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She tried to avoid plastic while grocery shopping for a week. Here's how it went

Nuts and dried fruit items at a grocery store.
Martha Bebinger
Nuts and dried fruit items at a grocery store.

Updated July 5, 11:05 a.m. ET

I didn't see the thin plastic thread running between one leaf on my pineapple and its tag when I put the pineapple in my shopping cart, when I checked out or when I unpacked groceries at home. It wasn't until I chopped off the top and tug on the tag that it hit me.

I'd broken the rules again.

That damn plastic tag tie joins the long list of mistakes I made in just one week of trying to eat plastic-free.

I had challenged myself to purchase a week's worth of food without bringing home any plastic in my grocery bag. That meant no jugs of juice, yogurt containers, plastic chip bags, plastic packages or even stickers on some produce.

Why did I do this? Because very few of the plastic packages and containers we use once get recycled. Because there's growing concern about the harmful health effects. Some research suggests that ingesting microplastics could disrupt hormone production or be associated with problems like asthma and learning disorders.

Though scientists have not confirmed the link, I just don't love the idea that I may consume a credit card's worth of plastic in a week.

I chose a budget of $115.00 (roughly half-way between the average weekly grocery bill for a family of two in Massachusetts and the food stamp allotment for that same household). On a Saturday afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of my local chain grocery store feeling reasonably plastic-aware, not ready for the butt-kicking I was about to get.

The experiment

I started in the produce section, where I typically grab a plastic bag of organic baby carrots. They're off limits, as is pretty much every vegetable in the organic section. I found some beautifully bunched carrots among the non-organic produce. Then I saw the plastic tags hanging off their rubber bands. I spotted a dozen loose ones down by the produce shelf drain and scooped them up, sans bag.

I rolled my cart past the cauliflower, green beans, asparagus, lettuces and grapes, all glinting inside their plastic. I weighed loose beets, apples, onions and sweet potatoes. My anxiety kicked in — that feeling that I wouldn't have enough. So, I bought a head of cabbage.

Miami, Florida, Winn-Dixie grocery store, fresh cut fruit for sale in refrigerated case.
Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images
Getty Images
Miami, Florida, Winn-Dixie grocery store, fresh cut fruit for sale in refrigerated case.

I tapped prices into the calculator on my phone. Leaving the produce section, I was in good shape, at $31.30. It was time to search for protein.

I don't eat meat. But I headed to the meat counter to shop for one of my sons. Everything prepackaged was in plastic, but the man behind the glass kindly agreed to wrap two hamburger patties and some chicken, separately, in butcher paper. Together they were $21.62.

Tofu, cheese, yogurt and pretty much everything in the dairy section was out. Even the bottled milk had a plastic cap. There were lots of eggs in those paper pulp cartons. Whew.

To avoid eating eggs every meal, I got some cans of beans and rice in a box. I wanted pasta, but the box had a cellophane window. (While cellophane is not technically plastic, as it's not derived from petroleum, I was still trying to avoid it because it's non-recyclable.) I chose a brand of spaghetti with the smallest window (1"x1"), telling myself that eating a lot of cabbage would earn me the right to this violation.

If I was going to consume a lot of cabbage, I'd need some oil or salad dressing. The search for plastic-free oil and vinegar took me into the "house of mirrors" stage of my plastic-free odyssey.

There were lots of options in glass bottles. After careful tapping, I found some with metal lids. But the bottles with metal lids all had a plastic seal, except for one brand of sesame oil and another of red wine vinegar. The vinegar label was peeling away at one corner. And that made me wonder: what are jar labels made of? You probably guessed: many are plastic. The sesame oil and rice wine vinegar went back on the shelf, as did jars of marinara, salsa and juice.

I can live without salsa and juice for a week. But I certainly did not volunteer to go a week without chocolate. I spent a lot of time in the candy aisle before finding some bars wrapped in foil, packaged in a box.

