shoppy shop talk, Part I

I’m back from a full day of grocery shopping and exploring non-plastic items. I went to three stores today as well as the farmers’ market and a small cheese shop. I have good news to report almost everywhere, except at the bank. There, the news is scary. See that shopping cart in the photo? Those two bags of groceries cost me $98. (falls over in dead faint…) There’s so much to tell that I’m gonna spread this over two days. Because who doesn’t want to talk about food prices and plastic, ad nauseum? I do, I do!!

Today I went to Lucky, CVS, Alameda Natural Grocery, Farmstead Cheeses and Wines, and the Alameda Farmers’ Market. (Last week I went to Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Raleys/Nob Hill.)

Usually I don’t grocery shop much on alternate weeks because we’re out of ready cash. In pay weeks I do a Big Shopping, and in off weeks, a Little Shopping. Little Shopping can mean a trip to the farmers’ market, plus stops for milk and bread. Big Shopping has meant, prior to the Plastic Purge, cutting of coupons, reading of sales circulars, schlepping around town to various stores, a triumphant return home with about 20 bags full of BOGOs, rebate items, sale items and so on, with about 50 percent savings at each location. Then we coast on this food til the next payday. This isn’t how the financial planners would have us do it, but this is how we do it; it’s imperfect, but does the trick, and the savings has really helped us cut back on debt. Cutting out the plastic wasn’t really in the mix — buying local and organic items was higher up the priority list than plastic packaging.

So, shopping:
Snacky things are always on the list for my family — I have two adult daughters at home who work fulltime and frequently need to grab and go — coffee on the run, a granola bar and a piece of fruit. When they get home, they also snack. So does The Boy, who is hitting a growth streak and suddenly wants to eat everything. Snacks, besides fruit and cheese and nuts, are always in demand. As for me, I have a sweet tooth. What’s out there for a sweetie like me who wants candy or cookies — without plastic?

I bake most of our cookies, cakes and pies, but today I purchased a tin of Danish butter cookies. The tin is reusable until the End of Time, and there’s no plastic. Sometimes these tins will have an Ambient Plastic wrap around the edge but this one didn’t. Yay! I was also happy to put an Almond Roca tin in the cart, a roll of Mentos (paper and foil), a paper box of Good-n-Plenty, and two kinds of chocolate bars. Hershey’s — the larger size is paper and foil, but most smaller sizes as well as minis are wrapped in plastic, and possibly packed inside a plastic bag, too. Cadbury and Toblerone bars are also in paper, foil or cardboard. There are a number of exotic chocolate bars that are packaged in paper and foil, if you can spare $4 to spend on a candy bar. I’m trying to keep my shopping as mainstream as possible, if I can — thus, a large Hershey’s, at about $2, and not plastic wrapped, works for me. (Another challenge would be to eat only fair trade foods, in which case Hershey’s would lose out big-time and the other exotics would win a big gold star.)

I’m sorry to say that hard candy, Altoids, and any kind of gum except possibly Tiny Chicklets are out of the question, in terms of avoiding plastic. Altoids is in a tin, then taped shut with shrink-wrap — feh! I am still unable to find any kind of health or snack bar (granola, cereal, protein, etc) that isn’t packaged up like a fly swathed in a spider web. Potato chips, aside from Boulder Canyon and Sun Chips, continue to disappoint me in their packaging, even the most wholesome, organic, flax-seed-studded crunchy thing. Nope. All wrapped in plastic. Since I have yet to find tortilla chips in anything but plastic, I will try using Sun Chips as a base for nachos and tacos later this month. The original variety will work well enough.

