Is This Peak Plastic?


I was overjoyed when the farmers’ markets where I live decided to go one step further than doing away with plastic bags and go zero waste entirely.

Plastic bags are made of crude oil and other petrochemical derivatives, using up an estimated 12 million barrels of oil a year for America’s plastic bag habit (that’s about 330 per person per year). Add to that the hazard of plastic bag waste for animals and you have the makings of a huge environmental problem.

Bags may be a bane, but they are also a boon for food storage. Since I can only reuse the ones that still exist for so long, I thought I better figure out not only how to get my lettuce home from the market but keep it fresh once it’s there.

Lest you think this is an “only in Berkeley” sort of thing, I’m sharing my findings because a bag ban is likely coming your way soon.

The Boulder, Co. farmers’ market is already zero waste, and both the Monterey and Irvine, Calif. farmers’ markets have phased out plastic bags. The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market just announced it is going bag-free and in Europe, you have to pay for a bag if you want one. Cities are saying goodbye to plastic bags everywhere you look (see: Paris, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles).

They don’t just hand them out like Halloween candy these days. And why should it be easy to blithely use something made from oil that harms animal and marine life and doesn’t break down in landfill?

I spoke with Food Policy Media Consultant Naomi Starkman about the bag problem. She has worked with Berkeley’s Ecology Center to communicate the zero waste program to the public.

“It’s been made easy for us to get cheap fast food based on cheap oil for years. All of the packaging it comes in is also largely made of plastic/oil,” says Naomi. “The whole system has lulled us into a sense of ease and complacency. It’s up to us to reject this paradigm and take responsibility for our food system as a whole: from seed to feed.”

Talking with Naomi has made me think hard about kicking my personal bag habit. If you truly care how your food was grown, produced, and transported to you, and if you’re committed to supporting sustainable agriculture, caring about how your food is packaged and stored is the next step to closing the circle.

Together, Naomi and I came up with a few tips for solving the bag dilemma:

First off, make sure you remember to bring your large canvas bags or shopping baskets to the market.

Realize that most things you buy don’t really require a separate bag to carry them home. For instance, potatoes, bunches of sturdy greens, artichokes and asparagus can be carried in your big bag all jumbled up together.

Purchase a few cotton or linen bags to bring to the market with you to carry loose salad greens, sugar snap peas, green beans and other items that really require a bag.

If you’re crafty you can easily make bags out of old t-shirts, pillowcases, or dish towels. If you search Etsy you’ll find lots of great ideas and many items you can buy.

Once you get the produce home, here are some tips for keeping it fresh:

Line the drawers of your refrigerator with wet dish towels or paper towels, lay the items down loose, and cover them with more moist towels.

Store your greens in cloth bags, but with a wet paper towel to keep things fresh.

Herbs keep best outside of the refrigerator in a glass of water. Better yet, grow your own and only snip off what you need.

If you have a lettuce spinner, simply wash your greens when you get them home and then keep them in the salad spinner. They’ll stay fresh and crisp.

Here’s a great solution for berries.

Recognize that food waste is a huge problem and think of the bag dilemma as an opportunity to only buy what you need and to eat all you buy.

And here’s a final great tip from Naomi:

When shopping in the grocery store, buy as much as you can in bulk and carry it home in your storage containers. Simply bring your containers to the store and weigh them before you shop so the checker knows how much to charge you. This saves you the additional step of transferring the food from bag to jar when you get home.

Image: haydnseek

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.