Saturday, 7 February 2009

Alternatives to plastic wrap and other disposable kitchen products.

Posted by Julie
Towards Sustainability

In my last post I talked about the "Naked Lunch", or packing lunches without using disposable products. As a follow on, in this post I thought I would talk about some of the many disposable wrapping and baking products commonly used in kitchens, and their reusable alternatives.

Plastic wrap:
By far the most common disposable kitchen product used in affluent countries would be plastic wrap, aka cling film, cling-wrap, Glad Wrap, Saran Wrap etc. Apart from being a disposable, one-use product that goes straight into landfill, plastic wrap may be made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which has the worst environmental problems of all plastics. Dioxins are produced at many stages of it's manufacture and disposal; dioxins are powerful carcinogens. Some wraps such as Glad Wrap and Saran Premium Wrap, are made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), which is more benign than PVC, however they are just as disposable.

The easiest way to eliminate plastic wrap is to store food in resealable containers. I store leftovers which require reheating in casserole dishes (such as Corningware) which can then go straight into the oven or microwave. Other items can be stored in bowls with a plate placed over the top to form a lid - you can then sit another bowl or jar on top of this to save space in the fridge. Leftover bits of vegetables such as tomatoes or cucumbers, I sit cut-side down on a saucer or plate and our blocks of cheese are stored (unwrapped) in the fridge in a second hand Tupperware cheese holder, but wrapping it in damp cheesecloth or unbleached biodegradable wax paper works well too.

Another reusable option are elastic-sided bowl covers. They resemble large shower caps and go over a bowl in the same way as plastic wrap, but may be washed and reused after each use. There are also stretchable, reusable silicone bowl covers on the market (more expensive but will last much longer than the other bowl covers), and brown Kraft paper works well for dry items like cakes and bread.

One of the "disadvantages" I found when I stopped using cling-film was that I could no longer see what was in all those little containers in the fridge; items would be left at the back of the fridge long past their use-by date and would have to be thrown out. I now get around this by either marking the lid with a whiteboard/dry-erase marker or by keeping a list of leftovers on the outside of the fridge, which can be marked off as they are eaten (particularly useful for other family members looking for something to eat!).

If you must use plastic wrap though, follow these tips:

* Choose a plastic wrap that is made from polyethylene (check the box).
* Use it sparingly.
* Do not use it for covering high fat foods such as meat, cheese, pies and pastries as it contains chemicals (plasticisers) that are absorbed by fat, and which may migrate into fatty foods during storage.
* Don't ever heat plastic wrap in the microwave - always take it off the food product before heating. Heating plastic wrap may also cause chemicals to migrate into the foods; many government health agencies claim that there is no evidence that these chemicals pose any threat to human health, but I'm of the opinion that it's "better to be safe than sorry", especially as there are alternatives.
* When recycling the cardboard box, remember to remove the serrated metal cutting strip from the box first, as this will contaminate the entire load of cardboard.

Freezer bags and zip-lock bags:
Unfortunately, freezer bags are incredibly useful in saving space in the freezer and are far easier to exclude air from than rigid containers. It is possible to buy biodegradable freezer bags and the like, however it is debatable whether these will break down at all in the anaerobic conditions of the average landfill. Even if they do degrade, the conditions mean that they are likely to emit methane - not a desirable outcome! - and they are expensive to buy. Please also note that there is no regulatory requirement for a product labelled "biodegradable" to break down into non-toxic substances, and neither is there a limit on the time it may take to break down. Having said that I once had a packet of biodegradable bin liners break down into useless, fluttery pieces, just sitting in the cupboard for an extended period! On the other hand, products labelled "compostable" must break down into non-toxic residues, and at the same rate that paper breaks down in commercial composting facilities.

Of course, many people save, wash and reuse their plastic bags a number of times and this can be a good interim measure, although ultimately, they will still end up in landfill.

