So, I threw “workin’ on” into the title this time - mostly because I need to emphasize that this is an imperfect process for me. For about a year and a half prior to starting my business, I shared stories and sustainable swaps on my personal social media page about a variety of things… but I never felt I could talk about this. I really felt like such an amateur in this area and I would be taking screen-shots and staring at the beauty of gorgeous plastic-free fridges displayed on Instagram. No matter my level of effort, there was still a bunch of plastic inside mine. My excuses for that seemed flimsy. I wanted to share that I had really decreased our plastic use (and crappy sugars) by switching from toddler yogurt drinks to big bottles of flavoured keifer that I would just mix with some milk. I wanted to share that for a few months, the bottle exchange for buying milk in glass jars was going well, but then we had a few weeks where we ran out of milk and I had to grab a bag of it on the way home instead. I was chasing the perfection of these fridges, forgetting that they are still styled and curated and meant to look pretty for the ‘gram rather than be real.
So, if you can set your mindset to “imperfect is better than nothing” – please apply it to any and all efforts in making changes to a more sustainable lifestyle. This is not a thing to be perfect and hoity about whatsoever. Whatever small contribution we can make, each one still really matters.
Plastic-free Shopping – the start of the cycle
So, covid has really thrown some curves into trying to decrease your waste. There’s a lot more plastic with any grocery shopping experience now. Bulk buns are prepackaged in sets of two at the big grocery store I just went to; bottle exchanges are suspended; some places aren’t allowing personal reusable shopping bags; Bulk Barn hasn’t switched back to allowing the use of personal containers yet. It will be awhile before we claw all of those things back. If you were on the low-waste train already and had the good habits in place, it’s going to be another re-change back that will have to be integrated into our routines once again.
Anyway, I wrote a long post on how we got started with bulk living that you can also check out. Basically, have a dispenser at home for your item, and a back up container. Lots of people use their food storage containers for their refilling process; I find that with having more expensive, smaller collection of Onyx containers for food storage, mason jars are easier for us in order to make the whole refilling thing easier. We also have found some jars that we really like for specific things (peanut butter jars, for example) out of our recycling the longer we got into the process – whichever container you emptied of peanut butter, really, is perfectly great for refilling with more PB.
We have a little collection of reusable baggies for the grocery store – netted for produce, bulk bags for noodles, oats, jujubes etc. – which we just wash every so often. Try to make your own (these are really not that hard to do – I had a bunch of leftover fabric that I was able to quickly make little baggies that we used for gift giving and produce baggies) if you can. If you wish to buy new, try to avoid plastic fabrics like polyester and nylon – these guys usually are a bit cheaper, but they will continue to shed micro plastics over a natural fibre like cotton.
I used to have this weird idea that if I wrapped up produce in the plastic baggies at the store, and not let it touch the dirty grocery cart, I didn’t really need to wash it. This is so ridiculous, I know! Naïve Ange, eh! And gross, hah. The knowledge of people coughing all over their hands and touching my tomatoes before I bought them… all the way from their point of origin (maybe Mexico, maybe further) prior to me buying them and then not washing them… well, let’s just say, the plastic for the trip home wasn’t really going to do anything. Washing them still had to happen. Buying them at a market or straight from a farm was even better.
Reusable Bag Habits + Washing Up during Covid
One of the first habits I had to form with the reusable bag thing was actually having them available when I went to shop. So, I learned that the habit change that I needed to make was to bring my groceries in from the car, unpack them all on the counter (veggies to be washed beside the sink) and then walk the bags out to the car right then with no "I'll do this later" excuses. I also realized that I needed to use certain reusable bags to keep me from getting frustrated with them taking up the entire trunk. I committed to this with a set of 5 large Baggu bags, which are crazy compact and light. I can keep all of this with my produce bags inside one of the Baggus. Yes, these guys are not made of cotton, so I wash them in my Guppy Bag in the washer to prevent any microplastic waste. These guys are far easier to wash, pack (the handles easily tie shut when filled) and store over the stand-up style that are available at grocery store checkouts. Cotton (or linen!) market totes would also be a great option here, but I just love this bigger size, so the investment was worth it to me.
The other rule I put in place was washing immediately – the veggies and fruit sat in one spot at the side of the sink until I washed them, no putting them in the fridge until that had happened. This ensured that I kept the sanitization necessary to the spots on the counter, rather than inside the fridge, too.
To clean my counter and do a quick wipe on physical items, I use a cloth wipe and my vinegar spray. You could get jazzy with Sal’s Suds as well (see my fave bathroom cleaner recipe inside my cleaning blog). There is also a safe bleach option that you can use to wipe containers off, diluted in water, if you’d like to go that route as well.
