There are many different reusable shopping bags options available, from reusable plastic bags to washable cotton shopping bags.
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Learn how to go grocery shopping and stock your kitchen without buying any plastic products.
by Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha
“Life Without Plastic” by Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha shows that it is possible to live a life without plastic.
Photo courtesy of Page Street Publishing
Life Without Plastic (Page Street Publishing, 2017) by Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha creates awareness for readers about living a life without plastic. Plamondon and Sinha walk through their personal plastic use, and share alternatives and replacements to help reduce the plastic in your life. The following excerpt is their favorite tips for using less plastic in your kitchen and on your trips to the grocery store.
Ten years ago, in our local grocery store in Wakefield, Quebec, you would rarely see someone bring their own reusable bags. Now you rarely see someone NOT bringing reusable bags. It took some time, but the new habit has started to take hold and what was once perceived as normal behavior has completely reversed. The same applies to many other little habits you might want to start integrating into your daily routine. It’s the example that you set for others that creates change in your community and beyond.
Choosing the Right Grocery Bags
Make sure you always have a bag with you when you go grocery shopping, whether it’s in your handbag, your backpack, in the glove compartment or trunk of your car or attached to your key chain; even a secondhand plastic bag will do just fine. It’s better than no bag at all, and you save a bag from going to the landfill. If, however, you want to go a step further and invest in the purchase of reusable bags, you might want to consider a few important factors.
Ideally, you want to prioritize materials that close the loop of the bag’s life cycle and go back to the Earth, and are not just recycled into a lower quality item (i.e., down-cycled). Cotton, jute and hemp are all natural materials that can be composted back into the Earth.
Durability and Repairability
Not only will a reusable bag be a solid long-term investment, but its durability and repairability are also determining factors in how soon it will end up in a landfill. Can you repair a hole that forms at the bottom of the bag? If the bag is made of plastic, it will be harder to repair. A cotton canvas bag is easy to repair with a needle and thread or a sewing machine.
To ensure your bag is durable and solid, inspect the pressure areas. Seams are more likely to break at the top of the handles and at the bottom of the bag. Are these seams reinforced? Is the design flawed because of where the seams are positioned? Over time, seams located at high pressure points will weaken and may give out due to the pressure of constantly supporting the bag and its contents.
In a well-publicized 2011 study underwritten by the American Chemistry Council (a key lobby group for the plastic industry), researchers from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California found that 51 percent of the reusable bags they tested as part of their research contained coliform bacteria. The same study found that only 3 percent of reusable bag users washed their bags regularly, but that the simple fact of washing their bags would reduce the presence of bacteria by 99.9 percent. The plastic industry made sure to disseminate this study broadly in order to try and convince people that single-use plastic bags are more hygienic.
Don’t let the plastic industry have the last word on this one. Get rid of that inevitable bacteria by washing your reusable bags regularly. When purchasing a reusable bag, it is important to choose a bag that is easy to wash, such as a cotton canvas bag. Bags should be washed about every second week, depending on their frequency of use.
The final factor to consider when purchasing reusable bags is whether the bag can be transported easily. Bags that can be folded back into a small compact pouch are more likely to be kept in a purse or a backpack or car glove compartment, and therefore will likely be reused more often.
A final word about shopping bags: Although disposable plastic bags do not generally last very long and they do get dirty easily, it is possible to wash them under the tap and reuse them. In fact, there are wooden bag dryers that can be installed on a kitchen wall so you can easily hang up your bags to dry after washing. The smart design of such bag dryers keeps the bags open allowing them to dry quickly. See Bag & Bottle Dryer in the Resources section.
Bringing the Right Bags or Containers
When grocery shopping, there are typically six types of food items we purchase: 1) fresh fruit and vegetables; 2) cheeses and meats; 3) dairy products, juices, sauces and other liquid food; 4) basic dry ingredients such as flour, sugar and pasta; 5) frozen food; 6) processed and prepared food including breads.
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
You are probably all too familiar with the flimsy plastic produce bag conveniently available on a roll in the produce section of your supermarket. These types of bags are rarely recyclable and they tend to be thrown out after a single use. Instead, keep several reusable cotton mesh bags with you when grocery shopping. These allow the cashier to see the item you are purchasing through the bag and they keep your produce fresh longer because they allow the items to breathe.
