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 :-)


shelle said...

This is an excellent post. Thank you.

Rita said...

Lots to learn. Like you said I'm trying to do better one step at a time. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

"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"

Op shops often have clear glass plates in various sizes. These make good covers and you can see what is covered.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully helpful information; thanks for doing the research!

Green Bean said...

Helpful post! I love my reusable glass containers and, while I've lost a few glass jars to cracking in the freezer, it is so worth it.

Pat aka Posh said...

Often when reading posts like this my mind goes back to when I was a child before there was all this plastic junk and I remember a lot of things my mom did.. one of them was she always saved her brown paper bags for draining greasy items on then, then she saved the greasy paper to start the fire the next morning. She had clear glass 'refrigerator' dishes with matching glass lids for storing leftovers in.. she always used cloth rags for everything else in the kitchen. Any item bought at the local grocery was wrapped in white paper and tied with a string.. she saved all those things to wrap bread in etc. paper towels, plastic wrap, plastic bags etc. just wasn't heard of back then and we survived and can do it again.. it would probably be very informative if we were to spend some time visiting with some old folks and asking them how they did things back when.

Rest is not idleness said...

Great post, I was given some of the reusable silicone bowl covers as a gift, they are quite good and you can see through them to a certain extent. Now I know why I have saved all the brown paper bags, I knew they would come in handy some day. I'm still using the ziplock bags I bought 2 years ago, I wash them carefully and hang them out to dry. Have successfully replaced paper towels with muslin cloths.

Chiot's Run said...

I have been investing in glass pyrex storage for fridge & freezer for the past couple years (I'm almost 100% glass). I however have been looking for an alternative to freezer bags. I freeze a lot of berries and they're just so easy. I don't wash them because I'm afraid like other plastics when they get scratched they start leaching things into the food. I've been considering large glass containers that I could store all my berries in, then just measure our what I need. Perhaps I'll invest in these next. The one problem with glass is that it takes up more space in the freezer.

Willo said...

This is a great post and I think covers a lot of things people don't often think of. We have found plastic bags sometimes unavoidable but we wash and reuse so we hardly ever need new ones.

We use cloth napkins/towels whenever possible but when we have to use paper towel, we have found it is important to buy recycled and put it in the compost when you are done.

mrs green said...

Fantastic article - thank you! I only found this blog a few days ago and I'm enjoying it tremendously.

I wrote about clingfilm on our site a while ago; there might be something of use to people on there :)

livinginalocalzone said...

Great post and ideas on how to sub out what may seem like an "essential" way to store food. I keep it simple, using the resealable/reusable containers for everything. I have a set I got about 7 years ago and still use on a daily basis for everything. The additional benefit is that if I am taking leftovers to work etc. the container is so much easier to travel with.

One thing you mentioned leaped out at me - how much of food storage/methods are cultural. What seems "normal" and essential is based in large part on what one saw as a child... and that is hard to shake for many. Being raised by parents who didn't have access to disposable products when *they* were young, it seems weird to store food using them. Even though they were available here when I was growing up, the habit of reusable containers had stuck with my parents, and in turn, seemed natural to me. In the same vein, it seems odd to me to use things like silicon baking mats or potholders because I never knew them growing up. I'll reach for the standard glass baking pans a regular baking tray. It's hard to try the alternative! But your descriptions make those mats sound like something to explore a bit...

Kristin said...

This is so helpful. Thanks. My husband and I have been talking about eliminating the Glad Wrap, paper towels, etc.

I pulled out a large tin to use for bread storage. It seals tight and keeps the bread fresh without bags. But it is winter. We'll see how it works in the summertime.

Mistress B said...

I hadn't even thought of some of that stuff........ Makes me realise how far I have to go.

right. Back to getting our brown paper for lunches and reducing our paper towel use first.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. It was incredibly useful. One of my challenges is how to "store" or keep relatively fresh cakes - especially ones in the shape of bundt cakes. The other challenge is freezing soups. Multiple places on the Internet say that storing soups in glass jars is not safe due to breakage for a variety of reasons. Would love help with these challenges.

Chile said...

I bought several of the silicone baking mats and custom cut them to fit my pans. Please note, however, that it is not safe to do this with the fiber baking mats as cutting them will expose your food to the fibers. If you can see fibers, don't cut.

Unfortunately, Kitchenaid may not be making their solid color silicone mats anymore. I see them online but not on their website.

Carolyn said...

