The Learning Curve Goes Straight Up

We are one week in to our No Garbage Year and our family has officially caught our first break. And that’s good because lately I’ve been feeling like I say “oh shit” about every ten minutes. This learning curve is so steep I’m getting a nosebleed.

Three foods have quickly surfaced as being the most troublesome, but the good news is that they’re just small things. You know, things like meat, bread and cheese. I know what you’re thinking: well, duh. Of course meat, what with all the concerns about contamination. Heck, we can’t seem to keep our meat disease-free as it is, even though we wrap it in enough single-use packaging to kill a goat.

But bread? I’m not even talking about sandwich bread, which clearly comes wrapped for protection from the apocalypse, but even the “let’s pretend we have a real bakery in the supermarket!” bread that comes in the homey brown paper bag, because those bags all have shiny little windows, presumably so the consumer can see the lovely bread without having to touch it with their dirty consumer hands.

When did cheese and plastic get married? More importantly, why was I not invited?

And we all have dirty consumer hands. Don’t get me wrong. For the health advances made possible by modern packaging science I am eternally grateful- truly. In fact, when I posted a frustrated picture of my favorite peanut butter jar yesterday with a heretofore unnoticed-by-me plastic ribbon around the lid my friend John rightly commented that those plastic bands are there to keep people from putting poison in my peanut butter.

I mean, really. How DARE Teddie Peanut Butter try to save my life!?! The NERVE.

But seriously, (and at the risk of sounding like a broken record repeating the mantra of my previous projects) the problem of how to exist in a less damaging way upon the earth, while deeply important, is nevertheless a first world problem. If you are facing starvation or fleeing oppression, you aren’t going to care about whether your rice comes in a dolphin-friendly bag. You’re just not.

In short, trying to figure out how to live with less or zero garbage, while a legitimate problem, is a problem we are lucky to have. So if I’m whining about the annoying plastic wrap on my favorite peanut butter, I just want to be extremely clear I realize how fortunate I am that, on any given Thursday, this is the biggest of my problems.

But back to cheese. This one I honestly did not see coming. Just try finding a cheese- any cheese- in your local supermarket that doesn’t incorporate any plastic wrapping. I’ll wait.

SEE WHAT I MEAN? It’s crazy. It’s as if cling wrap had to be developed first, just to pave the way for the invention of cheese.

Listen. I was a vegetarian of one kind or another for twenty years. If necessary, I can do little or no meat. And I have been known to make some pretty decent homemade bread when pressed (cough cough Year of No Sugar). But cheese? I adore cheese. At this point in my life, I’m pretty sure my body is made up of about 95% cheese. I may or may not be tearing up right now at the very thought of a cheese-less year.

Pardon me while I mortgage the house, people. I have cheese to buy.

Which brings me to our big break. Before abandoning all hope and barricading myself in the basement with a tear-stained copy of Cheeses of the World, it occurred to me to check in with our dear friends Patty and Robin who own Al Ducci’s, an Italian specialty food shop in Manchester, Vermont. Patty assured me they’d be happy to cut from any wheel of cheese in the big glass case and… wrap it in paper for me. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.)

AND, as it turns out, they ALSO sell several types of homemade bread made on site that comes in plain brown paper bags… with no plastic windows. (Cue even louder Hallelujah Chorus.)

Sure, the ladies working the counter looked a little confused when I asked for Parmesan cut from the wheel even though they already had about twenty different wedges in the case pre-sliced and wrapped in Saran Wrap. I settled for Romano instead. Heck- Parmesan, Romano, Velveeta- WHO CARED? I was getting cheese, people. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus, hip hop/extreme dance club version.)

I know, I know. This is expensive cheese. Which brings us to the ever-recurring conversation of whether living more lightly on the earth is a luxury only available to The Fancy People. This was a recurring theme with No Sugar as well: sure, you can spend hours reading ingredient lists, cook homemade food and buy more expensive products that have better ingredients, but most people can’t. Most people don’t have that luxury.

Well, yes. Money and time are ever-present problems in our culture and exist in myriad ways as barriers to changing the way we do things. But things can change and change has to start with people showing up and asking for it. Organic produce, bulk shopping, coops, health food stores and farmers markets, while still not mainstream, are both now more popular and much more accessible than ever before. Acknowledging that everyone may not be able to spend the time or money necessary to go Zero Waste, doesn’t let us all off the hook. We’re still on the hook. And it’s a big hook. Planet-sized to be precise. But we can all start somewhere.

