A Short Post About Waste

Posted: August 26th, 2014 under Background.

With thanks to Jonathan, actually.     When I was a kid, in mid 20th c. South Texas,  buying, preparing,  and consuming food provided  much less waste than it does today.   Vegetables in the grocery store were not encased in plastic bags.    Milk and cream  weredelivered in glass bottles which the milk company picked up at the time of the next delivery.   Depending on the grocery, bread might be in a wrapper, or might be “nekkid.”    Meat was wrapped in butcher paper, true, for its travel homeward, but there was no little plastic try and clingfilm wrap over it.   Grocery sacks were heavy brown paper, widely used (by us as well) as containers to line trash containers in the house–containers that almost never overflowed the modest size they were back then.   They were also used as drawing paper for kids, as costume elements,  as mulch in the garden,  as something to put on a patch of mud in the yard to keep it off shoes,  as an extra bedside trash container for used tissues when someone had a juicy cold, and so on.   Flour  in small amounts came in a paper bag, as did sugar, but flour in 20 pound and more amounts came in cloth bags, and the cloth was brightly printed cotton–easy to turn into clothing, curtains, quilts, whatever.   (My mother made my clothes, but refused to make me a “flour sack” dress, claiming we never needed that much flour at a time and the flour beetles would get into it.)   Paper wrappings were biodegradable–if buried, they decayed readily.   The few foods in jars and tin cans resulted in useful containers for later use, as did the aluminum foil frozen food “dishes.”   As for the food itself,  we ate it at one meal after another (if there was enough for leftovers)  and when it was down to the end, we had dogs, cats, and a parakeet.  Scraps went to animals.

These days if I buy onions or potatoes I also get a plastic mesh or plastic sack that has to be cut to get at the vegetables, so it’s not reusable.   There’s a plastic sack around each bunch of celery,  a plastic sack (sealed) of radishes,  a plastic sack of carrots.  Mushroooms are in a little plastic tub with shrink-wrap over it.    Even where produce is laid out in bins, the shopper must put it in a plastic bag, weigh it, and stick a bar-code tag (extruded by the weighing machine) on the plastic sack to make checkout quicker.   Most things are in multiple layers of packaging, and the packaging is not, on the whole recyclable…and it’s bulky and quickly fills up a trash container of the size that used to last us all week.   We don’t have a dog and our cat is old and eats less.    Milk comes in plastic jugs (which does nothing good for the flavor, compared to the glass bottles it used to come in!)  and the jugs are not returnable (or recyclable if you live in a town without recycling, where the nearest recycling center wants only glass or aluminum cans.)

And that’s just food.   In the hardware store where I spent a lot of hours, wrapping was minimal.   If you bought a pound of sixpenny nails, you got it in a heavy-duty paper sack.   If you bought a lot of nails, you would buy the box (wooden, stout, suitable for making something from) the nails arrived from the wholesaler in.   You could look at, and touch,  the nuts, bolts, screws, nails, brads.   If you bought a hammer or wrench or screwdriver,  it wasn’t hanging on a rack backed in plasticized cardboard with a heavy plastic blister over it…it was hanging on a rack, and you picked it up, took it to the cash register, paid for it, and walked out with it.  None of the tools were normally wrapped after purchase; none were packaged before hand.   Small items were arranged in open compartments (divided by pieces of glass or wood that fit into slots) that it was my job to keep neat looking.  (I had to be taught not to scold customers who left the fishing lures in a tangle.)    Now, bringing home tools or enough nails or screws for a project means having a pile of bubble tops and cardboard to deal with.  Things have to be cut open, and once cut the containers are useless for any other purpose.   You can’t touch or smell the metal before you buy it (which is how you find out for sure what the quality it.)

Our world is a world of waste.   Even sixty years ago, it wasn’t nearly as bad.  In my mother’s childhood, waste in small towns and rural areas was minimal, and back in time it drifted down toward zero except among the most affluent.


