Curbing At-Home Food and Packaging Waste

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Reduce, reuse and recycle by following these five tips

 

Waste from food and packaging has reached an all-time high.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted in the United States. Discarded food often ends up in landfills, where it rots and contributes to the ever-increasing emission of methane, a greenhouse gas known to cause climate change.

In addition, packaging waste such as single-use plastics makes up almost 30 percent of total municipal solid waste generated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

So what can you, as a consumer, do to help curb your contributions to this growing problem? The answer lies in three simple words: Reduce, reuse, recycle.

For guidance, we got input from five local businesses and individuals:

• Karen Igou, owner and operator of Honeybee Seasonal Kitchen in Trolley Square

• Vikram Krishnamurthy, executive director of the Delaware Center for Horticulture

• Jerry Dorsman, president of the Board of Stewards at Newark Natural Foods

• Don Long, planner, Division of Waste & Hazardous Substances, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control

• Brianna Hansen, campaign manager at inWilmington

They gave us five steps everyone can take to reduce food and packaging waste. 

1. Bring Your Own

Local businesses like Honeybee Seasonal Kitchen and Brew HaHa have made simple but effective modifications to their business models to accommodate the reusable or bring-your-own movement.

Since opening in 2010, Honeybee has been ahead of the game when it comes to reducing its plastic bag use. It has always preferred that customers use their own reusable bags or donate extra plastic bags for those who forget to bring one, which can mean one less bag for the landfill.

It’s a timely shift, because the state plastic bag ban law goes into effect in January of next year. Signed by Gov. John Carney last July, the legislation will prohibit single-use plastic bags to encourage a shift to reusable bags.

Honeybee has also cut down on extraneous packaging by urging vendors to be creative with their packaging. Local favorites like Baba’s Brew kombucha and Walt’s Swarmbustin’ Honey are both available on tap, so customers can either bring-your-own or buy a glass container to fill.

“Walt Broughton, of Walt’s Swarmbustin’ Honey, constructed this unique spigot system attached to the bottom of a five-gallon pail so that customers can fill their jars with honey,” says Igou. “It not only saves customers money, it also reduces plastic waste since these pails can last well over 10 years.”

Honeybee also sells locally made beeswax wrap from Bee Our Guest, based in Kennett Square, Pa. An environmentally-friendly replacement for single-use plastic wrap, beeswax wraps are naturally antibacterial and can last up to a year. Wraps can be used to cover leftovers, including fruits and vegetables, and they even can be used as eco-friendly, reusable gift wrap.

Brew HaHa is also riding the BYO wave. According to its Instagram account, it sold over 2,200 metal straws in 2019. Plastic straw use has plummeted in recent years, and many local businesses, like Big Fish Restaurant Group, Kid Shelleen’s and Harry’s Savoy Grill, have followed suit. All have a policy of “straws by request” or “straws optional.”

Through the end of March, Brew HaHa will offer 10 cents off your purchase if you receive your drink in a ceramic or travel mug. Proceeds will go to this year’s beneficiary, The Delaware Combined Campaign for Justice, which raises funds to provide operating support for Delaware’s three civil legal aid organizations: Community Legal Aid Society, Delaware Volunteer Legal Services, and Legal Services Corporation of Delaware.

2. Buy in Bulk

Newark Natural Foods cooperative has led the state in healthy and sustainable practices since its inception in 1967. It began as a way for local members to bulk-buy common staples like flour, grains and produce and split it evenly.

Members could buy “quality, mostly organic foods like rice or whole grains in bulk bags,” says Dorsman. Once the bulk item arrived in-store, “members would come in and fill their bags with whatever quantity they wanted.”

Today, the co-op provides that same service in the bulk food section, where all customers (members and the general public) can either bring their own bags or containers or use the provided bags to fill up on pantry items like flour and sugar, grains, granola, even spices and teas.

Each item is priced by the pound and weighed at checkout (the package weight is then deducted from the total amount). Not only does it cut down on packaging waste, it also allows customers to save money and try new ingredients.

“We’ve introduced new linen bags in the bulk food department to cut back on our plastic bag use,” says Dorsman. Like Honeybee, Newark Natural Foods does not use plastic bags at checkout, instead providing paper bags and urging customers to bring their reusable bags.

“We give a small discount for each reusable bag you fill,” says Dorsman. “And if you forget a bag, we also sell reusable ones or sometimes offer reusable bags as giveaways during special events.”

3. Garden and Freeze

As more Americans become more health conscious, at-home gardening has become an easy way to add fresh, local food to the table during the summer months. While most families don’t have the time or space for sprawling backyard gardens, Square Foot Gardening and container gardening have become popular alternatives.

