Not-so-Fantastic Plastic
October 30, 2009 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Can you help my household kick the plastic habit?

I've been reading all sorts of creepy things about plastics lately, and really want to stop using them as much as possible, especially for food storage and heating.

I've been using Pyrex refrigerator dishes for leftovers for a long time, and have a bunch of old-school Thermoses that still work well. I've become aware of round metal "tiffin" containers, but haven't bought any yet. We store a lot of grains, beans, and spices in canning jars in the cupboards.

Beyond that, I'm still searching for solutions. Things like: when I want to pop a bowl of dough or something in the fridge with an airtight cover, what can I use? Are there reusable sandwich bags or food wrap of some material other than plastic? What about sandwich-shaped containers? What can go into the freezer and provide a real seal - as for frozen pizza dough, leftovers, etc?

A lot of cosmetic products come in plastics, too. Any ways of getting around that?

Thanks all.
posted by Miko to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 3 Green moms makes pretty nice fabric, dishwasher safe sandwich and snack bags, as well as biodegradable utensils made from cornstarch.
posted by thebestsophist at 7:26 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, before plastic wrap, alot of people used waxed paper to wrap things, but it's not going to be airtight. Aluminum foil can be mostly airtight, if you fold the seams well.

If you're mostly concerned about plastic being in contact with food, you could wrap the food in foil or waxed paper, then store it inside a plastic container or bag. Or to store leftovers, use these things with glass containers (with maybe a rubber band around the bowl). If you are more concerned about contributing to the manufacture of plastics and don't want to use them at all, then I think you have to resign yourself to using your foods more quickly before they spoil or develop freezer burn.
posted by cabingirl at 7:29 AM on October 30, 2009

Response by poster: alot of people used waxed paper to wrap things

That's true. I should have mentioned I'm not super enthused about wax paper either. As long as I'm trying to be a lot greener it seems off base to be using a single-use petroleum product.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: I really liked this thread about beauty products that don't use plastic.
posted by jessamyn at 7:34 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd be hard-pressed to identify any plastic in our kitchen. It wasn't a conscious choice either.
So, I think my hopefully relevant contribution to this thread is to think not only about replacing plastics but whether you really needed them at all.

The counter has glass jars with screwtop lids used to store coffee, sugar, grains etc.
Leftovers are either left out on the counter overnight - covered with a glass lid or with foil - or in the fridge the same way. There's piles of vegetables just sitting on the counter right now. Nothing is kept around for more than a day or two.
The freezer is almost empty - just ice cubes and occasionally ice cream or gelato.

I know this isn't possible for everyone but our habit has been to completely replenish the perishables every couple days at markets or grocery stores, rather than figuring out how to store them.
posted by vacapinta at 7:44 AM on October 30, 2009

I think it's important to remember that plastic is omnipresent because it works so well. So you need to think about cutting back on plastic in terms of what you are willing to give up. In some cases that will mean spending more (eg pyrex storage containers); in other cases it might mean more weight, or less effective storage, or trading one environmental externality for another equally bad.

So personally I've not found anything better than plastic for freezer storage, but I avoid using it for foods that will go into the microwave, or dishes that I eat off of. For me, there's no downside that way, even if the plastic turns out to be 100% safe.
posted by Forktine at 7:47 AM on October 30, 2009

cellophane or just squares of cloth can be used. I think Cellophane is biodegradable
posted by mary8nne at 7:52 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: It looks like there are Pyrex dishes with glass lids. Those might not be super airtight but would be fine for something like dough in the fridge, especially when covered with a dishtowel.

Tinfoil can be recycled and reused a ton.

There are some nice reusable sandwich and snack bags on Etsy, but many are made from oilcloth so that they can be washed and rinsed. You could probably find some that are just plain cotton, and throw them in the wash once in a while -- but they're hardly waterproof against leaking tomatoes or that sort of thing. So tiffins or portable pyrex are probably best.

Bring reusable bags to the grocery store, so you can buy your food in bulk in a cotton sack. There are commercial bags for this - on Etsy and other places - but it's dead simple to get some muslin and make a small drawstring bag. You can even label them with some stamps if you want to keep them separate.

