When I cook my trash can fills up quickly. I try to buy fruits and vegetables that don’t come wrapped in plastic, but it's not always possible. And, of course it’s difficult to avoid Styrofoam and cellophane wrapped meat and chicken. Cans, boxes that once contained broth, milk cartons, and mustard jars all go into the recycling bin. But still, when I think about food packaging my knee-jerk reaction is less – and preferably none – is better.
So I was surprised to read a defense of food packaging in the New York Times Freakonomics blog today: “In addition to protecting food from its microbial surroundings, packaging significantly prolongs shelf life, which in turn improves the chances of the food actually being eaten.”
And that’s where things take an even more interesting turn:
“[W]hen it comes to saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our behavior in the kitchen far outweighs the environmental impact of whatever packaging happens to surround the product. Consumers toss out vastly more pounds of food than we do packaging—about six times as much. One study estimates that U.S. consumers throw out about half the food they buy. In Great Britain, the Waste and Resource Action Programme (funny enough, WRAP) claims that the energy saved from not wasting food at home would be the equivalent of removing ‘1 out of every 5 cars off the road.’”
That’s pretty powerful stuff (even if the stats are somewhat exaggerated, as some comments claimed). I work hard not to waste food, saving even dribs and drabs of various dishes to incorporate into other dishes – a half-cup of sautéed spinach to put on a pizza, three sundried tomatoes to chop up for a frittata, the ends of onions for chicken stock. There is nothing more satisfying than cleaning out the fridge, making good use of forlorn leftovers. It makes me feel thrifty – an underrated, and in my life, rarely felt, quality.
But even though I'm wasting less food in the kitchen, I know I can do better. Fresh herbs are one of the trickiest foods to make good use of since the bunches are usually larger than I require. When I have extra basil, mint, or parsley I'll make a batch of pesto to freeze. But, rosemary, thyme, and sage? Hm, I'm still thinking about that.