Why and how to reduce plastic in the kitchen in 9 easy steps
Plastic has come into our lives to improve the quality of our lives by offering hygiene and convenience without – apparently – burdening the family budget.
A ‘marvellous’ invention then, were it not for its suffocating presence, now detectable even in human blood (while I was finishing this article, a new study  announced this terrifying discovery; which means that the threat is much more serious than previously thought: we cannot even count on the protection of the last barriers, our cell membranes!
The literature started to investigate (too late in my opinion) the possible hiding places of plastics at the end of the last century and each new discovery scares us even more [2, 3, 4]; without this leading to a substantial change in production and use.
Indeed, it is a bit like the chicken and the egg question and who was born first: is it the hyper-consumerist world we live in that created plastics to self-fed the monster, which is also heavily import-export based, or vice versa?
And ever since the term “single use” entered our daily vocabulary, we have been digging our own grave: too convenient, too modern and too diabolical.
That’s why we need to know how to reduce plastic in the kitchen, but also in every step of life, in general.
The wide applicability in various sectors of industry, the light but strong and flexible structure and the incredibly competitive prices have meant that the production of plastics has grown exponentially: from two million tonnes in 1950 to 367 million today (2020).
Globally, packaging now accounts for around 50% of the world’s plastic use, and around 40% of this huge amount is used in the food and beverage sector. There’s no arguing that it works wonderfully in extending expiry dates, ensuring hygiene and therefore reducing food waste… and it certainly provides golden business through global import-export.
Europe alone uses 8 million tonnes of plastic every year to make food products marketable.
Nevertheless, it cannot go on like this: plastic is produced from different mixes of petrol and methane gas (together with salt and coal with the application of heat); in order to use it in different forms such as the ‘beloved mineral water bottles’, it has to be preformed, a process that takes place in only a few factories across Europe; i.e. the plastic is transported twice, first as preforms and then as a final product from the factories to the cities, where the packaging will take place. In other words, a significant carbon footprint already for these stages.
If you don’t mind its presence in your bloodstream, the manufacturing-related pollution would already be a good reason to learn how to reduce plastic in the kitchen and in our lives.
For years, thanks to an ever-increasing awareness, we have been disposing of plastics almost entirely correctly.
However, only less than half, about 45%, of what has been ‘used and thrown away’ is recycled to regenerate other plastics; about 40% is destined for energy recovery (which is another way of saying burnt to generate heat): this is due to the fact that its recycling is not optimized, therefore expensive and not required by industry.
But please, don’t let the inefficiency of the system get in the way, continue to properly dispose of the little bit of plastic that will be in your house from now on. Because only one ton of recycled plastic saves 5,774 Kwh of energy (covers annual energy consume of 2 families with 4 members), 16.3 barrels of oil and 30 cubic yards of landfill space.
Micro and nano plastics
Another major problem with plastics is their wide applicability in different sectors, such as cosmetics or pharmaceuticals.
For these industries, plastics are not only useful as packaging, but are actually the final product in the form of micro- and nano-plastics: think shampoos, sunscreens, time-release drugs, medical devices, etc.
Packaging, although very resistant, is not eternally compact; in fact, it degrades through atmospheric agents (such as sunlight), mechanical agents (abrasion) or physical-biological-chemical agents such as ultraviolet radiation and photo-oxidation; the above, in combination with bacteria, generates other micro- and nano-plastics.
The term micro refers to a diameter of less than 5 mm; one microplastic, however, could generate 1000 nano-plastics.
It is their size that makes them even more fearsome: the threat extends from the environment to all living beings, including humans.
In particular, nano-plastics are able to move through the intestines, lungs and skin epithelia and can create damage at the molecular and sub-cellular level. Because they are so small, they pass through the body’s membranes; needless to say, the present water treatment and purification systems are almost ineffective: micro- and nano-plastics end up in the sea, rivers, soil and drinking water , creating a vicious circle.
Dear future wise consumers, as well as knowing how to reduce plastic in the kitchen, we need to learn to eliminate superficial consumption and prefer DIY production for many areas of your needs by using natural, valid and plastic-less products.
Why and how to reduce plastic in the kitchen or in our lives
To reduce the amount of plastic in the rubbish bin, we don’t need to build boats to sail the oceans (I am referring to the two boats “Plastiki” and “Junk Raft”, made from 12,000 and 15,000 plastic bottles respectively).
We can take less extreme but much more effective action: instead of finding a place for plastic, let’s work to crush new production!
Food is affected by our lifestyle: the “consume therefore I exist” model (find out more about this fundamental issue) has been combined with a lack of time due to the work system (with a 40-hour working week it is very difficult to solve the problem of nutrition without having to go through ready-made food); as a result, in supermarkets we see most fruit and vegetables in some kind of plastic packaging; arriving at the total madness of peeled and packaged tangerines.
