Goodbye to plastic food packaging?

Photo: AP
Photo: AP


Environmental concerns are leading home cooks to embrace other methods of keeping food fresh, from brown paper bags to reusable beeswax wraps

Environmental concerns are leading home cooks to embrace other methods of keeping food fresh, from brown paper bags to reusable beeswax wraps

In the kitchen, as elsewhere, our cultural values evolve in fits and starts. A particular way of doing something can look normal for so long until suddenly, it looks completely wrong. Take plastic wrap—or rather, don’t.

For years, I used plastic wrap (which I call clingfilm, because I am British) without a moment’s doubt every time I put leftovers away after a meal. To have in a drawer a roll of plastic, with its little serrated cutter, felt as essential and inoffensive an aspect of my kitchen as the jar of wooden spoons. I used plastic wrap for everything from wrapping pastry dough while it rested to covering a bowl of roast peppers as they cooled to help the skins steam off.

Today I cringe at how often I once unspooled all that “single-use plastic," as I now think of it. I still have a roll of clingfilm tucked away in a kitchen drawer, but I use it as little as I can and wonder whether I will replace it when it runs out. When I want to protect leftovers in the fridge (or cover roast peppers for that matter), a bowl with a plate on top works just fine (though I sometimes add a Post-it note to remind my forgetful brain what’s in the bowl).

It seems that the tide is finally turning on food and drink packaged in single-use plastic, both in and out of the home. Eight states, including California, New York, Oregon and Vermont, have now banned single-use plastic bags for checkout, as have major cities such as Chicago and Boston. France marked the new year with a law banning plastic packaging for 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables. It followed a poll in 2019 which showed that 85% of people in France were in favor of a ban on single-use packaging for food, given its contribution to pollution, not least in the seas. Spain will introduce a similar ban on plastic packaging for fruits and vegetables in 2023.

I was fascinated recently to discover that some of the earliest food wrap in the 1930s sold itself as being superior to fruit skin. I was looking at some stylish old DuPont advertisements for cellophane, a transparent film made from viscose, in Good Housekeeping magazine. One from 1931 boasted that “The Banana Skin signals what’s inside…but transparent cellophane beats Nature!" The copywriter went on to explain that while nature had done a clever job of packaging the banana with a skin whose color revealed the level of ripeness inside, cellophane was superior because “you know at a glance what you’re getting," plus it protected food from dirt, dust and “the danger of handling."

We may not think of cellophane in quite such glowing terms now, but many of us are pretty invested in the idea that synthetic packaging is necessary to make food cleaner and brighter and uber-fresh. Advocates for plastic packaging have argued that shrink-wrapping an English cucumber isn’t as nonsensical as it seems because the cucumber is so watery that it will disintegrate without the plastic, thus generating more food waste. I’m still not convinced that it’s justified. The small, tasty cucumbers I buy from my local Turkish grocer in brown paper bags stay crunchy for days without any plastic.

It sometimes feels as if plastic-wrapped food has been in our lives forever, but it’s worth remembering that it’s actually a very recent invention. Until the 1940s, the main kitchen food wrap in the U.S. was wax paper (Cut-Rite Wax Paper was first sold in 1927). If you can lay your hands on it, wax paper remains a great and satisfying technology for wrapping a sandwich, and it is usually biodegradable. It was Cut-Rite that first came up with the idea of selling food wrap on a roll with a built-in serrated cutter.

Saran Wrap, the original polyethylene food wrap, was only introduced in 1949. The substance was first used to make insoles in shoes to reduce blisters for Army forces fighting in the jungle, before engineer John Reilly figured out a way to make the plastic much thinner and turn it into a roll of clingy wrap for food. It was an instant success. In 1957, an article in Good Housekeeping was headlined “How Did We Ever Get Along Without Saran?"

But the truth is that cooks mostly got along just fine before the existence of plastic wrap. In a 1903 book on sandwiches and salads, cookery writer Janet MacKenzie Hill advised that “Sandwiches, except when vegetables and dressings are used, may be prepared early in the day, placed in a stone jar, covered with a slightly dampened cloth, and set away in a cool place until such time as they are wanted." Last summer, I met a man at a wedding who said that his 90-year-old mother had never taken up the habit of wrapping food in plastic. She found it perfectly natural to cover food with a clean dish cloth, a piece of baking paper or a plate, just as she always had.

Before the invention of plastic wrap, cooks found all kinds of ways to make food portable and fresh. One of the most ancient of all wrappings is a leaf or husk, which has the added benefit of making the food inside smell and taste extra-delicious. Consider the tamales of Mexico, which were first made thousands of years ago: protein-rich parcels of ground corn wrapped in corn husks. Or think of the lamprais of Sri Lanka: rich parcels of savory rice mixed with meat or vegetables and cooked inside a banana leaf. It’s a snack as portable as any plastic-wrapped sandwich.

We are still a million miles away from cooking and eating without plastic. Even in France, the plastics ban doesn’t cover all fresh produce. For now, fragile fruits such as berries are exempt, as are cherry tomatoes, because there isn’t yet a mainstream technology for transporting these without plastic. In my own cooking, I am still very far from avoiding all plastic, nor do I think anyone should beat themselves up about falling short of a life free of single-use plastic, given how ubiquitous it is. I make myself feel better about takeout in plastic containers by reusing them to store portions of homemade soup in the freezer.

The time when it’s trickiest to do without single-use plastic, I find, is when you are on the go. Japanese bento boxes are great (as are lockable plastic boxes). Sometimes I make little salads in old glass jars or in clear plastic tubs that originally contained gelato. Reusable beeswax wrap is another option for wrapping things like half an avocado.

But perhaps my favorite technology for replacing plastic wrap is the unassuming brown paper sandwich bag. Sometimes a brown bag lunch can actually come in a brown bag.

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