The (Beautiful) Connection Between Zero Waste and Nutritional Health

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What was the last thing you ate? Think back to the last snack, meal, or beverage you consumed and consider it for a moment. Did you make it at home? Was it prepared at a restaurant? Was it wrapped in packaging? Did it come with a straw and disposable cup?  

Of those specifications, it was, based on a typical American diet, most likely one of the latter. This concept is called Food-Away-From-Home (FAFH) (lol at that abbreviation). According to a study by the USDA Economic Research Service, FAFH now accounts for about 50% of our total food expenditures, as compared to about 29% in 1984.

So, we’re all leading busier lives and either don’t have time to make our own food or don’t have the money to spend on quality food items to make our own food, leading us to depend on food away from home in the form of full and limited service restaurants, convenience stores, and vending machines. When there is a recession, there is generally a decrease in FAFH spending; but, as you can see in the chart I linked above, it always bounces back.  

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We like to treat ourselves! When the economy is going well and we’ve got the means, we all get that urge to go out and have a cute brunch or try a new spot in town. Eating out is also a huge part of our social interactions. I know it’s a contributing factor to my own social life; if there’s no food, there’s no Sophie. But when eating out becomes our norm, and not our treat, we start to become wholly dependent on others for our nutrition...and that’s an unsettling thought.

Enter: Zero Waste. The reason most zero waste blogs and social media accounts are full of those perfectly manicured photos of food in cloth bags is because eating out comes with extra disposables like straws, utensils, and packaging. In turn, most zero waste followers eat out very little. In an effort to produce less waste, we end up eating healthier because we’re preparing meals at home from ingredients that are fresh and not in a box or bag. It’s a hard transition, one that I’m still in the midst of wrestling with due to that whole Sophie-only-socializes-with-food-present thing. Fast food restaurants are unable to fill up your reusable cup and only provide polystyrene (Styrofoam) or wax-lined options, so no more milkshakes from a drive-through for me. Food trucks are sometimes awesome at providing responsible packaging, but sometimes not. Unless you ask beforehand, you may get handed a plastic box with plastic forks individually wrapped in plastic and oh my god now what do I do with all this plastic?!  

Vegetarianism, Veganism… it’s all great and great for the environment because meat is the one of the largest contributors to climate change. This from the University of Michigan carbon footprint factsheet: “Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy… and eating all locally grown food for one year could save the GHG [greenhouse gas] equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, while eating a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles.”

But technically potato chips are vegetarian and have you ever paid attention to all the packaging that comes with tofu or vegan “cheese” products? My point is, no specific diet will be perfectly zero waste, so we can't beat ourselves up about it.  Focusing our attention on less processed, more local, and fresher ingredients for our food will force us to eat an exponentially healthier diet compared to fast, processed, and packaged foods. Instead of spending 30 minutes scrolling through Instagram four times a day, use just one of those regularly scheduled social media breaks to prepare a snack that you can pack up and bring with you, avoiding plastic granola bar wrappers. With the advent of more commonplace bulk bins and package-free stores, we can get virtually all the products we’re used to without the excess plastic and preservatives.

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5 Ways to Lower Your Food Impact

  1. Prepare meals at home.

    An obvious one, but still, it bears repeating. Resolve to make all of your snacks at home, or 3 meals a week at home.  

  2. Use ingredients that are in minimal or no packaging.

    This means shopping the grocery store’s perimeters, not the inner aisles.  Look for stores that offer grains in bulk bins and for the love of god don’t buy a plastic bag of vegetables. Vegetables have this wonderful superpower of naturally not needing packaging; so, opt for the loose tomatoes as opposed to the ones mysteriously placed in cellophane. (I will never understand that phenomenon.)                     
  3. Look for a local alternative.

    Not everything is going to be grown in your area all the time (shedding a frustrated tear for sweet, conflicting avocados...) but you’d be surprised how many local farmers use high tunnels and other methods to grow greens and other produce in the off season.  Also, HONEY.  You can walk into almost any grocery store and find local honey; it tastes way better than the store brand stuff and it’s usually raw, offering a multitude of health benefits.

  4. Use reusable bags.

    Another obvious but necessary point.  Plastic bags are very hard to recycle, can only be recycled a finite number of times, and are super flimsy to boot. This should be second nature to most people by now, but please stop getting plastic bags. Just bring your own bags, or use a cardboard box from the store.                                                                                                                                                                    
  5. Reduce the amount of meat you consume.

    As referenced above, it’s no secret that meat is incredibly energy-intensive to produce. This isn’t a political stance, it’s simply a scientific fact. That doesn’t mean everyone in the world has to stop eating meat immediately; as someone who isn’t vegan or vegetarian, I don’t have any authority to advise that. But take this into account: “Replacing all beef consumption with chicken for one year leads to an annual carbon footprint reduction of 882 pounds CO2e” (University of Michigan). Local chicken is also cheaper and easier to find than other local meats. *score*

 Winter farmers' market haul.

Winter farmers' market haul.

**BONUS: Bus, bike, or walk to the store when possible. I grew up 35 minutes (drive) from the nearest supermarket, so I understand if this isn’t possible for everyone. But if you’ve got the time, try to devise a plan to get to the market without driving your car. It’s kind of fun, and you’ll feel more like you’ve really earned that food.