The two objectives were simple. First, I had to take stock of how much plastic was used to package my family's supermarket groceries. Second, I needed to find ways and means to avoid buying food wrapped in plastic. We gave ourselves a week to work out how much plastic the family was using and to try to find plastic-free alternatives.
I started by pushing the trolley through the supermarket. Basics only. Fresh food. Fruit and veg. Milk and bread. Beef, fish, chicken and something for school lunches. The rule was if it was conveniently wrapped in plastic it would go in the trolley rather than have loose potatoes rock around to the beat of a wobbly wheel.
We came home with 38 items. Only the bag around the flour, the carton holding the eggs and the sardine tin were free from plastic, along with the bananas and celery. Everything else was either packed in plastic or had plastic used to line the packaging. While the sign out the front of the supermarket read, "We are going single-use plastic bag free!" it was difficult to find food inside the store that wasn't wrapped in plastic.
Plastics refer to man-made compounds that are mostly made with petrochemicals. There are half-a-dozen or so plastics mainly used in packaging food. These include polystyrene that forms foam trays, PVC that is stretched out to make cling film, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that makes the containers that are packed with meat.
An estimated 6.25 billion tonnes of plastic have been created since World War II; 5.7 billion tonnes of that never made it into recycling. Much of that plastic was used to package food. Australia is one of the worst plastic recyclers in the world with just 10 per cent of plastics making it into recycling. Getting rid of plastic in the kitchen is a simple and practical way of helping solve a global problem.
I felt like I was channelling my grandmother.
Weighing it up
Plastics, however, are great for manufacturers and retailers. They are lightweight, but not weightless. We weighed our shopping once we got home. A 274-gram steak weighed just that, 274 grams. But with the packaging it came in at 300 grams. That is 26 grams for the plastic and the plastic-coated stickers. Almost 10 per cent of the total weight of the product.
We bought 669 grams of chicken breast. With packaging, the lot weighed in at 692 grams. When we weighed the chicken breasts they came in at just 630 grams and the plastic packaging 21 grams. (The missing 41 grams was in the little moisture-absorbing sachets under the breasts.)
The loaf of bread was wrapped in 12 grams of plastic, the brussels sprouts 21 grams. We then unpacked the shopping into jars, bags and containers and were left with a staggering 392 grams of packaging and plastic shopping bags.
Plastics can act as barriers to moisture and gas, thus keeping food looking good and maintaining texture and flavour.
If salad leaves are left uncovered in the open the leaves will lose moisture and wilt. That is why salad mix and rocket leaves, for example, are prepacked in plastic bags. The plastic also allows some the transfer of some air – the leaves are still alive so still need some carbon dioxide to survive.
The downside for the customer is the cost. At one of the big two supermarkets a 60-gram bag of spinach cost $2, or $33.33 a kilogram. Very similar leaves of baby spinach, sold loose in a box, cost $17 per kilogram, almost half the price. Often prepacked salads are the only choice on offer.
High-density plastic packaging can really increase the shelf life of meat. Until recently most supermarkets had in-house butchers who would pack meat on polystyrene trays and wrap them in PVC wrap. This would give your lamb chops a good four days in the fridge.
With the axing of the old-fashioned butchers and the introduction of larger centralised meat packing centres, consumers are being offered meat that is packed in multilayered high-density bags made with a core of ethylene vinyl alcohol (a strong, flexible plastic resin) that are vacuum-sealed, giving the meat a shelf life of about a month depending on the cut.
The big problem with these plastic bags is that they contain different types of plastics bonded together, meaning that they are difficult to recycle. When they are, they are used to make low-grade products such as outdoor furniture. Another problem for the food lover is that vacuum sealing draws out liquid from the meat cloaking it in a thin film of serum and blood. The result is an off, livery flavour in the meat. The steak we bought was so tainted it was off-putting.
Plastic packaging on everyday food items also gives the retailer or manufacturer a chance to place marketing material on the food to enforce messaging. It is ironic that organic food fruit and veg in supermarkets – even single sweet potatoes – are almost always wrapped in plastic. Supermarkets argue this allows for product differentiation between more expensive organic products and conventional products, justifying the price difference. Vegetables packets can also carry health benefit messages and emotional triggers such as images of farmland or happy smiling people.
