It was an interesting first week of the project. Some things were relatively easy, and others were cause for some pause. I was pretty happy to get through the week with no to-go cups or water bottles, having remembered my travel mug and water bottle everyday. Some aspects of going about my day, and to the grocery store, are pretty straightforward. Other items made me stop and think about how I have been buying something for years and years. The first real “why am I doing this?” moment when I had to put two pieces of plastic into my stash back to back, and they were the containers for my favourite food group.
I love cheese. I really love cheese. I love eating it plain, finding ways to work it into recipes, and going out for fancy cheese plates. I’ve had a recurring dream about finding my future husband in the cheese section, reaching for the same chunk of Jarlsberg. Who knew the stuff of dreams would become my first big hurdle in my plastic project. I had to put the soft plastic wrapper for a chunk of Havarti, and the hard plastic container for some shaved parmesan, in the stash. Looking at both I realized how much cheese I buy, and that it is pretty much all wrapped in single use plastic. OK, this can’t be so bad, can it? I’ll go to the grocery store and find an alternative. It might be a bit more expensive, but there’s got to be cheese that isn’t wrapped in plastic. No big deal, I thought, I can do this. So I rinsed out my cheese containers, plunked them in the bucket that I have designated for collecting my summer plastic, and set off to the store. Who knows, maybe the most delicious cheese is wrapped in something other than plastic.
I wandered around the cheese section for a few laps, letting the reality of the modern day cheese section set in. This was previously one of my favourite grocery store sections. The wonderland. Some of my best grocery store karaoke occurs here, including when I realized I know all the words to “Boys of Summer”. I have dreamed of this place. Unfortunately, it looks a lot like this:
I did a couple laps to make sure this was reality. I got scared. There would be no cheese section karaoke today. Not unless something really sad came on, something like “Candle in the Wind”. Do I have to live without cheese forever now?! How will I do this. No, it couldn’t be. I got a little mad. Who forced me into this?! What kind of idiot lives among their trash? I could abandon it less than one week in. I could let the blog sink to the floor of the internet where abandoned blogs go to decompose. I could continue on like nothing happened, maybe just not using to-go cups anymore. You know, call it a compromise.
I circled back into the soft cheese section, realizing the ridiculousness of my brain. Someone was having a tantrum in the grocery store, and it was not the three year old who’s parent’s insisted on buying oranges instead of oreos. No, that kid was learning to manage his emotions and impulses like a big boy pretty well. Nope, it was the fully grown lady, who has grey hair, a line of credit, and a sore hip, who was staring at wheels of brie longingly and having an internal meltdown. This was exactly what this project was for. I want to be confronted with the innoucuousness of single use plastic, to look at where it is needed, and to look at what life without it would look like. The exact purpose of the project was happening, it was just making me mad because I love cheese. Simmer down, Meghan, take a look around.
I found some cheese that appeared to be wrapped in parchment paper. Salvation. It wouldn’t be so bad afterall. It got even better, it was a local company, who produce and package their cheese within 100km of where I live. Their animals are treated well. I started to calm down. I started to feel sheepish about how upset I had been. Then I took a closer look and realized the paper wasn’t parchment paper, it was infact plasticized paper. It was also covered in stickers, which are neither compostable nor recyclable, just like produce stickers. Dammit.
This was a fairly small grocery store near my house. I decided that I may have to go farther afield for cheese. This isn’t a big deal, I buy most of my produce at other stores, and have to go further for things like shampoo (wait that comes in a plastic bottle too) and dish soap (oh golly, same. Keep it together. One thing at a time). I left without cheese and decided to find some when I went elsewhere.
That didn’t work. I went to three other stores, with no luck. At that point I had to consider things from a practical standpoint.
Can I live without cheese?
Is most cheese wrapped in plastic?
Can I find the cheese with the least amount of plastic?
I can try.
So I found this amazing aged cheddar wrapped in wax. I thought this was great. How bad can wax be? I bought it without googling all of the questions in the grocery store, went home, and had cheddar and apple for dinner.
