Zero-waste groceries: Can you buy enough to eat without plastic packaging? : Shots

Nuts and dried fruits in a supermarket.

Martha Bebinger/WBUR

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Martha Bebinger/WBUR


Nuts and dried fruits in a supermarket.

Martha Bebinger/WBUR

I didn’t notice the thin plastic thread between one leaf of my pineapple and the label when I was putting the pineapple in my shopping cart, checking out, or unpacking groceries at home. It wasn’t until I chopped off the top and pulled the label that it hit me.

I had broken the rules again.

That damn plastic tie joins the long list of mistakes I’ve made in just a week of trying to eat plastic-free.

I had challenged myself to buy food for a week without bringing plastic home in my shopping bag. That meant no juice jugs, yogurt containers, cellophane windows in chip bags, plastic packaging, or even stickers on some products.

Why did I do this? Because very little of the plastic packaging and containers we ever use are recycled. Because there are increasing concerns about its harmful health effects. Some research suggests that the ingestion of microplastics may interfere with hormone production or be associated with problems such as asthma and learning disabilities.

While scientists haven’t confirmed the link, I just don’t like the idea of ​​consuming plastic in a week for a credit card.

I chose a budget of $115.00 (about halfway between the average weekly grocery bill for a family of two in Massachusetts and the allotment of food stamps for that same household). One Saturday afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of my local supermarket chain, feeling fairly plastic-conscious, not ready for the ass kick I was about to get.

The experiment

I started in the produce section, where I usually grab a plastic bag of organic baby carrots. They are off limits, like pretty much every vegetable in the organic section. I found some beautifully bundled carrots among the non-organic products. Then I saw the plastic labels hanging from their rubber bands. I saw a dozen loose at the disposal of the produce shelf and scooped them up, without bag.

I rolled my cart past the cauliflower, green beans, asparagus, lettuce, and grapes, all glistening in their plastic. I weighed loose beets, apples, onions and sweet potatoes. My fear set in – that feeling that I wouldn’t have enough. So I bought a head of cabbage.

Miami, Florida, Winn-Dixie supermarket, fresh cut fruit for sale in refrigerated case.

Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

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Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images


Miami, Florida, Winn-Dixie supermarket, fresh cut fruit for sale in refrigerated case.

Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

I typed prices into the calculator on my phone. When I left the product section, I was in good shape, at $31.30. It was time to look for proteins.

I do not eat meat. But I went to the meat store to shop for one of my sons. Everything was prepackaged in plastic, but the man behind the glass was kind enough to wrap two burgers and some chicken separately in butcher’s paper. Together they were $21.62.

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 cardboard boxes. Wow

To avoid eating eggs at every meal, I put a few cans of beans and rice in a box. I wanted pasta, but the box had a cellophane window. I chose a brand of spaghetti with the smallest window (1″x1″), telling myself that eating a lot of cabbage would earn me the right to this offense.

If I were consuming a lot of cabbage, I would need some oil or salad dressing. The quest for plastic-free oil and vinegar brought me to the “mirror house” phase of my plastic-free odyssey.

There were many options in glass bottles. After carefully tapping, I found a few with metal lids. But the bottles with metal lids all had plastic seals except one brand of sesame oil and another brand of red wine vinegar. The vinegar label peeled off on one corner. And that made me wonder: What are pot labels made of? You probably guessed it: many are made of plastic. The sesame oil and rice wine vinegar went back on the shelf, as did jars of marinara, salsa, and juice.

I can live without salsa and 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 finding a few bars wrapped in foil, boxed.

At checkout I added the labels on paper wrapped beef and chicken to my list of embarrassment (I realized they are plastic). When the cashier scanned the barcode on peppers, I booked another defeat. They all 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 bins of nuts or barrels of oil that I can pour into non-plastic containers—to replace some of the items I had to put back.

To the bulk stores

Refilling bottles with goods such as olive oil is one way to reduce packaging.

Martha Bebinger/WBUR

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Martha Bebinger/WBUR


Refilling bottles with goods such as olive oil is one way to reduce packaging.

Martha Bebinger/WBUR

At home, I scanned some zero-waste sites and made a few phone calls. Several stores had bulk oil and vinegar, but I had to buy their bottle with a plastic lid and label, use up the contents, and return it for a refill. Pemberton Farms, in Cambridge, said I could bring my own glass jars. They had bread wrapped in paper and bulk items like cereal and nuts in bins, the latter of which ran me $1.23 over budget – but it was worth every almond.

Now that I’m out of money, I might want to do this again, so I had some questions for General Manager Greg Saidnawey. Pemberton Farms is known as a zero waste shopping destination, but there are still many things I couldn’t buy plastic free here. There was no dairy, juice, peanut butter or tahini options without plastic.

Saidnawey says he used to have over 300 bulk foods and herbs. That shrank to about 100 items during the pandemic. And Saidnawey says he doesn’t expect to add more bulk store options anytime soon.

“There was so much forward momentum in zero waste, especially in the Boston area, before COVID,” Saidnawey said. 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 went way backwards in manners.”

The CDC says the risk of contracting COVID-19 after touching a contaminated surface is low, but Saidnawey says his plastic suppliers report they have never been so busy. There is another factor that can increase the use of plastic in food packaging. Plastics are made with fossil fuels. That industry is looking for new outlets in the shift to electric vehicles.

Saidnawey says he is interested in using more compostable containers, but they are 30-40% more expensive. It’s hard to add that cost to the rising food price. And compostable boxes for nuts, beans, or snacks (much of what Pemberton Farms offers in bulk) aren’t as attractive on the shelves as plastic.

“I want to find a package that doesn’t end up in the oceans or landfill forever,” Saidnawey says, but “customers shop with their eyes.”

My takeaways

My week of eating plastic-free resulted in some pretty boring meals. I was not prepared. I didn’t realize how many things would be banned. There are some zero waste cookbooks, but I didn’t check them out before shopping. And I didn’t have a budget for herbs or spices, things that might have made life a little more exciting.

To reduce my plastic use in the future, I have to make more things from scratch, like hummus, marinara, salsa, maybe even yogurt. I switch brands of juice so I can buy OJ and lemonade in reusable glass bottles. I’ll have to drive around a bit to explore more bulk food options, and I may have to spend a little more on things like cheese wrapped in paper. I need to increase my stash of refillable jars and maybe invest in some of those reusable food container bags and that alternative to beeswax wrap.

I asked Star Market, where I shopped this week, what they are doing to reduce plastic food packaging. Star is owned by Albertsons, one of the largest food retailers in the US. They pointed me to a webpage about 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’s currently reviewing the packaging of all products to reduce plastic use.

Perhaps we can slow down some of the projected growth of single-use and throw-away plastics, and the major oil, gas and petrochemical companies that make most of our plastic will switch to more renewable products. In the meantime, I’m trying to improve my game. I avoided using 27 plastic containers and packaging in one week; I can do better.

Need tips on where to start? NPR’s Life Kit brought together a bit useful tips to start controlling the plastic in your life, even beyond your shopping list.

This story was produced by WBUR as part of their newsletter, “Cooked: the quest for sustainable food.”