Food for thought Pt. 1 Plastic Free


Over the last couple of months, my fiancée Rosa and I have been doing monthly food challenges. So far, we’ve done Plastic Free July and Vegan October. Full disclosure: there was an Italian-All-You-Can-Eat-September trip in between. As I am sitting here drinking my kale, peanut butter, banana, chia seed smoothie, I got to thinking on what those months were like and how I ended up drinking hipster-foodie smoothies. Let me start off with encouraging you to give it a try. I know we are all exceedingly busy, but it really gives you a new perspective on the food we eat everyday and where it comes from. Many people say they can’t cook, or are just not interested. Some even have a weekly schedule, pretty much eating the same seven things each week. As a cooking enthusiast, this blows my mind. Food is something we take in three times a day, every day. It most likely has the biggest influence on how we feel and how healthy we are and many people treat it as a chore to get through.

Changing your daily routine is something which takes a little effort. We are all creatures of habit, and there have been times were I was frustrated by the lack of plastic-free options in the supermarket (cheese and meat especially are almost always off limits). But if you invest that little bit of effort, you will learn so many new recipes, ingredients, and new food options which will enrich your daily meals that you will wonder why you always stuck to your pasta bolognese, fried rice/noodles, and especially potatoes, veggies and meat for you Dutch people out there. To keep this post within a reasonable length, I will focus on our plastic-free experiences here. Our month of plant-based diet will be the subject of the next post.

Plastic is pretty much the foundation on which our modern civilization is built. It is cheap, light-weight, durable, and there are so many types used in clothing, packaging, appliances, etc. The sheer number of ways in which we are currently using these oil-derived materials is astounding. There is however a down side to this abundance of uses for plastics. Many plastic products are for single use only, often being discarded immediately after getting home from the store. In western countries, a percentage of this plastic waste is now being recycled (26% EU average) and another part (also 36% for the EU) is being burned as fuel for power plants and other factories. Its energy is being ‘recovered’ as it is euphemistically phrased. This burning of course contributes to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and thereby to climate change. These levels of recycling and burning for energy are currently some of the most positive scenarios of plastic waste treatment. In many places, disposable plastics ends up in landfills (the remaining 38% in the EU), or the environment (there is not a big difference between these two). As a coral reef biologist, I have seen the effect of plastic pollution on the marine environment. Endless amounts of single use bags and bottles end up on the shore and underwater where they slowly fall apart and enter the food web, poisoning and physically harming wildlife. During a research cruise on the Atlantic Ocean, we  brought up plastic trash from over 4000 meters deep.

Because of this, we decided to spend July living single use plastic-free (medicinal package plastics excluded). The first thing you notice as you walk into your favorite supermarket is how limited your options have now become. A rough estimate would be that more than 90% of the products comes in plastic packaging. Almost all meat, fish, prefab food, and dairy come in plastic. Of non-cooled foods, your only options are glass, cardboard/paper, and tins if you gloss over their lining. Vegetables and fruits leave you about a third of the options. No boxes of mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, salad, or berries. No bags of apples, oranges, onions, garlic, carrots, or bell peppers. Many things are available in bulk, but you soon notice that these always cost more than the prepackaged versions. Why do bag-less bananas cost substantially more than bagged bananas? Another thing is the packaging per item. why do all eggplants have to be shrink-wrapped? A Dutch government agency claimed (link in Dutch) that this was to lower damage during transport which would lead to levels of food waste which would outweigh the cost of the plastic wrapping, but there must be other ways to solve this. Veggies on the market are hardly ever wrapped and they seem just fine. Part of this problem is the customer’s aversion to any blemish on fruits and veggies. All produce must now be picture perfect, or people will assume there is something wrong with it. Supermarkets provide those flimsy single use bags for the things they offer in bulk. There may still be some which offer paper bags but those are getting more and more rare. To solve this, we got some mesh drawstring bags online as a replacement. These work great for pretty much everything and I wonder why supermarkets don’t have a stand for them in the veg department. As you wander around the vegetables, most of which are now off limits, you notice that the majority of what you can still buy is more ‘old fashioned’: turnips, leeks, cauliflowers and the like. You are pretty much left with only whole vegetables most of which require a bit more prep time than a short stir fry. We had a great time coming up with recipes for stews, soups, casseroles, and other ways to use these.