I did discover a gem in the cracker aisle — an old friend, the Wasa Crispbread. In several varieties, with a low price point, Wasa is widely available and very tasty. It’s wrapped in paper (though there is a variety in plastic — avoid!), and one could put this into a Tupperware bin of some sort to keep them crispy longer. These are wonderful with cheese or as a pizza base. Every other cracker box (I poked my finger into some and shook and rattled others) has a plastic bag inside the box. Friends, we’re talking about 30 different kinds of crackers at four different stores. Wasa is the only one I could find without plastic. Not even matzos are exempt from plastic, and that’s just not kosher, in my book. A reader mentioned that Grape-Nuts comes loose in a box, a la cat kibble, but I tried several sizes and brands (faux Grape-Nuts are terrible, by the way). All had a plastic bag inside the box. Bah!
I will add that I bought Triscuits, despite the plastic bag inside (I poked my finger in to be sure). But Triscuits has an interesting campaign going on now, encouraging home vegetable growing, and includes a packet of basil seeds in the cardboard of the box. I thought it was worth buying that to explore the green steps Nabisco is taking. Check out the link to the Plant a Seed, Grow a Movement Web site.
Snackwise, I was able to buy sunflower seeds in bulk (raw, so I’ll have to brine and toast them myself for Mr. Husband’s softball nights and spitting pleasure) and pretzels in bulk. I found plenty of bulk dried fruits, nuts, yogurt-covered pretzels, raisins, sesame twigs, and carob or chocolate covered fruit and nuts. I will definitely be back with my own containers for a dip into the bulk bins at Alameda Natural Grocery as well as those at Nob Hill last week. Another plus at ANG is the bulk cereals: Everyone with bins has bulk granola, and I make it myself, so who cares about the bulk granola? But I love my cereal, 24/7, so I was thrilled to discover organic corn flakes and a kind of oat Os (a la Cheerios) at ANG. I brought my own containers to fill and it was easy to do. I wrote down the bin numbers in a notebook frm my purse for check-out. I have already tried the corn flakes, and they blow Kellogg’s away. Much crisper, and they stand up to the milk. Yum!
Speaking of milk, I plunged in and bought the half-gallon of Strauss milk in the glass bottle. True, it has a plastic cap that can be recycled, and there was a $2.50 deposit on the bottle. But at $4.29 for a half-gallon of organic whole milk, from a local dairy, in a glass bottle, with cash back when I return the bottle — this is a sweet purchase. And it’s delicious on the organic corn flakes. I also bought the Strauss half and half, a pint for $2.19, with a $2.50 deposit. I usually pay about $2 for a quart in a general grocery store. This is one change I can commit to — milk in glass bottles. Yes!
Not only that, but I took another reader’s suggestion and sought out St. Benoit yogurt. This comes in plain or honey flavors and is a quart jar full of yogurty goodness. It set me back about $6 for 30 oz., which is more than I would have paid for a dozen Yoplaits, but with one glass jar I can reuse or recycle, instead of a dozen plastic tubs. This was also from ANG. Another highlight from Alameda Natural Grocery: I found ketchup in glass bottles, several varieties. Can’t wait to try it. Got that smoked paprika I was looking for, for when I make my own ketchup this summer with all my homegrown tomatoes, and the spice is in a little tin. I love that!
Other items in bottles purchased today include wine (but why must wines have that stupid plastic wrap over the cork? It’s not lead, it’s plastic.); vodka (glass bottles, yes, metal caps, yes, but a little plastic built-in jigger! What if I want to pour a large tot? Can’t I be the judge of my drink strength?), and locally made vermouth (Gallo, with a metal cap and no plastic). Juice in glass bottles tends to be pricier, so I’ll buy less. And juice is not all that good for you — it’s just sugar, whether you buy the HFCS kind or pure juice (fructose is still sugar). So it’s better for our health if I don’t buy much juice. I just got one quart today, Santa Cruz lemonade, made in Chico, not Santa Cruz.
I found fruit in glass at two locations: the store brand at CVS, where for $1 a jar, you get peaches, fruit cocktail or apple slices in light syrup, and at Lucky I got a jar of mandarin orange slices, about $2 for the jar, same amount as you’d get in a $1 can. I also swooped on some grapefruit segments in a glass jar. These are all great in salads, over cottage cheese, in a lunch box, etc. I like being able to see the fruit, and I appreciate that it’s in a better quality package than plastic — but the downside is that glass is heavier and weighs more to ship. That could add to extra fuel to ship, making the food miles for a glass product greater for a glass item then a plastic, canned or paper-wrapped similar item. (Read up on food miles if you’re unfamiliar with the term — it’s an important part of my selection of locally grown and produced foods.)
As I said, I have lots more to chat about, re groceries, and will continue tomorrow. My purpose here isn’t to tediously outline everything we buy and eat, but to show what is and isn’t available without plastic, and how to decide what’s a better buy. More to come in the Plastic Purge — tomorrow, cleaning supplies, bathroom items, and some surprise discoveries, plus fun at the farmers’ market! Woot!

