Friday, July 17, 2009

Containment

One bane of shopping, for me, is packaging. Whether for food or household, need or want, nearly everything comes bagged, bottled, canned, clipped, encased, or otherwise contained. Usually in plastic and often excessively.

It's the plethora of plastic packaging that has me worried. Recent studies on the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) – used in plastics and for coating the inside of many cans (Toxic Nation article) – heightened consumer caution about certain plastics. Yet, even with this new restraint, bloated landfills still suffer daily infusions of plastic. Their durability is daunting, but the propensity for them to leach toxic chemicals is downright alarming, particularly when those plastics lay in landfills where they're sure to get plenty of sun and hostile weather. I wonder how much BPA already infuses water-tables.

In an effort to contain the problem, to apply thrift to this (largely unavoidable) consumerism, our household has adopted new purchasing habits, one of which is to scrutinize packaging. The less of it, the better. Un-packaged products get priority consideration but, sadly, that opportunity seldom occurs. Quantity and type of packaging material are then taken into account. Paper, glass and metal are preferred to plastic for both re-usability and recyclability.

Paper has many reuse options. Tissue paper is ideal for wrapping delicate items. Brown-paper, grocery-store bags are not only excellent insulators for frozen and refrigerated foods in transit, later they become "biodegradable" trash bags. Boxes can be used for storage or shipping. Cardboard is great material for certain crafts and easily recyclable. Over-sized department store bags, cut open, make good wrap for parcel shipping. I've even created a few sewing patterns with this sturdy paper product. Small bags work well for food ripening and storage. Contaminated paper, such as used butcher's wrap, is thrown away like its cellophane counterpart but, unlike plastic wrap, will eventually decompose. Computer paper and flyers, used on one side, is saved, cut into strips, and becomes "scratch pads."

When I was young, paper bags were commonly used in kitchen waste-baskets, with "sloppy" things flushed, or stowed in tin cans (which weren't recycled then) or empty dairy containers. Store-bought, waxed-paper bags were my mother's first choice, but brown-paper bags came in a close second. When I have them available I use the latter, but the former are no longer sold. Yes, our week's refuse would still go to the curb in a one large plastic bag – civic regulations insist they be used, even in curb-side garbage cans – and, yes, the kitchen waste-basket needs cleaning more frequently, but these factors don't diminish the possibility that, once a week, 6-10 plastic bags (the usual liner for household waste-baskets,) aren't exiled, evermore, to a refuse site. Unfortunately, paper bags are not used by many stores today, so it's difficult to keep enough on hand for regular use.

Jars are exceptional packaging with good re-use and recycling potential. Glass makes the perfect food storage container because, being inert material, it won't impart synthetic, "acquired," or metallic flavours like plastic or tin often do. They also make great vessels for reheating food: in a conventional oven on moderate settings; on stovetop in a saucepan of simmering water; and, in the microwave without the metal lid. Occasionally, "re-sealable" jar lids retain odours from their original contents and won't be viable for food storage...unless you like pickle-infused rice. I don't, so those jars are used for miscellany purposes: storing screws, string, socket safety-plugs, collections of unidentified keys, copious rubber bands and twist-ties, or just something to clean paint-brushes in.

Tin cans are especially useful for hot or cold items. If you save bacon or other meat drippings for cooking or bird-feeding purposes, and store it in the refrigerator, food-grade cans handle the dramatic fluctuations of temperature the best, and hot fats won't shatter or melt tin as it might do with glass or plastic. Just make sure the can's interior isn't plastic-coated.

When re-use isn't possible, most paper, glass, and tin are recyclable. There are a few municipalities which offer recycling for some plastics but, where we live, no plastics are recycled so we avoid them as much as possible. Sometimes, they're inescapable, though. That's when we look for re-purposing applications. The travel-sized shampoo and conditioner bought years ago were consumed long ago, but those bottles have been refilled, time and again, from our home supply. Dairy containers keep craft supplies sorted and dry. Remember, when reusing plastic containers, it's advisable they do not store edibles. Though it may seem impossible, our household has gone without plastic wrap for two decades. Paper, cloth, or glass has been used instead.

Bulk shopping is another way to reduce plastics. For example, buying meat in economy packs rather than two-portion packs saves more than money. Six (or more) Styrofoam plates and their wrapping are reduced to one platter and its wrap which are composed of significantly less plastic. Re-packaging at home will, of course, require other packaging material, but we use freezer wrap (a heavy brown paper, wax-coated on one side) which will decompose when discarded. We don't purchase any "individual-use" packets, preferring instead to buy full- or bulk-sized packages and apportion servings ourselves, thus eliminating the extraneous wrapping.

Ultimately, there are some products we won't buy due to excessive packaging. It's obscene to see a couple square-feet of plastic encasing a finger-sized thingamajig. Security and shelving efficiency are two reasons offered for this packaging trend. Whatever the reasons, our household boycotts these superfluously-encased items. If those doodads are too fragile, perilous, or costly, then I suggest putting them back into showcases. And, please Mr/s. Manufacturer, spare us the farce: don't boast about environmentally-friendly production plants and procedures while continuing to package merchandise in ominously enduring plastic.

And that's a wrap on my packaging rant!

What are your views on retail packaging? Do you have unique reuse ideas? Have you any empowering observations to share with fellow consumers?