Package-free stores seem to be popping up all over the place. These bring-your-own-container shops are offering more and more of your daily needs in vegetables, grains, drinks, cleaning products, etc. Sadly enough, we did not have one nearby and making a 40km roundtrip to do the shopping would kind of defy the point. However there was just an announcement that the major Belgian biological supermarket is starting with minimal packaging/bring your own container, so there is definitely some movement in the major supermarkets.  Another option was the Saturday morning market on a square near where we live. Of course this required some meticulous planning shopping list-wise as I generally just pop over to the supermarket everyday for dinner shopping, but there is something fun about coming home with a bounty of produce which you hunted down at your local market. The people manning the stalls were happy to oblige us with our funny bags and were more than willing to put things like goat’s cheese in the re-usable containers we brought. After our plastic-free month, the only real failures were finding coffee and toilet paper in a non-plastic package. Both of these are sadly enough essential, so we did make some allowances.

There are of course no official rules to this kind of experiment. Plastic-free July did have some organization behind it, Facebook groups and the like, but you are free to set up your own month-long experiment. Do some pre-research so you have alternatives for your standard daily wants and set up some rules: just skipping those plastic veggie bags at the supermarket, or avoid the supermarket altogether and just buy local. Make the rules which you think you can manage for a month.

For us, the big thing was the realization that single-use plastics have become omni-present in the food industry. Is it really necessary to display the cherry tomatoes/apricots/apples in a plastic box? Why are there no more sustainable alternatives available at the supermarket for packing your food? It is amazing how empty your trash can is after a few weeks of not buying pre-packaged food. It will take some adjustment on your part, but there is something fulfilling about getting your weekly food without all the accompanying plastic. So give it a try and do not be discouraged by a weird non-packaged vegetable which you may never have heard of (topinambur, scorsonere, or even the epically named cardoon) . Googling its name will give you more recipes for it than you could ever use!

The rainforests are not the lungs of the Earth, we are actually making them the opposite

WWF France (2008) TWBA\Paris – print

Everyone has heard the cliché of the rainforests being the “lungs of the Earth”, its all over the news with the ongoing climate summit in Paris. As an ecologist, this has bugged me for a while now. I never gave it much thought until now, but it just felt off. The statement infers that the rainforests produce the oxygen in the atmosphere which helps us and all other aerobic organisms live. This seems to make sense since plants produce oxygen through photosynthesis and we use that oxygen in our respiration. However, it glosses over the other product of photosynthesis. Plants do not photosynthesize to make our oxygen, they do so to produce carbon compounds which they use to respire themselves and grow. On top of that; the multitude of animals in rainforests together with the abundance of (still mostly unknown) micro-organisms live off the plant material and each other while respiring as well. All this respiration is also boosted by the year round high temperatures since increased temperature leads to increased metabolism in coldblooded organisms. If we tally all this up, it turns out that a rainforest is a balanced system with hardly any oxygen surplus. Another thing is the carbon production during photosynthesis. If rainforests produced excess oxygen for us to breath, there should also be excess carbon produced. This carbon should then build up as litter on the forest floor, not being eaten by anything and if the forests would contribute substantially to the world’s oxygen reserves, this build up should be pretty massive. We in fact find the opposite with high decomposition rates quickly removing litter from the forest floor all the while consuming oxygen in the process. The only way there could be a net excess of oxygen is when the plant material was sealed off from the air in, for example, peat swamp forests where a layer of peat builds up over time.

These peat swamp forests are currently at the center of a major environmental disaster happening in Indonesia. Massive forest fires along Indonesia’s 5000 km length are releasing as much carbon dioxide in three weeks as Germany releases per year. This of course besides the danger to human health and massive destruction of key rainforest habitats for innumerable animals for which the orangutans are the poster boys/girls as long as they are still around.

Sadly enough, rain forests in other parts of the world are facing similar threats, a key example being the Amazon which is being burned to clear land for cattle pastures. The burning of our rainforests is actually doing the opposite of lungs: using oxygen for the transformation of plants to carbon dioxide. But don’t worry, there is far more oxygen in the atmosphere (21%)  than we can consume by burning all our forests. The problem comes from the carbon dioxide being released. Since there is far less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (0.04%), all this burning does have a major effect on its atmospheric levels. It is estimated that the carbon dioxide released by deforestation through burning exceeds that of all cars and trucks in the world, leading to increased global warming.

So, although it paints a pretty image, the tropical rainforests are not the lungs of the earth. We are, however, destroying them at an unprecedented rate, leading to death and habitat loss for vast numbers of plants and wildlife, serious health issues for local people, and an increase in climate change, something we could really do without right now.