One trick I've really enjoyed is to bring my own tupperware (or tiffins) out to dinner if I'm expecting leftovers. Then I have a non-leaky container that is easier to transport, easier to store in my fridge, and generates far less waste. I've even done it for take-out food -- granted, these are small mom and pop places that are happy to save a few bucks on packaging. It is likely that some places would think it's a food code violation or something.

The best reusable totes are RuMe. I LOVE them and give them as presents all the time. At first people's responses are like..."great...another bag, thanks!" But then they realize how different they are than those huge canvas tote bags. The straps are long enough to fit over bulky coats, the bags crinkle up into a pocket or purse, they're light but sturdy, can be washed easily, and the tops can be tied together to prevent grocery-bag-spill-over syndrome in the trunk of your car. They cost a bit to get going, but last freakin' forever, and have made my plastic habit easier to kick because I *always* have at least one on me or in my backpack.
posted by barnone at 7:55 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I got a bento box and have effectively stopped using sandwich baggies for work lunches. The one I found fits a sandwich perfectly inside.

I have Pyrex storage containers that I have put into the freezer before and they work just fine.
posted by geekchic at 7:57 AM on October 30, 2009

Ikea used to sell a whole line of airtight glass food storage containers. About a year ago they inexplicably stopped carrying them. Poor move, especially as anti-plastic feelings are on the rise.
posted by zsazsa at 8:00 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: Parchment paper can be reused.
Bread, specifically, I've always covered with a non-fluffy towel.
Sandwiches should go in small boxes/small bags. You could consider metal or even wood (bamboo mats?) as separators between layers of food in larger boxes.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 8:01 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another thing that people used to do is put a plate on top of the bowl of stuff. I still do it.
posted by jgirl at 8:01 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have been toying with the idea of storing dough stored in a tin-foil "envelope" instead of wrapped in a ball-shape. I know that pizza dough can be stored after its been rolled-out on a pan, so I don't see how a thick rectangle of dough instead of a ball would affect the end product?
posted by muddgirl at 8:06 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Costco sells Snapware, which is made from tempered glass, instead of plastic.
posted by electroboy at 8:07 AM on October 30, 2009

I've always wrapped sandwiches in aluminum foil, not because of any aversion to plastic, but because a. that's how my family did it when I was a kid, and b. the bread I like is too big for normal sandwich bags.
posted by General Malaise at 8:11 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: I use canning jars in the freezer, they work fine. Just don't fill them too full!
posted by mareli at 8:24 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I want to pop a bowl of dough or something in the fridge with an airtight cover, what can I use?

Silicon bowl covers are your friend.

I've always wondered whether Parafilm would be safe to use in the kitchen. It certainly wouldn't be the cheapest option.
posted by alms at 8:24 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: I haven't found a good seal for the freezer (other than pyrex with the rubber-like lids) to replace plastic bags. I store my tart dough in the freezer wrapped in tinfoil and placed into the same big baggie I've been using for a couple years.

For bowls in the fridge, I sometimes use a cloth napkin and a rubber band--it's not spill proof, but for leftovers at home that doesn't matter. I am intrigued by these beeswax-coated cloth covers, but haven't tried them.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:28 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

As an aside, be careful if you order aforementioned the silicon bowl covers from Pleasant Hill Grain. They stuff their shipping boxes full of styrofoam peanuts. Totally pissed me off when I ordered from them. I can't remember the last time I ordered something that didn't use either cardboard or degradable corn starch peanuts. Shame on them!
posted by bengarland at 8:28 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: I like wrap-n-mats as ziplock bag replacements.
posted by susanvance at 8:29 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pint-size Mason jars are great for storing all kinds of things. Leftover stuff like casseroles, pastas, etc (anything that is a mix) can go in them and then you just eat it out like a spoon. Unlike glass pyrex (with plastic tops) you are pretty much guaranteed that a Mason jar won't leak if it's in your bag.

