How I kicked the Plastic Food Container Habit

By Liesl Clark

After picking up several hundred pounds of plastic off our beaches, it was tough to return home and find the same stuff in my home, especially in the cupboards holding our food. We decided to go cold turkey and threw all our kitchen cupboard plastics out.

Zero Waste Kitchen Tips photo © Liesl Clark

Zero Waste Kitchen Tips photo © Liesl Clark

I Freecycled our tupperware and all of our Teflon-coated pans and appliances (I was really going deep with the anti-plastic thing). Even plastic travel mugs were off limits. We took stock of the things that we typically bought with plastic packaging: Rice that came in plastic bags as well as various grains, pastas, nuts, and dried fruit. How was a family to switch completely to non-plastic-packaged staples?

Plastic-Free Bulk Options: Oils & Maple Syrup Stored in Glass. Our Own Honey, too is Stored in Glass. Photo © Liesl Clark

Plastic-Free Bulk Options: Oils & Maple Syrup Stored in Glass. Our Own Honey, too is Stored in Glass. Photo © Liesl Clark

Our answer was in bulk foods. I can go to our local store with my own containers and buy most of what we need from our bulk department. I invested in some large glass jars and store almost everything in them (you can see brewer’s yeast in our last plastic containers in the upper left corner there — it’s mostly used for our pets).

Storage Jars for Sugar, Nuts, and Grains. Photo © Liesl Clark

Storage Jars for Sugar, Nuts, and Grains. Photo © Liesl Clark

An even cheaper solution is to join a local organic bulk food delivery service where I can get really large amounts of staple foodstuffs for much cheaper. For us, this option makes sense because we eat rice and dhal (red lentils) many times a week like most people do on the Indian subcontinent. Since we’ve raised our children to be accustomed to simple meals, we don’t want to start them on too many processed foods at this stage in their development. So, dhal bhat it is, along with Indian and Thai curries and lots of variations on rice and bean Mexican-style dishes. The kids love pasta, too, so we get all of it in bulk.

Bulk-Style Food Storage. Photo © Liesl Clark

Bulk-Style Food Storage. Photo © Liesl Clark

Rice comes in 25 and 50 lb bags, dhal in 25 lbs and I buy flour in 50 lb bags since we bake our own bread. Pastas comes in 10 lb increments as well as all of our nuts and dried fruits. The large bags of flour and grains are then stored inside galvanized metal bins in our pantry.

Flour Procured From the Organic White Flour Bin. Photo © Liesl Clark

Flour Procured From the Organic White Flour Bin. Photo © Liesl Clark

Loving the Bulk Bin Life. Photo © Liesl Clark

Loving the Bulk Bin Life. Photo © Liesl Clark

When we run out of power, we have enough staples of one sort or another to keep us going, with a veggie garden, plenty of berries and fruit trees to round out our produce needs. Even the chickens and bees contribute to our overall food production on this micro-farm.

Bright Lights Chard in the Garden. Photo © Liesl Clark

Bright Lights Chard in the Garden. Photo © Liesl Clark

Was it difficult to move away from plastics in the kitchen? Remarkably, no. As soon as we stopped buying single or even 1-week-lasting servings of things from the grocery store, we saw the plastics disappear. We do occasionally buy things like tortilla chips for the guacamole we make (avocados from CA of course) and those come in a crinkly chip bag, so we’re not completely devoid of plastics. Although, I’m considering getting them in bulk from our local Mexican restaurant. They make them by hand and I can just order them as takeout in my own container! We also see plastic rings around some of the glass store-bought items we get, like mayonaise. But our “trash” is truly minimal, now that the common grocery store plastic packaging has been greatly reduced.

If you want to give it a try, zero wasting your cupboards, feel free to ask questions. Or if you live nearby, I’d be happy to help you do it in person, a sort of in-home plastic-free cupboard consultancy. Feel free to connect in the comments below.

