastic-free.
I challenged myself to buy a week’s food without bringing plastic in my grocery bag. This meant no juice jugs, yogurt containers, cellophane windows in chip bags, plastic wrappers or even stickers on some products.
Why did I do this? Because very some of the plastic packaging and containers we use once recycle. Because we are more and more worried about the adverse health effects. Some to research suggests that ingesting microplastics could disrupt hormone production or be associated with issues such as asthma and learning disabilities.
I chose a budget of $115.00 (about halfway between the average weekly grocery bill for a family of two in Massachusetts and the food stamp allowance for that same household). One Saturday afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of my local grocery chain, feeling reasonably plastic-conscious, not ready for the kick I was about to receive.
I started in the produce section, where I usually grab a plastic bag of small organic carrots. They are prohibited, like almost all vegetables in the organic section. I found beautifully clustered carrots among the non-organic produce. Then I saw the plastic tags hanging from their rubber bands. I spotted a dozen near the produce shelf drain and picked them up, bagless.
I wheeled my cart past cauliflower, green beans, asparagus, lettuce and grapes, all glistening inside their plastic. I weighed bulk beets, apples, onions and sweet potatoes. My anxiety started – this feeling that I wouldn’t get enough. So I bought a head of cabbage.
I entered the prices into my phone’s calculator. Leaving the produce aisle, I was in great shape, at $31.30. It was time to look for protein.
I do not eat meat. But I headed over to the meat counter to shop for one of my sons. Everything pre-wrapped was plastic, but the man behind the glass kindly agreed to wrap two burger patties and chicken, separately, in butcher paper. Together they were $21.62.
The tofu, cheese, yogurt and pretty much everything in the dairy section was out. Even the bottled milk had a plastic cap. There were a lot of eggs in those boxes of pulp. Phew.
To avoid eating eggs with every meal, I put cans of beans and rice in a can. I wanted pasta, but the box had a cellophane window. I chose a brand of spaghetti with the smallest window (1″x1″) thinking that eating lots of sprouts would qualify me for this violation.
If I were to eat a lot of cabbage, I would need oil or dressing. The search for plastic-free oil and vinegar took me to the “house of mirrors” stage of my plastic-free odyssey.
There were many options in glass bottles. After careful tapping, I found some with metal lids. But the metal-capped bottles all had a plastic seal, except for one brand of sesame oil and another of red wine vinegar. The vinegar label was peeling off in one corner. And that made me wonder: what are the jar labels made of? You probably guessed: many are plastic. Sesame oil and rice wine vinegar returned to the shelf, as did jars of marinara, salsa and juice.
I can live without salsa or juice for a week. But I certainly didn’t volunteer to go a week without chocolate. I spent a lot of time in the candy aisle before I found bars wrapped in foil, packed in a box.
At checkout, I added the labels on the paper-wrapped beef and chicken to my list of shame (I realized they were plastic). Then, when the cashier scanned the barcode of the peppers, I recorded another loss. They each had little plastic stickers with barcodes on them. I bought them anyway. I was hungry, discouraged and ready to move on.
I still had $21.96. Maybe I could find a bulk store – with tubs of nuts or tubs of oil I can pour into non-plastic containers – to replace some of the items I had to put back.
To bulk stores
At home, I scanned a few zero waste sites and made a few calls. Several stores had oil and vinegar in bulk, but I had to buy their bottle with a plastic lid and label, use the contents, and bring it back for a refill. Pemberton Farms in Cambridge said I could bring my own mason jars. They had bread wrapped in paper and loose items like cereal and nuts in bins, the latter of which put me over budget by $1.23 – but was worth every almond.
While I’m out of money, I might want to start over, so I had a few questions for GM Greg Saidnawey. Pemberton Farms is known as a zero-waste shopping destination, but there’s still a lot I couldn’t buy here without plastic. There were no plastic free dairy, juice, peanut butter or tahini options.
Saidnawey says he used to have over 300 bulk foods and spices. This dwindled to around 100 articles during the pandemic. And Saidnawey says he doesn’t expect to add more bulk buying options anytime soon.
“There was so much momentum toward zero waste, especially in the Boston area, before COVID,” says Saidnawey. But during the pandemic, “customers just wanted peace of mind. They didn’t want a broken seal; they didn’t want anything that had already been touched by someone else, and I think we just is backtracking in a lot of ways.”
The CDC says the risk of contracting COVID-19 from touching a contaminated surface is low, but Saidnawey says his plastic suppliers report they’ve never been busier. There is another factor that could increase the use of plastic in food packaging. Plastics are made with fossil fuels. This industry seeks new points of sale in the gap to electric vehicles.
Saidnawey says he wants to use more compostable containers, but they are 30-40% more expensive. It is difficult to add this cost to the increase in food prices. And compostable boxes for nuts, beans, or snacks (much of what Pemberton Farms offers in bulk) don’t look as attractive on the shelves as plastic.
“I want to find a package that won’t end up in the oceans or in a landfill forever,” says Saidnawey, but “customers buy with their eyes.”
My week of plastic-free meals has produced some pretty boring meals. I was unprepared. I didn’t know how many things would be prohibited. There are some zero waste cookbooks, but I didn’t watch them before I went shopping. And I didn’t budget for herbs or spices, things that might have made life a little more exciting.
To reduce my use of plastic in the future, I’m going to have to make more things from scratch, like hummus, marinara, salsa, maybe even yogurt. I’m switching juice brands so I can buy orange juice and lemonade in reusable glass bottles. I’ll have to drive a bit to explore more bulk food options, and may need to spend a bit more on things like cheese wrapped in paper. I need to beef up my supply of refillable jars and maybe invest in some of those reusable food container bags and beeswax alternative.
I asked Star Market, where I shopped this week, what they were doing to reduce plastic food packaging. Star is owned by Albertsons, one of the largest food retailers in the United States. They told me a Web page on the company’s plans to reduce plastic waste, which could mean using less plastic packaging. And Costco, where I shop a few times a year, says it is currently reviewing all product packaging to reduce the use of plastic.
Maybe we can slow down some of the projected growth in plastic that we use once and throw away, and major oil, gas and petrochemical companies who make most of our plastic will switch to more renewable products. In the meantime, I aim to up my game. I avoided using 27 plastic containers and wraps in one week; I can do better.
Need advice on where to start? NPR’s Life Kit has put together a few useful tips to start auditing the plastic in your life, even beyond your grocery list.
This story was produced by WBUR as part of their newsletter, “Cooked: the search for sustainable food.”