Zero-Waste Grocers: Can You Buy Enough to Eat Without Plastic Packaging? : Shot

Items of nuts and dried fruits in a grocery store.

Martha Babinger / WBUR


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Martha Babinger / WBUR


Items of nuts and dried fruits in a grocery store.

Martha Babinger / WBUR

When I put the pineapple in my shopping cart, when I check out or unpack groceries at home, I don’t see a single pineapple leaf and a thin plastic thread running between its tags. Until I cut off the top and tug the tag that it hit me.

I broke the rules again.

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

I challenged myself to buy a week’s worth of food without any plastic in my grocery bag. This means there are no cellophane windows, plastic packages or even some product stickers in juice jugs, yogurt containers, chip bags.

Why did I do it? Because the plastic we use in packages and containers rarely gets recycled once. Because of the growing concern about the harmful effects of health. Some studies suggest that microplastic intake may disrupt hormone production or be associated with problems such as asthma and learning disorders.

Although scientists haven’t confirmed the link, I just don’t like the idea that I can swallow credit card worth plastic in a week.

I chose the 115.00 budget (about half way between the weekly grocery bill for a family of two in Massachusetts and the food stamp allocation for that same family). On Saturday afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of my local chain grocery store feeling plastic-conscious, not ready for the butt-kicking I was going to do.

Test

I started in the manufacturing department, where I usually hold a plastic bag of organic baby carrots. These are not limited to almost every vegetable in the organic category. I found some nice bunches of carrots in non-organic products. Then I saw the plastic tags hanging on their rubber bands. I saw more than a dozen loose products down by the shelf drain and scooped on top of them without bags.

I turned my cart over to the side of cauliflower, green beans, asparagus, lettuce and grapes, all gleaming inside their plastic. I weighed loose beets, apples, onions and sweet potatoes. Kick my anxiety – this feeling that I will not be enough. So, I bought a head of cabbage.

Freshly cut fruit for sale in Miami, Florida, Win-Dixie grocery stores, refrigerated cases.

Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images


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Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images


Freshly cut fruit for sale in Miami, Florida, Win-Dixie grocery stores, refrigerated cases.

Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images

I tapped the price on my phone’s calculator. Leaving the manufacturing department, I was in good condition, at $ 31.30. It was time to search for proteins.

I don’t eat meat. But I went to the meat counter to shop for one of my sons. Everything pre-packaged was plastic, but the guy behind the glass kindly agreed to wrap two hamburger patties and some chicken separately in butcher paper. Together they were 21.62.

Tofu, cheese, yogurt and almost everything in the dairy department was out. Even bottled milk had plastic caps. There were lots of eggs in that paper pulp carton. Shh.

For not eating eggs at every meal, I got a few cans of beans and rice in a box. I like pasta, but the box had a cellophane window. I chose a brand of spaghetti with the smallest window (1 “x1”), telling myself that eating lots of cabbage would entitle me to this violation.

If I’m going to eat lots of cabbage, I’ll need some oil or salad dressing. The search for plastic-free oil and vinegar took me to the “House of Mirror” stage of my plastic-free Odyssey.

There were plenty of options in glass bottles. After tapping carefully, I found something with a metal lid. The metal-lined bottles, however, had a plastic seal, except for one brand of sesame oil and another of red wine vinegar. The vinegar label was peeling off in one corner. And it surprised me: what are jar labels made of? You probably guessed it: lots of plastic. Sesame oil and rice wine vinegar went back on the shelf, as were jars of marinade, salsa and juice.

I can live a week without salsa and juice. But I certainly didn’t volunteer to go a week without chocolate. I spent a lot of time in Candy Isle before I found some bars wrapped in foil packaged in a box.

At checkout, I added paper wrapped beef and chicken labels to my shame list (I realized they were plastic). Then when the cashier scanned the bell pepper barcode, I made another defeat. Each of them had a small plastic sticker with a barcode. I bought them anyway. I was hungry, discouraged and ready to move on.

I still had 21.96. Maybe I can find a bulk store – including nuts or oil vats that I can pour into plasticless containers – to replace some items that I had to put back.

In bulk stores

Refilling bottles with things like olive oil is one way to reduce packaging.

Martha Babinger / WBUR


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Refilling bottles with things like olive oil is one way to reduce packaging.

Martha Babinger / WBUR

At home, I scanned some zero-waste sites and made a few calls. Several stores had bulk oil and vinegar, but I had to buy their bottle with a plastic lid and label, use the contents and bring it back for refilling. Pemberton Farms in Cambridge says I can bring my own mason’s jar. They had paper-wrapped bread and bulk items like cereal and nuts in the bin, which was later $ 1.23 more than my budget – but each nut was worth it.

When I ran out of money, I wanted to do it again, so I had some questions with General Manager Greg Sydenow. 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 alternative to milk, juice, peanut butter or tahini without plastic.

Saidnaway said he kept plenty of more than 300 foods and spices. During the epidemic it was reduced to about 100 items. And Saidnawey says he doesn’t expect to add more bulk shopping options anytime soon.

“Before Covid, especially in the Boston area, there was a lot going forward in zero waste,” Saidnaway said. But during the epidemic, “Customers just wanted peace of mind. They don’t want a broken seal; they don’t want something that someone else has already touched, and I think in many cases we’ve gone the opposite way.”

The CDC said the risk of getting COVID-19 after touching a contaminated surface is low, but Saidnaway said its plastic suppliers reported that they were never busy. There is another reason that can increase the use of plastic in food packaging. Plastics are made with fossil fuels. That industry is looking for new outlets to convert to electric vehicles.

Sidnaway says he is interested in using more compostable containers, but they are 30-40% more expensive. It is difficult to add that cost to the rising cost of food. And compostable boxes for nuts, beans or snacks (which Pemberton firms offer in abundance) are not as attractive on plastic shelves.

“I want to find a package that won’t end up at sea or landfill forever,” Saidnaway said, but “customers shop with their eyes.”

My acceptance

My week’s plastic-free eating has made some pretty annoying meals. I was not ready. 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 could make life a little more exciting.

To reduce my use of plastic, I need to make more from scratch, such as hummus, marinara, salsa, and even yogurt. I’m changing the brand’s juice so I can buy Oz and Lemonade in reusable glass bottles. I have to drive a bit to explore more bulk food options and I may have to spend a little more on things like paper wrapped cheese. I want to increase the supply of my refillable jars and probably invest some in those reusable food container bags and as an alternative to that wax cling wrap.

I asked Star Market, where I shopped this week, what they are doing to reduce plastic food packaging. Owned by Star Albertson, one of the largest food retailers in the United States, they pointed me to a web page about the company’s plans to reduce plastic waste, which could mean using less plastic packaging. And Costco, where I shop several times a year, says it is currently reviewing the packaging of all products to reduce the use of plastic.

Maybe we can slow down some of the supposed growth of plastics that we use and throw away once, and the major oil, gas and petrochemical corporations that make up most of our plastics will shift to more renewable products. In the meantime, I aim to move my game forward. I avoided using 27 plastic containers and packages in one week; I can do better.

Need some tips on where to start? NPR’s Life Kit has put together some Helpful tips To start the plastic audit of your life, even off your grocery list.

This story was produced by WBUR as part of their newsletter, “Cooking: The Search for Sustainable Food.”

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