Nearly three years ago, a photo of an albatross chick changed Beth Terry’s life. The bird’s stomach had exploded from eating disposable plastic bottle caps and additional plastic waste. It motivated Beth to see if it would be possible to live a life with less plastic, if not plastic free. Her blog, Fake Plastic Fish, started as a diary of her attempts to find plastic alternatives, and has now become a resource for people trying to live a plastic-free life.
Beth is in my kitchen today talking about the chemicals that remain in many organic foods, a grown-up version of her mom’s creamy casserole, and how her research has changed her life.
Why is living organic important to you?
It’s important for me to eat organic food because I am aware of the chemicals in foods from pesticides and hormones, and I also know they are very harmful to the environment and to farm workers. I don’t want to contribute to that.
Through my research, I started to wonder how chemical-free organic food is if it’s surrounded by plastic. That plastic can contain some of the same hormone disruptors that we’re trying to avoid in organic food in the first place. Consumers don’t have any idea what chemicals are in the plastic because no one is responsible for sharing that info. If we don’t know what it is, how do we know it’s safe?
There’s nothing that’s perfect, but I eat fresh fruits and vegetables as much as I can. I do a lot of shopping from bulk bins, where I bring my own containers and fill up on grains, rice, and beans. Although some of those things are shipped in giant plastic bags, there’s less waste in a huge bag than in everyone buying individual sizes. But plastic is ubiquitous; it’s hard to get it all out.
What was your favorite food growing up?
My mom’s tuna casserole, made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, canned tuna, and American cheese. It’s warm, creamy, gooey and comforting.
What’s your go-to comfort food now?
Homemade risotto—all the warm and creamy goodness of my favorite food growing up but without the packaged ingredients. The rice and olive oil come from bulk bins in my own containers, and everything else is organic and plastic-free. It takes a long time to make, but it’s the most meditative, calming activity. It feels like such a treat when I allow myself that time to make it.
What’s the one thing in your kitchen you just couldn’t live without?
Mason jars. I store everything in them. I fill them with food from bulk bins at the store, store dry food in them in cupboards, and freeze them with stuff. (As long as you don’t fill them up all the way, leave room for expansion, and thaw them slowly, they won’t explode.) I have lots of different sizes of jars, from pickle to jam size, so we save them and constantly use them.
What magazine, website, book, album, or product are you most obsessed with right now?
I’m probably on Google the most because I’m always researching. I’m also kind of obsessed with Facebook. My Plastic Crap Wall of Shame page on Facebook has become a collection of unnecessary, overpackaged, single-use, single-purpose, single-size plastic crap. Someone posted a photo of individually packaged ice cubes recently called Ice Rocks. It’s actually sold in stores, on shelves, water in plastic wrap that you freeze at home—it’s the most unbelievable thing. It makes me laugh because it’s ridiculous, but it makes me cry because it’s real!
I’m also obsessed with the book Eating Animals; it totally turned me into a vegetarian. It completely changed me. I’ll smell something and it will smell good, and I’ll look at it and realize it’s meat and then, it won’t smell good to me anymore. There are images and scenes that he describes in that book about animal treatment. I thought I had heard it all, but the way he describes it, it’s relentless.
What’s the most important news story today that you think we all need to pay more attention to?
I think the problem with plastic is really coming into people’s awareness now. There have been stories in Time, The New York Times, and CNN. Even Captain Moore, who discovered the Pacific Garbage Patch, had a spread in Rolling Stone.
Everyone is concerned about BPA and PVC. Parents are concerned about what their kids are being exposed to. There’s not enough good information, but there is a lot of media attention. There’s a lot of sensationalized news about plastic, but people don’t know what to believe.
It’s like that with a lot of environmental news: We hear the bad news but we don’t hear what you can do besides signing these letters or giving money. I don’t think making personal changes individually is enough to solve the problem, but I also don’t think we will solve the problem if we don’t start with ourselves. Taking personal responsibility is the first step. It was for me and for the people who read my blog.
Where do you get your news?
I’m not the kind of person who looks at one to two news sources regularly, but I listen to NPR and I’m on some list servers for various groups. I actually spend a lot of time researching the stories that are sent to me. I find that a lot of times the stories in the newspaper or on Yahoo don’t give enough information, they just give the main idea. But if they mention the study and I’ll go online and find the story and I’ll try to understand it and share that information with my readers. That’s the kind of blogger I want to be.
I too use Mason jars….a lot. However, I am looking for an alternative to plastic for freezing produce, such as corn, green beans, summer squash and broccoli. I do freeze in Mason jars as well, but mostly for jam. Any ideas?
I still use some plastic zip freezer bags for freezing, along with wide-mouthed mason jars. I haven’t found a good, affordable non-plastic alternative container for freezing so far: You can re-purpose the cardboard cartons milk and other beverages come in for freezing; open them across the top and rinse well. Cut down to the size you need, allowing plenty of side above the food to fold down tightly over the food and seal with tape (let the food freeze first, then fold the top down). Old fashioned plain butcher paper might be an option, but what is sold as paper freezer wrap these days has a plastic coating and contains who knows what else. Aluminum foil is a very recyclable option, and if you buy the heavy weight you can usually reuse it a few times before you have to recycle it. I’ve yet to try them, but cellulose bags sound promising (look at them online at greenhome dot com). Organic wax paper, at least two layers, each with the edges rolled and taped to make a tight seal at each layer, might also be an eco-friendly option. I’m slowly collecting rectangular Pyrex storage containers — the kind with silicone lids make the best seal — and do freeze prepared foods in those but it’s not in my budget to go out and buy dozens of them at a time. Perhaps getting a few rectangular glass dishes, freezing food in them, and then popping the frozen bricks of food out and sealing them tightly in cellulose, foil, or wax paper might be the most affordable eco-solutions to freezing without plastic.
