Reducing Snack Packaging: The best way to aid the war on plastic is to add our voices to the clamor urging systemic change. What can we also do at home?
words and photographs Christina De La Rocha
Where I live in Germany, plastic and metal recyclables are collected curbside every second week in opaque yellow polyethylene bags, known as Gelbe Säcke (yellow bags). These yellow bags can hold up to 80 liters (18 imperial gallons, aka 21 US gallons) of plastic packaging, yogurt tubs, detergent, dishwashing liquid, shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner bottles, milk and juice cartons, Styrofoam, aluminum foil, metal cans, bottle caps, toothpaste tubes, and the metal lids from glass jars. It’s a totally GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card. For at least the last fifteen years, people who live in Germany have happily plowed their way through prodigious quantities of single use packaging without feeling bad about themselves in the slightest. In fact, the more the better because *pats self on back* Look how much stuff I’m recycling! GO ME!!!!
But, like Sleeping Beauty waking up to the sad reality that is some random dude who gets to marry her (and take over the kingdom) because he sexually assaulted her in her sleep, we’re starting to see the recycling fairy tale as just that (a fairy tale).
The Difficulty of Reducing Snack Packaging
It took China deciding, roughly two years ago, that it had had enough of dealing with our crap and to refuse to accept any more imports of plastic (and paper) refuse unless they met stringent standards for cleanliness and recyclability. Before it slashed its allowable imports of these materials, it was the world’s greatest
dumping ground for importer of putatively recyclable paper and plastic waste. This sudden import ban, which is what it effectively was, left massive trash producing nations like the US, Japan, Germany, the UK, and France, in the lurch, their incinerators unable to keep up with the flood of post-consumer plastic they could no longer export. This was a bummer that resulted in potentially recyclable plastic being sent to landfill instead. The bigger bummer is that it caused the import of potentially recyclable waste to skyrocket in places, like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, that didn’t necessarily have the facilities to handle that much material. You can probably see where this is going — into the ocean, for instance. But into wilderness, as well. And when the plastic that turns out to be too contaminated (with food, for instance) to be recycled gets incinerated, there’s a whole lot of toxins that are produced. And when that incineration occurs in one of the many unauthorized, unregulated, and flat-out illegal sites operating without any official environmental oversight and therefore without proper filters or wastewater treatment systems in place, those toxins end up in the air and in the water, to be breathed in and taken up by plants and animals, thus entering the food web.
So…yes…plastic…bad… and being a terribly good Girl Scout and putting it all in the recycling bin doesn’t make it all okay. Whether we know it or not or like it or not, we consumers are totally embroiled in the big mess that is getting made by plastic waste. (And this is just the plastic waste. Electronic waste is a whole other, even more toxic, kettle of fish.)
I will venture a guess: most of us don’t want our bread bags clogging up the stomach of seals who have mistaken them for jellyfish and most of us don’t want our candy wrappers, incinerated, leaching toxins into the water supply beside the “recycling” facility to be taken up by the crops people grow for food.
But what can we do? I mean, have you tried buying food or cosmetics that doesn’t come wrapped up in plastic? This day and age, it’s not easy to do.
Thus, as with all of these issues of sustainability, the first thing to do is to SCREAM! (Or perhaps just phone/email/write a letter to your government representative.) This is a TOP DOWN problem that you, on the bottom, are not going to solve by forgoing drinking straws. The most effective way to stop the problems related to recycling plastic is to add our voices to the clamor (and charitable donations to foundations) pushing for systemic change.
Number 1: petrochemical companies must be forced to scale back their production of new plastic. Half of the essentially 8 billion tons of the non-biodegradable plastic that humankind has thus far created, produced within less than the last twenty years. Do we really want to follow that trend to its we’re all drowning in plastic conclusion?
Number 2: we need recycling facilities in our home nations that don’t just sort and bundle waste for export, but clean it to meet the new, exacting, and reasonable standards that China has imposed before it will import this material to turn it into plastic pellets that can be used to produce new things.
Number 3: we also need recycling facilities in our home countries that do the actual processing of the waste into reusable forms.
On the BOTTOM UP (as in personal consumption) side of things, we can try to stem the flow of plastic by buying less of it. There have always been (generally organic food) shops that you bring our own containers for things like flour, pasta, nuts, beans, lentils, cereal, cooking oils, and personal and household cleaning products. It’s also more than possible to bring your own lightweight, reusable cloth or net bags when purchasing fruits and vegetables at a totally normal grocery store. Our local branch of a national chain even has a button the cashier can push to subtract the average weight of a net bag when s/he weighs the bag of apples, oranges, zucchinis, mushrooms, or whatever. And if you’re really over this whole single use plastic business, you an go so far as grow some of your own produce. That avenue can be a bit feast or famine (or mainly a good way to feed slugs, caterpillars, and pill bugs), but HAVE YOU EVER EATEN A HOMEGROWN POTATO?! (Reader, before I tasted one, I was a skeptic, but now I am a homegrown potato evangelist.)