Sunday musing

One of the pleasures of a Sunday morning (besides a tasty bowl of cereal) is the newspaper, that fat bundle lying like a gift on the front step. I (heart) the Sunday paper. The nice delivery person, a mystery visitor to our home once a week, leaves the paper on the front step, so close to the door that I could fetch it bare nekkid and still be OK. So why does s/he feel the need to wrap it in plastic? Not just on rainy days, but every week?
Note to self: contact San Francisco Chronicle and have the plastic bags stopped. The worst thing that could happen without the bag is that my paper gets wet, and guess what? It will dry. I know sometimes they put little samples of Tide or gum or something in the bag. Guess what? I don’t want that stuff, either. Which reminds me: I should also call my local newspapers that deliver once a week and ask for no plastic bags.

I know some people use these slender bags for dog poop pick-up (yay for using them a second time!). I vastly appreciate the picking up of dog poop by the owner and do not like having to clean up after irresponsible folks who let their dogs roam free to poop, willy-nilly, on my lawn. However, wrapping dog poo in plastic only makes it easy on you. It’s not actually good for the planet. Consider taking a few sheets of newspaper instead, so that the little package you pick up has a chance of decomposing a little more easily. It’s just a suggestion; don’t hate me.
Another much more annoying item on the front walk is the plastic-sheathed Kohl’s circular, delivered with annoying frequency — two or three times a week, it seems? Come on — how much stuff do you have to sell, and how many times do you think I will read about it? Word: I never read it, and have always, previously, just thrown it in the garbage, being too annoyed even to strip the plastic and recycle the paper. Note to self: Contact Kohl’s, track down who is making these local deliveries, and demand that they stop dropping this on my walk. If I have any success, I promise to post it here, for your benefit. (There, now you don’t hate me as much.)
Also today: Mr. Husband came home with fast food from Taco Bell, and made sure to avoid anything (like the nachos or enchirito) with a plastic tray. His paper food wraps are all compostable, but he was given a lid and straw with his drink. The hot sauce packets are foil, but he said no to those and a spork (plastic, also wrapped in plastic), since we already have taco sauce packets at home and regular silverware. I’m not recommending fast food, but if you do eat it, there are ways to reduce the plastic. I’d call the score even on this one — avoided some plastic, punked by some plastic.

I’m going to have to sit and look over our budget for the month of June, because money-wise, buying food without plastics has already proven to be more expensive. It’s also proving more time-consuming, re cooking and snacking from scratch, as well as much healthier. But money is money. Our food budget for 5 people is usually less than $500 per month. It tops out at about $800, with more mouths and fancier food during the holidays (Dungenness crab, hello!), but usually we do pretty well. If buying better food in order to avoid plastic is a new direction for us, I will have to seriously consider other budget items: gasoline, cable TV, entertainment, pocket money, and other semi-flexible expenses.

On the other hand, forays to Taco Bell notwithstanding, we are eating like kings. Delicious cantaloupe and berries, fresh salami on whole grain baguettes, local dairy butter, olive oil, wonderful turnips, carrots, kale and bok choy, and the occasional gourmet potato chip or mint Milano. No complaints as to quality, while a year ago, on the Food Stamp Challenge, we were eating hot dogs, cheap cuts of chicken, and lots of starch.

If eating well and helping to keep some plastic from the waste stream is the end result of this Challenge, then “no plastic” may well become a lifelong change.

I called the San Francisco Chronicle (800-310-2455) and they put a note to my distributor to ditch the plastic bag. Julia 5, plastics 2.

my family doesn’t hate me yet

Perhaps they fear me. I don’t know, but this is what happened yesterday. Adult daughter and her boyfriend come into the house bearing a pizza in a box and stop when they see me. “Can we have this?” she asks. She opens the box, shows me the pizza and the accompanying foil packets of Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes. Green waste and recycling, no plastic at all.

“Yes,” I said. “Enjoy.” And they did.  Julia 3, Plastic 2

Mr. Husband had a no-plastic adventure yesterday as well. He had purchased some foot spray from Target, but all four cans were defective (that happens a lot with Target products, I find, but that’s another topic and Challenge for the future). He took the cans to work and found a plastic bag somewhere in the office. He returned the cans and left the plastic bag with the customer service desk. He then purchased four more cans of foot spray and refused the proffered plastic bag, opting instead to put the cans into his pocket, holster-style, like some kind of cowboy fighting athlete’s foot. “I’m Anti-Fungal Man!” (cue theme song).
He followed up this little shopping venture with his usual stop for popcorn and soda, enjoying popcorn in a paper bag (yay for traditions!) and refusing the straw and plastic lid to his waxed-paper cup beverage.
Julia/family, 4, Plastic 2

So it seems the family doesn’t hate me (yet), but rather are entering into the spirit of the Challenge with alacrity.

