No Perfect System—Yet

Mason jars---good for some things.

Jars—good for some things.

Ack! Two of my post ideas have come into conflict, which has resulted in some cognitive dissonance here in my quest for a better path forward. To wit—post idea #1, from a year ago, the posts “Plastic Trash and Whack-a-mole“, and then “Two Sides of the Very Same Coin“, where I was rather horrified at the damage that plastics are causing , and decided to look into not using plastics in the kitchen, and to also reduce the amounts of trash and recycling that we generate. The short version of a zero-plastic, zero-trash lifestyle—practice some Minimalism, store food in mason jars, shop with reusable bags, and buy things from the bulk and produce sections that aren’t packaged. This sounded like a thoughtful, more sustainable path forward.

But, much of this doesn’t mesh well with ideas from my recent explorations of self-sufficiency, packaging, and transportation, in the posts “Packaging, Transportation, and Doing it Yourself“, and “The Packaging and Transportation Part“. In those posts, I argue that we’re far more efficient, and therefore less wasteful, if we let specialization, productivity, and economies of scale work their magic. To do otherwise, as in trying to do everything yourself, for example, is inefficient, and therefore wasteful, and thus a faulty path forward.

And therein lies the rub. In short, many of these efforts of avoiding plastics and striving for zero-waste result in excessive do-it-yourself-ism, and end up being de facto efforts at self-sufficiency. (Can’t buy plastic-free cosmetics? Make you own! Etc.) And, oddly, the issue that brought all of this to a head in the Bruhl house—my unhappiness with mason jars.

Not my kitchen but there's that ubiquitous plastic-ware....

Not my kitchen, but there’s that ubiquitous plastic-ware….

To explain—a year ago, in my quit-using-plastics-in-the-kitchen effort, I recycled most of the plastic-ware and bought some additional mason jars, which gave us a wide variety of jar sizes, all with the wide mouths, which are far more practical. BUT—mason jars aren’t actually very practical. My complaints are all small, but they compound—some of the jars are too tall to fit in the microwave at work, they’re heavy, they clank against each other when I have more than one in my lunch bag, they’re fairly difficult to get something like refried beans into and out of again, which seems to waste food if you’re not careful. You can heat things up in mason jars in the microwave, but then they’re too oddly shaped to eat out of with a spoon or fork, so then you need an additional dish. If you use an additional dish, then you have twice as many things to wash.

For me, the net result of the mason jar push and the related buy-from-the-bulk-section effort, I’m afraid, has been wasted time and effort. I only have so many minutes in each day, and I don’t want to waste many of them messing with kitchen and shopping inefficiencies. So, I’m pondering alternatives, and realizing that none are perfect.

(A quick aside here—by far my favorite storage dish is one like these in the picture below (though it’s probably not the same brand). I only have one, but I use it almost every day for lunch. The lid snaps tight and never leaks, the food isn’t in contact with the plastic, you can heat it up in the microwave without transferring the food to another dish (I don’t heat things up in plastic—that seems like a recipe for infusing your food with chemicals). They have an efficient shape, and the lids keep them from clanking around in my bag with other items.)

Glass containers with snap lids---perhaps the best of both worlds, though not exactly the subject of this post.

Glass containers with snap lids—perhaps the best of both food-storage worlds, though not the main subject of this post.

With regard to buying from the bulk departments, other issues arise. The idea is to bring your own containers, and thereby avoid packaging. But, the whole effort is another case of “not efficient”. A clear example of this—when I go to buy olive oil. If the olive oil is getting low, I take a mason jar to the co-op, and carry it into the store, and fill it from the bulk tank (after remembering to weigh it and mark it with the tare). Then, I bring it home and use a funnel to get it into the olive oil jar (mason jars don’t pour well, so you need it in a different container to use as you’re cooking). This leaves me with a very oily mason jar, and the lid and band, and the funnel, that all need washed with hot soap and water. Worse, mason jars and funnels aren’t all that easy to wash. All of this, needless to say, is dramatically less efficient than walking through the store and grabbing a container of olive oil off of the shelf, and putting that bottle into the recycling when I’m done with it. And again, less efficient equates to wastefulness of time, energy, and materials.

But there are no perfect answers here, yet. It’s inefficient to always shop in bulk with your own containers—packaging is part of that “packaging and transportation” piece that enables productivity that in turn helps make us all wealthy. But most packaging isn’t perfect, either—plastic packaging doesn’t fully recycle, and is often “down-cycled” a single time into products like composite deck boards. Products are sometimes packaged in glass instead of plastics, and glass recycles completely, but it’s heavy and therefore more energy-intensive, and that energy is not yet generated from fully renewable sources.

On the storage side, all-plastic containers can potentially contaminate food, especially if they’re heated, and far too much plastic is getting into the environment. Mason jars work fantastic for storing things like nuts or popcorn kernels, but have some efficiency issues when used for foods that don’t run or pour. The glass containers with snap lids are great, but neither mason jars nor oven-safe glass are currently able to be recycled. Etc.

But, imagine what this whole system might look like in an ideal future—products are made in highly efficient ways using economies of scale, they are packaged in materials that are fully recyclable, and transported to stores near us. Then, after we use them, the packaging gets recycled. And, all of this—the production of the goods and the packaging, the transportation, and the recycling, is done with renewable power, that is itself made in the most efficient way possible.  This is is our sustainable future. Bringing jars to the store probably doesn’t need to be part of that future that we’re striving for. Zero-waste is a great goal, but zero-recycling—not so much. Packaging is required for system-wide efficiencies.

For now, we all have to do the best we can by choosing from options that aren’t perfect. For me, I think that is to buy both bulk and packaged foods and other goods, but to try whenever possible to choose or use packaging that is fully recyclable. At home, I probably need to give up on my vision of a refrigerator and pantry where everything is stored in glass mason jars, and to store things in more of those glass snap-lid containers, or the packaging that products come in from the store. We can still strive for zero-trash, but we have to realize that some items are only currently available in packaging that isn’t able to be recycled, and that some trash will be created. And until we get to that above-mentioned future ideal, we all need to vote for and otherwise support renewable energy, recycling programs, and cradle-to-cradle product cycles. If we keep our eyes on the big picture, those last three things are the things that really matter. If we have limited time and resources, it would be better to put them there, rather than trying to make our own products at home in an effort to avoid some packaging that can’t be recycled.

Top image credit: Simon Fraser University, “Zero Waste Market”, Flickr Creative Commons.
Plasticware: Starmaid Products, “Food Storage in the Fridge”, Flickr Creative Commons. Image has been cropped.
Glass containers: Glasslock USA, glasslockusa.com.