Plastic-Free Alternatives for the Kitchen
By Judith Glixon/
Most of us innocently grew up in homes where using plastic was a way of life. Our elders didn't know how unhealthy plastics were, and would become, for the planet, or that the use of plastic materials in the production of items for daily use would become increasingly ubiquitous. For this reason, we must not blame ourselves for repeating those same behaviors. We've simply been doing what we were taught and what was modeled for us. But, now that we're becoming aware of the consequences of our actions, we've got to change our habits and teach different practices to the next generations.
My previous (November 2020) article listed the many distressing connections between plastics, the environment, and the climate crisis. I promised to follow up with some practical suggestions for avoiding the use of plastics, so this article will focus on alternatives for the kitchen to replace those items we're probably (unwittingly) finding ourselves guilty of using every day. (Disclaimer: Some links to products are included below, but are only a sampling of the increasing number of products that are becoming available. A quick online search will lead you to many more options. Please be assured that I have no monetary interest in, nor am I endorsing, any particular brands.)
It's doubtful that any of us are already implementing all the alternatives I'll be discussing. Neither is it realistic to try to make these changes all at once. Chances are, you've already changed some of your practices over time, so please take a moment to appreciate yourself for that! Then, after reading this article, pick a few ideas you'd like to try, remembering that it will take time to build new habits. Start by trying just one new practice. Then maybe try another a week or so later. Be assured you won't be doing this alone. You'll be joining in solidarity with people all over the world. You'll also be becoming a more eco-friendly role model for your family and friends!
At the grocery store
As consumers, our work begins with how we shop. We can help reduce the manufacture of plastic goods by committing to buy as few plastic-wrapped food products as possible. (Incidentally, food wrapped in plastic can also be contaminated by chemicals such as BPA and PFAS which are toxic to our health.)
- Opt for loose, unpackaged produce instead of fruits and vegetables sold in plastic (or plastic net) bags.
- Instead of using the plastic produce bags offered at the store, purchase and take along your own mesh produce bags (www.earthwisebags.com). They're lightweight, washable, and reusable. Or just skip bagging the produce altogether! If you have to use a plastic bag, plan to reuse or repurpose it.
- Limit your purchase of individually packaged single-portion and kid-sized items like yogurts, trail mix, applesauce, and beverages (including water, which we shouldn't be buying from the store anyway!). Choose large, multi-serving containers or bags. Then, using your own reusable containers, prepare single-serving portions at home. You'll save money, too!
- Make more foods from scratch! (Another money-saver!) For example, I've resumed making my own hummus and granola. Over the years I'd become lazy about shredding cheese after realizing I could buy packages of pre-shredded cheese, but I've now start doing my own shredding again - one of my most recent changes. I'm also making homemade "Clif bars" and am delighted not to be throwing tons of wrappers in the trash! And why shouldn't I start making my own yogurt again, as I did in the 1970s (www.eurocuisine.net)? Maybe that will be next for me. You get the idea...
- Buy milk and orange juice in cartons - or better yet, reusable glass bottles - instead of plastic jugs. (At many grocery stores, their glass bottles can be returned for a $3 deposit.)
What to do with leftovers? If you're like me, you've always stored food in Tupperware-style containers, plastic zip-seal bags, or bowls covered with cling wrap. Most of us grew up doing this and never really gave it another thought. Well, happily, it's possible to function just fine without any of these items! Here are some alternatives that our family has converted to:
Glass jars are a tried and true commodity! Simply reuse empty jars from foods you've bought, and/or purchase various sizes of Mason-type jars. Extra added benefits: no plastic taste, no chemical contamination of food, and easy to wash!
Glass storage containers are very easy to find now, and come in many shapes and sizes. A few years ago our family bought some that came with hard plastic covers (www.glasslockusa.com), but have now found some with bamboo lids (www.gramercykitchen.co), which is even better!
When using a bowl or plate to store leftover food, cover it with an appropriately-sized plate, bowl, or pot lid instead of using plastic cling wrap. Or try using eco-friendly reusable sheets like Bee's Wrap (www.beeswrap.com). Bee's Wrap is made of cloth and is saturated with bees wax. From the natural warmth of your hand, Bee's Wrap easily sticks to the bowls or plate you press it over. It's washable in soap and cool water, and reusable for years.
Here are three non-plastic alternatives for covering partially used fruits and vegetables. For instance, I like having a quarter of an avocado on my homemade hummus sandwich, so how can I store the other three quarters in the refrigerator?:
- Wrap it in Bee's Wrap (see above)
- Put it in a glass container (see above)
- Let it be! (My mom used to marvel at nature's way of forming a "skin" on an unused portion of a banana when exposed to the air.) Just leave it uncovered, then shave off and compost the oxidized outer edge when ready to use.
By the way, when you're microwaving a portion of leftovers, you can cover it with a plate or paper towel, instead of using plastic wrap.
On the town
What about when traveling or eating out? Here are some Earth-friendly ideas.
Making a lunch to go? In the 1960s, my mom would pack our sandwiches in wax paper bags. They worked just fine - no plastic needed! It turns out that these are still (or again) available (www.eco-baggeez.com; www.buyifyoucare.com). Try them! You'll feel so virtuous!
Getting take-out or going out to eat? Here are some ways you can take your conscience along with you:
When ordering online or by phone, remember to tell the restaurant not to pack eating utensils or packets of any sauce you might already have a bottle of at home. If you'll be eating the food at home, chances are you have your own utensils there. If you're going to be picnicking or eating in the car, never fear! Just take along:
If you're going to eat at the restaurant and think you might not finish your meal, how about taking along your own reusable container? You can now buy lightweight latch-able metal containers (www.packagefreeshop.com). Some restaurants are even starting to let customers use their own containers for take-out orders!
Make yourself a restaurant kit! We keep ours in a small backpack in the car. It includes all the restaurant items listed above: the utensils (including chopsticks!), straws, napkins, and containers.
Plastic recycling FAQs
Better not to put something in the recycling bin unless you're sure it's recyclable! In Massachusetts you can check out the Recycle Smart MA website for information on what is recyclable where. If you live outside of Massachusetts, see if there's a similar website in your state. Bottom line: when in doubt, throw it out, as painful as that can feel.
For each change you're ready to make, research the products you'll need to purchase, if any; stock up; then start developing your new habits. At first, life may not seem quite as convenient, but perhaps the Age of Convenience has had its day and it's now time for more important values to take precedence. Just as we had to learn to remember to bring our reusable cloth bags into stores, before you know it these new practices will become second nature to you - “nature” being the key word!
In my next article, I'll talk about body care products. Meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts about the usefulness of these articles. Find the link to the feedback survey at the end of the May 2021 article.