Great post; it's very thorough and informative.

The latest challenge we've been struggling with is DH's love of paper towels. (You can't find a cloth kitchen towel or washcloth in my MIL's kitchen; all she uses is disposable products.) I hid the paper towels behind the coffee maker so it is much easier for him to grab a real cloth out of the small basket right next to the sink. It's worked well so far....we'll see if it lasts!

I admit to being one of those people who loves my translucent plastic food storage containers. Would love to move to glass, though, when those reach the end of their lifespan. We do use very little cling wrap, etc., in our daily lives, thanks to those plastic containers.

Now I just need a lunch box large enough to hold a day's worth of non-disposables for my daughter's lunch. May have to make her something!

mrs green said...

Anonymous; I store soup in old large plastic yogurt pots. We buy a couple of pots a week (I know I should be making my own, but haven't got around to it yet!). These make ideal reuse of the containers before being recycled and they are safe to freeze.

Joanne said...

I need to improve in almost all these areas. I was surprised to hear that about baking paper being coated in Teflon! I'll have to find out more about silicon- I have always been suspicious of those baking product and wondering what leaches out of them, especially as you can't use them over certain temperatures.
Plastic freezer bags and wrap are not just about convenience, they also maximise space in the limited space of a fridge and freezer. My MIL uses bowls with plates over but they take up too much space in my fridge.
One major difference between now and the old days is that then most housekeepers (in towns and cities) had a small shopping area very close by and could buy perishables every few days, reducing the need for so much cold storage. Now many suburbs are driving distance only from supermarkets and part of living simply for many is reducing trips to the supermarket.
This is not an easy area to master but it is an important one that I will have to work through and find solutions.

Dani said...

Great information there! I was raised by a working mother and walked home from school to my depression era Grandmother's in the early years. As an adult, I can see how much her way of living has influenced my choices. She didn't use disposable products, she saved every paper bag, piece of string, elastic band and so on and that's the way I live myself. She was a wise and frugal woman my Nana.

Compostwoman said...

We buy organic vegan spread..and reuse the tubs endlessly for both fridge and freezer storage...

The tubs store just the right amount of soup for two, or stew for one in the freezer....

and are really good storage containers for all sorts of things...

Good post!

jimmycrackedcorn said...

We have been retrofitting our kitchen with some of your suggested products little by little from antique and junk shops. It's strange to find such very useful and green items at an antique shop, but it's a good feeling to put them back into daily use.

Anonymous said...


I freeze berries on a baking sheet, then pour them into half-gallon glass jars for the freezer. If I'm quick I can pour out a cup or two and then put the rest back into the freezer before they all melt together into a blob.


Bec said...

I really appreciate all the research you have put in for this to be such a wonderful, helpful post THANKYOU!
We haven't used clingwrap or aluminum foil for a long time; and we rarely use baking paper, but it is good to really know what's in them. I will be recomending family/friends read this post.
I would to read a post about cookware. I try to use enamelled cast iron or stainless steel. Also use corning ware casserole dishes. I find it really hard to find decently made cake tins. Recently we were given a dutch oven from our mil, my husband is annoyed that I refuse to use it because his mum gave it to us - it is made entirely from aluminum and coated in non-stick. ugh.
Looking forward to reading more, and thanks again!

jules said...

I'm working on cutting out these things from our household. One problem I am having is trying to come up with what to cover my dish with when I reheat food in a microwave. Oh gosh, I don't sound very green do I with that?? Baby steps eh? So, we plate our food (leftovers)and cover with plastic wrap and nuke our dinner. What can you suggest to replace the plastic wrap? It drives me crazy.

Rita said...

Possibly a plate will cover the top of your dish instead of plastic wrap. I use paper towel sometimes too.

Joanne said...

Jules, we have purchased plate covers, bought from a catalogue a few years ago. They are plastic, but reuseable and as they sit high above the plate they don't touch the hot food.

Jac's Mum said...

Mm, don't use much plastic wrap myself. Just don't like any single use product. Am not an industrial chemist, and don't know enough to comment on how much leaching of different plastics into the foods they are storing, occurs during the expected time a food will be in contact with its container. A couple of observations I do have, from reading this post, and the comments:
- important to consider whether changing your food storage method to avoid one form of contamination, exposes you to another. For example, the air in your fridge isn't sterile. It's cold in there, to slow the multiplication of the nasties, and also to slow the breakdown of food by the enzymes in the food; but it's damp, it has mould and fungi, even bacteria. You need to keep it off your food, if you can't wash or peel the food (like veges and fruit) before you eat it.
So covering with any porous material (paper, cloth) for some foods, like the cheese, is possibly not a flash idea.
I like to use less "stuff", sure, but the health considerations of containers and packaging are not restricted to what the containers are made of, and the environmental cost of the container in manufacture and disposal. Protecting the contents from outside contamination and degradation is the whole point of the container.

