Although I’ve been vegan for almost 15 years, my anti-plastic journey started regrettably much later—only in 2017. This was before China banned importing our plastic waste and as a result, many U.S. municipalities and counties stopped collecting plastic recycling. And although I felt iffy about buying Lara bars and Harmless Harvest coconut water, I reasoned that the disposable wrapper was small and that I was dutifully stuffing plastic bottles in the recycling bin. But there was always a lingering feeling that this wasn’t right. Around spring 2017, I decided that feeling quenched after workouts was not really a good reason to keep buying coconut water—and stopped.
Ever since, I’ve been extremely conscious of reducing my plastic footprint. I only buy berries in paper cartons from the farmer’s market (no plastic clamshells); I drink water almost exclusively, and only buy glass bottled juices; I buy an average of a few plastic-wrapped protein or snack bars in a year—when it is unavoidable. I’ve skipped eating for many hours—maybe even a whole day—while traveling, due to my reluctance to create plastic waste. But I still can’t be as plastic-free as I’d like to be. I still allow myself to occasionally buy tofu and vegan cheese, which are both always wrapped in plastic. It just about drives me nuts, every time.
Just as food companies reacted quickly to meet the demand for plant-based dairy, they are now taking the hint that consumers like me are fed up with plastic. Recently, I’ve been struck by plastic-packaged brands claiming to be “plastic neutral.” It took only a bit of research to realize that this means paying a third party to collect as much plastic waste as the company is generating, and then to divert that collected waste for “recycling” (which we know is moot for a number of reasons) or “use as alternative fuel.” This last bit was especially terrifying to me: when things are burned, as a general rule of thumb, it not only creates greenhouse gases, it also increases particulate matter and pollution that are harmful to both humans and wildlife. This even goes for “natural” fuel sources like wood. When something like plastic waste is burned for fuel, alternative or not, it creates far worse toxins. This 2019 New York Times article about Indonesians making tofu by burning plastic waste illustrates that incredibly damaging situation.
While these brands’ intentions may be good, it’s clear that plastic offsetting is at best misleading and at worse, adding more damage to an already catastrophic situation. Any type of “offsetting”—including carbon offsetting—doesn’t actually reduce the amount of the undesirable substance in the environment, or the myriad other side effects and toxins that come with it. To be truly sustainable, we need to stop making and using new plastic, period.
Which is why Zero Grocery is such a breath of fresh air and reason for optimism. The zero-waste online grocery company was founded in 2018 in San Francisco Bay area, and has recently expanded to LA area. How it works is very simple: you online-order groceries in reusable or compostable packaging; the company delivers you the goods in totes; and at your next order, they pick up your containers to be reused.
The company founder Zuleyka Strasner was inspired by a life-changing honeymoon she and her husband took in Nicaragua, where she saw pristine beaches marred by plastic water bottles. She spent much of the trip picking up that waste, and when she came back, she started researching how to solve this issue. 90% of the global plastic waste can be traced to food packaging, which is why Strasner came up with a solution for fixing our plastic-dependent supply chain. And while this can seem daunting, we have to remember the fact that for the vast majority of human history, we did fine without plastic packaging. The only way we can get out of our broken system is to first fix the mindset that it’s going to be business as usual.
I quickly checked out the website and found that the company carries tofu in glass jars, and vegan cheese in multiple flavors. Almond milk, chips, and vegan deli meats are just some of the offerings that you can find. Even a $5 vegan breakfast burrito—now this is making me very jealous of California for the first time in my life!
I truly hope that Zero Grocery or similar companies can expand to other cities. Until then, I’ll keep holding the fort on low-plastic grocery shopping. It’s not always easy what with my tofu addiction, but I feel the end of the tunnel may be near.
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Photo: Peaceful Dumpling; Zero Grocery