From an environmental standpoint, food packaging can be a serious problem. Here’s how Ryan Andrews became more aware of his trash habits related to food. And how he cut down on his own garbage production.
Folks, we have a trash problem.
The average American creates 4.5 pounds (2 kg) of trash per day. This means the United States dumps 1.4 billion pounds of trash into landfills every 24 hours. That’s billion, with a “b”.
40% of this trash is packaging — often just one-time-use packaging from processed foods.
Food packaging doesn’t dematerialize into nothingness. It has to go somewhere.
Overconsumption of processed food is a problem for our body, and the packaging is a problem for our planet.
My trash-free eating experiment
For the past few years I’ve been experimenting with ways to limit my food packaging and overall trash production while still maintaining a nutritious food intake and not relocating to a yurt in the mountains.
I’ve spent weeks collecting my trash and seeing where I could improve.
I’ve kept trash logs and taken photos.
I’ve toured recycling facilities and interviewed experts about using plastic protein jugs.
Now – to be clear, I’m not talking about food scraps (e.g., citrus rinds, apple cores, etc.). That’s another issue (see here: All About Food Waste). I’m talking about the packaging that food comes in.
I have an acronym for my current nutrition goal: PALTAP.
This baby goes at the top of each grocery list. And yes, only cool people come up with acronyms for their nutrition goals.
Here’s what I found out along the way.
The big Kahuna: plastic
Every piece of plastic made still exists today. Nobody’s really sure how long plastic takes to break down, but guesses range from 500 to 1000 years for things like polyethylene plastic grocery bags.
Do you know where plastic comes from? Oil. 7-8% of world oil production goes to manufacturing plastics.
We’ve produced nearly as much plastic in the last 10 years as we have in all previous decades put together.
But can’t we just recycle it? Not so fast. Depending on prices, plastic is sometimes shipped to China for recycling. In case you need my commentary here: This isn’t a very sustainable solution.
Further, a glass jar is often recycled into another glass jar. An aluminum can is often recycled into another aluminum can. A plastic bottle isn’t recycled into another plastic bottle. It’s molded into a less-durable product until one day it’s dumped in a landfill.
So while I’m all about PALTAP, minimizing plastic is even more of a priority.
It seems like only yesterday that I started keeping my first trash journal. Three minutes into the experiment I was already responsible for two pieces of trash (a plastic strawberry container and a kale twist tie).
Then I realized that perhaps my protein powder packets were also an issue.
Needless to say, it was a long week.
Recycling guy helps me decide on bagged vs. plastic-jugged protein
Offender #1: Convenience foods
We often avoid convenience foods because of their preservatives, additives, salt, sugar, etc. But my new reason to avoid them is the trash: plastic wrappers, plastic/cardboard trays, boxes. Yikes.
Even “healthy”, “whole food” type convenience foods get in on the act.
Offender #2: Takeout food
Restaurants are great. They use real plates, glasses and silverware. But carryout boxes for leftovers can be an issue. Whenever I get takeout it’s a trash extravaganza: paper/plastic bowls, plastic utensils, mustard packets, bags, Styrofoam (a plastic), napkins, etc.
If you order food from a restaurant, try bringing your own container to bring the food home.
Recycling guy explains the problem of Styrofoam to me
Offender #3: Bulk food
For several years, I think I missed the point with bulk food. I would go to the store, pull some fresh plastic bags from the roll, and feel like I was doing something positive – after all, I was buying in bulk.
But I was still creating a demand for more plastic/trash. It’s all about reusing here. Get a couple bags and jars you can refill, keep them in your car/purse/backpack, and be the coolest person in your neighborhood.
Operation no-plastic Man
After this wake-up call about my plastic buying habits (even the ones I thought were “responsible” and “healthy”), I got serious. Here are some strategies for cutting down on your plastic packaging.
Strategy 1: Use non-plastic bags at the grocery store
When getting fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, don’t worry about putting them in plastic bags. You can bring your own bags from home, or just set the produce directly in the basket/cart (and then into your reusable bag after checking out).
Otherwise, we use the plastic bag for about 15 minutes to carry apples, then the bag hangs around for about 1,000 years in a landfill. Not worth it.
I now carry dry beans, grains, bread, vegetables and fruits in fabric produce bags like those in the photos above and below. The bags even air dry after washing.
Strategy 2: Get a reusable water bottle
Old school? Yes. Effective? Yes.
Americans use about 2,500,000 plastic bottles every hour. I like Life Factory because they offer glass bottles protected by a silicone sleeve. If you only drink from your reusable bottle and water fountains, you are saving lots of potential trash.
And don’t forget about one-time-use cups. If you go out for coffee/tea, bring a reusable mug/thermos. If you go out for soda, well, you’re living in the 1950s. Nobody goes to a soda shop any more.
Strategy 3: Bulk loose leaf tea
Instead of buying a box of tea bags (with the box wrapped in plastic and each tea bag wrapped in paper), how about bringing your own tin/jar to the store for a refill? If you are a heavy tea drinker (like me), this saves LOTS of packaging. You can do this with bulk coffee too.
Strategy 4: Reusable shopping bags
Let me stop right here. If you don’t carry groceries in reusable shopping bags, introduce yourself to 2005.
Strategy 5: Fresh bread
You can bring a reusable bread bag to a bakery or grocery store that makes fresh bread. Then take the bread home and freeze it in a freezer-safe bag for long-term storage (slice before freezing).