  • Comment by Eloise — August 26, 2014 @ 8:56 am


    Here in San Francisco we are doing something about the waste stream. Of course the initial issue was that we were running out of room to dump stuff, but the results are wonderful.
    First off, food scraps are composted, compost is picked up weekly just like the garbage. You can be fined for not seperating your garbage into compost, recycling and garbage.
    The price of a big garbage can for collection is more than $50 per month. Small is less than 20.
    Plastic bags have been banned from all large stores, and ALL stores charge 10 cents if you want a shopping bag of any kind. Customers are expected to bring their own shopping bags. Bags that you put all those peas into are still available, but are increasinly required to be biodegradable.
    Carry out containers are required to be recyclable or compostable.
    I haven’t seen celery in plastic for several years. It is possible to get potatoes and onions in mesh bags, but only in the biggest stores, like Costco.
    Lots of stores now have bulk bins for items ranging from nuts to flour. Our biggest Co-op store sells cloth bags for bulk items, though nothing like those wonderful old flour sacks which were just perfect for dish cloths!
    Hardware stores are more difficult, and there I completely agree.
    Still, San Francisco has cut it’s waste stream by almost 80% with an ultimate goal of 100%. We make money on the compost! We get regular delegations from other cities looking to see how we are doing it.

  • Comment by Gareth — August 26, 2014 @ 10:03 am


    How true – at least in Europe we’re getting better about recycling but reducing the unnecessary wrappings still has a long way to go. Our milk was in bottles until about a year ago when even the delivery service switched to plastic but they are recyclable.

    Pre-packaged stuff also leads to over purchase and waste – people keep saying that something between 25 and 40 percent of food is wasted.

    Since we do not waste any where near that much and generally buy loose veg etc some people must waste a vast amount (I suspect some of those figures come from the supermarkets themselves dumping stuff they didn’t sell).

    We do have recycling for most (but not all) plastic and our waste food gets collected separately and goes I think to an anaerobic digester. Personally we try to look at the mileage on our food which is the other huge difference – at least half the fruit and vegetables on sale in UK supermarkets seems to come from Kenya (green beans etc), New Zealand (apples), Chile or South Africa.

  • Comment by Gareth — August 26, 2014 @ 10:06 am


    Oh and we are starting the plastic bag charge as well – it is already done in Wales and I think Scotland. England following soon. Mind you we do re-use the free bags as bin liners but never use quite as many as we get. The bags for our food waste are bio-degradable – in fact if you miss the collection one week they start to degrade to the point of falling apart in two weeks.

  • Comment by LarryP — August 26, 2014 @ 12:34 pm


    And that is just on the customer’s end of things. I work at a small supermarket and have to deal with the other trash that you don’t have to deal with, Cling wrap on plaits, plastic straps that keep bins closed and bags that fall off the sleeves of bags at checkout and whole sleeves that fall of the hanger were it attaches to the hangers and get throwing into the trash. It can fill a dumpster with nothing but plastic six days a week well seven days actually but no trash pickup on Sunday.

  • Comment by Kylinn — August 26, 2014 @ 5:26 pm


    In the deli at my local supermarket, everything is wrapped in plastic. If one customer wants a half pound of turkey, it is unwrapped, sliced, and then re-wrapped in fresh wrap – usually at least twice around – and put back until the next customer wants some.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 26, 2014 @ 6:19 pm


    Food from around the planet is common here, too–though admittedly, if you want an apple in Central Texas, there is place nearby to find one (climate change has already cut off the ability of the “low cooling requirement” apples to bear here.) I understand the desire of other places to have an export market…but I also know the UK farmers are hurt when the lamb in your markets is from New Zealand and not from your own island. Ditto lamb producers in the US.

    Austin now has outlawed plastic bags–it’s bring your own, or buy a bag at the store if it’s one that sells them (the big supermarket chains do.) And I’ve seen the first TV ad (just this week) for a re-usable grocery bag.