But when I look into the depressingly full-stuffed yellow bag (or bags!) we put out every week, I realize that despite my best efforts, I’m still generating whopping amounts of single use plastic waste. The main culprits are:
- Cat food envelopes. (But, short of executing the cats, I don’t see what I can do about this.)
- Junk food wrappers. (But, short of executing Spouse (and, tbh, also myself), I don’t see what I can do about this.)
Except… what if I went whole granola and started making making as much of the household’s junk food as possible? The bonus here would be that as well as cutting down on our use of single use packaging, we will also cut down on our consumption of palm oil, another environmental evil, because have you tried to buy junk food that doesn’t contain palm oil? It’s all but impossible these days.
Day 1: I baked breadsticks… and it was… a win! Everybody loved them (there were 24 and they weren’t going to live to see sunrise in this cold, wet climate without getting soggy, so I foisted half off on the neighbors).
Day (um whenever I get up off my butt to do more baking): I will dust off my toffee recipe, which was born from the depths of desperation that comes from living in countries where shops aren’t open on Sundays even though sometimes YOU JUST NEED CANDY. As in, all you need to make toffee is butter and sugar, and who doesn’t usually have those two things just lying around.
And then, Day whatever it will turn out to be, the jewel in the crown: I will learn to make homemade potato chips. (Given the depth of love I have for potato chips, this is a recipe that will undoubtedly turn out to be more dangerous than anything ever included in the Anarchist Cookbook).
So, below follow the three recipes. Give them a go! And then pat yourself on the back for all that plastic you could have generated but didn’t.
Oh, and there’s always popcorn, which is so easy to pop in hot oil in a pot with a lid on a stove and then pour melted butter and salt over the outcome, I have no idea why anyone ever uses that stupid microwavable stuff which is just drowning in disgusting fake butter goo (also you can microwave your own popcorn in a totally normal brown paper bag).
Recipes for Reducing Snack Packaging
- 3 to 3½ cups (360 to 420 g) of organic spelt flour (or organic bread flour, or organic all-purpose flour)
- 1 tsp (7 g) salt
- 1 packet of dry yeast (7 g) or 25 g of fresh yeast
- 1 cup (250 mL or 250 g) of warm water
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL or 30 g) of vegetable oil
- 1-2 Tbsp (6-12 g) finely grated parmesan cheese (opt)
- Activate the yeast in the warm water in a large, non-metal bowl.
- Mix in flour, salt, oil, and optional parmesan cheese and knead dough for 5 minutes, or so, until it becomes smooth and elastic. Roll dough into a ball.
- Grease a large bowl and place the ball of dough inside and turn it greased side up.
- Cover bowl with plate or clean cloth and let dough rise in a warm place for at least 2 hours (more is fine).
- Punch down dough and divide into 24 reasonably equal portions.
- Grease 2 large cookie sheets and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal. Roll out the 24 breadsticks by hand until they strike you as breadstick sized (thinner is better) and place on cookie sheets.
- Bake in oven preheated to 400°F (205°C) for 20 minutes. Remove immediately to cooling racks.
The breadsticks are best eaten within a few hours, but they can also be briefly reheated in the oven to regain some of their crispiness.
Homemade Hard Toffee
- ¾ cup granulated sugar (150 g) or brown sugar (135 g), firmly packed
- ½ cup (120 g) butter
- 1 cup (150 g) chopped nuts (e.g., almonds) (opt)
- Grease bottom and sides of small pan (e.g., a 9 inch x 9 inch (23 cm x 23 cm) square pan) and, if relevant, spread chopped nuts on bottom of pan.
- Heat sugar and butter to boiling over medium heat, stirring constantly.
- Boil for 7 minutes.
- Immediately spread mixture (over nuts) in pan.
- Let stand 1-2 minutes then cut into bite-sized portions.
- Let cool until firm.
Sorry, you probably didn’t want to know that these sorts of candies are more or less just cooled molten butter plus tons of sugar.
Oven-Fried Potato Chips
- Use 3 Tbsp (45 mL or 45 g) of oil for every 2-3 medium sized potatoes
- Potatoes, washed, peeled (opt), and very thinly sliced
- Seasoning (salt, pepper, smoked paprika, or whatever else catches your fancy)
- Soak potato slices in cold water for half an hour.
- Drain and pat thoroughly dry.
- Line roughly one cookie sheet per potato with lightly oiled baking parchment.
- Spread potatoes out on cookie sheets in a single layer.
- Brush or spray potatoes lightly with oil.
- Sprinkle with seasoning now or, if you prefer, immediately after the chips come out of the oven.
- Bake in oven preheated to 400°F (205°C) for 10-20 minutes, until golden brown. If some chips brown faster than others, you may need to remove them before they burn.