More fun with family: Today, in the pouring rain, we are off to a family open house and barbecue (perhaps we can eat indoors? she wonders hopefully). I purchased graduation cards a few weeks ago and had planned to buy gift cards to give. However, in light of the Plastic Purge, I decided to enclose old-fashioned checks instead. I have been keeping my used gift cards in the past few months, thinking I could always recharge them with money, and I may yet do that. Otherwise, this is another example of plastic that gets used essentially once, then discarded. I’m thinking that cash or check gifts are a greener alternative — dollar bills, expecially, since they go on being circulated til they fall apart, and are then recycled by the US Mint.

Stay dry, peeps.

PS: SORRY SORRY SORRY about the stupid ads that appear with all the plastic stuff. It’s computer-generated. I’m sorry. Really, I am.

Punked by Plastic

I was punked by plastic. In my grocery shopping adventures Thursday, I cheerfully bought two (minuscule and pricey) glass jars of mustard, and when putting them away, discovered Ambient Plastic (unnecessary extra plastic) bands around the lids. Why? Why is this necessary? (insert existential yawp here.)

I opened the waxed paper bag of salami I bought at the deli counter yesterday, after expressly forbidding the use of plastic in my order, and found the thin blue plastic sheet she used to load up the bag and not get her hand greasy. I guess they always throw that into the customer’s package? I wonder if they couldn’t use some tongs or a fork, because even if they don’t put it in *my* bag, they still used plastic and are still throwing it away (hello, landfill) after one use. (*facepalm*)

Oy vey.

But in good news, I got my new smaller gray garbage can today from ACI. It’s the same size on the outside, with an insert about the size of a three-year old (very handy if you have a Terrible Three undergoing a terrible tantrum)…(I kid!). So far no one in the family has forgotten about the absent kitchen trash can and tossed stuff under the sink. And so far no one has cursed me about the strange healthful foods I brought home yesterday. They will, however, when they ask for pocket money and there is none, because I spent it all on glass-, metal- and paper-packed goodness for their bellies and their futures. I told you they were gonna hate me.

In an errand today, I dropped off two items for dry-cleaning (silk and angora, two items I prefer not to mangle at home). I go to Garden Cleaners on Webster Street. I asked that they use no plastic bag to sheat my cleaned clothes and they assured me that would be no problem; it was written into the computer instructions. And no extra charge. It never hurts to ask. I also told the pharmacist at Kaiser “no bag” when he was trying to shove an already-boxed medication into a plastic envelope for me. Julia, 2, Plastic 1.

I will delve into the plastics problem in the bathroom later this month, but for now I’d like to illustrate a common product issue and how to solve it:

Exhibit A: Bad Plastic. Toilet paper wearing a protective coat of petroleum byproduct.

Exhibit B: No plastic. Toilet paper rolls bought, individually wrapped in recycled/recyclable paper. I compost both the wrapper of the new roll as well as the paper tube of the old roll at the same time. This is the CVS brand of recycled TP, and they often have it on sale. Plus you get those CVS Extra Bucks for buying the store brand and sometimes that leads to extra coupons or cash back. (Note: CVS also carried Crystal Dairy products, a California dairy.)

Exhibit C: Two versions of the same product, with some plastic, and with Bad Plastic. I use Claritin (generic) for allergies. Buying the box of 30 or fewer pills means several sheets of non-recyclable plastic-and-foil-wrapped pills. Buying the bottle of 30, 60 or more means one plastic bottle, recyclable. It’s all about choosing wisely.

Comment Follow-Ups

  • Jon mentioned that oatmeal comes in cardboard containers — albeit with a plastic lid. I didn’t buy any yesterday but it’s one of our staples here. If I buy it in bulk, I will take along an empty oatmeal container, and avoid the extra plastic, so thanks, Jon, and duly noted. Also, though individual packets of instant oatmeal are generally enveloped in paper, the product itself (instant oatmeal) has been found with traces of mercury, so I buy just the basic old-fashioned rolled oats. I prefer my breakfast without mercury or cancer, thanks.
  • Wendy asked where I found mayonnaise with a metal lid, and doh! I forgot about the lid. Looks like I bought a glass jar with a plastic lid. Plastic, 2, Julia 2.