After all, thinking about something differently is free.

8 thoughts on “The Learning Curve Goes Straight Up

  1. I get what you say about a 1st class problem to have. The thing is, when the ones that CAN effect change, do, there is a trickle down effect. Companies do the easiest and cheapest things to keep consumers safe. But if consumers stop buying their products, they will pay attention and they will research and come up with better solutions. When grocery stores see more and more people want to shop with no waste they’ll start allowing consumers to bring in their own jars for meat and cheese. Because they want to sell product.

    Also, a great quote I read (and I paraphrase) was “The Zero Waste movement doesn’t need a million people doing it perfectly, it needs a million people to do zero waste imperfectly. That will still make a difference and cause change.”

  2. I think of you every day as I come across something that I can’t recycle and wonder how you are going to do this! The other day’s ‘non recyclable’ were some Christmas lights bought in 1977 (according to the box and my late father’s handwriting) that no longer work and I finally accepted needed to go! They were the sort that when one bulb went the whole lot failed. My Dad used to spend hours testing each bulb and sorting them out.

    Thinking on the Carr’s water biscuits dilemma made me wonder what your recycling facilities are like compared to mine as I would be able recycle the cardboard box _and_ the inner plastic packaging. I live in Cambridge, UK and we can now recycle so much more than a few years ago. A few years ago I worked 30 minutes away in an area that managed recycling differently. That area accepted empty plastic milk cartons whereas mine didn’t. Other things were recyclable where I live but not where I worked. So I used to drive things back and forth on my trips to work to be able to recycle them where they were permitted. Just thinking laterally about your Carr’s dilemma!

    1. Yes! One of the benefits of doing a concentrated project like this is it kind of forces one to think differently and more creatively, and spend a bit more time on things we ordinarily don’t allot time for… I especially like your point about things being recyclable in one place but not another, even when those places are not necessarily very far apart- which all goes to show that if we ask for more recycling possibilities, they may be out there and just haven’t gotten here yet. But the Christmas bulbs are REALLY a tough one- I’ll have to think on that. Hmmmmmmm.

  3. One of our higher end supermarkets, Waitrose, sell avocados in double non-recyclable plastic packaging. A firm plastic lidded shell moulded to the two avocados all inside a thin plastic wrapper. I once saw someone remove all the packaging at the checkout till and leave it there as a protest about the amount of packaging. I’m lucky in that I have an old fashioned fruit and vegetable shop near me so buy about 95% of my needs there in brown paper bags where needed,

    Interestingly Waitrose are trialling a ‘bring your own packaging’ in some of their stores for many items. I’m not sure you can put links or photos here but if you Google ‘Waitrose packaging’ you’ll see articles on the BBC, The Guardian and Independant (newspapers) on this. I’m hoping it catches on everywhere one day.

    I am already looking forward to the book on this having devoured your first two!

    1. Okay- that avocado story is RIDICULOUS! Avocados already come with their own convenient, biodegradable packaging! The organic section at our supermarket makes me bananas in this regard- everything is wrapped in saran wrap on a little paper or plastic tray. AAAAAAAAAH!

      Thanks for the tip about Waitrose packaging- I will check it out. I am realizing I have soooooooo much research to do…

  4. Hi Eve, Thanks so much for sharing! I appreciate that you are taking this on and figuring things out as you go. In regards to purchasing the cheese and wrapping it in paper, I’m wondering if you have considered bringing your own reusable containers with you to the store? As much as it’s wonderful to change from plastic to paper, would it be even better to eliminate the wrapper completely? Sorry, you’ve probably already considered these things and for some reason they don’t work (ie. most containers come with a plastic lid so I’m not sure if this would break a rule even if you already owned the product). Anyway, good luck and kudos for taking this on:)

    1. Kelly this is an excellent point and I totally agree that paper or recyclable is good, but better still is REUSABLE. I’m working on ferreting out this information as I go- I find it often depend on who you get behind the counter and whether or not they’ve had their coffee yet that day. But yes, I hope to get to a point where I’m bringing containers for things like meat and cheese- which is the most zero-waste of all the available options.

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