As Australians, we are sending one million tonnes of plastic to landfill each year. I'm not a big fan of plastic and try to reduce its use wherever possible but I'm also reminded of something my daughter shared with me not too long ago: a lecturer had commented that in one way plastic has provided humans with many amazing opportunities. It's really that society has taken something that does have its advantages and abused it - exactly as we've done with just about everything else including fuel and food.
I tend to take this approach to plastic - I use it judiciously. For example, I am a big fan of Pyrex or such heat stable glass containers with the plastic lids as they enable me to store all sorts of foods and stocks in the fridge and freezer in glass. If I am going to heat the meal directly in the container, I will remove the plastic lid before placing in the oven; sometimes I might cover it with some foil. I think this is a good and sensible use of plastic as it allows me to use glass - I adore glass.
The uses of plastic that distress me are these:
Plastic shopping bags (truly, using them to put your garbage in is not a plus and does not offer redemption from having used them. You have still taken one from the shop, further encouraging the retailer to provide them and it is still going into landfill, albeit now filled with rubbish), cling wrap, any foods wrapped in plastic (can they please put cheese in something else?), cheap plastic storage containers (so much cheaper than those glass Pyrex ones), fats stored in plastic (oils and such), tins lined with plastic (for example, tinned tomatoes or beans including many organic brands), non-stick cookware and the plastic tools that accompany them and the current trend to cook everything in plastic. I would encourage you to begin excluding all this from your home as quickly as possible. How you might ask? This is what I do....
Have a vast range of bags
Get yourself into the habit of ensuring you have a bag/s as you leave the house to go shopping. I like calico or such over those neon coloured eco bags they sell in supermarkets (I don't trust them). I have also collected a big range of small/medium calico bags over the years that originally came with oats or flours in them. I think a size range of calico bags for shopping (for flours/veggies/grains etc) would make such an amazing present for someone, don't you? I'm not beyond taking glass jars with me - any shop worth their salt will be happy to weigh them for you before you fill them with goodness from the bulk storage.
Get yourself organised
Leftovers are such an essential part of surviving a busy life well nourished, so stock up on the best quality glass storage containers (as noted, I like Pyrex as I can freeze and heat them). But many leftovers go into recycled glass jars or jam jars that are not currently in use. Perfect for the fridge, but not for freezing.
If you're buying a lot of canned foods, stop
Or if you must, search out brands that don't use plastic in the lining. This only happens by trial and error. Some brands such as Eden pack their beans in a BPA free can - more expensive but worth it. But ultimately, you are invited here to begin preserving in glass, the time honoured way of preserving the bounty of the season for the leaner times. There are many systems; we know the Vacola system in Australia as the best. Right now, you could be preserving Apple Butter, Fruit Mince, Pears, Apple and Carrot-based Chutneys and Marmalades, Preserved Lemons, Lemon or Lime Curds. Of these, if doing Apple Butter, Fruit Mince and Pears, you must check some safety details first - I am just wanting to ignite that passion right now.
Are you cooking in plastic? Stop that right now.
And if you are cooking in a soft plastic (such as cling wrap)are you nuts? There is far too much transference of xenoestrogens and hormone disrupting chemicals when you heat plastic and it's close to food. If you are going out to eat, ask them what is cooked in plastic. You will be shocked to discover that the boys and girls out there in chef land think this is a clever thing to do. Those vegetables on your plate are most likely slow cooked in plastic. God knows why, except because it's in and clever. If they tell you they do it because it keeps that piece of protein so tender and it will be so soft and delicious, ask them if they've ever heard about braising. It's the original method of slow cooking to keep protein tender that's served most chefs and food cultures very well for hundreds of years.
Cheese sweats in plastic and goes off very quickly.
Seek out cheeses wrapped in paper, cut from a large piece or packed in glass - tricky in the organic cheese world, but a good treasure hunt nonetheless. Often the glass option has cheese packed in oil and that oil is usually refined (yes, even in organic world) not olive (so I don't buy it). A good reason to learn to make cheese! I keep an old, very worn linen tea towel that is brilliant for wrapping cheese but muslin is great too.
The best place is, seriously, the ground. When you grow your own vegetables you can harvest as needed. Sometimes you can't use them all, but most, even when left will only grow more. This can be good or bad - the flavour is not as sweet and they can go to seed - but this means you have to be savvy and cook seasonally, often thinking on your feet (for example, turning those carrots into a soup, fritter or chutney). But in the fridge those glass Pyrex containers are fabulous for storing vegetables. Herbs? A slightly damp cloth laid on the base of that said Pyrex dish, with washed herbs laid on top and then sealed with the lid will keep them fresh for days.
Finally, the best way to reduce your plastic is to make as much as you can from scratch or as close as possible. Anything pre packaged will not only cost you so much more but will almost always contain plastic of some form (especially those horrible plastic pretend paper labels on glass jars). Buying from a bulk bin should become a way of life. If you bake a lot, you can buy grains and flours in a good 5kg calico or paper bag. This is available in Australia( the brands Kialla, Four Leaf and Demeter Mills all offer this option). If your shop doesn't stock it, ask them to do so. Certainly, many legumes also come in these options, but often the size choices can be much larger - 12.5kg up to 25 kg and this can be too much for a home but not for a co-op)
You will find a collection of my recipes at http://www.novamagazine.com.au for foods that commonly come in plastic, yoghurt, Bengal chutney and muesli bars especially. But for breakfast, one of the easiest places to buy goods in plastic, why not try this delicious version of porridge. Perfect for a cold, blustery winter day.
Jude Blereau is a wholefood cook and writer based on Perth. www.wholefoodcooking.com.au