The Square Foot Gardening Method, created and popularized by American gardener Mel Bartholomew (who wrote a book about it in 1981), is a space-efficient system where gardeners grow plants in one-foot-by-one-foot sections. Similar to Square Foot Gardening, container gardening is a practice in which home gardeners plant in individual pots; it’s ideal for those who have little to no garden space. Most vegetables, herbs and flowers can do quite well in pots, as long as their light and water needs are met.

“The more you can do at home, like gardening, the less waste you’ll create,” says Krishnamurthy. For example, gardening could potentially save a family a trip to the grocery store or a quarter tank of gas. Gardening could also decrease a family’s dependence on takeout, a major contributor to landfill waste due to its dependence on single-use plastic or Styrofoam containers and plasticware.

Instead of tending to a full garden, Krishnamurthy adds edible plantings to his garden landscape. His vegetable of choice during the winter is rainbow Swiss chard. 

“The more you harvest (chard) the more you produce,” he says. (I can attest that even after a couple of light frosts, my own Swiss chard kept on producing until it finally succumbed to a bitter cold snap.)

And once the growing season is in full swing, be sure to freeze and preserve your produce. Freezing at the peak of harvest locks in nutrients and makes for a delicious treat during the fall and winter months. Make sure to re-read “Saving the Taste of Summer” from the September 2019 issue of Out & About for guidance on how to freeze and mitigate food waste.

4. Compost

At-home composting goes hand-in-hand with gardening. Composting is the process in which food naturally decomposes or breaks down. With the correct amount of air circulation, temperature and moisture, composting is low maintenance and is a simple yet rewarding way to create rich soil, reduce greenhouse gases and decrease food waste.

Krishnamurthy recommends having a countertop container to make composting fast and second nature. “Whenever I meal prep, I throw my extra vegetable matter and eggshells into the container,” he says. Once the container is full, he adds it to his backyard compost tumbler.

Compost tumblers or bins are ideal for those who don’t have space for an in-ground compost hole. A compost bin is a blend of 60 percent green matter to 40 percent brown matter. Here’s a chart to get your compost started:

With any compost, it’s important to mix every couple of days and to keep it evenly moist. And for those who don’t generate enough yard waste, DNREC’s Long says “you can place used paper towels, tissues, and even shredded paper in your compost bin.”

DNREC’s Recycling Program within the Division of Waste & Hazardous Substances will again offer compost bins for sale to the public on selected dates and locations in May and June. For more information, go to: dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/waste-hazardous/recycling/composting/.

Misfits Market tagline is “Always fresh, sometimes normal.” Photo courtesy of Misfits Market

5. Buy Ugly

Brianna Hansen struggled to get to the grocery store regularly, so she found a way to supplement her fridge and pantry through a produce delivery service that provides direct-to-consumer subscription boxes.

Imperfect Foods and close competitor Misfits Market send customers weekly or bi-weekly boxes filled to the brim with misshapen and odd-sized fruit and vegetables. Much of this food isn’t fit for sale at grocery stores, which have strict aesthetic guidelines for food items. It’s an overlooked issue that is exacerbated by the need for consumers to have unblemished, standard-size produce.

Both services fill an important role in decreasing food waste. This odd-shaped produce would normally be thrown away, but instead is being resold at a reasonable price and delivered to homes that may not have direct access to fresh, and sometimes local, produce.

As an Imperfect Foods subscriber, Hansen “loved the flexibility in terms of delivery options and the items you receive each week.” Imperfect customers can customize their box size and select from 50 to 60 produce items (organic and conventional) in addition to nearly 200 other shelf-stable grocery items.

She still periodically shops for produce at the store or seasonal farmers markets, but, she says, “these deliveries have shortened the length and reduced the frequency of trips.”

I’m a fan of Misfits Market, which is a similar service that began in the greater Philadelphia region as a way to rescue local, sometimes odd-looking produce from regional farms.

Every other week, I’m sent a box filled with all certified organic and non-GMO produce. For example, the last box I received included apples, butternut squash, celery, kale, onions, two kinds of pear, radishes, sweet potatoes and turnips.

And to close the waste loop, both companies send their deliveries in environmentally-friendly packaging and packing materials that can be either reused, recycled or composted at home or with a curbside recycling provider. Hansen is more creative when reusing her boxes. “I hoard the delivery boxes for friends who are moving,” she says.

Cutting back on food and packaging waste can be as easy as following the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. It primarily comes down to efficient planning by using a list and not buying more than you eat, along with unique solutions like bring-your-own container or bag, combined with gardening, composting and buying “ugly.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.