With so much being written these days about food waste, comparatively less is written about the wastefulness of food packaging. Yet food packaging waste accounts for at least as much as, if not more than, food waste.
From complex, tri-fold plastic egg cartons to snack-friendly boxes of individually wrapped apple slices, it's not uncommon to find two or more layers of "protection" between us and the food we eat. And most of that shrink wrap, plastic, cardboard, and styrofoam can't (or won't) be recycled.
The Way It Was
Today even a simple dinner of steak and salad might involve multiple styrofoam trays, yards of plastic wrap, and a plastic container or two, all of which will eventually make their way into a landfill.
But it wasn't always this way.
When June Cleaver returned home from the market, the veggies went in the crisper, meat — still in its twine-and-paper wrappings — was frozen or used in that evening's meal, cans were shelved, and staples were transferred to canisters for storage. Once emptied, the brown paper bags were carefully folded and stowed until there were textbooks to be covered or fried chicken to be breaded.
More Packaging, More Problems?
What's going on here? Sarah Metz, who recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a packaging-free general store in Brooklyn she plans to call The Fillery, says there is a perception that packaged foods are the freshest. But, she explains, the opposite is more likely to be the case.
More packaging equals more processing and preservatives, and more time between the producer and our tables. Indeed, in many cases, she says, the primary purpose of the packaging is not to ensure food safety, but to prolong shelf-life, effectively guaranteeing the food we purchase can survive far longer than it would if left to its own devices.
That's good for the retailer and the packers, but not necessarily great for consumers who are purchasing goods that have traveled farther, passed through more hands, and spent more time sitting on the shelf. Furthermore, much of this packaging is made from materials that are potentially damaging to our health, containing chemicals such as BPA and other endocrine disruptors.
Of course, the issue of packaging isn't black and white: For starters, there's a reason they call packaged products convenience foods, right? And sometimes our busy lives — or personal handicaps — demand convenience.
Take, for example the case of the individual peeled navel oranges in plastic containers. The media had a field day last month when a Whole Foods customer tweeted a photo of the packaged produce. Almost immediately, the company apologized and promised it would resume selling the fruit in its "natural packaging" — but the conversation continued, with many pointing out that peeling can be a challenge to those with arthritis or motor-skill disabilities.
Deciding to Go Package-Free
I've always considered myself pretty conscientious about avoiding food waste. My family can attest to this by virtue of the many nights dinner has been a "last-stand" stir-fry, soup, or salad made from anything in the fridge that was on its last legs.
But the recycling bin and trash can have a different tale to tell. I may bring my own reusable shopping bags to the supermarket, but they come home filled with rigid clamshells of salad greens, plastic bags of granola, and shelf-stable cartons of almond milk — none of which can readily be recycled.
Inspired by Sarah Metz and her zero-waste vision for a packaging-free approach to shopping and cooking, I decided to see how much I could reduce the amount of food-related trash I accumulated over the course of a week. As it turned out, I was able to eliminate much of the packaging I typically bring into — and throw out from — the house.
It took planning, persistence, and a fair bit more cooking than I was accustomed to. Still, when my husband asked if I'd already taken the recycling out and I was able to reply smugly, "Nope, there isn't any this week," it felt like time well spent.
I'll be sharing more about my experience, writing about how I minimized my food-packaging waste, how it went, and what I took away from the experience.