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Breaking Our Addiction to Plastics and Packaging

Only two weeks back to work and I can’t believe how busy I am.  This morning I spent as a catch-up day, doing laundry and bringing in enough wood to heat the house for the weekend. Considering I can only carry small amounts at a time (so as to not further injure my back), that is becoming a fairly lengthy process!  I need to do some cooking this weekend but I think I will leave that until tomorrow.  I have enough food prepared for today and I need to get down to some dissertation work for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

While at home over the holidays, my eco-routine was thrown quite out of whack.  For the most part, I ended having to choosing to buy food from a grocery store since I don’t have other options figured out where my parents live.  Exhausted at the end of the semester and in chronic pain from the car accident, I gave in to the easy path for two weeks.

Life back in the fast lane is easy, yet horrifying.  Convenience  unfortunately is inextricably connected with waste, and if you opt for the former, you will end up with a whole lot of the latter.  Far more than I ever remembered.  Was I just not aware of the impact I was having, or have things just gotten worse?  Likely both.  For example, on two occasions I didn’t have meat to feed the animals and, rather than making them go hungry, I gave them processed food.  My parents feed their pets commercial pet food and had plenty on-hand around the house.  I scooped a cup of kibble into each dog dish, opened a can of cat food, and voila!  Three minutes later, all 6 animals were fed.  Heck, I didn’t even have to clean the dishes afterwards as there’s nothing on them that would go bad.  Easy peasy.  No wonder most people chose this route.  However, once that was over, I was faced with a tin-can (with a non-recyclable lid) and kibble container to dispose of.  Later, the dogs passed large volumes of stool that never breaks down, so I had to pick it up with plastic bags and put it in the garbage (another plastic bag) to be picked up by a truck (using gas) and thrown into a landfill.  The dogs started belching and passing smelly gas (adding to greenhouse gasses perhaps?).  The cats decided that raw meat was no longer of interest and demanded more cat crack (aka – canned cat food) and it took me several days to get them to happily eat their normal diet.

Regarding feeding myself, I was quickly carrying out armloads of plastic containers and boxes to the recycle bin.  I suspect most people feel good about recycling, and hence don’t think too much about it.  I know I used to feel that way.  What did it matter if I bought food in plastic if that plastic could be put in a blue box?  That was environmentally friendly, yes?  Sadly, no, it is not.  Plastic is still plastic and it takes energy to break it down.  That means consuming more fossil fuels (which is what plastic is made of in the first place) and pumping out more greenhouse gasses.  Furthermore, plastic takes forever to breakdown, and leaches off very harmful byproducts.  Who wants that in their environment.  Heck, who wants that in their food?  I know I certainly don’t.

My roommate and I might fill a blue bin once every 6-8 weeks, and most of that is glass and tin.  A typical family of three, as I have observed, easily fills 15-20 bins in the same amount of time.  Most of this is packaging for food.  (Note: we burn all cardboard and paper (to heat our house), which makes a difference in our volume of output.  But I am not counting paper waste here, which now gets hauled away in grey boxes.)

The amount of completely useless packaging that is present in daily lives is mind boggling.  We are so used to it that I don’t think most people even are aware of it anymore.  Take for example my effort to avoid buying meat on a styrofoam tray.  This is one of my biggest pet peeves – why on earth do they insist on packaging meat that way?  I must feed my dogs meat daily which forces me occasionally to run to the grocery store and pick some up that has been packaged that way, when I get disorganized and run out of the brown paper wrapped pieces I get from farmers and abattoirs.  There is a local, independently owned grocery store near to where I live that still has a butcher actively preparing and selling meat.  I asked him if he could prepare some chicken for me, wrapped in brown paper instead of on the styrofoam plates.  I told him I was trying to be more environmentally conscious.  He agreed happily and packaged up my meat while I browsed around the store.