9 tips to follow
1) In Italy alone, around 150,000 tonnes of plastic are used to bottle water every year.
There is only one way to solve this problem: do not buy water in PET bottles.
In the world 91% of plastic bottles are not recycled, so until we all become as virtuous as the Norwegians (in Norway only 3% of bottles are not recycled), let’s:
– use tap water whenever possible (read this article to find out how to eliminate chlorine from drinking water);
– fill your bottles (preferably made of glass) from the source (if you live close to these establishments); or several municipalities have made drinking water dispensers available in urban areas;
– if you cannot access these services, consider installing filters.
And when you have to go to school, work or sport, remember to always fill at home a water bottle and take it with you wherever you go.
2) Buy fruit and vegetables in bulk, preferably from the producer.
In supermarkets, to avoid quick spoilage, vegetables are often sold under thick layers of film and in plastic trays. In the same way buy your pantry food
The same goes for imported food: too much, far too much plastic to ensure shape and freshness, plus the obvious consequences related to the carbon footprint.
3) Buy non-perishable foodstuffs in bulk.
Cereals, pulses, pasta, nuts and much more are waiting for you at markets or specialized shops, without unnecessary packaging. If you buy little but frequently, there will be no risk of rotting, then waste.
4) Avoid buying industrial foods that can be called ’empty calories’.
They are wrapped in plastic with attractive designs, just to seduce you: the only guarantee they offer after the minute of pleasure is the extra kilos in your belly and environmental pollution.
The category also includes fruit juices, soft drinks and sugar added (or not) bubbly drinks.
In short, always keep in mind that junk food and drinks are bad for your health, your waistline, your wallet and the planet, even without plastic!
5) Avoid buying vegetables already washed and packaged.
As well as helping to cut down on plastic, you’ll save up to 8 times as much money and reduce the possible risk of contaminants: if not stored properly, packaging can contain mold and/or pathogenic bacteria.
By the way, they are not so practical in the end, as they have to be rinsed at least once anyway.
6) Avoid buying ready-made food, which is often sold in heavy plastic insulating materials to keep it warm.
Organize your healthy and sustainable nutrition at home by batch cooking in advance and using glass jars so that you can portion out and freeze the food for your quick work lunches or dinners.
7) No more Single Use Plastic cups, plates and cutlery.
Even Europe has said no to disposable plastic, through a law that came into force on 14 January 2022: heavy fines will be imposed on those who use it.
If you’re planning a romantic picnic, bring your own cutlery, plates and glasses: even if they are a little heavier, it won’t be an insurmountable drama (think of the good old days!).
And when organizing a party, glass markers are a must: the more daring should ask participants to bring their own equipment from home.
8) Around 5 billion shopping bags are used worldwide every year.
In order to reduce their use and raise awareness, for some time now they have been produced in biodegradable plastic and can be purchased at the checkout.
However, they are still a huge source of pollution: they cost between 10 and 15 cents each, are not always recycled properly and are difficult to reuse due to their lightness and weakness.
When you go shopping, take shopping bags made of fabric, jute or another durable and reusable material with you.
And with the money you save (if you take into account at least 4 bags per week, you can easily spend 20-30 euros per year) you can contribute to your conscious shopping at the ‘bulk’ shops.
9) For any other areas associated with plastics, make sure you have already sifted through your options according to the three R’s rule, i.e.: Reuse, Recycle, Reduce.
Beware, however, of the first rule of Reuse when it comes to single-use food plastics: disposable food packaging is designed to be used only once; subsequent uses can cause micro- and nano-plastics to migrate into the body through the food inside.
In conclusion, knowing how to reduce plastic in the kitchen is crucial, but it mainly involves Reducing your purchases, Recycling the plastics you have and Reusing them with safety criteria in mind.
Good revolution to you all
1) Heather A. Leslie, Martin J. M. van Velzen, Sicco H. Brandsma, Dick Vethaak, Juan J. Garcia-Vallejo, Marja H. Lamoree, Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood, Environment International, 2022, 107199, ISSN 0160-4120
2) Ragusa, Antonio, et al. “Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta.” Environment International 146 (2021): 106274.
3) Reineke, J.J., Cho, D.Y., Dingle, Y.-T., Morello, A.P., Jacob, J., Thanos, C.G., Mathiowitz, E., 2013. Unique insights into the intestinal absorption, transit, and subsequent biodistribution of polymer-derived microspheres. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 110, 13803–13808
4) Wright, S.L., Kelly, F.J., 2017. Plastic and Human Health: A Micro Issue? Environ. Sci.
Technol. 51, 6634–6647
5) Vance, M.E.; Kuiken, T.; Vejerano, E.P.; McGinnis, S.P.; Hochella, M.F., Jr.; Rejeski, D.; Hull, M.S. Nanotechnology in the real world: Redeveloping the nanomaterial consumer products inventory. Beilstein J. Nanotechnol. 2015, 6, 1769–1780