I decided to look at things a little more closely. Yes, the cheese had stickers on the wax wrapper. Those would have to go in the plastic stash. What did I have to know about the wax? Turns out this cheese is wrapped in paraffin wax. Paraffin wax is a petroleum product, and is the same stuff that is used on most waxed paper and the waxed cartons that you get milk in. This stuff is not recyclable and is not compostable. It has many of the same issues involved with single use plastic. If not reused it has to go into the garbage stream of waste. It doesn’t seem to break down in the same way as some plastics ,and doesn’t appear to lead to micro plastics, but it is for the most part garbage. Dang it all to heck! Something somewhere something paved with good intentions.
Luckily paraffin was has a couple good reuse uses as long as it’s well cleaned. The Rogue Ginger had some great suggestions on her blog. I plan to clean it and make fire starters with the wax and sawdust. That’s right everyone on my Christmas list, you’re getting recycled cheese se wax and sawdust fire starters for your emergency kits, ho ho ho. I wasn’t convinced that this was better than the plastic that I had to stash, leading to this whole mental breakdown. I decided to look at those plastics.
I would look at the soft plastic the Havarti was wrapped in first. These soft plastic overwraps are often either #2 or #4 plastics, even if they do not have a recycling icon on them. Most soft, pliable, overwrap is #4 or Low Density Polyethelyne. This is considered one of the more stable plastics, and is less prone to leaching chemicals. It is used in food overwraps, ziploc bags, and the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag. LDPE’s reclablility has been gaining traction in recent years. Previously many small municipalities would not allow soft plastic wraps to be recycled, as it can get caugh in sorting machinery and cause huge headaches for those municipalities. LDPE recycling has been gaining traction in many areas, partially due to consumer demand to be able to recyle things like toilet paper overwrap and frozen fruit bags. I was happy to find out that my municipality does allow for #4 plastic recycling. I can’t put it in my curbside bin, but I can take it to the depot. LDPE is generally downcycled, and is used in making carpets and some synthetic clothing fibers. Cheese has pretty high milk fat, which may cause my little Havarti wrap to be declined for recycling due to food contamination. Recyclng is much more complicated than I had realized, with only about half of the items put in a recycling bin actually being recycled. I hope that the clear plastic part of the packaging can be recycled, since i washed it well. There are lots of pigments on the top part the packaging, making it less desirable for recycling companies. The reality this piece will likely end up in landfill. I separated the two halves in the hopes of giving the clear piece a second life.
I was almost scared to look at the hard plastic container that my shaved parmesan had been in. I feared the dreaded #6: polystyrene. Turns out this container is actually #1, polyetheline terepthalate or PET. This is one of the most commonly recycled plastic. It is the stuff that plastic water bottles and pop bottles are made out of. PET is recyclable, and is one of few plastics that will maintain tier through the recycling process. A plastic bottle can be turned into a plastic bottle, though this is uncommon. Generally manufacturers buy new PET instead of post consumer (recycled) for bottles, mostly due to cost. Generally PET is downcycled, and is turned in polyster, rope, sythetic insulation for clothing and sleeping bags, and a ton of other stuff. However, this is an energy intensive process. Plastic often has to be shipped to be recycled, in many cases going as far as China to be broken down. This requires huge amounts of fossil fuels to ship the materials, as well as energy to run recycling plants to clean, break down, and repackage the raw materials. As I considered my plastic cheese containers I became more and more interested in what recycling actually looks like, and what it involves. Many words can be written on the recycling industry, and I’m sure some of my upcoming ones will be some of them. Maybe I hadn’t found the perfect cheese solution, but I was intrigued about the world of plastic production, destruction, and reconstruction.
So paraffin wax isn’t perfect, I like cheese, and I don’t think that buying a cow and making my own is in the cards. At this point I realized I was pretty uncomfortable with what I had taken on. I didn’t have all the answers. I didn’t know if there were answers that would allow me to continue enjoying certain foods in the same way. Remembering that I am only one week in I decided that this was ok. Even if I don’t have the perfect solution, I can be mindful of what I am purchasing. It is all right if I don’t have perfect solutions in every instance. Maybe they are incredibly expensive, maybe they don’t exist, and maybe I simply haven’t found them yet. There is lots to learn about plastic, production, and recycling, and my interest is piqued. I’m still looking for a cheese solution (suggestions welcome!), but there are other things that are so easy to minimize or eliminate it is not worth ruminating forever on this one single food.
Onwards. Maybe there will be more grocery store karaoke in the cheese section soon.