When I got home and unwrapped the meat, here’s what I discovered.  First, the meat was put in a plastic bag, and sealed with a plastic tab.  That bag of meat was then wrapped in brown paper, and that packaged was wrapped in a second layer of brown paper.  The whole thing was then wrapped in an elastic band!  I was flabbergasted.  Does he think that this is what I expect when I buy meat?  Obviously this must be the case.  The next time I went in, I had to specify that I wanted meat wrapped in nothing but a single piece of brown paper, no plastic bag, no extra layer and no elastic band.  Fortunately they were happy to comply as this is cheaper for them.  Why don’t stores start at this level and only add more if people insist? (and charge them if they do!  What’s up with people whining about having to pay for plastic bags at the grocery store.  WAKE UP PEOPLE!)

Of course I’d rather not even have brown paper packaging for my meat, but I haven’t found a way to buy it otherwise.  There are so many bio-safety rules out there it isn’t funny.  They are of course designed for large-scale, industrial processing systems and rarely apply to small scale producers, but the law is the law.  I will happily take risks with “bio-safety” standards (i.e. drinking raw milk) but I wouldn’t ask someone else to do so.  Especially if their livelihood depends on it.  The corporations really have people under their thumb.

Speaking of bio-safety rules, at the giant grocery store near my parents I noticed a bin of meat cuttings behind a counter.  It looked very fresh so I asked one of the meat department employees what that bin was doing there.  He said it was scraps that they cut off while preparing meat for sale, and was going to be thrown out.  There were probably 20-30lbs there at least.  I asked if I could buy it for my dogs. He said no, unfortunately they were not allowed to sell it or give it away, even for dog food.  The company was worried about potential law suits should anyone get sick from it, so they had to just throw it out.  Of course they don’t actually put it in the garbage or compost (both of which would still require being hauled away).  It will be trucked (using fossil fuel) to a processing plant and rendered at high temperatures (yet more fossil fuel) and likely made into some kind of animal feed.  Did you know that’s what they also do with things like left-over donuts at donut stores?  These are also rendered and then made into pellets and fed to chickens!  Donut fed chickens – no wonder we’re all having heart attacks, despite people’s attempt to eat ‘heart-healthy’ meats like chicken.  Good grief.

I am happy to be back in my own environment where I know where I can buy nearly all of my food without packaging.  And what packaging I do get, often can be re-used. The containers my eggs and milk come in both go back to their respective farmers, who fill them up again and give them back.  Any plastic bags are also used back and forth, although most of what I pick up comes in a box that I give back the following week.  I will be taking the garbage out today, for the first time in three weeks.  We do end up with some waste, and I would like to further reduce this as I can.

Figuring out how to reduce your waste is not an easy thing to do.  Our society is built around short-term efficiency, and trying to do anything other than be swept along in the mainstream requires a lot of energy and time.  These days I am so busy that I find it difficult to keep up even with the eco-routine that I have managed to eek out for myself, let alone work at improving it.  Fortunately, the internet can be extremely helpful in this manner.  There are more and more people wanting to live less wastefully, and many of them are doing research and posting their findings for others to share.  Recently, a friend of mine brought the blog Plastic Manners to my attention, a project by a woman in British Columbia who plans to avoid acquiring any new plastic in her life for a whole year, starting January 01, 2010.  I have considered trying this myself, and just don’t have it in me right now.  But I still strive continually to avoid plastic as much as possible, and the information presented in this blog will help I’m sure.  I will be reading it regularly and with great interest.  If you know of other such helpful blogs, feel free to post the links here so that I and others can enjoy the benefits as well.

Now I must get down to work.  This evening I need to go through my stores of food and decide what I am going to make to eat for the week.  Maybe I’ll inventory my freezer again, and this time write it up in this blog so I don’t lose the list again!  I really need to expand my repertoire as I’m getting very sick of the four or five dishes I can make in my sleep (and all but do), tasty as they are.  Tomorrow will be a cooking day, which will no doubt provide me with some new musings to share.  Until then!

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