Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Before the Plastics Revolution

And Man created the plastic bag and the tin and aluminum can and the cellophane wrapper and the paper plate, and this was good because Man could then take his automobile and buy all his food in one place and He could save that which was good to eat in the refrigerator and throw away that which had no further use. And soon the earth was covered with plastic bags and aluminum cans and paper plates and disposable bottles and there was nowhere to sit down or walk, and Man shook his head and cried: "Look at this Godawful mess." ~Art Buchwald, 1970

Sometimes, when I pull the gladwrap from the roll to cover some food to store in my fridge, I reflect and think “Why am I using this? It is only adding to landfill. Is it really necessary? Do I need such convenience? What alternative do I have? What did they do before we had this option anyway?” My plastic containers which I use to store food were not available years ago. So I am curious about what happened and how people lived then. Not to say that it was all better then, but so we can remember what it was like to live simply before we all got caught up in the consumerism of today’s instant, convenient society. I like to reflect, gain ideas from memories and combine that with my current knowledge of a satisfying way to live.

As Mum is visiting I’ve asked her to remember all she can about what life was like before the ‘Plastics Revolution’.

She remembers the early 1950s when bowl covers came in to cover your containers with food stored in them. Do you recall these? A station-hand’s wife thought they were baby showercaps! An apt description I think. You simply washed and reused them on your china bowls and plates until they wore out and you replaced them at the local department store. “They were such a great innovation because they were just so handy” she reflects. Did anyone consider then whether they were healthy enough, sealing tightly enough, adding to landfill eventually?

Prior to the use of these covers perhaps a plate was put on top of another to cover food. The food was not thrown out. Leftovers were kept to be eaten on another occasion or consumed by the farm animals. Food was not in abundance as it is today and certainly access to a store to buy food was 17 miles away via a dirt road inaccessible after rain.

Waxed and greaseproof paper was used to line cake tins etc. as there were no plastic containers to store your baking. This prevented moisture from the cake coming into contact with the metal and causing it to rust. Paper was also used to wrap sandwiches which were taken ‘up the paddock’ for lunch.

As the convenience of foil and glad wrap came to the fore these papers were removed from common use. You didn’t have to wash gladwrap, you simply threw it away! Using gladwrap meant that you could always find the right shape to cover your container, you weren’t limited by the size of the “baby shower caps” you had available in the drawer. There would always be enough gladwrap to cover anything you needed to – so long as you had maintained your supply.

Food products, such as flour and sugar, were stored at home in large metal canisters and tins or glass jars in the pantry. Stoneware was also used to store some food such as salt. A number of food products were bought in tins and jars and they were reused around the home for food or other storage. The seal on some tins was simply not as good as gladwrap etc. and so the food didn’t remain as fresh. Neither could tins be used in the frig for storage as they would rust, so gladwrap was a convenient substitute, as were plastic containers. Flour started coming in plastic bags after the cloth bags. After being thoroughly washed these were also used for storage when needed. They were used to cover sliced bread as it was placed on the table to serve for a meal. There was a lot of recycling and reusing happening. Bags and containers etc. were disposed of when they wore out.

The advent of plastics has very much changed the method of rubbish disposal. Previously goods came in cloth bags which you often washed and reused for storage or paper which was burnt in an incinerator or to light the wood stove or the open log fire. Now often these things are unthinkable or even illegal. Fortunately we have the choice to recycle paper, some plastics and other containers but not gladwrap and foil! We are dumping an enormous amount of rubbish into the oceans which is killing wildlife. Is that justified?

Regarding food scraps, Mum reflects, “we had a metal bucket made from a fuel can which hung on the awning of the meat house. Vege scraps were carried from the kitchen to the can on a bowl or plate for the chooks to pick at. Meat bones were given to the dog.” I have usually put my scraps in plastic bags, in the bin and then to the main bin. I want to compost them long term for our future garden. However, in the meantime I am changing my habits and reusing our junk mail to carry my scraps to the bin. I am reducing my use of plastic bags when buying fruit and veg by putting items of one price in one bag to weigh and also using cloth bags as much as possible. The girls in our fruit stall think this is fabulous.

Today Mum uses all these types of packaging – apart from the “baby shower caps” which really have gone out of fashion and are simply not readily available are they? I have learnt my habits from Mum and it is only now that I think further about living sustainably that I challenge myself about what to store food in. I very much enjoyed reading this post on Alternatives to Plastic Wrap. Here you can read the results of some research of an environmental scientist now working towards sustainability with her family.

I think at this stage I’d like to store as much as possible in the containers I have in my cupboards whether glass or plastic so as not to add to landfill or experience any chemical leaching from plastic gladwrap onto my food. I’d also like to look more into the use of cellophane for food storage. You can buy food grade cellophane bags on ebay. I have also just purchased some Pyrex dishes with plastic storage lids which I am finding fantastic because Pyrex can be used to bake in and then I can simply place the lid on to store leftover food for next time. Just be careful not to change the temperature of Pyrex too rapidly – it smashes. I learnt this from experience the other week! Storing cooked food in the frig is also a feature of the fabulous waterless Nutrimax pots I use to cook most things in.

How do you reuse and recycle? Do you have gladwrap and foil in your pantry? What alternatives do you have? Do you store in plastic containers?

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