My Zero-Waste Week: What I Learned from Cutting Down on Food Packaging

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: TL_Studio)

After a week of making a concerted effort to reduce the food packaging that came into — and went out of — my home, I realized there was plenty of low-hanging fruit to pluck: having my groceries double-bagged when I was too distracted (or just plain slow) to fish my nylon market bag out of my purse; the extra utensils, napkins, and condiments that came along with my takeout; the countless small plastic bags I used to transport items from the bulk bins to my canisters at home. All of these were items I could do without easily and with minimal inconvenience.

But other types of packaging were harder to dispense with, even when I was willing to sacrifice a bit of convenience or time. And for those reasons and many others, food packaging won’t be going away any time soon.

According to Sarah Metz, whose soon-to-open shop, The Fillery, will offer only container-free and refillable goods, “We need new technology and innovation around packaging because some things need to be packaged: prepared foods, soups, convenience products. There is a lot of work that needs to be done towards making packaging that can be degraded in a landfill rather than a compost pile.”

Until then, though, here are a few tips on reducing the amount of food packaging in your life.

(Image credit: Pam Krauss)

1. Shop like a European.

Your local butcher, farmers market, and green grocer will be far more accommodating (and may even appreciate your consideration) when you ask to skip the packaging than if you were to attempt to walk out of your local Costco with a paper-wrapped pork loin. The roadside honor-system stand where I buy my eggs encourages customers to bring back their empty cartons, and I’ve found most farm stands are thrilled when I dump berries and cherry tomatoes into my own cartons and return theirs.

2. Do the math.

Packaging costs money and the food companies simply pass the cost along to you, the consumer. Ask yourself if the convenience of throwing a prepackaged lunch in your kids’ backpack is really worth spending $3 for a couple of crackers, two ounces of ham and cheese, seven grapes, and three kinds of packaging that go in the trash. A cute bento box will accomplish the same result and pay for itself in a week.

3. Think before you drink.

Reducing the number of bottled beverages and to-go cups of coffee, juice, or smoothies you consume each day is a painless and significant way to cut down on food packaging.

4. Listen to your garbage.

Many packaged and processed foods are pretty easy to make at home, but concentrate on the ones you use most, and that generate the most trash. Making yogurt is relatively simple, and if you have a yogurt for lunch every day, you’ll be keeping a lot more plastic out of the landfill if you invest in some probiotic starter, a few glass jars, and a fun-size cooler — all you need to make a quart of yogurt each week. Granola bars, broths, and nut milks are other items that are easy to work into your weekly food routine to eliminate a good amount of food packaging.

5. Go big in the bulk aisle.

Grains and dried beans are just a few of the more obvious things you can buy in bulk. Dried herbs, granola, nut butters, coffee, and olive oil are all items that are widely available, sold at attractive prices, and can generally be transported in a container you provide.

Buy bulk popcorn and make your own microwave snack by popping it in a plain brown paper bag with the top folded over a couple of times (it works like a dream, honestly, and it’s oil-free to boot!). Visit Asian markets and buy dried mushrooms, kimchi, and tofu from bulk bins. Petco even allows you to buy cat litter in bulk!

Transfer your items to glass jars for storage. I like to designate one for odds and ends of dried beans, mixed grains, and pastas, too; you’ll up your soup and pilaf game effortlessly while eliminating clutter.

6. Get an electric kettle.

It will allow you to make hot tea; French press coffee; even a trendy turmeric, lemon, ginger toddy anytime you want it for less than $.50/serving. (You can always just go take a walk if the change of scene, not the caffeine, is the true motivation for your afternoon coffee jaunt.)

It’s also far less wasteful than employing a machine that uses pre-filled K-cups or pods. You’ll spend a few seconds dealing with the used grounds, but they are compostable (unlike a plastic, foil-topped K-cup).

7. Remember that bigger is not always better.

Although the product-to-packaging ratio is better when you buy a super-sized container, unless it’s something you know for certain you will use every bit of before it expires, gets funky, or you just lose interest, don’t go big. When you buy more than need, you are wasting not only packaging but also the product itself.

8. Don’t bag it if you don’t have to.

When I see people putting onions or avocados or bananas — things that have their own protective wrapping — into plastic bags, it makes me bonkers. I’m not suggesting you walk up to the checkout with a handful of loose cherries, but if you are going to peel the carrots, potatoes, or onions before you use them anyway — and you are, right? — don’t just drop them in a bag reflexively.

The same goes for ginger, hard squash, garlic, artichokes, citrus fruits — you get the idea. Yes, it may take a few extra seconds to sort the tangelos from the cara cara oranges at the checkout, but they’re all going to end up in the same fruit bowl when you get them home anyway, so why bag them separately?

Another bonus: When I buy my fresh herbs and greens bag-free, I find I am more likely to wash and wrap them in a damp towel at home before bagging and stashing them, a food-stylist’s trick that prolongs their life by a week or more.

Just make sure to keep your produce separate from raw meat and other foods that could contaminate veggies, and wash them thoroughly before eating.

9. Make like a Boy Scout and be prepared.

Stash shopping bags and smaller bags and containers for holding bulk items in your car, your backpack or purse, in the pockets of the jacket you wear to the farmers market, and in your desk drawer. Never leave the house without a beverage container.

Are you dining at a place with notoriously big portions? Will dinner be takeout from the neighborhood Mexican joint? Plan ahead to have the kinds of containers you need so you’re not tempted to let it go “just this once.”

Read your recipes and make shopping lists before you go to the market so you can be mindful about buying only what you need.

10. Recognize there are tradeoffs.

You may reduce your waste, but you won’t save on water. Washing, rinsing, reusing, and washing again is the bottom line for reusing containers, bags, and wrappers, and many storage items can’t go into the dishwasher.

Final Thoughts

I’m not going to pretend going container- and packaging-free doesn’t take a bit more planning and effort than going with the shrink-wrapped, plastic-encased, disposable flow. And maybe in the scheme of things, this time and effort tradeoff just isn’t a good value proposition for you. We all have our own tipping points and only you know where yours lies.

I discovered mine the summer my first daughter was born. Having read that disposable diapers make up something like 20 percent of the garbage in our national landfills, I confidently announced that I would be going old-school and using cloth. After three sweltering months of sharing an un-air-conditioned fourth-floor walk-up with the ammoniated fumes from a full diaper pail and a wailing baby with chronic bum burn, I swore never to use another plastic fork or paper napkin as penance for jumping back on the Pampers train — a resolution I tried hard to keep.

Despite the economic and environmental costs of added packaging, food stores and restaurants are conditioned to make more packaging rather than less their default position. And convincing them to let you use your own — or none — takes persistence and a bit of chutzpah.

The Fillery’s Sarah Metz points out there are advantages to letting your store know you want to use your own containers. “The positive of asking is that it will get more people accustomed to it. We want to educate people to think differently as they shop; we want these strategies to be obvious to more people. Helping to establish it as something that is not only accepted but approaching a norm is a good thing,” she notes. One option, she suggests, is to find the manager of a store you frequent and get him to establish a protocol.

It won’t happen overnight. For every time I remember to bring back the fold-over top bag for my fair-trade, ethically sourced beans, there is a corresponding encounter with a barista who insists on dispensing my Venti decaf into a disposable cup in order to fill my travel mug. But with rare exceptions, I found folks were gamely supportive and applauded my efforts to go packaging-free, and that most of the accommodations I made ultimately saved me money and resulted in my eating better, less processed food — the very definition of a win-win.