My family is going to hate me

More so than usual, I mean. And why? Because the Plastic Purge has begun. Today, June 1, 2011, I am going to do what I can for 30 days (and then into infinity) to eradicate the use of plastic in our lives. (cue Mission Impossible theme song…)

I just posted this groovy sign in the kitchen. I have removed the trash can from the house. No garbage in the kitchen. See, as a green zealot, I’m always going through the trash because someone inevitably puts something compostable in the garbage (this afternoon — paper napkins, a pair of wooden chopsticks). And this after browbeating my family for at least four years. I frequently find recyclables (plastic, paper or foil) in the trash. And then there is the completely reusable plastic fork I pulled out this afternoon, too. I used to cringe when my former MIL, an Old Country-Portuguese, raised in the Depression years, babushka-type, went through the trash picking things out. Word: I have become that woman. (slays self with plastic knife)

So Step 1, for those of you playing along with the home game, is to eliminate the source of confusion, forcing other family members to actually Sort Their Trash.

Step 2: Call the garbage company, also known as Alameda County Industries around these parts, and tell them in my nicest telephone voice that we will no longer be needing a 40-gallon gray can for garbage. We would like to have a 20-gallon can, please. And the lady said, “You go, girl,” and reduced my bill from $92.86 per three months to $59 for three months. Yes, tightwads, that’s a savings of $33.86 per quarter, or about $11 a month, to be spent on something else much more interesting than rotting garbage.

I wasn’t kidding when I said going green could bring you green(backs).

[By the way, I recently made the decision to monetize this blog, meaning I would allow ads on it after eight years of being a no-ad zone, since I am a starving writer and this is one minuscule way I can make a little income to feed our poor bereft children, kitties and chickens. Then I noticed today (the first day of allowing ads) that all this plastic talk is bringing “Buy Our Crappy Plastic, Made in China From Orphan Baby Unicorns” ads directly to my blog. So that sucks. And I’m sorry. And not sure what to do about that just yet. Maybe we can call plastic by a code name. Like “schmashtick” or something. Oh, the perils of workin’ for the Man…]

But back to “schmashtick”…

Step 3: The one thing I am not going to do — perhaps this will surprise you? — is to throw away everything in my house that is plastic (I mean schmashtick). The thing about being green is to use what you have before you recycle it. That means the things we own that are made of The P Word and are still useful are going to keep on being useful.

Please do not fall into the trap, Grasshopper, of thinking that everything that is sold as “green” is really all that green, and that throwing away perfectly serviceable items (hello, landfill) in favor of “green” ones is a good practice. It’s not. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, though this time I’ll say it in blank verse: “The best green choice is *always* to buy nothing.” Use what you have and reduce the need for The World to make new stuff, green or toxic, out of wood, paper, unicorn horns or plastic.

At our house, we have Tupperware. We have plastic cooking utensils in the kitchen. We have a plastic tape dispenser on my desk, unless someone has walked off with it, in which case, hit the deck; Mom’s gonna blow up. There is plastic everywhere, but some of it is being used and is functional. I assure you I will find another choice, or do without, when said items wear out and get recycled. But until then, as long as they are harming no one, these pieces of schmashtick will continue to serve their purposes without further impact.

A thought, and some terminology:  A vastly insightful reader posted a comment a few days ago on the Patch version of this blog about the wonder of plastic. She said something like, “We have this amazing medium and it can do amazing things (like make valves for hearts and protect newborn babies or very ill people from germs), but instead of that, we use it for temporary or one-use items and then throw it away. But it still lasts for 1000 years.” Amen, sister. She’s absolutely right. If plastic is doing some durable good in the world, then fabulous — go to it, plastic. (I’ll call this (relatively) Good Plastic.) But to use it once and throw it away — bad. This will be known hereafter as Bad Plastic.

Especially heinous among Bad Plastic is what I’ve started to call Ambient Plastic: the ubiquitous plastic wrap around the top of a bottle of Snapple, the double-wrapping on a loaf of bread, the double and triple bags we’re given at the store that baggers then actually throw away when you try to eschew the bags, and so on. Is all that necessary? The excessive use of ambient plastic is mostly what I’ll be fighting and avoiding in the coming days.

Today, before I even had my first cup of coffee, I ran into a plastic challenge: There was a tag on my new underwear, and the tag was attached with one of those little plastic T-shaped strips that are so beloved in the retail world. I snipped it and tossed it into the bathroom trash can and then went, “Doh!” And I was too squeamish to put my hand into the bathroom trash to fish it out. Plastic 1, Julia 0. It’s pernicious. It’s ambient. It’s everywhere.

So it begins.