At checkout, I added the labels on paper-wrapped beef and chicken to my list of shame (I realized they are plastic). Then when the cashier scanned the barcode on bell peppers, I chalked up another defeat. They each had little plastic stickers with barcodes. I bought them anyway. I was hungry, discouraged and ready to move on.

I still had $21.96. Maybe I could find a bulk store — with bins of nuts or vats of oil that I can pour into non-plastic containers – to replace some of the items I had to put back.

To the bulk stores

Refilling bottles with goods like olive oil is one way to cut down on packaging.
Martha Bebinger / WBUR
Refilling bottles with goods like olive oil is one way to cut down on packaging.

At home, I scanned some zero-waste sites and made a few calls. Several stores had bulk oil and vinegar, but I'd have to buy their bottle with a plastic lid and label, use up the contents and bring it back in for a refill. Pemberton Farms, in Cambridge, said I could bring in my own mason jars. They had bread wrapped in paper and bulk items like cereal and nuts in bins, the latter of which put me $1.23 over budget — but was worth every almond.

While I'm out of money, I might want to do this again, so I had some questions for general manager Greg Saidnawey. Pemberton Farms is known as a zero-waste shopping destination, but there are still many things I couldn't buy here plastic-free. There was no dairy, juice, peanut butter or tahini options without plastic.

Saidnawey says he used to have more than 300 foods and spices in bulk. That shrank to about 100 items during the pandemic. And Saidnawey says he doesn't expect to add more bulk shopping options anytime soon.

"There was so much forward momentum in zero waste, especially in the Boston area, before COVID," Saidnawey says. But during the pandemic, "customers just wanted peace of mind. They didn't want a broken seal; they didn't want anything that had already been touched by anybody else, and I think we've just gone in reverse in a lot of ways."

The CDC says the risk of getting COVID-19 after touching a contaminated surface is low, but Saidnawey says his plastic suppliers report they've never been busier. There's another factor that may be ramping up use of plastic in food packaging. Plastics are made with fossil fuels. That industry is looking for new outlets in the shift to electric vehicles.

Saidnawey says he's interested in using more compostable containers, but they are 30-40% more expensive. It's hard to add that cost to the rising price of food. And compostable boxes for nuts, beans or snacks (a lot of what Pemberton Farms offers in bulk) aren't as attractive on shelves as plastic.

"I want to find a package that isn't going to wind up in the oceans or a landfill forever," Saidnawey says, but "customers shop with their eyes."

My takeaways

My week of plastic-free eating produced some pretty boring meals. I wasn't prepared. I didn't realize how many things would be off limits. There are some zero-waste cookbooks, but I didn't look at them before I went shopping. And I didn't budget for herbs or spices, things that might have made life a little more exciting.

To reduce my plastic use moving forward, I'm going to have to make more things from scratch, like hummus, marinara, salsa, maybe even yogurt. I'm switching brands of juice so I can buy OJ and lemonade in reusable glass bottles. I'll have to drive around a bit to explore more bulk food options, and I may need to spend a little more on things like cheese wrapped in paper. I've got to beef up my supply of refillable jars and maybe invest in some of those reusable food container bags and that beeswax cling wrap alternative.

I asked Star Market, where I shopped this week, what they're doing to reduce plastic food packaging. Star is owned by Albertsons, one of the largest food retailers in the U.S. They pointed me to a web page about the company's plans to reduce plastic waste, which might mean using less plastic packaging. And Costco, where I shop a few times a year, says it's currently reviewing packaging of all products to reduce plastic use.

Maybe we can slow some of the projected growth in plastic we use once and throw away, and major oil, gas and petrochemical corporations that make most of our plastic will shift to more renewable products. In the meantime, I aim to up my game. I avoided using 27 plastic containers and packages in one week; I can do better.

Need some tips on where to start? NPR's Life Kit pulled together some helpful tips for starting to audit the plastic in your life, even beyond your grocery list.

This story was produced by WBUR as part of their newsletter, "Cooked: the search for sustainable eats."

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