Beth from Fake Plastic Fish wrote a post about stainless steel freezer containers last year, which seem like a great alternative, although I'm not sure if they (or similar items) are available world-wide. Worth checking. Many people also swear by their Pyrex (this is what I use, the lids are claimed to be BPA-free) in various sizes, and wide-mouthed Mason jars - make sure you always leave enough room to account for expansion as liquids freeze; you don't want the glass breaking! In the same vein, ensure that any glass or plastic you use is labelled "freezer safe" so that it doesn't crack.

Baking paper and waxed paper:
Greaseproof baking paper (also known as parchment paper) is generally bleached and coated with chemicals such as Teflon or chrome-containing Quilon (which is what makes it non-stick), which means it can't be recycled. If you throw it in the compost it will also take much longer to break down (and those chemicals will end up in your compost). You can buy unbleached paper made from recycled paper (such as SAFE brand), coated with the more benign silicone, although it is more expensive. It can also be reused a couple of times, depending on the soiling, but again, it will ultimately end up in landfill.

An alternative option might be a silicone baking mat, which can be washed and reused time and time again, or try 'greasing' the baking tray with a thin layer of cornmeal or semolina, or even a sheet of Vietnamese rice paper (used to make spring rolls). For non-baking options like rolling cookie dough logs, you might like to try brown Kraft paper which has been sprayed lightly with oil and left to sit briefly until it soaks in a little. DO NOT heat this brown paper in the oven as it will burn! After use, this paper can be composted.

Waxed paper is slightly different, it is commonly coated with a formaldehyde-based resin or paraffin wax (derived from petroleum). Formaldehyde is a common environmental and health pollutant, and although it's use is very widespread, the factories which manufacture it are a major source of that pollution. It can't be recycled and it's not something I want to put in my compost bin. There are now unbleached, soy-based waxed papers on the market which are biodegradable (check the label), however most commercial soy crops these days are genetically-modified, so like plastic wrap it's something I choose not to use now.

If you are looking for something to do with the liners from cereal boxes however, instead of throwing them in the bin, they make an acceptable substitute if you cut down one of the seams and open them out flat, so you can get at least one more use out of them.

Aluminium foil:
Aluminium take a lot of energy and (finite) resources to manufacture, so aluminium foil has a high embodied energy. You can however, reuse foil a number of times if you take care; you can recycle it provided that it isn't contaminated with food, and you can buy foil that is made from recycled aluminium in the US and UK (I'm not aware of any brands sold in Australia, although I could be wrong). It shouldn't be used on high acid foods such as tomatoes, rhubarb, cabbage and many soft fruits, as the aluminium can leach into these items and "taint" it (it tastes bad).

Paper towels:
These are probably one of the easiest items to replace, by using fabric towels instead. I have towels and scraps of fabric in various sizes in my kitchen, and use one appropriate to the task at hand, whether it's draining fatty foods or for wiping up spills. Used towels go to the laundry; those with fatty or greasy stains are soaked in a bucket of oxygen bleach before washing. To prevent items being heated in the microwave from splashing, try using an inverted (microwave safe) plate or bowl over the top of the dish.

There has been a big increase in 'green' packaging towards the use of cellophane to replace plastic in recent times. However, be aware that the word "cellophane" is now applied informally to a number of plastic products. Natural cellophane is a cellulose-based material, which is fully biodegradable and compostable. Synthetic products referred to as "cellophane" are generally made from polypropylene and are not biodegradable.

The cellulose fibres in natural cellophane generally come from wood, cotton or hemp. Unfortunately one of the by-products of the process of making cellophane is the production of carbon disulfide, which can cause health problems for the factory workers, and the process is involved and energy-intensive (although not as energy-intensive as producing aluminium foil).

Natural cellophane bags are readily available in many stores, including baking suppliers - I have even found resealable cellophane bags, the equivalent of "zip-lock" bags - so if you can't find an alternative to plastic bags, they might be a suitable alternative.

Phew! I'm sure I have missed a few things, but hopefully I've given you a good overview. If you are new to using alternatives to disposable kitchen products, it may seem overwhelming at first, but don't be daunted! Taking it one small step, one product at a time is how I am doing it. And if you are an "old hand" at this game, please share your tips in the comments :-)