How and where to source all your foodstuffs without plastic, and if possible without any packaging at all!
The black list of worst offenders
The Shopping Bag
The very first item of discussion here is of course the shopping bag. We can be grateful at least that plastic bags are increasingly frowned upon, and subject to a deterring surcharge or even banned in quite a few places. It’s easier than ever to commit to banning these entirely from our lives. You can keep one or two large market tote bags at home, for those big groceries runs, and always have a very light fabric bag or shopping net on you in case you unexpectedly have to pick something up. Loqi (in shops worldwide) makes totes that fold and zip up into a wallet-sized pouch, yet can carry up to 20kg: these are particularly easy to keep on one’s person, or in the car, and even men will have no trouble keeping one in a pocket. (Personally my handbag is large and can accommodate a few impromptu items, loose lemons being a frequent type of passenger). If you have a big list of things to buy and are not driving, take a backpack instead: it will take much more weight with much less effort on your part, and your back will thank you.
When you don’t really need one, avoid even paper bags: yes they decompose, but paper still costs trees and we should not be complacent about it. When I do end up with paper bags, I keep them carefully and reuse them as long as they’re reusable. The larger ones make very good replacements for bin liners, as discussed in Zero-Waste Household.
The utter insanity of bottled water (and other drinks in plastic bottles) needs to stop. FIFTY BILLION (50,000,000,000) single-use water bottles were sold globally in 2015. Over 75% of them are not recycled but go straight to landfill, and anything from 35 to 45 billion plastic bottles are now floating around the planet. If we had to carry these as punishment, every single person on the planet, everyone that you ever meet would have 5-6 plastic bottles grafted to their bodies — and counting. The most maddening thing about bottled water is that the worst offenders are countries where tap water is drinkable in the first place. FREE PACKAGE-FREE WATER but no, let’s spend a lot of money we claim not to have on trashing the planet instead. There are places on earth where tap water will make you ill, and even there many people will typically filter and drink it because they can’t afford the inflated price of what is nothing but a marketing coup. When you buy bottled water, you’re not only contributing to the plastic disaster, you’re also financing the privatization of water: a world where water is not a human right, to quote Nestle’s CEO, but belongs to corporations who can withhold it if you can’t pay their asking price. This is already happening, so wake up. Boycott bottled water and buy a refillable bottle you can use for the rest of your life.
There’s no shortage of options out there, from stainless steel to glass nested in protective silicone. I like Memobottle myself. Yes, its plastic, but it’s BPA-free and certified cradle-to-cradle; the makers have done the research and decided that manufacturing it from another material would have a much heavier footprint. What makes it stand out the most is its design: it is not round, but flat, book-shaped, so it’s really convenient to carry in your purse or laptop bag. It also ships in a well-designed recycled packaging that can be reused.
Caught out without your bottle and you’re thirsty? Look for a water fountain, or opt for a drink in tin/glass/paper carton, or ask for tap water with your meal…
Tap water not drinkable at home? Invest in a filter, it will save you a lot in the long run.
Don’t like the taste of tap water? Use a jug with a piece of activated charcoal, or a slice of lemon/cucumber/whatever you fancy.
Need a cooler at the office, the type that requires those (non-recyclable) water gallons delivered (and mountains of single-use cups)? Put a couple of jugs with a sprig of mint and proper glasses instead.
There are always options when one looks for them.
You think take-away coffee cups are paper therefore they’re ok? Wrong, they are a mixed material made of paper and plastic which is neither recyclable nor compostable. They are all the more abominable because they are misleadingly labelled as recyclable and big coffee chains take no responsibility for them, but add a plastic lid on top to make matters worse. Your five minutes of coffee indulgence. Again, buy a portable cup for life that you can leave at the office (or in the car, or both), wash and reuse. I picked up one made of bamboo fiber, a highly sustainable material, with a silicon lid, that lives in my studio. I take it into coffee shops and hand it over while ordering my drinks, unless I’m having it in. There’s a novel idea: sit down and have your drink in a mug!
Where to shop waste-free
(See the Suppliers Map, under “foodstuffs”, for an option near you.)
Shopping waste-free goes hand in hand with stepping away from industrial-scale food suppliers (supermarkets) and returning to a much more grounded experience of buying food, a direct relationship with both food and growers. It’s also much more fun. Start by putting together your zero-waste shopping kit, described here with instructions to make your own produce bags.
Bulk Bins / Loose foods
In this matter, “third world” countries are ahead of the game as food is still sold loose in many places, the way it always was. Today in the West it is much more challenging to source food that isn’t wrapped in plastic: although bulk food stores are multiplying, there are still too few of them. If you are within reach of one, though, it can solve most of your food shopping dilemmas in one fell swoop. You need to take your own containers with you: depending on how serious the place is about zero-waste, they may provide small plastic bags (missing the point) or they may provide nothing at all. Here are some of the things you will find in bulk food stores (though it does vary from shop to shop), and recommended containers:
Grains, cereals, nuts, rice, seeds, snack mixes: These are all well served by medium-sized produce bags: drawstring cloth bags that are almost weightless, and therefore allow you to weigh the contents without adding to your bill. Read more about them and how to make them here.
Teas*, whole spices: Smaller versions of the bags above, which can be muslin or a tighter weave. Ground coffee will require a paper bag or a tupperware; ground spices need either very small paper bags, or glassine envelopes.
* You don’t need a specialized bulk shop to buy loose tea: any tea shop that offers loose leaf tea should be happy to put it in your own bag. I go to Whittard’s for mine.