My personal solution is that mostly I don’t freeze much produce because it takes so much energy to keep it frozen for months. I store fall veggies and fruits “as is” for winter use (a cool closet makes an acceptable root “cellar”), protect fall-grown lettuce and spinach under a cold frame in my garden for winter harvests, and when I save summer veggies (tomatoes, corn, and green beans) to enjoy in the winter I dry them, since dried food stores perfectly at room temperature in glass jars.
Hi. What great questions.
Jean, your idea about about drying food for the winter rather than freezing is intriguing. Could you please say more about it or point me to an article? That would be a great alternative to present to my readers, who ask about ziplocks in the freezer all the time.
Like you, I don’t store much produce in the freezer. We buy fresh foods at the farmers market and try to eat in season. I’m thinking about making a huge batch of tomato sauce this year and freezing it in mason jars. I haven’t learned to can yet, but that would be a great option for people without a lot of freezer space or who want to avoid ziplocks in the freezer.
We use Anchor glass refrigerator containers (the square and rectangular ones that you mentioned) in both the frig and the freezer. They have glass lids. Zero plastic. But because they have glass lids, they are not airtight and are not meant for storing foods longterm. (http://fakeplasticfish.com/2009/02/guilt-gratitude-glass/)
We also use Life Without Plastic’s airtight stainless steel containers in the freezer. (http://fakeplasticfish.com/2008/09/plastic-free-in-freezer-airtight/) They are flat and stackable, and they have a silicone ring that makes them airtight. The drawback is that you can’t see what’s in them (although you can write on them w/ a grease pencil, I believe) and they are also pricey.
An 85-year old friend of mine has used the milk carton method you describe her whole life. The difference is that she uses rubber bands to hold it closed rather than tape. But don’t forget — milk cartons are lined inside and out with a thin layer of plastic. Most people think it’s wax, but it actually hasn’t been wax since the 50’s. (http://fakeplasticfish.com/2007/11/hidden-plastic/)
I take my hat off to Beth Terry. She has done so much and influenced so many of us. I have become plastic-aware. I do my best to spread my knowledge. I think people like Beth inspire the rest of us. I have formed a working group in my town to study going green and banning plastic bags. I always think of the images of the albatross chick at Fake Plastic Fish, and the seagulls chomping down plastic bags. I wish the government was protecting us better and urge everyone to push legislators to regulate toxic chemicals.
Here’s a little bit from me about drying (dehydrating) fruits http://www.rodale.com/preserving-food-deydration and a reasonably comprehensive but rather dry (pun intended) extension publication on drying all types of foods http://www.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/html_pubs/DRYING/dryfood.html#basics . If you live where the air is pretty dry, air drying (cover with cheesecloth if flies are an issue) is a good option. Where I live (eastern PA) it is often way too humid to dry without some sort of heat and/or ventilation source (oven, dehydrator).
You really know how to hone in on the issues. And you’re willing to do the work involved in moving away from the petroleum-based lifestyle that industry and advertising have created for us. Thank you for your cheery, committed commentary!
Love this article and enjoyed watching the video again.
Since I’m on the road to only eating local, I’m in the my winter survival planning stages right now. (Last year I got very tired of potatoes.) The comments about how to freeze in non-plastic is very helpful.
I’m trying to find suitable glass containers to use for freezing produce also. I think that I will do a lot more drying of produce and vegetables as JEAN says. I have a dehydrater that I’ve had for years and only used it once for drying some lemon verbena 2 years ago for tea during the winter months. I believe I’ll use this more often and store the things in Mason jars. I have some jars that I constantly reuse for making and storing applesauce an the like. I just change the tops to keep them well sealed.
I swear by my solar oven, which I purchased from Solar Cooking International. It is made from recycled soda bottles (Yep, I know we don’t want to use plastic, but how about reusing it). The oven comes with two covered enamel pots, reflectors, which amp up the cooking temps, and a cookbook. You can bake, roast, slow cook EVERYTHING for free, as long as you have a bright, sunny day. It doesn’t need to be hot to solar cook.
It also works well for dehydrating veggies, fruit, herbs, etc. I love it.
Check it out!
Keep up the great work!
Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island
Thanks to all who left tips in the comments section. I’m looking for ways to reduce plastic in the freezer, and there are some great ideas here. The dehydrating instead of freezing is also intriguing, although I imagine with many foods freezing preserves more nutrients.
I eat allot of peanut butter (low sugar low salt) so I have glass 16 oz jars I like to clean and reuse them as freezer containers the size is perfect as a serving for me and the can be used in a microwave at work for hot soup or stew and I do drink out of them as well.