Food for Thought of the Week : Canned Legumes

Hello, Dear Reader.

I didn’t food for thought last week. I did eat last week. I guess I just didn’t think too much. The stash is ever growing, and I’m getting more comfortable with this being a learning exercise. I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with a friend who I don’t see often, and she let me know that she is conscientiously asking for “no straw” when she is out for  drinks. She is even keeping the straws that make their way into her drink as a reminder to always ask for no straws. My coworkers and I have all adopted no straws as our personal motto for the summer season. Our local pub recongnizes us, we’re there a lot, and has just stopped putting straws in our waters and bevvies. The Last Plastic Straw has lots of great, encouraging stories about people and establishments all over the world refusing single use straws. It warms my heart.

My heart doesn’t need too much warming these days because it is a heat wave. I live in the Pacific Northwest, an area known for such months as Juneuary and Fogust, and not known for its intense heat. Well, my friends, it’s been hot and sunny with very little precipitation. As a result I am not cooking much, and when I do it tends to be big batches of stuff cooked at night. There’s been a lot of salads and barely cooked meals, as I just do not want to heat up my apartment by turning on a burner. I found a can of chickpeas waaaaaay at the back of my cupboard, where canned legumes go to live out their days, and decided to make crunchy spicy chickpeas to throw on my salads.  I had bought the can of chickpeas who knows when, so it was most likely purchased long before the start of the project. I took a moment to look at the label, which is plasticized paper. I thought briefly about how it would need to go in the stash, then I thought about how I’ve been eating salads for a week and should probably add some protein before I hangrily freak out on all my coworkers one day, and then continued on my way.

Chickpeas were made, salads were assembled, apartment was warmer but not sweltering. These were all conclusions that led me to believe this was a success. I washed out my tin, removed the label to add to the stash, and then went to put the can in the recycling.

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Most food cans are either tin plated steel or aluminum. Aluminum is great to recycle. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and can maintain tier (keep the same quality) through the recycling process. We have the infrastructure domestically in North America to recycle aluminum, and it often does not have to be shipped for recycling to Asia the way that many plastics do. Recycling aluminum is much more economical that manufacturing aluminum from virgin ore. It generally only takes about 60 days turnaround time, from when you place an aluminum can into your recycling to it being back on the shelves as a brand new can. Steel and tin are also domestically recyclable. Steel food cans have an excellent recycling rate in North America. Steel can maintain tier through recycling. Tin is a relatively rare metal to mine, so we should always reuse what we have. I felt this to be pretty successful. I went to recycle my can.

Then I remembered that food cans often have a (yes, you guessed it) plastic liner. All of your cans have some sort of plastic liner to keep metal from leaching into your food, and your food from corroding the can. Remember that science experiment when you put one of your baby teeth in a dish of cola and watched it dissolve over time? Yes, if you thought it was gross, it is. Why do kids think this is cool? Some classrooms use a nail now, thank goodness. Eventually that nail gets corroded, and everything acidic from tomato paste to cola would eventually leach into their metal containers due to their acidity. To counteract this manufacturers line their metal cans with a plastic resin barrier to keep the food from the metal, and vice versa. These liners are actually a total feat of engineering, each different food requires its own liner formulation based on acidity, carbonation, food colouring, and viscosity of the contents of the can. Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Cherry Coke all have different can liner formulations.  Regular canned chickpeas and canned chickpeas with no salt have different plastic formulations in their liners. I found this fascinating. These liners get removed during the re-melt process, and are a non recylable byproduct of metal recycling.

Many of these liners have BPA, a plastic additive known for it’s endocrine disrupting, potentially carcinogenic properties. It’s the stuff that made us all throw out our Nalgene water bottles a couple years ago. Even the most stalwart skeptics I know conveniently “lost” their old Nalgenes after the media storm around BPA. The science is still very much under consideration on how our exposure to BPA from canned foods may affect our health. I am not a doctor and would not suggest people eat more or less canned food based on the BPA alone. It is a plastic product, and I need to look at it in conjunction with my project.

So I looked at my can for awhile and had the mental back and forth. The can is recyclable. I should recycle. The plastic liner is not recyclable. It’s very thin and is often sprayed or squeegeed on. I can’t see it. It’s like it barely even exists. I’ve been doing so well lately. I don’t want to add to the stash. The can is can be recycled domestically . The can is lined with a plastic based resin. I’m not doing a recycling audit. I’m doing a plastic audit. Now stop looking for loopholes and stash the damn can.

I stashed the damn can.

I consoled myself with some strawberries I got at the farmers’ market, which came in a totally compostable tray instead of a plastic clamshell. You win some, you lose some. Usually you win at the farmers’ market

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So, what are my alternatives? Should I never eat chickpeas again? While this may be a great blessing to those who end up downwind of me, I don’t think I’m ok with that. I live alone, and largely work alone, and I can deal with the after affects of Chana Masala night. I’m uncertain as to how much BPA I want to expose myself to, and it’s not great to be washing that into the output of the aluminum recycling process which often ends up in the wastewater stream. That BPA is often just flushed out into production output. Like all other things plastic, it never really goes away.

Luckily, this is the easiest switch to date. Dried legumes come in bulk, are way cheaper bulk by weight than canned, and are dead easy to prepare. I just need to remember to cook them, or soak them overnight, but this is the smallest of changes to routine. As a single person it is easy to make too much at once, with consequences that border on horrifying for those around me, but those little suckers freeze super well.

This was a super simple change, and one with many spinoffs. Blackbeans, kidney beans, and lentils are all so much cheaper in bulk. I’m almost kicking myself for buying canned for so long. I love learning.  I’m excited to try replacing other canned staples, like tomato paste, with homemade alternatives. I hope this is the last can in my stash, and the last bit of plastic resin I am responsible for introducing into the waste stream.

So, dear friends, fear not. I’ll still be bringing black been and sweetpotato salad to potlucks. I’ll still be deciding to “stay home and have a night alone” after I eat too many lemon dill chickpeas. I encourage you to look at one food in your pantry that you could replace the canned version with something else. I’ll let you know how making my own tomato paste goes. I can only assume it will be a “learning curve”. A delicious, delicious learning curve.

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