Foodie Friday: How I Reduced Our Food Packaging Waste

Despite a growing movement to reduce food-related packaging (like decreasing use of plastic straws) it seems increasingly like foods are showing up in the grocery store in single-use plastic containers.

Seeing this kind of thing just kills me:

So I started looking into it. And like all things environmental, it turns out that it is complicated.

In a nutshell, food going to waste and rotting is horrible for the environment (and world generally). The gases produced from rotting food has a negative environmental impact, and on top of that – no one got to eat it, which obviously has implications for food costs, world hunger, etc.

Take, for example, those images above. Turns out that English cucumbers are shrink wrapped because that makes them last about three times as long – this variety has a very thin skin. So, in that case, English cucumbers being wrapped has a net good for food waste, despite the plastic.

Then, take that package of fennel. These single-use hard plastics with holes in them that you see berries packaged in have zero environmental benefit – they don’t help preserve the food at all. For something soft like berries, they stop the berries from getting crushed which helps avoid food waste. But for something like fennel… this kind of packaging is just packaging for its own sake, basically forcing you to buy two of something because of how it’s offered. No good.

You see these plastic clamshells on all kinds of things that don’t need it.

Even bananas, which understandably sparked controversy,

So, what to do?

It was feeling like every week I’d drag a stuffed recycling bin to the curb, knowing that these days just because you pop something in your single stream recycling doesn’t mean it will actually get recycled.

Yeah, depressing.

What I’ve been doing is basically just choosing other, non-packaged things. If there’s an English cucumber with plastic wrap or a normal cuke with none – I get the normal cucumber. If the fennel is only offered in a clamshell, I skip the clamshell. If grapes or cherries are in a clamshell rather than a bin, same thing. I also try to make note of where packaging is just done for marketing/to sell more rather than for food preservation.

For example, if you’re a meat-eater, meat packaging can make sense. It keeps the meat fresh for longer and given the huge negative environmental impacts of meat generally, you don’t want it to go to waste. You can choose the wax tray rather than the polystyrene tray, but ultimately meat packaging can be a net good.

Now, take something like oatmeal, seeds or nuts. Depending on where you’re located, these can be easy to buy in bulk. This means you can bring in your own container, fill it up, save money and avoid waste. I will say this was impossible to do when I lived in a city. Heck, it was impossible to bring in reusable shopping bags because I couldn’t carry 8 bags around with me all day. But now that I’m in the country and have a car, I just keep reusable bags and containers in the trunk and it’s crazy easy.

Is this annoying? Yes, sometimes it is super annoying. For example, my kids like bell peppers. So, so often I’ll find my local store only has these available in a clamshell, or packaged in a foursome, or for a special price if you buy three prepackaged or whatever. So sometimes, I don’t buy them just because of how they’re packaged. Irritating, because I want my kids to eat veggies without me having to hound them, or want a specific thing for a recipe or whatever. But ultimately – it’s really not that hard.

Just by being mindful and gravitating toward products that I can put in my reusable bags rather than those that come in hard plastic shells, wrap or baggies, I’ve already reduced my household plastic waste by about 40% (!!!) It’s actually been shocking to me wheeling that recycling bin out every week half full instead of stuffed. I did not think there would be that much of an impact – but there really, truly is.  And the vast, vast majority has come from avoiding clamshells as much as possible.  Strangely, I haven’t even felt like I’d been making a huge effort or anything – just wandering to other options in the grocery aisle.  But this alone makes a statement, and I’d like to think that if the packaging negatively impacts sales on a large scale, that type of packaging will cease to exist.

Now if I can only manage to kick my Amazon addiction and stop all that cardboard and those plastic envelopes showing up at my door…