You can find many brands of cotton mesh bags that are completely washable and also double as great salad spinners. We use cotton mesh bags to spin our washed lettuce and other greens. You just step outside for a minute and rotate the bag a few times in order to get the centrifugal force going until all the water has been released. It actually works better than those large plastic salad spinners and takes up much less storage space in the kitchen.
For leafy greens, you might want to consider a greens bag that has a tighter weave than mesh bags and helps to keep greens fresh and crisp. When you get home, you should dampen the bag lightly and keep the greens stored in the greens bag in the fridge crisper drawer. If you purchased loose green leaves, clean and pat dry the leaves, dampen the greens bag and store them in the fridge crisper drawer.
Try to do as much of your food shopping as possible at a farmer’s market. Farmers are generally much more laid back about packaging and will happily reuse packaging that is returned to them or fill up your own container. Ask them if they would take back your egg or vegetable cartons or plastic bags. Inquire about the existence of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs with local farmers in your area. CSAs allow local residents, often city folks, to have direct access to high quality, fresh produce grown locally by regional farmers. Generally, when you become a member of a CSA, you’re purchasing a “share” of vegetables from a local farmer and each week you’ll receive a bin full of fresh seasonal produce.
Cheeses and Meats
Pre-packaged cheeses are almost always tightly wrapped in non-recyclable plastic. Fortunately, most grocery stores have a deli counter where you can buy cheese in bulk. Offer the deli clerk a stainless steel airtight container or a glass jar that has a sufficiently large opening. The clerk might readily accept your container and tare it (weigh it before inserting the cheese in it and then deducting the weight). If not, gently explain what to do. You must be willing to educate cashiers and other grocery store employees about new ways of doing things that help to reduce plastic waste. That’s how things start to change. It may be painful at first, and you might receive puzzled looks or sighs of exasperation, but eventually it will become normal.
If you are a mega cheese fan and are willing to purchase a large piece of cheese that won’t fit in any of your glass or stainless steel containers, you could use a large beeswax-coated reusable fabric wrap to package your cheese.
Try to avoid the pre-weighed meat placed on a Styrofoam platter and shrink-wrapped in plastic. Ask for a fresh cut of meat and offer a stainless steel airtight container. Most meat counter employees will happily do it for you, and if they refer you back to the pre-packaged meat, let them know you are plastic-intolerant!
Dairies, Juices, Sauces and other Liquid Food
Because plastic has the handy property of being waterproof, it is a material of choice for containing liquid products. As the prevalence of glass packaging has decreased markedly, shopping for liquids has become one of the trickiest parts of plastic-free grocery shopping. Glass is the best alternative to plastic for liquids, and only a few years ago, many wet products like ketchup and mayonnaise were still packaged in glass. Justifying their switch to plastic with arguments of cost reduction and customers preferring lighter plastic packaging that is less prone to breaking, manufacturers have progressively replaced more and more glass packaging. You can still find some brands that stick to glass for health and environmental reasons. They are rarer, but should be encouraged and congratulated. The natural food section of the grocery store is likely to contain more glass packaging.
Try to avoid purchasing acidic or oily products packaged in plastic containers or metal cans with a BPA lining because of the increased risk of toxins leaching into the food. You may be able to find metal cans with BPA replacements, but as we have described in Chapter 3, many of the BPA-free linings are no better than BPA and may present similar hormone-disrupting health risks. From a recycling point of view, however, cans are preferable to plastic containers. When plastic packaging is the only option, make sure you select a plastic container made with a resin that is highly recyclable, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET, recycling code #1), high density polyethylene (HDPE, recycling code #2) or polypropylene (PP, recycling code #5) and try to purchase in large bulk quantities.
Milk may be available in your community in glass bottles on a consignment deposit program. These programs are fantastic because they reuse glass instead of recycling it. The glass bottle is washed and refilled.
If you have a bulk store nearby that accepts outside containers, bring your own glass jars or stainless steel containers and a funnel to fill them up. The selection of wet products is often limited but make sure you always bring your own containers just in case.
The very best plastic-free way to deal with this liquid category of food is to purchase a good blender or food processor. Many liquid products can be created quickly and easily by purchasing the raw ingredient in its dry form in bulk and transforming it with a blender. For example, a cup (237 milliliters) of almonds can be transformed into almond butter or almond milk with the addition of water.