Good things come in glass
The second objective of this experiment was to find ways of avoiding buying food wrapped in plastic. I started with dairy. Milk and dairy products contain butterfat. This is what makes cream creamy and butter buttery. When exposed to air, butterfat becomes rancid quickly. Milk cartons also protect milk from light but are covered in a fine layer of polyethylene. They were once coated in wax. Older readers would remember the delivery of milk bottles topped with a layer of cream and sealed with aluminium foil. The glass was frosted from countless times being washed and refilled. Only a handful of dairies bottle in glass any more. These include Elgaar Farm in Tasmania, St David Dairy in Melbourne, Luskintyre Farm in NSW and Butterfly Factory in Gippsland. Elgaar Farm also bottles its exceptionally good cream in glass.
Butter is an interesting beast. For most of the 20th century butter was sold wrapped in paper or "parchment". This let in air and light, resulting in almost 100 per cent of Australian butter suffering rancidity. About 2010, manufacturers changed to aluminium foil lined with polyethylene. This greatly improved the flavour and quality of butter. Even artisan butter makers followed suit. One little farm making some of the best butter in the country wraps in parchment, Schulz Organic Farm, Victoria. Pepe Saya also offers parchment-wrapped butter tied with string. Parchment, however, does let air in and butter loses its freshness faster than when wrapped in plastic-lined foil.
Sourcing plastic-free fruit and vegetables was an easy solve. Supermarkets allow clean, pre-used and paper bags to be brought into their stores. However, some of their fruit and vegetables are only sold wrapped in plastic. Some greengrocers are following suit, prepacking peas and beans. The most consistent plastic-free environment for fruit and veg are farmers' markets. Most markets are plastic-free, meaning that all fruit and vegetables are sold in paper bags. Some markets go a step further and have replaced disposable coffee cups – most are lined with polyethylene to make them waterproof which means they cannot be recycled – with old fashioned crockery. Melbourne Farmers' Markets in Carlton, Collingwood and Alphington have employed a dishwasher to wash not only the coffee cups but the porcelain plates used to replace disposable plates.
The big problem with trying to eliminate plastic from shopping is cheese and meat. Even farmers at farmers' markets vacuum-pack their meat. Many believe it to be the law. The Victorian meat authority Primesafe stipulates that meat sold at farmers' markets must be "stored and sealed in a robust, leak-proof container". The default position is loads of plastic.
One butcher who turned his back on such huge amounts of plastic is Troy Wheeler from Meatsmith in Fitzroy and St Kilda in Melbourne. He prides himself on dry-ageing beef. He believes that vacuum packing meat kills the flavour of good product. When he opened his first store several years ago he wanted to develop wax-based wrapping paper. Instead he found a company that produced paper that is lined with a fine layer of biodegradable plastic. He wraps his lamb, beef, pork and poultry with this and is still looking to find a way of eliminating plastic altogether.
Meat authorities insist that meat is packaged and sold in a way that does not allow the meat to be contaminated but do not stipulate plastic. It is simply the easiest and most affordable option to put your snags in a plastic bag and wrap it up in butcher's paper.
In the supermarket, flour is about the only dry good still sold without plastic. Some upmarket brands of Italian pasta are sold in heavy duty paper bags but some are lined with plastic.
Food co-operatives are almost exclusively plastic-free and can be found across our cities. They have bulk dry goods that customers scoop into paper bags. They sell good-quality cereals and legumes, pastas, herbs, spices and dried fruit at very good prices. They can be found in suburbs such as Manly in Sydney, Collingwood in Melbourne and Kingsley in Canberra. The Source Bulk Foods is a national chain of franchises offering bulk food, confectionery and snacks which you scoop into paper bags, scribble the code onto the bag and take to the counter. The quality is good but they are more costly than co-ops.
The sad reality is that plastic has smothered the food-packaging industry. Getting away from plastic is difficult and time-consuming. Consumer pressure has seen some changes in the types of plastic being used, such as the reduction in tin cans lined with epoxy resin that can leach harmful bisphenol A into the food inside the tin. By the end of the week, it felt like I was going back in time and channelling my grandmother. The school lunches were wrapped in greaseproof paper. Leftovers were laid out on plates and covered with foil that was used again and again. The drawers were filled with "good" paper bags that were folded for their next use. There was barely a skerrick of plastic in the recycling bin. It felt like a small revolutionary action by one suburban family.
Seven ways to reduce single-use plastic in the kitchen
■ Take bags with you when you shop.
■ Choose farmers' markets and food co-ops.
■ Grow and eat more fresh fruit and veg and less packaged food.
■ Replace PVC wrap with beeswax-impregnated cloth.
■ Use greaseproof paper to wrap school lunches.
■ Use baking paper to cover cheese.
■ Take plastic bags and packaging back to the retailer for recycling.