Thinking of ditching the plastic from your food shopping haul? You wouldn’t be alone. Plastic has been all over the news recently, and you’ve probably been prompted to extract yourself from its stranglehold by the scary statistics about plastic in our oceans which have now made it mainstream in the media. Its been bubbling along under the surface in the media for some time, but the news that we could have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 or that a truck load of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute has captured so many people’s attention. We know that every new piece probably won’t degrade in our lifetime and that it is wreaking havoc in our environment and harming wildlife. And, to boot, there are only so many times that it can only be recycled, so then what happens to it?
I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of plastic-covered food I bring home for a while, but it’s fiendishly difficult when everywhere you go to buy food you can’t escape plastic.
My Gohomespun mentality is to grow and make as much food as I can, but there’s only so much I can produce and make so I, like everyone else, have to head to the shops. Often I’ve been disappointed by my shopping efforts and frustrated by the lack of options for foods sans the plastic stuff. I am always thinking about what I can make and grow, but today I am turning to the buying of food – its packaging and our shopping habits. I keep picking up food items in a shop, wrapped in plastic, and wonder ‘Surely this never used to be wrapped in plastic’ or ‘Surely there must be a different way to package this?’ I find myself raiding my memory banks for answers to these questions, and lately I’ve been going on shopping trips with my late mum and my grandmother (Nan), in my head that is.
Fancy coming on a 1970s shopping trip with me? In reality it won’t be entirely plastic-free as it had already been worming it’s way into our lives by then, but it wasn’t nearly as pervasive as it is now. My memory is sketchy, but even a few pointers from these trips may serve us well.
Firstly we’re going shopping with my Nan. Aside from the day trips to my grandparents (Nan and Grandad), sometimes my parents would drop my brother and I off with them for a few days in the school holidays and go home and get some peace and quiet. My Nan would take me shopping with her into the centre of Stoke-on-Trent (Hanley), UK. As we’d go out the door, she would put a turban-like hat on her head and pop one of those plastic concertinaed rain hats in her pocket in case of rain. Remember those? She’d pack her tartan shopping trolley (such a 1970s icon) with two or three cotton string bags inside and we’d go to town on the bus (pronounced ‘the buz’) as my grandparents had no car. There were no supermarkets on the edge of town at this time, but never mind. Have a shopping trolley? You can shop.
The first stop I remember was at the sweetie counter at Lewis’s department store in the centre of Hanley. I’m standing there and a little paper bag decorated with the Lewis’s logo is handed down to me by the lady at the counter (she is quite high up for some reason…..). It contains my favourite Dolly Mixtures. Everything goes hazy once I have that little bag of sweets in my hand, but I have a vague memory of going to the butchers. Whilst I decide which Dolly Mixture to have next the butcher wraps a package up in butchers paper and ties it up with string. Into the shopping trolley it goes and out the door we go.
How did she collect the fruit and veg? Little plastic bags didn’t exist and she didn’t have a series of produce bags like the ones suggested by today’s zero waste bloggers to bag each type of fruit and veg product separately, although they seem like a good idea to me. I intend to make some from scrap fabric but I still haven’t. I either save brown paper bags from the farm shop, or I have some old nylon stuff-sac bags (the equivalent to string bags) that prove useful. I assume she must have gone to a grocers where the grocer would would weigh each item and add it to your string bag. I’m not proving to be much help am I? Ok, so we’ll get back on the ‘buz’ and go home.
In the kitchen I’m peering into the shopping trolley. Out comes a loaf of Homepride sliced bread wrapped in waxed paper, of the type that Warburtons has recently brought back on to the shelves, but today they’re hard to find amongst the sea of sliced bread in plastic. The Homepride bread wrappers in Nan’s kitchen will be wiped clean, smoothed out and used to wrap sandwiches for a picnic on a day out, accompanied by the tartan thermos flask of tea. A tin (or was it a tubby cardboard cylinder?) of Birds custard powder is put away in the cupboard as it’s been a busy day and she hasn’t had time to make the usual apple pie or trifle. Or bread for that matter (I still have her bread tins). Today (2018) Birds custard powder still comes packed in a cardboard tub, but the lid is plastic.
We retire to the sitting room to eat some sandwiches for a late lunch, and afterwards I sidle up to Nan by the kitchen table as she’s brought out a rectangular block from the ice box in the fridge. She unfolds the waxed card wrapping and there’s the the vanilla Ice cream I was expecting. I dance on my toes a little, look up with a silly grin and she says says in a mock stern tone ‘Get away with you!’.