The 1- and 2-quart jars are especially handy for storing homemade juices, nut milks, etc in the fridge, and dry goods like coffee, beans, flour, and pasta in the cupboard. Plus, they're CHEAP!
posted by bengarland at 8:37 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Great suggestions - keep em comin'! Many of these products and ideas are exactly what I was looking for.

The freezer is almost empty

We do a CSA and some gardening and stuff, and also cook in bulk and store food for the week ahead, so the freezer becomes an important part of the food supply strategy in the house. Otehrwise I might not use it so much.
posted by Miko at 8:39 AM on October 30, 2009

Seconding the Snapware link above. My girlfriend and I have purchased three of Costco's five container set. The lids are the only thing that's plastic. We use them for everything now. Best of all, they're rectangular, so they stack nicely in the fridge.
posted by fatbird at 9:07 AM on October 30, 2009

We'll often just put a small plate over a bowl for storage in the refrigerator. The trick is not to store things in the refrigerator for too long.

One thing that really struck me on a recent trip to a European city was how little food was actually stored. The people I met shopped more frequently for fewer items, and while I was there, so did I. Result? Better-tasting, fresher food, and better life. I know this type of things (OMG European folks do food better) has been done to death, and is simplistic-sounding, but I knew this before I went over there and I was still impressed. People have tiny, tiny refrigerators, and the family I stayed with didn't own plastic food storage containers. They still did just fine.

Also, seconding the use of glass jars with metal lids for refrigerator storage. I also use very large jars which came with applesauce in them for storing rice, lentils, beans, etc. I use Goo-Gone to remove the labels thoroughly so that the whole setup looks a little less low-rent.
posted by amtho at 10:03 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: First, my disclaimer: I have not absolutely eliminated plastic from my kitchen. Rather than eliminating it, I try to reduce our use of and exposure to plastics.

when I want to pop a bowl of dough or something in the fridge with an airtight cover, what can I use?
For me, this depends upon the dough and its requirements. I might use:
- a glass or Pyrex dish with flexible plastic lid. The dough doesn't touch the lid.
- a glass or Pyrex dish with an inverted plate as a lid. Put something heavy on top to keep it tight.
- wrap it in a tea towel, then put in a casserole or Pyrex dish.
- wrap it in a damp tea towel and forget about trying to keep it airtight. If it's pie crust conditioning or chilling for half an hour, that's a fine solution. Parchment works, too, but is disposable. A silpat might work; I haven't tried it.
- except for the tea towel, all of these work fine for leftovers, too.

Are there reusable sandwich bags or food wrap of some material other than plastic?
- sandwich wraps are one solution, though with this style, you're trading plastic bags/boxes for fabric impregnated with a coating, and I'm not sure that is a desirable trade-off. Of course, you can make your own and decide what kind of fabric to use. It would still be a challenge to carry a sloppy sandwich in it. My own solution had been to carry bread and drier fillings (cheese, olives, lettuce) wrapped in a napkin and a jar holding the wet fillings, to assemble later.

What can go into the freezer and provide a real seal - as for frozen pizza dough, leftovers, etc?
- Here, I do what you do: I use glass jars with tight-fitting lids. It hasn't been a problem yet. For doughs, I like to coat them lightly with oil or butter first, as a hedge against air exposure or drying.
posted by Elsa at 10:06 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

For short-term storage in the fridge, I use the plate-on-top-of-a-bowl method. In fact, many dish sets are sized so that the saucers fit perfectly on the soup bowls and the salad plates fit perfectly on the serving bowls. My Mom claims this was a design feature from the 1930s or so, when nobody wanted to waste money on aluminum foil, but I dunno - it may just be a result of standardized dimensions for esthetic reasons. Anyway, it's handy.

Those silicone bowl covers seem to wear out pretty fast - I was playing around with the display samples in the Container Store here and none of them held a seal more than a few seconds. I wish they lasted longer because it's a great idea, but I wouldn't buy them myself.
posted by Quietgal at 10:27 AM on October 30, 2009

I've been reading all sorts of creepy things about plastics lately

Just so you know, the problematic chemical that you've probably been hearing about is bisphenol A. It is present in most cans as well, so canned food (including soda) is also a potential source.