Basic Dry Ingredients Such as Flour, Sugar and Pasta
Bring some bulk bags, glass jars and stainless steel food containers. If you run out of reusable bags or containers, instead of plastic bags, use paper bags available in other sections of the store such as the bakery. It’s handy to carry a marker with you to write on the container and identify what you are buying (most markers can be washed off stainless steel containers and glass). Another option is a non-toxic grease pencil (also known as wax pencils or peel-off china markers). They work well on all sorts of non-porous surfaces, such as glass jars and metal canning lids. The markings are moisture-resistant in the fridge or freezer, but can be easily rubbed off with a towel.
It’s a wise idea to plan ahead of time and make a list of everything you are planning to buy at the bulk store. You will need a bag or a container for every item. If you are planning to buy some spices, bring small spice containers. If you are planning to get some honey, bring a mason jar. You can purchase more than 75 percent of your grocery needs in a bulk store, so the better prepared you are, the more plastic packaging you will avoid. Consider marking some of your storage containers and bags “permanently” with the name of a particular dry product you purchase regularly, and then filling up that container or bag with the same item every time you go shopping. That way, even if you don’t have time to clean the container or bag in between trips to the bulk store, you can use these pre-identified ones and avoid cross contaminating your food with other types of food.
It is nearly impossible to purchase frozen food without plastic packaging. Plastic packaging will prevent frozen food from leaking during transportation from the grocery store to your freezer on a hot summer day. Plastic packaging also prevents freezer burn, which happens when moisture in the outer layers of the food evaporates into the freezer air, thus drying out the surface of the food. A freezer is an extremely dry environment, so food needs to be stored airtight to be protected. While you may see some cardboard boxes in the frozen section of your grocery store, if you look inside you will find either an inner plastic bag to protect the food or you will notice that the inside of the box is sealed and lined with plastic inside.
Even if you decide to give up pre-packaged frozen food as you adopt a plastic-free lifestyle, it doesn’t mean you no longer need to make use of your freezer. On the contrary, the freezer is your plastic-free friend! There are many types of food that you can buy fresh in large quantities—such as nourishing, succulent fruits and veggies at harvest time—and freeze in large, clearly identified airtight containers. Freezing food can help you avoid oodles of plastic packaging.
Processed and Prepared Food, Including Breads
Grocery stores have aisles and aisles of processed food with long lists of chemical-ridden ingredients. Soups, sauces, cereals, macaroni and cheese, brownie mix, spaghetti sauce and salsa. All of these items can be created from scratch using the base ingredients purchased in bulk or in glass containers. Often it is the time savings and convenience that makes processed foods so appealing. You don’t necessarily have to give up the convenience of prepared foods to have a plastic-free life; you just need to be cautious and diligent. Here are a few rules to follow when buying processed or prepared foods:
• Seek out the natural and organic section of your supermarket, which may have exactly what you’re looking for in a glass container.
• Beware of the cardboard box; it may contain a plastic pouch.
• Avoid frozen processed food.
• Look for cake or brownie mix in a paper bag.
• Potato chips are hard to find not packaged in plastic. If you can’t do without them, buy the biggest bag possible and reuse it as a garbage bag.
Other prepared foods made directly on site at the grocery store can be purchased without plastic. Bread is a good example. Bring your own bread bag or ask for a paper bag.
Storing Your Food
Food storage is one of the first aspects of plastic-free living we focused on when we started Life Without Plastic. At the time, we were storing all our leftover food in plastic food containers and re-heating them directly in the microwave. We now cringe at the idea, but we didn’t even think twice at the time until we started reading about the leaching of plastic additives from plastic into food, especially when it’s heated and the food is oily and/or acidic.
Various considerations come into play when deciding what container to use for food storage. For example, is it a leftover that you may want to reheat later? Is it something you want to freeze? Is it dry food that may go rancid over time if not properly stored?
There are now plastic-free options to choose from that can suit practically any need. Beware of marketing that tries to convince you that silicone is a “great plastic-free” alternative. It’s not. It is non-plastic in name only. It has favorable characteristics of being stable and resistant to temperature extremes, but it is not a naturally-occurring product and it is not easily recyclable.
Because each of the options we highlight has its pros and cons, we’ve put together the illustrated table below to help you navigate possibilities based on your specific needs.
There exist a number of plastic-free options for storing your food, but glass is the most common and the cheapest. Not only are mason jars inexpensive, but you can obtain glass jars for free just from purchasing products packaged in them at the supermarket. Food such as spaghetti sauce is often packaged in a glass jar that you can clean and reuse. Virtually all lids that come with a glass container are made of plastic or coated with a plastic lining that may contain BPA; make sure you never fill up your jars to the point that food is in contact with the lid.
