Maybe you’ve heard, but the Earth isn’t doing so great…our climate problems could be irreversible in just a decade, global warming has become a fact of life with years of record breaking temperatures, and millions of species have gone extinct. If you are one of the tree-hugging, Earth-loving people who know these facts, and are ready to act on them, you aren’t alone.
A recent OnePoll study of over 2200 Americans with Republic Services, in collaboration with Recycled Simplified, revealed that the pandemic woke us up to our ability to impact environmental problems: 44% of us became more aware of our own impact on the environment, 43% are trying to purchase more eco-friendly products, and 41% are trying to waste less.
But sometimes it’s too late to just want to waste less when we’ve already purchased non-eco-friendly packaging with our grocery store items, or have overestimated how much food we will eat in a week, resulting in food waste. Journalist, author, and Earth-loving guru Kate Bratskeir recently turned her fascination with sustainable food shopping into a book aimed at educating us just how we can shop smarter to do our part to help climate issues.
Here are a few tips she wants everyone to know from her own life, and from her book “The Pocket Guide to Sustainable Food Shopping,” and her own experiences as she works towards a lower waste lifestyle with her family.
Engage with community organizations to shop smarter
You don’t have to go at it alone, and you aren’t the first citizen in your area to want to shop smarter to reduce food waste and help the planet. Community organizations are already available to aid in your efforts, and instead of fighting an uphill battle to change things by yourself, you can partner with them and use their resources to ensure your success.
If you’ve never heard of a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) this can be a great place to start, as most benefit both local food growers and consumers. Instead of simply supporting local farmers at your summer farmer’s markets, you can help them even out cash flow throughout the year so they don’t experience an income drought during the winter and spring months.
This also helps the community shoulder some of the responsibility for crop variations or less successful growing seasons. While you may not be saving money, you are reallocating resources to create a more stable and sustainable food system in your community. What you might gain is a larger variety of vegetables that you hadn’t thought about purchasing before, diversifying your diet and palate. You will also benefit from ultra-fresh produce instead of settling for what’s available on grocery shelves that week.
A variety of other community organizations exist to help minimize food waste, including a special organization meant to “keep fruit off the streets and safely in jars where it belongs” — the League of Urban Canners. Based in Somerville, Mass. this group created a low-cost sustainability model by mapping fruit trees in their city, and helping owners harvest the food to create delicious jams.
From there, they share the wealth, with 10 percent of the fruits going to property owners, 70 percent to preservers, and 20 percent to harvesters. They’ve saved nearly 5,000 pounds of fruit annually from more than 300 trees. Finding initiatives like these in your own town can change your shopping habits permanently, and enable others to benefit as well.
Don’t fall for greenwashing
Bratskeir is passionate about educating the public on the topic of greenwashing, which involved companies and their public relations departments spinning, deceiving, and misrepresenting just how environmentally sound a product is. She gives the example of ice cream cartons, which have just recently become fully recyclable for some brands, when we really think we’ve been recycling them all along, but parts of the products have never been recyclable, negating our efforts.
She also worries about General Mills’ new Nature Valley Granola Bar, which she says has promoted its recyclability on Twitter, but in reality, it’s made with a type of recyclable plastic that you’d have to drop off at a recycling center. “It’s important to understand what your materials are made of and not fall for greenwashing,” she says. “We are terrible recyclers and it’s not our fault…it’s been intentionally confusing. Just because it says ‘recyclable’ doesn’t mean the whole thing is. I’m constantly in awe of our recycling room.”
Mind the milk and meat aisles
An entire chapter of Bratskier’s book is entitled “How to Buy Milk: So. Many. Milks,” pointing to the confusing and endless selection of vegan and nonvegan milk options. While she has no intention of convincing people to adopt a vegan lifestyle, she says “I do outline evidence that vegan sources of milk and meat are environmentally less taxing.” For example, cow’s milk is responsible for more carbon emissions, land, and water use than rice, soy, oat, and almond milks.
“The same is true of meat alternatives…as much as people hold onto their hamburgers and think eating chicken will help, evidence shows it’s about reducing meat consumption,” she says. If you plan to still eat meat, start checking out the labels on the packaging, which she examines in her book.
For example, before you confuse “natural” with “humanely raised and grass-fed,” think again — it simply means that it doesn’t have artificial ingredients or that it’s minimally processed. Instead, look for 3rd party labels including “certified humane” and others, some of which minimize physically painful treatment of the animals.
Stop “aspirational produce” buying
So you’ve been buying a head of lettuce every week, but have only made one salad this month. While we think throwing away the remaining lettuce isn’t really a problem (it will disintegrate, we think) food waste is causing more stress on the environment. It could be composted instead, or you could simply get real about your buying habits. Bratskeir explains 40% of food is wasted and a new study has shown 10% happens in our own homes, calling it one of the most tangible ways to make a difference.
“Personally, I’m a big aspirational produce buyer,” Bratskeir says. “I’ve gotten better over time at using what I have. I keep a physical but a mental list too: ‘These are the fruits and veggies I must incorporate in some way’ and that’s how I decide what’s for dinner.” She jokes that by the end of the week her family might be having a dish with those leftover mushrooms whether they like it or not.
By changing your meal planning to revolve around the food you need to use up rather than the food you need to buy still, your habits slowly change. “I’ve started buying less produce, but I buy things that last longer like canned beans or frozen veggies.” She also details how to make produce last longer in her book, and what to do about the eternal problem of leftover herbs after you’ve purchased them for one recipe.
Time to go dumpster diving — Conduct a waste audit
“The concept of riffling through your own trash isn’t the most fun,” Bratskeir says, but it’s a necessity if you want to truly understand your impact on the environment. She says some people who try this realize that plastic wrapping is the most common culprit, while others will find out it’s yogurt cups or food scraps. “You can only address the problem once you take account of it…start with the most wasted items first.”
If you are trying to build environmentally friendly kids of the future, get them involved with the waste audit (they may find trash trolling more fun than you!). You also may realize that through the pandemic, and spending more time at home, you are producing more trash. “People have said they can’t believe how much garbage they make,” she says. Her waste audit helps people dig into why they wasted the item, and alternative plans for next time. (Check out this guide for community leaders to prevent food waste on a larger scale as well).
In the end, Bratskeir reminds us to go easy on ourselves by first dealing with the guilt associated with making changes through grocery shopping habits. “We have to get over it or accept it to move forward…nobody is going to be perfect. Accept that you will mess up and celebrate your wins.”
For even more resources on sharing initiatives and food sustainability, check out how sharing gardens produce free food here.