Photography by Justin Fox Burks
The kitchen is the heart of my home.
It’s where we nourish ourselves and our loved ones as we relax together over a glass of wine or an after-school snack. My husband and I cook frequently, so there is a steady stream of ingredients and dirty dishes moving through it. In addition to food, my kitchen holds containers both useful and sentimental. There’s the deep blue dish, made in England but found in a local thrift store, that my son always chooses for his morning oatmeal. There’s the yellow ceramic bowl with orange and blue marbling that my grandmother used for serving vegetables and whipping up cake frosting in the 1950s. And then there are the less pretty and decidedly less evocative containers: stacks of cellophane that hold rice noodles and polenta, cardboard cylinders filled with baking powder, plastic bottles of ketchup. And while I’m grateful for ample provisions, somehow in its abundance, food packaging has lost some of its magic. A zillion blogs can tell me how to arrange my containers, but very few tell me how to appreciate them. This essay is a quest to recapture some of the respect and perhaps even magic that good food packaging should inspire here in Memphis, as delicious a city as there ever was.
A Short History of Food Packaging
Food packaging as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Humans have roamed the earth for about 200,000 years, and our early ancestors probably used natural elements like shells, gourds and leaves to store their provisions. Clay pots date back about 25,000 to 30,000 years. Because of these pots, entirely new foods could be aged, fermented or cooked. (Think: yogurt, wine, sauces and stews.) The containers themselves found new shapes, both useful and beautiful. Some could be stoppered to keep out air. Others had spouts for easier pouring. The potter’s wheel, invented some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, brought this technology to the masses.
Because food lasted longer, local flavors began to migrate from one continent to the next.
By about 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia, artisans were heating sand to extremely hot temperatures (about 1700 degrees centigrade) and creating glass. Some of the earliest glass was used for food storage. It’s transparent and chemically inert (bacteria can’t grow in it), making it an excellent option for storing perishables.
Another star property of glass is its ability to be recycled any number of times.
Paper, invented sometime around 200 BCE in China and made from mulberry bark, was initially designed for food storage. Civilizations blossomed with this new superpower of food preservation. Agriculture sustained larger communities, and year-round sustenance became a more predictable pattern.
The canning process, invented at the behest of Napoleon to support his military campaigns, sparked another revolution in food storage. With an air-tight seal, food and drink could be stored for years inside tin cans or glass bottles. The first man-made plastic emerged in 1869, not as a food container, but as an ivory substitute for billiard balls. Today, plastic accounts for a huge portion of food that is transported. Polystyrene (the true name for what many of us call “Styrofoam,” a brand name) originated during World War II as a flotation and building device and quickly made its way into food streams because of its lightweight nature and insulating properties.
Food containers are truly amazing. They maintain the integrity of food over time: locking moisture in or out, preventing insects or other critters from eating it, and allowing us to transport food from one location to the next. Food packaging lets us enjoy flavors from around the world, in all seasons, right in our kitchens. Or in the car. Or on a picnic. We can even choose our portion size and set some aside for later. This would be an astounding revelation to our ancestors.
However, all of this innovation comes with a price.
Today food containers are so ubiquitous as to be invisible. We’ve gotten so used to them (and even overwhelmed by them at times) that we toss them into the trash at an astonishing rate and then purchase new ones. As we are learning, these practices spell environmental disaster. According to the EPA, one-third of municipal landfill waste is packaging and one-third of that is food packaging. That averages out to two-thirds of a pound of food packaging per person per day. This might not sound like much to you, but imagine if a landfill were actually your backyard. Would you still be willing to casually throw as much trash there?
Perhaps you are fastidious about placing your peanut butter containers and spaghetti sauce jars into the recycling bin. Despite your intentions, these items may not always be reincarnated as useful objects. Recycling plants need markets for their goods.
If no one is buying them, our carefully washed and sorted recyclables may end up in the North Shelby Landfill.
Packaging also allows us to forego communal meals. From the Latin con (“with”) and panis (“bread”), companionship is literally a friendship that grows from a shared table. With containers, we can eat at our desks or in our cars, alone. Gary Cross, author of Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, says, “Even as early as 1910, candy bars were sold as alternatives to having a common meal. You would buy a quarter-pound candy bar, and that would be your lunch. The snack food makes it possible to basically graze all day because your food source doesn’t depend upon sharing of a common table.”
An abundance of conveniently packaged food can also lead to health problems. According to the CDC, the obesity rate for adults in the U.S. hovers near 40 percent. Obesity raises the risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke. Sometimes the health problem begins with the packaging itself. Polystyrene has been linked with higher levels of cancer among workers who produce it. Equally troubling, this substance takes centuries to biodegrade and leaches chemicals into soil and water all the while.
A Few Paths Forward
Zero waste movements emphasize source reduction, or avoiding bringing new products into circulation, as the best way to reduce the amount of waste we produce.