Apparently it is mostly an issue in items with resin code 7, which is a hard plastic. So bags (including freezer bags, zip lock bags, etc) shouldn't be an issue. Also, some plastic manufacturers are marketing "BPA-free" hard plastics now, so be on the lookout for that label.

To avoid leeching from plastics that do contain BPA: avoid heating them (e.g., microwave, dishwasher, car in the sun) or treating them with harsh cleaning chemicals.

Not to insist that you go back to using (some) plastics, of course - just wanted to help inform about what the real issues are.
posted by rkent at 10:32 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just so you know, the problematic chemical that you've probably been hearing about is bisphenol A.

No, that's not the chemical that raised my concern. But rather than get into a scientific discussion about whether my concerns are overblown, let's just assume that the chemical concern acted as a tipping point for me in a direction I was ready to go anyway. So I'm really interested in solutions that don't involve plastics at all, not on learning how some plastics might be all right.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on October 30, 2009

I'm pretty fond of this style of wire-bail-lid glass jar for random food storage. There is a rubber gasket, but you can get that gasket in silicone or natural rubber, and it has minimal contact with the food. (Downside: Being too enthusiastic flipping the bail up can break the jar's lid. Oops.)

Regarding waxed paper, can you get paper that's waxed with a non-petroleum wax? There are plenty of waxes in the world from renewable sources. (I just checked the packaging on my roll of earthy-greeny waxed paper, and although it assures me of the provenance of the paper fiber, it doesn't mention anything about the wax.)

Not to derail, I hope, but following on to rkent's post
  • Code 7 is the catchall "everything else" code. Bisphenol-A is mostly found in polycarbonate.
  • The point about plastic linings on nominally-steel containers is a good one.
  • The other chemical people worry about a lot is phthalates, which are used as plasticizers esp. in vinyls, generally soft or rubbery ones.
  • There are reasons to be concerned about plastic use other than stuff leaching out of them.

posted by hattifattener at 1:56 PM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: I just got a sandwich wrapping thing and saran wrap replacments from Abeego a few weeks ago. The sandwich wrapper is pretty versatile. I've been using it to bring veggies and corn chips for lunch. The flat ones seal quite well, perhaps not 100% air tight (you probably wouldn't want to flip it upside down) but they're pretty close. I bought them at a Canadian craft fair but they could probably send them to you.
posted by carolr at 6:23 PM on October 30, 2009

We have been trying to do the same in our home. We got several sets of glasslock containers at Costco. They are great because they stack well and at work I can just heat up my lunch in the glass container and eat out of it so it saves washing a plate too! They are also the first containers I have found that do not leak liquids.
posted by sadtomato at 7:34 PM on October 30, 2009

Foil used for food may not be acceptable for recycling in all areas. When I want to store something in a bowl, I usually use a plate on top. My dishes are glass or enameled metal, and the enameled ones are perfect for covering bowls. I often pick them up at Goodwill.
posted by theora55 at 10:16 AM on October 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. I went through and marked some as 'best' because they contained a product or practice I'd like to try. I'll be ordering some of the wraps and abeegos and trying out a few methods like mason jars and tinfoil in the freezer.

Thanks to everyone for chiming in, though! All good helpful stuff.
posted by Miko at 12:00 PM on November 1, 2009

Response by poster: Update -

Thanks all! I ended up purchasing a set of LunchBots. Because they aren't totally leakproof (though they are very good!) I am complementing them with a Lunch Bowl. A set of one divided LunchBot, one open Lunchbot, and the Lunch Bowl meets just about all possible lunch needs. A canvas lunch sack holds everything and is pretty tough fabric in case anything does spill. I also got a Wrap-N-Mat, which I got at a fair and so didn't realized it does have a plastic liner, so I may still try an Abeego. The mason jars and peanut butter jars do work really well in the freezer!
posted by Miko at 9:20 AM on May 10, 2010

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