Most of us in the eco-world probably agree that in an ideal world we'd all eat a mostly local, organic diet of food we bought at a farmers' market and cooked ourselves. We'd thriftily manage our food waste through careful meal planning, and would use leftover almost-bad veggies in a nice no-waste stew once a week. The little waste that was unusable or unavoidable would go in our compost piles or be fed to our pet chickens.
Unfortunately, the reality for many of us eco-bloggers and the majority of Americans is quite different. As someone who has struggled through Crunchy Chicken's No Waste Challenge (sign up now!) several times, I can attest that it is HARD not to waste food.
Which is what makes this article today in the Freakonomics blog so interesting. In it, James McWilliams points out that though many of us disparage food packaging, it does have the effect of increasing shelf life of food. As a result, food packaging might decrease food waste.
I know it's not super popular to be pro-food packaging in the eco-blogosphere, but I couldn't help nodding along when reading McWilliams' post. Last year, I subscribed to a CSA for a few months and I found that I wasted a LOT of food. It wasn't just that it was too much food for one person (which it was) or that I was too lazy to cook much (I was.) Sometimes, the food would arrive at my door almost spoiled. I also found that oftentimes, unless I processed the food right away, it would go bad.
I've come to realize that I personally need to take short cuts in order to cook more, eat more fruits and veggies, and waste less. For instance, I will often put off washing and peeling my farmers' market bought carrots. The carrots will go bad, and I'll have to dump them in the trash. On the other hand, if I buy organic baby carrots, I'll probably eat the whole bag in a few days. Similarly, the resealable bags of baby spinach are my friends.
Now, there still is an inordinate amount of food packaging waste out there. I still fail to see why bananas require plastic wrap. And though I have occasionally bought the Trader Joe's packaged cut apples, I recognize that the inability to cut your own apples is an extraordinary form of laziness.
But I think we all need to assess (as always) what the right balance is in our lives. If food packaging keeps us from wasting food, it might not be the evil bogeyman that many environmentalists believe it to be. I suspect Beth is going to kill me for suggesting this, but if the waste trade-off is either the plastic bag for a bag of pre-washed lettuce, or an entire head of lettuce that rotted before you got to eating it, I would probably say to go with the bag of lettuce. (To be clear, the obvious best solution is to buy a head of lettuce and then not waste it. I'm not denying that. I'm just arguing that that's not always what actually HAPPENS despite our best intentions.)
My point, aside from antagonizing everybody, is that the reality is that Americans waste a lot of food. Thus, rather than trying to achieve an idealized unpackaged world that may be unrealistic for the average consumer, we need to take a hard look and differentiate between frivolous packaging and packaging that might actually lead to less overall waste.
1 week ago