Put simply, use what you already have.
If you can’t do that, use less. When it comes to food packaging, that may mean not purchasing some of our favorite things in some of the ways we’re used to. For example, while I love the convenience of grocery store-roasted chickens, I would not like to be responsible for multiple hard plastic containers that may not be recycled. I’m better off purchasing a chicken from the folks at Renaissance Farms one Saturday when I’m at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market. There’s still plastic involved with wrapping that chicken, but much less of it and it was probably a happier chicken to start with. Of course, growing one’s own food creates no packaging. Even non-gardeners with a few pots of hardy herbs—ever tried to kill a rosemary bush?—keep those pesky plastic herb containers out of circulation.
As a community, we need to keep tabs on our local recycling facilities. What’s happening there? Where are the opportunities for growth? How can we support the workers who collect and sort our recycled goods? What are some new products that we can make with these recyclable goods? As global recycling markets shift, there is a b opportunity for local innovators to repurpose and profit from the current abundance of post-consumer food packaging. To take just one example, the nearest glass recycling plant is located in Atlanta. A fortune could be made from Memphis’s beer bottles alone.
Another path to sustainable packaging is through lovely, locally made crockery. Religious practitioners and dieters alike know that the path to gratitude is paved with good attention.
When we concentrate on what we put in our mouths, we are more receptive to the sensory pleasures of taste and smell and we are more responsive to our true hunger.
Lovely dishes can also increase our joy in eating by pleasing the eye. My husband, a coffee-roasting, espresso-making scientist, enjoys his lattes and cappuccinos in a mug made by local artist Melissa Bridgman. The particular shape of the cup, along with its hues and warmth, heighten his experience of the drink. I feel similarly about a platter made by Dale and Brin Baucum, who have been making pottery in Memphis since I was a baby. Bought to commemorate our wedding anniversary, this pottery is both art and functioning dish. Food served on it is elevated by the platter’s beauty.
By using “real dishes” as opposed to those meant to be tossed out after a single use, we respect the labor and time that went into making the meal.
We become co-artisans rather than mere consumers.
These benefits only multiply when our meals extend to other people. As we share a common table, our pleasures increase with the social benefits of friendship and family connections. And these are the essential ingredients of any kitchen.
Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor
A fascinating and detailed romp through food packaging history and culture
A store and subscription service for products made without trash
A movement of women and girls dedicated to making lifestyle changes to combat climate change
Sustainable Packaging Practices:
- Choose beautiful, functional, reusable dishes and then reuse them as long as possible. Local artisans and secondhand shops offer items that will please your senses and suit your budget.
- Avoid single-use items. (The converse of #1, but so important it deserves its own line.)
- Store lidded containers with the lids on. I know I said I wasn’t going to tell you how to organize your stuff, but this one practice has made my life with leftovers so much happier. Pawing through a drawer full of lids was constant frustration for me.
- When you eat out, choose a Project Green Fork-certified establishment. PGF partners don’t use polystyrene (Styrofoam) packaging and offer compostable options whenever possible. Wherever you dine, refuse single-use plastic items like straws. Take your own containers to transport your leftovers home.
- Make your own snacks. I get it—I have perpetually hungry kids who love prepackaged snacks. We try to save those individually wrapped treats for times when we are actually traveling far from home. I can make popcorn in about five minutes in my home kitchen, which negates the need for those annoying little bags. Date bars and granola bars are relatively straightforward recipes, and my kids think I’m a hero when I make them from real ingredients in our kitchen.
- Purchase from bulk bins, and bring your own containers. Sprouts, Whole Foods and Kroger all have bulk sections. Purchase nuts, seeds, dried fruit, beans, flours and maybe some chocolate there.
- Buy lots of food that doesn’t have wrappers, like fruit and vegetables. Watch out for sneaky packaging and things slipped into bags while you’re not watching; I have to actively refuse packaging at farmers markets and supermarkets alike.
- Beeswax wraps and stainless steel containers are the best picnic or on-the-go packaging I know. You can make your own beeswax wraps or order them online.
- Seek local sources for food and containers that can be returned and reused, e.g., CSA boxes and glass milk bottles.
- Cook more often, even if it’s only eggs and toast. Put your meal on a beautiful plate and offer gratitude for the incredible gift of food.
Heidi Rupke finds pleasure in maintaining the practical skills her grandmothers loved: quilting, gardening, keeping chickens and cooking from scratch. She enjoys biking around Midtown with her family and will drop everything for a good plate of Japanese-style pickled vegetables. @rupkeheidi
Justin Fox Burks has been a professional photographer for 20 years, but that’s not all. He photographed and co-authored four vegetarian cookbooks with his wife, Amy Lawrence: Vegetarian Cooking for Two, Low-Carb Vegetarian Cookbook, The Southern Vegetarian, and The Chubby Vegetarian. He feels fortunate to be able to make interesting images for a living. @justinfoxburks