JessTrev said...

This is so thorough and well-researched! Thanks. I'll be referring back to it. We don't use plastic wrap + have many glass/stainless steel/pyrex containers. But I still struggle with freezer storage...

Anonymous said...

There is a great website that sells stainless steel containers at a great price.
You can write on the containers with a non-permanent marker, and since they are airtight, no freezer burn!
I'm collecting them a few at a time. I now have one of each size, and love them all.

carmichael said...

hi there-

thanks for doing all that research.
i've been trying to find resealable cellophane bags for the restaurant i work for...your blog keeps showing up in my searches, but most of the bags i find turn out to be plastic masquerading as cellulose. can you tell me where you found resealable cellophane? thanks!

Anonymous said...

Found this most informative. The ideas for replacing plastic wrap were great. Any suggestions for packaging home baked bread for the freezer? Most bread you buy these days comes packaged with double layers of plastic. I decided to make my own, but how do I freeze it successfully without using plastic freezer bags?

Brandy said...

Great post and I love all of the old ad images!

We have banished our plastic storage ware to the bottom shelf and now have all of our glass storage pieces (old pyrex refrigerator glass) and re-used and canning jars on our eye-level shelf so that we will use them.

We still use lightweight plastic containers for some , short term storage like taking a snack on a bike trip (useful for big things like salads etc.). When I take dips to parties, I use our old enamelware and refrigerator glass (usually using elastic bands to hold the lids on) and people always comment on it - I hope it inspires others to do things a bit differently.

Chiot's Run, in our freezer, we store almost everything in glass jars. This winter we purchased large boxes of frozen blueberries & we transferred them to 1L sized canning jars. These jars worked great for pouring out small servings as needed. With blueberries there is little clumping.

So, as Robin suggested, perhaps freezing berries flat on trays and transferring them to large canning jars might work well - ours are square-ish shaped so they help to take up a little less room

Also, I haven't had a jar break in the freezer (knock on wood) and I often fill them too full - the metal sealer tops just bulge up a bit.

I do re-use some plastic tubs from dairy products and spreads but since I am concerned about leaching from freezing these, I don't use them for storage very often and I am trying to avoid buying so many of these products in these plastic tubs.

A really awesome local Victoria, BC Canada product that I have recently purchased are Abeego ( flats. They are made with hemp/cotton fabric which is infused with a blend of beeswax and plant extracts. I purchased the flats which we have used to seal bowls (use them like plastic wrap and seal when the bowl is not cold for a better stick) and also for transporting things like a burrito or sandwich. Toni also makes ingenious wraps for snacks and sandwiches which use a string & button closure like interoffice envelopes (these were actually her first products).

Anonymous (May 12, 2009), I have been in touch with Toni at Abeego and I am hoping we'll be able to get some Abeego fabric large enough to use to wrap our homemade bread for the freezer like we do with tea towels on the counter.

Abeego, a great alternative - I'm a BIG fan - you can find the Etsy shop here:

Thanks for the great post and comments!

Rae Witt said...

What a fantastic post and great comments! Thank-you!
I would like to replace my chopping boards and was wondering what your thoughts were on buying a safe & enviro friendly version?

Annodear said...

Really love the idea of a list of leftovers posted on the fridge! I do that sometimes when I get home from the grocery store with a load of "impulse buy" fruits and veggies so I remember to use them all... and also make a note of what I was planning to make with them~ gives me ideas at mealtimes, too... because I get hungry and just want to make a sandwich rather than "making" something. A good reminder.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article and thanks to the commenters.

I actually got to this site because I'm quite disgusted how easily my mother uses baking foil like its going out of fashion.
Some people just don't get it. So I looked up embodied energy etc etc.

Also, I'm surprised that sheet metal can be so cheap, when it should be a valuable metal as it is great for things like hollow ladders where lightness/strength balance is perfectly achievable.

It's pathetic, truly.

Also, in the uk, it seems that the recycling system is a great excuse for manufacturers to put out even more crappy trinkets that people don't really need.