  • Comment by Linda — August 26, 2014 @ 6:58 pm


    The best bag I take when shopping is crocheted from recycled grocery store plastic bags … wet things are no problem … it’s strong and stretches to hold weird shapes .. rinses clean and is a terrific beach bag because the sand and water just run right through.

    I noticed signs in the parking lot at the grocery store “don’t forget your recyclable bags” which is a great little reminder.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — August 26, 2014 @ 7:16 pm


    All of California is under pressure to reduce the waste stream. East of San Francisco, high in the Sierra Nevada, we’ve got really decent recycling going on. I try to buy produce that is in season and grown, if not locally, at least in California. My outlook is that we need to support the local ag ecomomy so that when the state suffers a natural disaster that shuts down transportation, we’ll still be able to get food.
    A small home with limited storage means we aren’t buying in industrial quantities, and follow a more European “food-style”. Small acts that when combine with the actions of like-minded folks do make a difference.

  • Comment by Julia Coldren-Walker — August 26, 2014 @ 10:17 pm


    When I was in the Army stationed in Berlin, you could tell which houses contained Americans. No need to do research, just what how much trash was in front of the house on pick up day. This was in the late 80’s. German usually has about large kitchen trash can size. Americans had 1 if not 2 30 gallon garbage cans and often large green trash bags on the side.

    We put out the large can once a month. Recycles go out about twice a month.

    Julia Coldren-Walker

  • Comment by jan d — August 27, 2014 @ 11:07 am


    All of our veggies are packaged in larger quantities than a single person needs. Oh, the waste!

  • Comment by Elizabeth A. Mancz — August 27, 2014 @ 5:25 pm


    Things you can do with wrapping:
    Plastic mesh is very useful for scrubbing bowls, pots, etc. which had bread dough or other dough in them. I use them once or twice, then throw them away when they get too grotty.
    I start plants in mushroom containers – punch a hole or two in the bottom (or contrarywise, put a small pot in them) put in some soil or seeds and away you go. Plastic bags that veggies come in, are used for kitchen trash – I fill them then tie them shut and toss them in my trash – I’m not as mobile as I could be and running back and forth to the trash can takes too much time. Generally, I look at wrappings and ask myself “what can I do with this?” Often I find an answer. Possibly some of this will be useful to you? I also grew up with the whole, “use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” mentality.

  • Comment by Gareth — August 29, 2014 @ 1:50 am


    We compost all veg trimmings banana skins, apple cores, egg shells etc. (as also weeds, and grass cuttings and leaves). The mix mnakes lovely compost and the variety helps.

    Free plastic bags become bin liners (but the supermarkets do have a recycle container when we get too many). Local services take recycling every other week, other refuse the alternates and food waste every week.

    Of course we also grow some of our own – apples, raspberries, runner (green) beans for sure.

    Still too much packaging though. Why do you need a package inside a package inside a package which you often get these days.

    On food my father always had the rule ‘take what you want, eat what you take’. We used to find when we lived in the US (and still do when visiting) that the portion sizes are way too large and our culture of clearing the plate was hard. We were brought up to hate waste.

  • Comment by Suburbanbanshee — August 29, 2014 @ 6:15 am


    If you have a reusable shopping bag, don’t forget to wash it in bleach. Every week. Shopping bags are amazingly dirty.

    And honestly, it’s a good idea to have bags for the inside of your shopping bag, especially if you’re carrying meat or something squooshy.

  • Comment by Karen — August 29, 2014 @ 8:52 pm


    My parents grew up on farms here in California (where many stores all across the state now charge for bags, so using a recyclable makes sense, but many of the recyclables aren’t as bleachable as Suburbanbanshee so sensibly suggests).

    When they were kids, there wasn’t any such thing as garbage pickup outside the city limits, so “burn days” were the only real way to dispose of waste, and being forced to burn much in the way of waste was a hassle.