Pasta: A large produce bags is needed for short pasta (such as penne) which tend to require much volume. Long pasta are packed tighter and are much heavier, so if you want to get a good amount, you’ll need a sturdy bag.
If you can’t easily find plastic-free pasta, consider making them at home…
Oil, vinegar, wine, liquid soap, shampoo and other liquid products that may be on offer: Obviously a leak-proof container will be required, but make sure its capacity is clearly indicated (ideally, imprinted in the glass or plastic), as these goods are sold by volume rather than weight.
Eggs: In case no carton is provided (this is especially common at markets), keep an empty egg carton and bring it along, as it is by far the most secure was to transport eggs.
Farmers’ Markets and Delis
Produce is easier to find unpackaged, as even the most sinister supermarkets will still sell some loose fruit and veg. Typically they won’t be the organic ones, though, so it’s still best to get produce straight from a farmer’s market when possible. Unfortunately, with fruit and veg, you often find yourself having to decide between plastic and pesticides. It’s just one of those dilemmas with no perfect solution where you just have to choose what feels more important.
Beyond produce, farmers’ markets and delis also offer bread, cheese, eggs, meat, fish, canned goods in glass jars, honey, and food preparations you can take in your own container, rather than any plastic ones they may provide (this is a far superior solution, for busy people, to the dubious & overpackaged supermarket readymade/frozen meals). I bought a pair of tupperwares that are absolutely waterproof, and I turn up with them at the dairy to buy bulk feta and yogurt; for parmesan and other dry cheeses, I just ask the cheesemonger to wrap in paper and skip the cling film (though I carry waxed cloth as a backup just in case). I use the same tupperwares for olives and delicate fruits. Larger ones can be used for fish and meat. It pays to familiarize yourself with the market(s) closest to you so you know what is available and who is flexible. When you’re a regular, you can even make special requests, for instance, for milk in a glass bottle rather than plastic. As you’re dealing with the food producers themselves, negotiation is possible, quite unlike supermarkets.
Some challenges (and solutions)
A few items are particularly challenging to find plastic-free, and finding solutions for them is all the more urgent because they are staples we consume almost daily. It’s not the end of the world if something you buy once a year is only available in a plastic pack; it’s very problematic when it’s your weekly pint of milk. Here are some things I could find, but more solutions would be welcome.
- In the UK, it’s easy to arrange for milk to be delivered to your door, old-fashioned, in a glass bottle that is then picked up again. Visit Find Me A Milkman to find your nearest service, and set up your delivery. In the US, I am told, you can similarly still buy milk in returnable glass bottles, but I don’t know how widespread this is.
- If applicable, you can switch to homemade nut milk instead, which is quite simple to make from bulk-bought nuts: here’s a recipe. Avoid commercial nut milk: it doesn’t really solve the packaging problem, and unless specified otherwise, it will have been produced industrially.
- Some UK brands such as Brown Cow Organics package their yogurt in reusable plastic containers with a tight-fitting lid. Once washed, they can be reused to store food, dry goods, anything really. That said, if you’re a big yogurt eater, you will quickly find yourself with more containers than you can use, so it’s a flimsy solution – though good for the occasional last-minute need. A list of stockists is offered on the website and they can also deliver.
- River Cottage sells yogurt in glass jars. They don’t seem to be stocked in many places, but the delivery costs can be offset by sharing a large order with other people.
- If labneh or Greek yogurt are your thing, and you are within reach of a Lebanese or other Middle-eastern food store, chances are they have a cheese counter where you can buy this (and other Eastern cheeses) in bulk; just take a tupperware along (and don’t let them shrinkwrap it after filling it!) One such place in London is Green Valley (W1H 5QF, Marble Arch/Edgware Road; their bulk products are listed on the website) and they have plenty of other bulk delicacies.
- Make your own. If yogurt is a staple in your household, this will spare both the earth and your budget. I still remember my mom, who isn’t particularly domestic, making yogurt at home from powdered milk during the war: clearly it is a task within reach of everyone. Once you get the hang of it, it takes very little work. There are two possible ways of going about it:
- Make it from scratch, which only requires a food thermometer.
- Use a yogurt maker, which in its simplest (and in my opinion best) iteration is just a pot that regulates the cooling process (like this one) and makes the whole thing foolproof. (The brand sells yogurt-making packets, but they are absolutely not needed, all you need is milk and a starter, see below)
In both cases, you need a starter culture, which can simply come from the last (probiotic) yogurt you bought. However, here are great resources to understand yogurt cultures (they determine what type you end up with) and how to make it at home:
- In some places (France, USA), creams come in cartons and I don’t know why I can’t find any in the UK, but maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Cartons are not a perfect solution, but a lesser evil, being 80% made of paper. (What are cartons made of and how are they recycled?)
- Cream may be hard to source plastic-free, but it’s incredibly easy to substitute. What is cream but milk with the butter still in it? Here are a few easy ways to replace it in your cooking.
For 1C single/light cream:
– 3T melted (unsalted) butter + 7/8C whole milk;
– Or in baking, simply use whole milk instead.For 1C double/heavy cream:
– 1/3C melted (unsalted) butter + 3/4C whole milk
– Greek yogurt (which also reduces fat considerably, but it needs to be heated on low so it doesn’t curdle)
– Better for baking: 1/2C greek yogurt + 1/2C whole milk (so the taste of fat is still present)For whipping cream:
– The above substitutes can’t be whipped, but coconut cream can! It makes fabulous, lactose-free whipped cream.
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