Glass jars are great for storing all kinds of food: dry goods, wet food, liquids and slices of cheese . . . You can also use them safely in the freezer as long as you leave about 20 percent of extra space to allow for expansion.
Glass is especially handy for storing leftovers because you can actually see the food inside of the container. If you store leftovers in a glass container, you can reheat them directly in your microwave or toaster oven after removing the lid, but to prevent the glass from cracking if you are taking it directly from the fridge or freezer, be sure to give the container time to warm to room temperature.
Stainless steel has emerged in recent years in North America as a superb alternative to plastic for food storage. Asian populations have known this forever. Stainless steel containers are durable, practically unbreakable, repairable, safe and with the addition of some silicone in the grooves of their lids, they can be made airtight. And a surprising advantage of stainless steel is that it has a positive recycling value. This means that you can be paid to return stainless steel to a scrap dealer.
When storing leftovers in a stainless steel container, it’s a good idea to identify the contents directly on the container with a Sharpie marker or a grease pencil. Markers, even the non-erasable ones, wash off easily with baking soda and a little elbow grease.
Stainless steel containers work well in the freezer, especially with an airtight lid. The frozen food is protected against freezer burn and dehydration, and the food can be defrosted directly in the container on the stove at low heat. We use our large rectangular airtight containers that have a capacity of over 4 gallons (15 liters) to store frozen tomatoes freshly picked up in the summer months. Jay then plops them whole into the spicy Indian dal he makes often in the winter.
As well, we use a large rectangular airtight container to store our bread and pastries. The bread doesn’t dry out, and the pastries stay fresh for several days. Airtight stainless steel food containers work very well for storing certain types of produce in the refrigerator. For example, with lettuce, kale and beet greens, just add a little bit of moisture at the bottom of the container or wrap the greens in a damp cotton towel or greens bag.
Make sure you purchase high quality, food grade 304 stainless steel of 18-8 or 18-10 quality. You may find less expensive stainless steel containers of grade 200 quality. This is a lower quality grade of stainless steel that generally does not contain any nickel, which means it is more prone to rust. When we first started our business, we offered some dishes and containers on our site that were made with 202 stainless steel. We were soon getting complaints from customers that patches of rust were visible after dishwashing. We quickly stopped offering these products. Even though rust is not in itself dangerous to human health, it’s not a desirable thing for a product being used for food or beverages and it may alter the taste of the food or drink.
Tins are relatively popular as ornamental gift packaging. You often see tin boxes filled with cookies around Christmas time and you might wonder how you can reuse them at home. The problem with tin containers is that they rust very easily. They should only be used for very dry food. Even cookies that are too moist can cause some rusting in the container over time.
Use tin containers to store dry goods that you plan on consuming in the coming month or so. Tin containers are rarely airtight and the contact with air will make your flour or grains go rancid more quickly. They can work nicely for spices and loose leaf tea. Tins are also great for storing powdered cleaning products such as baking soda and borax.
Fabric provides some level of insulation without being airtight. For baked goods such as cookies or muffins, an airtight container may keep them too moist and sticky on the surface when the desired texture is a bit crunchy. A cotton bowl cover on top of a ceramic bowl works perfectly. Similarly, for a baguette, a bread bag is ideal. Keep the baked goods in the fabric bag for a few days and then transfer them to an airtight container to keep them from drying out too much—there is a limit to that desired crunchiness.
You can also use fabric bags to conserve some dry goods you’ve purchased in bulk for a short period of time (less than one month). Sugar, salt and dried beans are good candidates, as long as the pantry where they are stored is very dry.
For almost ten years now, beeswax wraps have been on the market as an eco-friendly and natural alternative to plastic cling wrap. Typically, they are made of cotton or hemp dipped in a blend of beeswax and natural oils. They smell like honey and they can be molded to the shape of a bowl with just the heat of your fingers. They are truly magical and entirely natural. Keep a few handy to cover leftover bowls, salads, a half-cut melon or a piece of cheese. They also work well with bread. Just make sure you do not wash them in hot water or the beeswax will melt and wash away in your sink drain. Simply wipe them clean with a damp soapy cloth or wash them in cold water with soap. Keep a few sizes handy and replace them about once a year, depending on the level of use.
Reprinted with permission fromLife Without Plastic (2017), by Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha and published by Page Street Publishing.