Storing Produce, Compostable Bags, and the Four Rs

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, Curtain Lace Produce Bags, and also springs from the comments following a post on This Sorta Old Life in which Rita was making reusable grocery bags.

First off, there was some question as to how I used my curtain lace produce bags, and what I did with produce items which needed to be wrapped in plastic in the fridge.  I had always assumed certain items, such as salad greens and broccoli, needed to be wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator, and if I didn’t have a plastic produce bag I’d either use a bread bag for wrapping, or place the item in a closed plastic container.  But I recently came across what looks to be a really valuable resource on the Washington’s Green Grocer website. They list (seemingly) every imaginable type of produce, and give instructions on the way to store it without the use of plastic.  So for example, this is their advice on broccoli:

Broccoli‐ place in an open container in the fridge or wrap in a damp towel before placing in the fridge.

If you’re interested in reading further, the complete list can be found here:

http://www.washingtonsgreengrocer.com/everything-else/storage-tips/how-store-vegetables-fruit-without-plastic.htm

Handy, eh?

Secondly, during the discussion following Rita’s post, compostable produce bags were floated as an alternative to conventional produce bags.  (The store I shop at supplies only conventional produce bags, so for me, compostable produce bags are a moot point, but depending on where you live, compostable produce bags may be making an appearance at your local stores).  Because I remembered reading something about problems arising from biodegradable bags, I promised to look into it.

Here’s the information I found regarding compostable bags:

  • The term biodegradable is not equivalent to the term compostable.  Biodegradable simply means that the bag will break down; it doesn’t speak to the end product, or the time frame.  In the early days of biodegradable and compostable bags this may have caused problems, as bags which weren’t truly compostable broke down into small bits of plastic which then contaminated compost streams.  The term compostable is now governed by US or European standards for compostability (ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868 or EN 13432) which ensures that bags will break down completely into organic matter within a certain time frame, under municipal composting conditions.  The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) tests bags to ensure they meet these standards. Bags which are approved are BPI certified and will carry the BPI compostable logo. When researching this, I looked for compostable bags in my grocery store, and came upon boxes labeled similar to this logo, which means the US Composting Council, in collaboration with BPI, has tested and approved the bags for compostability.  If you’re participating in a municipal composting program, your city’s website should provide information on what to look for when purchasing bags.
  • Compostable bags can be invaluable when it comes to municipal composting programs, but their use in backyard compost systems seems to be questionable, as these systems may not provide the conditions necessary to fully compost these bags.

When considering the use of compostable bags for purposes other than municipal composting programs, it’s worth keeping in mind the following:

  • Compostable bags are made of vegetable matter, usually corn.  This means crops are being grown for the production of bags, rather than to provide food for either people or animals.
  • Like their plastic counterparts, it takes energy to manufacture compostable bags.
  • Compostable bags are still considered single-use, just like conventional plastic bags.
  • Compostable bags which end up in the conventional plastic recycling stream are considered a contaminant.  Because their chemical composition is completely different than plastic, they cannot be recycled along with regular plastic bags.
  • Compostable bags do not biodegrade properly in a landfill, as there is insufficient oxygen and light present to fuel the reactions.

Compostable bags do have one certain advantage over conventional plastic bags:  because they are made of vegetable matter, they can — given the proper conditions — return entirely to nature.  In the big picture though, it seems to me that any wholehearted endorsement and promotion of the use of compostable bags for anything other than municipal composting programs goes hand-in-hand with the misguided thinking that the 3 Rs — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — are equivalent.

Now, I honestly don’t know if the person who came up with the 3 Rs catch-phrase intended the order of the 3 Rs to be of significance, but this is something well worth thinking about; environmentally speaking, Reduce and Reuse are much more important than Recycle.

Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t seem to be common knowledge.  The prevailing mindset about the 3 Rs still tends to be that if a product can be recycled, it’s all good.

An office using too much paper?  Don’t worry about it!  It gets recycled, so it’s all good. Still hooked on buying bottles of water?  We recycle, so it’s all good. Using plastic baggies for children’s lunches, rather than investing in containers?  Using them for only one lunch?  The school has a recycling program for plastic bags, so it’s all good.

Except … it’s not all good.

Recycling, while an extraordinarily useful and necessary process, isn’t the be-all and end-all of environmental stewardship.  A mindset which relies on throw-away products because of the holy grail of recycling fails to take into account the energy and raw materials which go into making the products, the energy and raw materials which go into packaging the products, the energy that goes into shipping the products, the energy which goes into collecting recyclables, and the energy which goes into recycling the products when their short life is spent.  That’s a lot of energy and raw materials we’re talking about!

So while the 3 Rs have been kicking around for quite some time, there’s another R that arrived on the scene a few years ago which is in dire need of some PR:

Refuse.

In other words, if you have the option, if you can see a way of getting by without using something disposable, even if that something can be recycled …

Just Say No!

Er … well … okay … the stereotypical Canadian in me is saying:

Just Say No, Thanks!

———————————–

(A housekeeping note:  I’m still having trouble with the mechanics of this blog.  Please bear with me as I try to sort out why I’m not getting email notifications on comments, and why previously-approved commenters are still having comments held for moderation. I’ve updated my theme, updated my settings, changed my theme … all to no avail … Pity the poor BlueHost rep who’s going to be bothered by me this weekend …)

Advertisements

Curtain Lace Produce Bags (Or: How I Embarrass Myself and My Children)

I alluded to my curtain lace produce bags in my inaugural post, Green, and I thought I’d give them a post of their own.  After all, anything this eccentric deserves to have a huge spotlight shone on it 😉

I don’t remember exactly when I made these produce bags, but hazarding a guess, I would say it was about eight years ago.  I had been bringing reusable grocery bags to the supermarket for many years prior, ever since the early 90s when The Real Canadian Superstore, the grocery store I frequented, removed the plastic bags from the ends of the checkout lanes and began charging customers 5 cents per bag.  Because I’m a bit of a numbers geek and like to add things up to assess impact, I’ll do the math:  24 years X 52 weeks X approximately 8 bags per week equals nearly 10,000 plastic grocery bags I’ve saved.