If you’re looking for more “reduce, reuse and rethink” inspirations for your kitchen. Please visit our Trash Backwards app where we have ideas for reusing, organizing, even fixing your everyday things so they’ll last longer and leave less impact:

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22 Comments on “How I kicked the Plastic Food Container Habit”

  1. Susan Robinson
    March 28, 2013 at 3:33 am #

    What a beautiful sight! I have also put all my stapes in jars instead of their plastic bags and containers, but yours is a true inspiration. Oh, how I wish I lived close enough to see this in person.
    I might have missed it, but would you do a post about what your family eats? I am trying to switch to real, whole food and eliminate processed stuff and a post of this nature would be helpful. How admirable that you are teaching your children this early in their lives.
    Love your posts! Thanks.

    • March 28, 2013 at 7:08 am #

      Hi Susan. Thanks for finding us. I’d be happy to do a post about the kinds of foods we eat, complete with a recipe for dhal bhat. I link to our staple breadmaker recipe for bread in the article and we also make our own off-the-grid yogurt each week since it’s so easy to make. Will be back at you soon!
      — Liesl at Trash Backwards

  2. March 28, 2013 at 6:05 am #

    I hadn’t thought about all the ‘hidden in sight’ plastics we use. Thanks for this info.

    • March 28, 2013 at 7:10 am #

      Hi Claudia. I was surprised, too, when I started looking around the kitchen to see how much plastic we had accumulated. But when we got rid of it, we felt like we had stepped back in time and the kitchen looks beautiful!
      — Liesl

  3. Prairie Rose
    March 28, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    Great timing for this post! I was just headed to my local natural food store to get, among other things, some peanut butter from the pb making machine there. I have a plastic container that I re-use over and over again….and ‘LIGHT BULB’….DUH…why am I using this plastic container when I have been slowly but surely changing all my containers in the kitchen over to glass?? I have the perfect left over peanut butter jar sitting in the cupboard! Sometimes the obvious eludes me 8^) Thank you for such a wonderful and USEFUL blog.

    • March 28, 2013 at 8:14 am #

      Hi Prairie Rose. So glad you found a reuse for that glass peanut butter jar! I have the tare weight written on the bottom of most of our quart mason jars (they do it at our store in Sharpie) so I can grind peanut butter in there, too. And the local deli lets me bring in my own glass cheese container for their delicious cheeses. Feel so lucky to have figured out how to rid myself of clingy plastic that won’t ever go away from this planet!
      — Liesl

  4. March 28, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    We have gradually been shifting our pantry goods into large mason jars, and I am buying more bulk items to fill them too. However, I still have a large number of plastic storage bins made by OXO. I liked them at first because they have pop tops, which are easy on my very sore hands, but now I look at them with disdain. Booooo! I think I will recycle them to a local charity. My husband, ever the penny watching finance professional, likes that the jars cost us so much less than the plastic containers. I like that he has ventured into new territory by going to buy bulk items at Whole Foods without me, a true adventure for a “regular guy” from Illinois farm country who is more comfortable in the “regular” grocery store. The price of bulk foods is a leading motivator here. Love the idea of putting staples into galvanized containers. Thanks again for great ideas!

    • March 28, 2013 at 8:18 am #

      Hi Christine. Kudos to your husband for taking on this re-thinking of our shopping habits. We’re “voting” by our buying choices and as soon as the stores see how we’re buying they’ll push the food producers to stop providing the useless and wasteful packaging. I admit, I do have one large plastic pop top style container that is quite air tight. I use it for my dry goods, like our precious spices from Nepal which are individually packaged in paper. I think the most important thing is getting your wet stuff out of plastic and the moving on to the dry goods in glass because it looks great, and is easy to identify. When our kids see those dried fruits and nuts in the glass jars, they reach for them for snacks which is great.
      All the best,
      L.

  5. Deb
    March 28, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    You are an inspiration, Liesl, keep up the great work!! I have to say I have been spending more and more time in the bulk foods department and I love it. We’ve bought fabric produce bags and I’ve been making some of my own as well, and we bring those to the store to load up on bulk stuff when we dont want to totally overload ourselves carrying the glass containers around. I’m of the opinion that the plastic goes somewhere even when you freecycle, so I tend to keep the stuff around I already have, but eventually I hope to transition to more non-plastics as those wear out.