I usually need to do a sink clean before washing my produce, so you can check out that process in my Sustainable Sink blog post as well. Right now I am also doing a vinegar or Sal’s/vinegar mix spray before and after washing my produce to just provide that extra sanitizing step. The sink gets filled up with a splash of Sal’s Suds or apple cider vinegar as it fills. The veggies soak for at least ten minutes, scrubbed (we have a ton of natural-fibre brushes available for this), rinsed and set out on a sponge cloth drying mat. The berries, apples, and tomatoes haven’t been getting scrubbed, and I make sure the berries are very dry before they get placed into the fridge.
So, I started this project slowly. I ran into some storage issues and did some googling as I went to figure out the best route for the produce we usually buy. I tried cutting peppers and cucumbers up ahead of time and storing them in water (so that I could pre-cut them without them drying out) and then they were water-logged and mushy a day later. I tried buying tofu package-free with my own container but didn’t think at the time to keep water inside the container as well. I tried storing a cut part of salami in a cloth baggie and then had salami juice all over my crisper. It definitely was a learning curve, that’s for sure. But I wanted to be able to bring home my stuff plastic-free and figure out the best way to store it without plastic baggies and Tupperware (that I didn’t want to handwash, because putting it in the dishwasher was also not an option I wanted to use), so onward it went.
Here’s what I have found to work:
- Cheese and meat – I have been buying a lot of cheese at Costco, which is not a great place to support locally, but I am really struggling to find Canadian milk cheese bars in a lot of grocery stores (look for the blue logo). We also buy bulk cheese in our own containers when we are at a shop that allows this. Otherwise my fave is Maple Dale cheese (especially the parmesan - try it out, local loves!). These guys I used to store in a plastic bag or put a plastic bag over the end with a rubber band. Now, I put a small beeswax wrap over the end (or full piece) with a produce elastic band, or a use a Litsie Creations snack or sandwich baggie with an elastic band.
- Lettuce + Leafy Greens – we use a Swag bag for this storage (which I LOVE!). After washing the lettuce, it goes right in this cloth bag, and it just has to stay moist to keep the lettuce fresh and crispy. A damp tea towel rolled up can also work, but I find the Swag is better for longer-term storage.
- Bowls – we have a pretty great stash of wooden bowls that we use for fridge storage and kids’ snacks that were all collected at Value Village (remember when a wooden salad bowl set was a thing? They are all at VV now). We store tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, berries, lemons, etc. in these inside the fridge – anything that needs to be corralled but stored in open air, really.
- Plates – I used to wrap every cut thing in my fridge with saran wrap or placed it inside a plastic baggie. Now, if a lemon, or tomato, or apple (etc) is cut, I just place it cut side down on a plate. Sometimes we have a bunch of things sitting on the same plate. Sometimes I just put the apple or lemon in the fridge as it is and finish eating it sooner rather than later. I can actually live a saran wrap free life, and no one is sad, after all!
- Masons – after cutting and cleaning carrots, we store them inside a mason jar filled with water and a lid. Celery and herbs are stored in a mason jar (or whatever cup you have) with water in the bottom. Masons are great for leftovers storage as they are see through, all take the same lid (we almost exclusively keep wide mouth masons in the kitchen for their ease in food storage), and are taller rather than stackable, which helps us see what’s happening in the fridge without things getting really hidden in there.
- Condiments – there are a lot of condiments that are available in glass, even with the same brand (Hellman’s and Heinz, for example) and no price difference. Plus, these condiment jars are so useful to be reused later on.
- Milk – we love Foodsmiths in Perth and have committed to doing their milk bottle exchange whenever we are in town and not worry about the in-between times that we miss! We have also bought yogurt and keifer there in a glass container.
I think the biggest thing to remember here is that you already have a bunch of this stuff available in your kitchen already. Your fridge doesn’t have to be anything fancy or remotely like the Instagram worthy photos I used to covet. You don't need to buy food huggers or bowl covers or whatever (but if you want to, go for it!). After all, sustainable living isn’t exactly pretty-perfect all the time, it’s not about that. Every little reuse matters, and it helps to simplify things and keep us out of the cycle of rebuying and throwing away of little plastic baggies and plastic wrap all of the time. Try putting your saran wrap or box of plastic baggies in another space where it's not completely gone, but still inconvenient to just grab (the basement, for example) and see what you can do when you take out the same habit and try to replace it with a healthier, earth-happy idea!