So I had the reusable shopping bags well in hand when I started thinking about the ubiquitous produce bag.  I was quite certain supermarkets were going through reams of them, and unlike plastic grocery bags which can have other uses such as lining garbage bins, the produce bag, although useful for keeping salad greens and the like fresh in the fridge, was something I would usually throw away once produce such as apples, pears, and oranges were unpacked.

A sewer, I searched my stash and found a length of curtain lace which had been given to me at one point by my mother-in-law who was trying to reduce her stash.  Because the elaborate pattern was decidedly not my style, I knew I wouldn’t ever use the fabric to make anything else, and as it was more lightweight than plain cotton (I weighed a length of both), I decided the curtain lace was the best option.  Sheer curtain fabric would have worked just as well, but I didn’t have any, and as other sewers can probably relate, I was determined to make use of fabric I already had.

I made six of varying sizes, each a basic pillowcase-shaped pouch measuring between 9 and 11 inches wide and 12 to 13 inches tall.  Because I didn’t want to end up paying more for my produce, I didn’t add drawstrings or other methods of closure which would add unnecessary weight to the bags.  I threw them into the bag of bags I take to the grocery store and off I went.

 

Now, I’m not a confident person.  I would much rather blend in than stand out, observe rather than be observed, so these curtain lace produce bags — slightly fussy and somewhat eccentric — were a bit of a stretch for me. Unfortunately, my very first experience using them felt somewhat like a cosmic joke:  slightly nervous about using these oddball bags, I walked into the produce section, and what was the sight that greeted me?  A bin filled to the brim with individually-wrapped sweet peppers.  To say I was deflated would be an understatement:  I nearly cried over the futility of it all, and nearly gave up without even beginning.

Truthfully, futility remains the key word in this endeavour:  eight years on, I continue to be buffeted by waves of pointlessness as I look around the supermarket and mark the ocean of plastic packaging my lace bags are up against.  I often stand there thinking why am I bothering? as I observe individuals bagging things that don’t need to be bagged; I often feel annoyed that I’m forced to leave my lace bags unused, as the produce I need to buy is already — unnecessarily —- pre-packaged at some produce distribution centre.  I know, without the slightest doubt, that my bags are a drop in the ocean, but at this stage of the game I simply keep going.  I give a sigh of resignation and then — as though I’m running a marathon and counting the miles — I say to myself, one more.  In other words, I mentally chalk up another bag, and I continue on.  For the record, I don’t actually have a running tally, but I’ll do the calculation now:   8 years X 52 weeks X approximately 3 bags per week equals about 1200 produce bags I’ve not used.

While 1200 bags may sound like a lot, it really isn’t.  In the grand scheme of things it’s nothing more than an inconsequential drop of a drop of a drop in the ocean.  So if these 1200 bags do matter (to me), it isn’t because of their impact.  It’s because of the principle.  The axiom take care of the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves is a good way to think of these bags.  In other words, something small and insignificant can rapidly grow to something large and significant if you continue long enough, or if others join you.  As ‘Becca from The Earthlings Handbook said to me in a comment, they set a good example.  Of course, she said this before seeing what they actually looked like 😉 .  I wonder sometimes if I would be setting a better example if there wasn’t an air of the ridiculous hovering around them.  I admit that even after eight years, I still find myself pulling these bags out somewhat self-consciously, almost surreptitiously.  As much as I would like to say I don’t care what others think, I do sometimes worry that someone will laugh at my oddball ways.  No one has though, and quite a number of cashiers — usually women, and of a certain age — have commented favourably on them.  They ask if I made them, they say they’re lovely, and that it’s a great idea to save bags.  And no, there’s no sarcasm in their voices; they sound completely sincere.

My children, however, have been another story.  If I’m slightly embarrassed (still) by these produce bags, that’s nothing to how they felt when I first whipped them up.  They were completely aghast at what their crazy-lady mother was proposing to do at the grocery store, the very place they might run into a classmate or a teacher. They would stand by the cart, mortified, as I put pears into a bag.  If I asked them to get oranges, and tried to hand them a bag, they flat-out refused.  They wouldn’t even put them on the conveyor belt when it came time to check out.  Undaunted, I would silently remind myself — somewhat churlishly — that I was doing my part to save the earth for them, and simply continue on, adding 2, or 3, or 4 to my non-existent mental tally.

It’s a testament to my oftentimes stubborn frugality that I have passed up sales on non-embarrassing, non-eccentric, non-curtain-lace produce bags.  Our grocery store used to sell them.  They were plain, a fine mesh, with strings at the top, and although I haven’t seen them recently, there are many versions available for purchase on amazon.com.  I’ve looked at them, considered them, and then dismissed them.  After all, why should I buy produce bags when I already have produce bags?  And as time has marched on, my kids have come to accept them as well:

One day, about a year ago, my daughter pointed to a check-out display of plain, unobtrusive produce bags marked down to clearance price.

I shrugged and said, “I already have produce bags…”

And as she put the apples — in all their lace-dressed glory — onto the conveyer belt, she replied, “Yeah, that’s true.”

(Next post:  Compostable Bags and the Four Rs)