    But it’s not just the packaging I have to dispose of that haunts me as wasteful by comparison. When my grandparents bought cars or furniture or a stove, they expected them to last, at least in part because the same disposal problems would have been created if their car had broken down irretrievably so that they had to either pay to have a truck transport it to the junk yard or hope it was still valuable for scrap metal. Now, I buy appliances that I don’t expect to either last or to have any value as scrap, the city comes and picks it up curbside when I call them (unless someone in the neighborhood finds a use, which is a “city” solution I heartily approve) — and don’t get me started on just how many electronic items have come and gone in my life in just the last decade alone.

    All of which consumed energy for their creation, all of which consumed natural resources and human capital for their creation, none of which have a “scrap” of value once the “next big thing” comes along, at which point the previous device ceased to have use because it was no longer supported.


  • Comment by Nancy Whiting — August 30, 2014 @ 7:30 am


    My parents are both depression-era, and they, and we grew up on “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

    Recently, my spouse and I moved from the East Coast (where we had curbside recycling)to NW North Dakota, where I haven’t been able to locate household recycling within a reasonable travel distance.

    The local grocery store does collect and recycle plastic bags, at least, and those too small or too large or too holey for us to use as dog poop pick-up bags (three large dogs, twice a day–those produce section bags and anything else I can find that works go for that). I bake all our bread, so I use those again and again. I also hang onto any especially large and stout bags, as my spouse hunts, and when we’re trying to wrap something like a wild turkey for the freezer, large and stout is good.

    I made my grocery bags, most of them (others were freebies from various places) out of stout cotton fabric I found and stashed years ago. They are roughly the size of the old paper bags, with short handles, since cloth doesn’t stand up like a paper bag does. I get odd looks when I use them–one older woman said seeing me use mine made her feel better about using hers–she didn’t feel so odd!

    We compost, and I reuse lots of glass jars–but lots of things that used to come in glass now seem to come in plastic, alas. Our waste stream has cut down considerable over the summer (the garden has done REALLY well!), but it kills me to just toss so much newspaper waste, not to mention the plastic and cans.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — August 31, 2014 @ 10:20 am


    One consideration is the fact that before refrigeration we would go to the store and generally buy either fresh or a rather limited amount of canned goods. Most people would shop almost daily in much smaller quantities than today.

    Today there are a myriad more types of foods available for eating – and since we do not buy out of a bin they are all packaged.

    Most of the waste generated by plastic etc is done in an effort to sell more product.

  • Comment by Katrina — September 1, 2014 @ 1:01 pm


    I have a strong dislike of both plastic shopping bags and plastic around my food. It is possible to get reusable mesh produce bags to use instead of the plastic ones the grocery stores provide. I have a bunch of them. Sometimes they confuse the cashiers at first but I’ve never had any store give me a problem about using them.

    Milk can still be found in glass bottles in some places. My sister even gets it delivered, along with butter and assorted other items from the dairy. For years I bought milk from various dairies in bottles but land has become too valuable locally for keeping dairy cows on and the dairies I used to patronize are gone. Building row after row of huge ugly houses on good farmland is another form of waste, and one that particularly upsets me.

    I sometimes get meat that is wrapped in butcher paper without plastic of any sort but getting it requires remembering to make a special trip to the farmer’s market on Thursday or maybe Friday evening. By Saturday what I want is usually gone.

    I find the amount of trash that some of my neighbors generate to be a bit mind-boggling. The majority of what goes into my trash can is used kitty litter. Paper, cardboard, “tin” cans, and most plastic other than bags and styrofoam go in the city recycling bins. Plastic bags go into recycling bins that can be found at most big grocery stores. Pretty much anything that plugs in goes to the county electronics recycling center, as do CFL bulbs and some types of batteries. Aluminum cans get sold to a scrap metal dealer although they could go in the city bin instead. I know where I could take styrofoam but it is a 40 mile round trip and driving that far would be more wasteful than throwing out the occasional meat tray.

  • Comment by Sharidann — September 8, 2014 @ 5:06 am


    Amen to that Elizabeth!