    • March 28, 2013 at 8:56 am #

      Hi Deb! I agree about the dilemma of passing on plastics to Freecyclers, but I’m very up-front about it with them. I’d rather have them used than tossed in the ‘fill. Love that you’re using fabric produce bags. I don’t bother with bringing my glass jars since they’re so big (except for peanut butter and a few other less bulky items) and tend to simply reuse what fabric or (yes) plastic bags I have stashed in my reusable cloth shopping bags. I love hearing how others crack the plastic kitchen nut!
      — Liesl

  6. March 28, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    I get such a great vibe from this blog! I love what you’ve done! I store all my flours and grains in plastic containers – I thought about glass when I set it up a year ago but decided against it due to weak wrists. I struggle to empty a saucepan with one hand. I try to get the coop for grains but the price for dried fruit and chocolate chips is exorbitant! Tough decisions

    • March 28, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

      Oh Sarah, I sympathise about the weak wrists. I’ve started to lose the strength in mine, so I have rubber bands on a lot of lids so I don’t always have to rely on my husband’s help. Agree that prices can be higher when going for organic or local. We’ve decided to spend a little more to support our farmers, food producers, and local shops that are open to those of us that want a life without corporate packaging. But the bulk option through a company called Azure Standard in Oregon has cut our food prices in half since we get large paper feed-sack-style amounts of our staples. I’d love to know if there’s an option like that for many others across the country.

    • March 30, 2013 at 9:02 am #

      Like you two ladies, I struggle with limitations imposed by arthritis. This is why I bought many of those plastic containers by OXO that have the pop tops. However, where there is a will, there is a way, and living environmentally sound is of great importance to me, so I will find a way to utilize glass instead. I’ve just noticed that the Arthiritis Foundation has a new book out that offers great ways to compensate for weaknesses of certain joints. One of the “nibblers” was to use paddles to help tuck in sheets on the bed…ah ha! (I can’t use the rubber band trick for jar lids because I’m allergic to latex.) I try to search my memories to think of things my grandmothers would have used to help them back in the days when they didn’t have the many options that we have today. My maternal grandmother had significant joint damage in her hands from RA, yet she was always there, cooking away, at family events, and her pantry and cupboards were full of cans and jars, so she was doing something right. I’ll get the book and report back.
      Making the muscles that support weak joints stronger is very important. I have some great DVD’s from the Arthritis Foundation that have been so helpful for creating good health, and these include yoga and tai chi DVD’s for those interested. The exercise programs are all “evidence based”, which means the best of the best practices that are substantiated by time and research.
      We can solve problems!
      I’ve seen some food from the organic co-ops in Colorado, but it hasn’t been of the greatest quality. Go figure: We are having an extreme drought in our growing regions and high altitude, poor soil, does not yield the best produce.

      • May 10, 2013 at 9:19 am #

        Weak wrists run heavily in the ladies side of my family. My MIL used to always have a little rubber/plastic square in her kitchen that we used to open jars rather than call for the boys. I see them hanging at the end of grocery store isle all the time but have never bought one myself because i couldnt accept the price tag. Having recently started converting over my kitchen, I took a tight jar of jam up to my sewing room and tried out many different materials to see if any could compare. I was somewhat surprised to see that the best match was some leather from a blown out work glove. Now I can finally get into the rhubarb jam! If you aren’t morally opposed to leather products, this might be a handy go-around for your latex allergy.

      • May 10, 2013 at 9:45 am #

        Fabulous! That’s a great workaround, Kirial.

  7. Renate
    October 12, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    Where did you get your galvanized metal containers?! I buy flour in bulk as well and I’d like to kick my plastic bin to the curb.

    • October 12, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

      Hi Renate. I got them at our local Ace Hardware. We just put the bulk bags in the bins and feel much better having shunned the plastic. Hope you can find them at a hardware store near you.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Zero Waste Household Guide: Kitchen Solutions | Trash Backwards - March 28, 2013

    [...] Buy in bulk whenever possible. You’ll get a better price per pound, and there’s less packaging to deal with. If you don’t know of a buying club or co-op around you, check the online directory of the Co-op Directory Service for a state-by-state listing of buying clubs and co-ops, and tips on starting one for your community: http://www.coopdirectory.org/#WhatIsABuyingClub Even your local grocery store has bulk options on its regular shelves. Buy the largest package you can find of pasta, fresh green beans, rice, etc. Freeze extra in season vegetables and fruits for use when they’re not in season any more; store that extra pasta and rice in your pantry. [...]

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