I didn't see the thin plastic thread running between one leaf on my pineapple and its tag when I put the pineapple in my shopping cart, when I checked out or when I unpacked groceries at home. It wasn't until I chopped off the top and tug on the tag that it hit me.
I had challenged myself to purchase a week's worth of food without bringing home any plastic in my grocery bag. That meant no jugs of juice, yogurt containers, plastic chip bags, plastic packages or even stickers on some produce.
Why did I do this? Because very few of the plastic packages and containers we use once get recycled. Because there's growing concern about the harmful health effects. Some research suggests that ingesting microplastics could disrupt hormone production or be associated with problems like asthma and learning disorders.
I chose a budget of $115.00 (roughly half-way between the average weekly grocery bill for a family of two in Massachusetts and the food stamp allotment for that same household). On a Saturday afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of my local chain grocery store feeling reasonably plastic-aware, not ready for the butt-kicking I was about to get.
I started in the produce section, where I typically grab a plastic bag of organic baby carrots. They're off limits, as is pretty much every vegetable in the organic section. I found some beautifully bunched carrots among the non-organic produce. Then I saw the plastic tags hanging off their rubber bands. I spotted a dozen loose ones down by the produce shelf drain and scooped them up, sans bag.
I don't eat meat. But I headed to the meat counter to shop for one of my sons. Everything prepackaged was in plastic, but the man behind the glass kindly agreed to wrap two hamburger patties and some chicken, separately, in butcher paper. Together they were $21.62.
To avoid eating eggs every meal, I got some cans of beans and rice in a box. I wanted pasta, but the box had a cellophane window. (While cellophane is not technically plastic, as it's not derived from petroleum, I was still trying to avoid it because it's non-recyclable.) 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 violation.
There were lots of options in glass bottles. After careful tapping, I found some with metal lids. But the bottles with metal lids all had a plastic seal, except for one brand of sesame oil and another of red wine vinegar. The vinegar label was peeling away at one corner. And that made me wonder: what are jar labels made of? You probably guessed: many are plastic. The sesame oil and rice wine vinegar went back on the shelf, as did jars of marinara, salsa and juice.
At checkout, I added the labels on paper-wrapped beef and chicken to my list of shame (I realized they are plastic). Then when the cashier scanned the barcode on bell peppers, I chalked up another defeat. They each had little plastic stickers with barcodes. I bought them anyway. I was hungry, discouraged and ready to move on.
While 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 here plastic-free. There was no dairy, juice, peanut butter or tahini options without plastic.
The CDC says the risk of getting COVID-19 after touching a contaminated surface is low, but Saidnawey says his plastic suppliers report they've never been busier. There's another factor that may be ramping up 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's interested in using more compostable containers, but they are 30-40% more expensive. It's hard to add that cost to the rising price of food. And compostable boxes for nuts, beans or snacks (a lot of what Pemberton Farms offers in bulk) aren't as attractive on shelves as plastic.
My week of plastic-free eating produced some pretty boring meals. I wasn't prepared. I didn't realize how many things would be off limits. There are some zero-waste cookbooks, but I didn't look at 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 plastic use moving forward, I'm going to have to make more things from scratch, like hummus, marinara, salsa, maybe even yogurt. I'm switching 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 need to spend a little more on things like cheese wrapped in paper. I've got to beef up my supply of refillable jars and maybe invest in some of those reusable food container bags and that beeswax cling wrap alternative.
I asked Star Market, where I shopped this week, what they're doing to reduce plastic food packaging. Star is owned by Albertsons, one of the largest food retailers in the U.S. They pointed me to a web page about the company's plans to reduce plastic waste, which might mean using less plastic packaging. And Costco, where I shop a few times a year, says it's currently reviewing packaging of all products to reduce plastic use.
Maybe we can slow some of the projected growth in plastic we use once and throw away, and major oil, gas and petrochemical corporations that make most of our plastic will shift to more renewable products. In the meantime, I aim to up my game. I avoided using 27 plastic containers and packages in one week; I can do better.
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