Strategy 6: Refill your nut butter
I was on a nut butter squeeze pack kick for about one year. Thanks to me, there are now 365 little empty nut butter squeeze packs in landfills. Way to go, Ryan.
But I do have good news: I learned that you can refill your own jar with nut butter in the bulk department. It’s often less expensive.
And yes, when you come to the store carrying a jar to refill with nut butter, your chances of getting asked out by a cute girl (or guy) go up dramatically. Trust me.
Strategy 7: Chew less plastic
I love fresh breath as much as the next suave gentleman, but chewing gum often contains plastic. I’ve weaned myself down to 1-2 pieces daily (and use herbal breath spray when needed).
Strategy 8: Pick your frozen packages carefully
If you get frozen fruits/veggies, try to find brands that use less packaging (like 365 organic) or brands that have biodegradable packaging (like Stahlbush Farms).
Strategy 9: Reusable utensils
Are you 10% more hippie when you carry around reusable bamboo utensils? Yes. But the planet won’t explode in 5 years. (At least not because of something you did.)
Shopping list mission
On your shopping list include how you plan to purchase and transport your food (e.g., bulk organic walnuts in reusable bag). And in big bold letters at the top, write PALTAP. Walk around with your head held high, my no-plastic friend.
Milk (non-dairy and cow’s) often comes in cardboard or plastic containers. More trash.
My solution? About 50% of the time I just add a couple handfuls of whole almonds or spoonfuls of hempseeds to the blender with some water – ta da – homemade almond or hemp milk without the trash (I do this with Super Shakes – I don’t drink milk otherwise).
Note: if you do homemade nut milk, you won’t be getting added vitamins and minerals that are often included in store bought products, so if you rely on these, you should replace them with a supplement. If you drink cow’s milk, consider finding a product in refillable glass bottles.
Have (non-plastic) containers
Keep some large food storage jars at home for dry goods. I keep dry beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and grains in jars. It makes for easy access and when friends/family come over they think I have my life together.
If you have any old glass food jars, wash them, dry them, and re-use them for storing bulk dry goods.
I used to eat a can of beans nearly every day. Something about it didn’t feel right.
Finally I realized it was the empty can just staring back at me afterwards. I was generating a tin can each day.
My solution? Dry split peas (yellow and green) and lentils (brown and red). These legumes don’t require pre-soaking — split peas can be cooked in 45 minutes or less, brown lentils can be cooked in 30 minutes or less, and red lentils can be cooked in 12 minutes or less.
Foil, plastic wrap, and plastic bags
Believe it or not, we can re-use this stuff. I rinse and dry it – then use it a few times before it’s really mangled.
I used to laugh at my grandma when she did this. Now I’m her.
When I freeze bananas for super shakes, I reuse the same bag several times before discarding it. When I roast veggies, I’ll use the same foil several times before discarding it.
If you do buy food with packaging, look for companies that use biodegradable and/or compostable packaging.
At markets, you’ll often find bagless fresh bread, and loads of veggies and fruits. Just bring your own reusable containers/bags.
Straight from the source
Visit (or even better, volunteer at) an organic garden/farm. Bring the stuff directly home – no packaging.
What about recycling?
“Recycling is a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.” – John Tierney
While recycling is a better option than trashing things, we can’t recycle enough to offset our growing consumption. Recycling is great as the final option in the 3 Rs. Remember those from elementary school? Reduce, reuse … then recycle.
My trip to the recycling facility
Recycling tips & factoids
- Most facilities will now recycle cardboard milk containers and tetra-paks.
- Plastic numbers 3-7 are the hardest to recycle.
- Styrofoam can be recycled (it is an expanded plastic) but since it is so bulky and light, many centers don’t accept it.
- Aluminum foil isn’t always recyclable.
- Don’t send plastic bags to recycling centers. They clog up the machinery.
- If the container you recycle is dirty or has a label, it doesn’t really matter. It just comes off in the washing and grinding process.
- It’s OK to leave plastic lids on plastic bottles. But take the metal lids off glass jars before you toss them in the blue bin.
A day of low-trash eating
|Shake & granola for a topper|
|Big mixed salad with beans and olives|
|Peach and pistachio|
|Squash, collards, red lentils, toast with peanut butter|
|Lentils, cabbage, peppers, apple with almond butter|
All of our choices are on a spectrum. Some choices are better, some worse.
At one end we have pre-packaged foods layered with plastic and paper. At the other end we have growing our own food in the backyard.
Don’t forget about the gray area in between. Any positive step is a positive step. While we can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something.
How could you move one “notch” along the spectrum today?
Other trash free living tips
Most trash free living ideas just come down to thinking ahead and being prepared.
- Use bar soap and shampoo bars.
- Use Preserve toothbrushes.
- Nix junk mail and phone books. Register to receive less at:
- I used to go to conferences, seminars and other events and load up on free stuff. No more. It’s just clutter and eventual trash.
- Maybe you can find a market that is free of packaging.
Trash freedom also comes from greater awareness. Consider keeping track of your food trash for one week, or even one day.
Tips and resources
To learn more about making important improvements to your nutrition and exercise program, check out the following 5-day video courses.
They’re probably better than 90% of the seminars we’ve ever attended on the subjects of exercise and nutrition (and probably better than a few we’ve given ourselves, too).
The best part? They’re totally free.
To check out the free courses, just click one of the links below.