    The whole packaging issue is quite depressing.
    I mean, where I live, in Germany, we have a Special sort of bins for recyclable Plastics, one for non recyclabe, one for organics and even a Special one for soiled diapers (with a nice Stork with a Baby print on it). Glass, we have to bring to a glass Container.

    Recycled all the way, or in glass, would be better, of course, but glass seems now to be “luxury packaging” and not Standard.

  • Comment by GinnyW — September 14, 2014 @ 7:32 pm


    We do alot of recycling, but recycling does NOT make up for the energy and frustration and cost of overpackaging. What kind of society puts so much effort and so many resources into creating garbage? It makes no sense to me.

  • Comment by J Cutway — September 19, 2014 @ 8:54 am


    I was told, when I asked, that plastic bubbles on cardboard backing were there to prevent shoplifting. IF that’s so why are things such as candy and gum still in small packs? The answer I was given-they’re at the register, the cashier keeps an eye on them. Rightttt!
    I like bins of things-food, small hardware items,fabric leftovers,etc. It seems to me that all that packaging also helps sell things that are not as good as they seem to be. Bundle good onions with some going soft and they’re out of your store and at a profit!
    I think there were many ideas for living that our folks had that turn out not to be very useful.

  • Comment by J Cutway — September 19, 2014 @ 8:55 am


    I was told, when I asked, that plastic bubbles on cardboard backing were there to prevent shoplifting. IF that’s so why are things such as candy and gum still in small packs? The answer I was given-they’re at the register, the cashier keeps an eye on them. Rightttt!
    I like bins of things-food, small hardware items,fabric leftovers,etc. It seems to me that all that packaging also helps sell things that are not as good as they seem to be. Bundle good onions with some going soft and they’re out of your store and at a profit!
    I think there were many ideas for living that our folks had that turn out to be very useful.

  • Comment by J Cutway — September 19, 2014 @ 9:03 am


    Sorry , I accidently sent first post up, then fixed it. Older hands, different keyboard, using the backspace key a lot recently. Hmmm!
    Spellchecker must not be “updated” It keeps having me put words & phrases into “add to dictionary”!

  • Comment by Sherri Campbell — September 22, 2014 @ 11:26 pm


    The amount of trash seems to be increasing exponentially. We used to have a smaller bin with three of us; since my father passed away 15 years ago, we have a larger bin, and use more of it, no matter how hard we try to conserve. The amount of “crap” packaging is mind-boggling.

    P.S. Those ring things on 6 packs of soda can be turned into hot pads if you crochet.. One of mom’s friends gave her one. She just covered every part of it with yarn somehow. (I don’t crochet, so not sure what she did.) I don’t think you can use it for super hot pads but they do an adequate job.

  • Comment by Sharidann — September 29, 2014 @ 2:49 am


    Had to think about this post on saturday. I needed some screws and screw anchors and I went to a specialized store in the neighborhood, one which is NOT part of a big chain of Hardware stores.
    The vendor asked me what I planned to do, how many holes I wanted to drill and so on, what I wanted to Support, etc…
    Once done with the interview, gave me the screws and anchors I needed with 20% quantity as safety just in case.. in a paper bag, thank you very much.
    The “usual” way you buy that stuff in Hardware stores, in my experience, is that you buy a big box of screws or anchors (50 or 100 inside), doen’t matter if you only Need 10….

    Really made my day and reminded me of Elizabeth’s post.

  • Comment by Andy — October 13, 2014 @ 3:36 am


    We used the old brown paper bags to cover school owned textbooks. This was required and became a yearly ritual. Also composted garbage and burned trash (1960s)

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 13, 2014 @ 5:57 am


    We were given sheets of heavy brown paper on which businesses had printed ads, but they weren’t as heavy as the heaviest grocery bags. They did have printed guide lines on one side to use to aid in folding them into book covers for the different sized books. So we used the grocery paper bags to cover books. If they wore through (which the supplied ones did pretty fast) teachers would scold you to recover the book.

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