There’s tea to make. We drank a lot of tea at Nan’s and it was all loose leaf tea – she never transitioned to tea bags. As I’m writing this, I’m straining to see into the tartan shopping trolley for the loose leaf tea. But no, there it is, a pack of tea comes out, is opened and tipped straight into a tin tea caddy, later to make it into a tea pot covered with a novelty black poodle tea cosy. The tea leaves would be strained out and put round the roses in the garden or the geraniums on the window sill. We shall revisit the tea for a look at the packaging on a shop with my mum.
I offer you only a paltry number of items in the shopping haul, for I fear my memory is a little distracted by the very selective childhood interest in food. Even a few items, though, could make us re-think packaged food and our shopping habits. I may sound as if I’m trying to persuade people into a rosy vision of the past that is unrealistic for today. After all, new technologies are developing as I write, but I wonder if we’re paying little attention to simple food packaging of the very recent past.
Take meat. It’s hard to find meat that isn’t packaged in plastic. I see that many zero waste bloggers have foregone meat, and as many live in the US where bulk buy options for dry goods like grains and pulses are more common that in the UK, it may seem like a sensible option. If you’re thinking I should forgo meat altogether to avoid the plastic and save the environment, I hear you, but trust me I’ve thought about this and I have my reasons. I’m working up to a blog post on this.
As it is, I buy meat, and I aim for local, free-range or the best option where I can. Lately, I’ve taken to packing pieces of greaseproof paper and some containers to take to a butcher’s counter in a bid to avoid the inevitable plastic-wrapped meat. It means going prepared to weather the ‘you’re weird looks’, but my resolve at the moment is good. I don’t remember Nan taking any greaseproof paper with her, or any containers, but that’s because the meat at the butchers was wrapped in butchers paper and tied up with string, Wouldn’t that be sensible if there were more independent butchers again and that they would ditch that plastic sheet they have to put on the scales, the plastic bag the meat goes into, and the plastic gloves for handling the meat? They never used to need this and we didn’t all die of food poisoning. I’m still here. Bring back butchers paper, I say. What do you think?
What about that ice cream in waxed card? It’s one item, I know, but think how many plastic tubs of ice cream could be replaced by packaging that is at least compostable. Fish fingers are usually packed in waxed card – how many other foods could be? I’m sure that was a factor behind the recent headlines Iceland supermarket pledges to go plastic-free within five years. You might question how sustainable frozen food is (I sometimes do) but it’s probably here to stay.
Tins and cardboard tubs or cylinders can, and sometimes still do, hold a bounty of custard powder, cornflour, coffee and tea – lightly packaged and recyclable. If we rethink our demand for long shelf lives, I see no reason why a lot of plastic might disappear from shop shelves.
Returning to the shopping trolley and string bags reminds me of how my shopping habits have been changing. I shop in far more different places than I used to and rarely do all of my shopping at once. Sometimes I need the car and sometimes I walk or cycle. As supermarkets have got bigger and moved to the edges of towns and cities we have become used driving there, and because of a time-pinched schedule, we fill the boots of our cars in one fell swoop. Small shops and markets have suffered because of our reliance on cars, parking and everything under the same roof. Perhaps we could mix it up a little. I find it enjoyable. It’s a more relaxed way of shopping, with a little passing the time of the day with a shopholder on the way.
What are my the take home messages? I’d say bring back butchers paper, card and tin. Support your small shopholders more, pass the time of day on your shopping round.
If you would like to join me again I’ll be shopping with my mother next time for another look at shopping plastic-free.
String shopping bags
Before nylon stuff-sac bags appeared string shopping bags were the pack-away shopping bag option. If you want nylon-free and a touch of nostalgia try searching for patterns to make one, or buy one – they’re becoming more common.
This one is a 1930s crochet pattern for a string bag that packs down to the size of a powder puff. Pattern now unavailable, but you get the idea.
You can buy them on line, but as they come and go – here’s a temporary link for an ethical option of Fairtraid recycled, unbleached cotton made by a Rural Women’s workforce in southern India.
For fun, and for practicality…. The Daily Mail were championing the cause of the shopping trolley a few years ago here and here. You don’t need the posh, expensive option though. Pssst, I have a shopping trolley!