Every week, I’m shocked at the size of our pile of plastics to be recycled. Mountains of milk cartons, pasta containers, and cheese wrappers. As a family of four with varying tastes, we produce a lot of waste. Here in the Netherlands, so much can be recycled. But that doesn’t make our mountain of waste any less disturbing. I find I often use convenience and our kids as an excuse to be wasteful--if we weren’t running after a toddler and a big kid we’d do things differently, if we weren’t two working parents we’d have more time to make more and buy less.
Inspired by the movie River Blue, which details the catastrophic impact fashion has on the environment and my sister-in-law’s own efforts to reduce her family’s waste, I convinced my husband and older son to go plastic-free for the month of February (the little guy just got taken along for the ride.) We knew we couldn’t be perfect--we excused the cartons of milk (dairy and non) and the critical coffee (no paper-bag coffee around here!) and accepted that our scheduled weekend of travel wouldn’t be perfect. From there, we proceeded to dive into a month of plastic-free living as an experiment in habit-development and a means of assessing where we could reduce in the long term. We definitely faced a lot of challenges along the way and found some ways we could make lasting changes. Here’s what we found:
Location. Our part of the Netherlands doesn't have lovely bulk foods areas in super markets that we were used to in the States or the emerging Zero Waste aisles that are becoming popular elsewhere. So all of the dry staples we rely on (beans, rice, nuts, and dried fruit) are cased in plastic, even at eco markets.
Super markets coat almost all produce in plastic. I understand that they want the food to last longer (à la Trader Joe’s in the states) but I really, really missed lettuce (which is impossible to find without a plastic bag in the winter.)
Food delivery is a huge culprit. Grocery delivery is a major sources of plastic waste in our house. We found that giving up grocery delivery meant we were able to make more conscious choices with our food purchases.
Convenience foods are another culprit for waste. Our kids do love a veggie nugget and tofu crumble and we all love the “night off” we get from the occasional take-out order, but most convenience foods come in plastic (minus pizza. Thank GOD for pizza). So we said goodbye to them for the month and got ok with a little bit of additional cooking. Homemade tortillas were a ton of fun to do as a family but also more work than it is worth doing on a regular basis. Granola on the other hand, is so damn easy that it seems insane to buy the stuff. That said, as the primary cook in our house and a staunch feminist, I felt really burdened by the added work of avoiding the convenience foods. Yeah, I do love cooking, but I want it to be on my terms.
Outcomes we can maintain
This effort prompted me to look into a delivery service that could accommodate no/low-plastic (especially on produce where it really isn't necessary if you are buying fresh.) I’m excited to move from supporting a big grocery store chain to a small entrepreneur who works directly with local farmers. Back in the US, I always subscribed to Community Supported Agriculture programs, and this is the equivalent--it positively impacts local farmers and reduces waste dramatically. Win-win.
Discovering all of the farmers markets and farm stores. Our city only operates farmers markets during the week so discovering the "far" farmers market in Liege that is open on the Sundays was a huge win. Yes, it is a bit farther, but it is beautiful and has all of the produce and cheeses you could want.
Milk taps! While my husband and I don’t drink cows milk regularly, our kids do and our family loves yogurt. With a little searching, I found out that lots of farms across the Netherlands have “milk taps”--self-serve, cold milk vending machines where you can buy by the liter, using your own containers. This milk is very cheap (comparable to conventional milk at the supermarket) and organic, unpasteurized, and unhomoginized. For the little guys, I’d scald the milk to kill any potential bacteria or make it into fresh yogurt. Next time, I’ll make it into ricotta or even try my hand at mozzarella-making.
Bread is super easy to do zero waste. With your own bag you can get fresh bread from bakers or the bakery section of the grocery store. But if you want to take it to the next level, making your own bread is really easy and sooo much better than store-bought. I’m a big fan of the Artisan Bread in 5-minutes a Day approach that my mom introduced me to years ago. By keeping a huge bin of dough in your fridge, you can just pull off a chunk and cook it every day. It really does take about 5 minutes a day to do this, and it feels so nice in the winter to have the smells of fresh-baked bread swirling through your home.
Bringing our own produce/bread bags to the store. This is the easiest win. We avoid a lot of plastic by just bringing our own small bags for produce and bread. Apples, pears, bananas, and citrus are almost always available without plastic wrapping. For berries, we’ll just have to wait until they are in season at the farmers market and bring our own containers or buy frozen which are generally available in recyclable paper boxes here. Seasonal is better, anyways!
We will keep talking about waste and making conscious choices. This is a huge outcome for us. This effort got our eight-year-old thinking so much more about the waste he produces. He turns off the lights more and takes pride in thinking of the ways he can consume less. He understands more clearly that a little effort can have a big impact.
So, while we aren’t going to be as stringent as we were for the month of February, I’d say the experiment was worth-while. Yesterday I noticed that the groceries my husband picked up that evening after work were pretty solidly plastic-free. Our 28 days seems to have created a bit of a new habit--thinking more carefully about the choices we make when it comes to plastic. And to me, that’s a really important outcome. What do you think? Could your family commit to being plastic-free for a month? Where could you make lasting changes to reduce your plastic waste?
Favorite recipes from our plastic-free experiment: