Can “package-free” be sustainable?

This month Josh Blaine, manager of the in.gredients grocery store here in Austin, stopped by at the beginning of our Talk Green to Me book club to discuss zero waste and other efforts. The discussion tied in with many of our read books including this month’s The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, and of course Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free.

in.gredients was launched in 2012 as a package-free neighborhood grocery, which is pretty awesome. Of course, Beth Terry heard about this, and Josh describes her as “like a kid in a candy store” when she came to check out the shop.

I hadn’t heard of the store before reading Plastic-Free as it was nowhere near my neighborhood. When I visited the store about a year and a half ago, I think getting there on the bus took nearly two hours. It was definitely not my neighborhood grocery and visiting was anything but sustainable. It was a bitter-sweet visit too because this was after in.gredients had made the difficult decision to also sell packaged goods.

At times I’ve fantasized about opening up my own neighborhood grocery store (not too seriously) which really is package-free, but after Thursday evening I have a much better understanding of just how difficult that might be. Josh explained that they wouldn’t have been able to stay in business as a package-free grocery. When customers bring in their own containers, they’re less likely to pick up other things. Potential customers may skip a visit to the store or go elsewhere if they don’t have the right supplies on hand. And some things that customers want may not be available package-free, like coconut oil or soymilk.

Package-free food also doesn’t always last as long, which sometimes is irrelevant but sometimes is really important like for beer which is only at really good quality in kegs for a couple of days. That means it has a much shorter time frame to sell within. in.gredients is also a smaller neighborhood store, so having something things packaged like in kegs means that there’s going to be a lot less variety for customers to choose from. Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why packaged goods can be better for business.

To get more customers, in.gredients switched from all package-free to a focus on local foods 18 months after it opened. But that’s not just lipservice. Food sold at this store may be as local as vegetables grown in the garden in their front lot. They also work with many local farms like Urban Roots and Green Gate Farms. After hearing Josh talk about how closely in.gredients works with the vendors I’m more tempted to go back just because I know I’ll be able to pick up anything I see and buy it knowing that some really good people have already done the hard work of finding vendors with earth-friendly and community-friendly processes.

Josh is part of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, and zero waste is definitely still one of the core values of the store. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that the average amount of trash created by a person per day is five pounds, which is what their store creates in a month! They’re able to do this by making it a priority. They even work closely with local vendors to arrange for deliveries in reusable packaging like buckets of granola that go directly into the bulk bins before being cleaned and swapped out during the next delivery.

There’s so much more that was discussed, like involvement in the community or fair pricing, but my current dream is just to be able to buy what I need without getting a lot of extra trash as part of the deal. They still have a bulk selection filled with good food, though, and fresh local produce free even of stickers. So if you’re in Austin, stop by in.gredients to pick some up or other local goodies.

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Plastic Free July Planning

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We’re just a couple of weeks away from Plastic Free July! The goal is to give up single-use plastics for the month. Generally, people choose a few swaps they want to pay close attention to during the month so they end up being a habit afterwards. Fewer single-use disposables means less trash or recycling to deal with. It means fewer resources needed for making single-use containers. Less petroleum needed to be extraced from the earth. Less plastic ending up in the ocean. And more. plasticfreejuly.org has all the info.

If you’re new to PFJ, they propose the TOP 4 to look out for: plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws. Ready to sign up for the challenge? Sign up for a weekly email with tips, tricks, and support throughout.

Since I’ve tackled the TOP 4 in a previous challenge, I’ll be tackling some custom goals for my Plastic Free July. You may notice these are all food-related challenges since that’s what I purchase most frequently.

  1. Quit bagged popcorn
  2. Make milks
  3. Make veggie burgers
  4. Make pasta

Goal 1: Quit Bagged Popcorn

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Plastic-free popcorn?

At the office, there are dispensers of already popped delicious popcorn. With a reusable bowl, it might seem at first glance to be a plastic free-indulgence. But then you figure out where it came from…

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Double-bagged in plastic and plastifoil 😦

At this point I’m an addict. I eat several bowls of this popcorn a day, even though I know it goes against my less plastic goals. For Plastic-Free July I’ll have to bring more alternative snacks to the office to help me quit this cold turkey. A month without this stuff should cure my unhealthy addiction too.

Goal 2: Make Milks

I buy alternative milk for my husband from the grocery every week. And it generally comes in those stupid part-plastic / part-cardboard / part-foil bottles. Worse than most plastics, they’re not at all recyclable and by weight are probably half of what ends up in our kitchen trash bin.

So, the goal is to not buy any such milks in July. Instead I can try my hand at making oat milk, rice milk, pecan milk, almond milk, or whatever other varieties look promising. This one will take some investigation.

Goal 3: Make Veggie Burgers

Not bean burgers. Not mushroom burgers. But burgers filled with all kinds of delicious garden veggies to add something new to my repertoire. A few burgers for immediate consumption and some for the freezer for my husband’s burger fix. This will swap out one of the vegan “meat” products that I buy for my hubby (in plastic) each week.

Goal 4: Make pasta

Okay, this one is a stretch. Not sure if I’ll get this far. But we regularly buy pasta in plastic bags because to the best of my knowledge there is no bulk pasta available here in Austin. (If you know of such a thing, please let me know. Then this goal will be updated to try out some bulk pasta instead.)

I won’t use a pasta stretcher or anything elaborate. There are lots of instructions online about simpler pastas to make. It’s worth trying at least one time.

Gardening With My Fingers Crossed

I have naturally tendencies towards thrift, and that’s what first gave me the idea a couple of years ago to try growing some of my food myself. Since then I’ve discovered many other reasons for growing my own food:

  • experiencing the joy of creating something
  • getting a bit of exercise
  • conserving the soil and getting my hands dirty occasionally
  • knowing exactly where my food came from and how it was grown
  • really appreciating the work farmers put in to grow the food I buy at the market
  • not having to deal with the waste from bagged carrots or stickered cucumbers

Earlier attempts

I started small, with just watermelons that first summer. It was a total failure because I was using seeds from a supermarket watermelon, but I wasn’t deterred.

That winter I grew some carrots and radishes. That first carrot was so tender and sweet that I swore to grow carrots every year from then on. Sadly, when I invited my young cousin to the backyard to harvest a couple of the still-small carrots, she got over-enthused and pulled almost all of them. Only a couple survived to grow to adulthood.

Last summer my watermelon attempt was sad again, even with seeds from a packet. Maintaining a summer garden in Texas is tough. My sunflowers grew tall and beautiful, but attracted too many bugs and ended up not even having any kernels in the seeds. At least I got a few good cucumbers that go round and my purchased oregano plant happily took root and provided for many meals of spaghetti. As it started cooling off a bit, I took a shot at growing some peas but only ate a few before an early frost killed off my plants.

This winter is already off to a decent start, though, with the standard radishes and a couple of carrots eaten early. (They take forever to grow… or maybe I just need to water them more often). Even though my few spinach plants haven’t produced much I’ve picked some of the leaves to eat and am also considering just eating the broccoli leaves as well since I don’t see any indication that a head will ever form on those two broccoli plants. The onion seeds and garlic I planted in the fall are promising long-term success.

Purchases for this year

Last week I took a morning off to visit The Natural Gardener. It’s not at all convenient on public transit but has a great selection of seeds and other goodies. Unlike last year’s visit, this time I was disciplined enough to not buy a fancy new pot. Only things that would go in the ground in my garden (plus paper wrapping and a rubber band for the onions).

Kennebec seed potatoes

So I’m not sure I even have the room to grow potatoes, but there’s a little patch of dirt where I’m going to try it. At least I think there’s enough finished compost to pile on top as the plants start to grow. It was just over a buck for all these seed potatoes so no harm done if I fail this attempt.

Watermelon Radishes

These are for the fall garden but like I said, that garden store is not convenient so I stashed them away now. One bunch of watermelon radishes at the farmers market is $2.75, so $2.99 for the seed packet is a good deal if I grow even just five radishes.

Italian Roma Tomatoes

Some people say tomatoes are easy to grow, but they intimidate me a bit. I hear they can attract the leaf-footed stink bugs that my sunflowers attracted last summer, and those things really freaked me out. But I love so many things with tomato sauce so am already mentally preparing myself for what it will take to have my own source for spaghetti, pizza, chili, red rice, and many other delicious foods. ($2.39)

California Wonder Bell Peppers

A bit of bell pepper goes into almost any entree, and frozen bell pepper would work easily well most of the time. So fingers crossed that we get a decent yield from these. ($1.99)

Tam Jalapeño

I’m not a fan of spicy foods, so this is a mild jalapeño. If this produces a lot and my husband doesn’t gobble them all up, I can prep and freeze some to add a slight kick to winter stews and such. ($2.50)

Italian Large Leaf Parsely

At $3.79 these were the most expensive seeds I picked up this trip, and I kind of have the buyers remorse on this one. But if I can figure out more ways to eat parsley or grow a few parsley plants in pots to give as gifts, maybe it’ll be worthwhile.

Save the Bees Flower Mix

I wanted to get marigolds because I read they’re good companion plants for tomatoes. When they didn’t have any marigold seeds, though, I looked around for any other kind of beneficial flowers. This mix lists basil, cilantro, dill, and other useful herbs as ingredients, so I may get crazy at some point and try to identify and separate the seeds to use to my own design. ($2.69)

1015Y Onion transplants

I planted some onions from seed in October and have probably eight that are growing happily, but they’re scrawny in comparison to these transplants. Just $2.50 for a couple of dozen onion transplants? I couldn’t resist.

Peat Pellets

I saw these little pellets of dirt and thought they must be awesome because they’re zero waste. No price tag or anything. At only 18 cents each, I picked up six of them to give them a try. Sad to say, after some investigation into how to use them it turns out that harvesting from peat bogs is horrible for the environment. Plus, there’s some netting around the peat which is supposed to be biodegradable but is made up of unknown composition. This’ll definitely be a one-time thing.

A Saturday in the Garden

When the weekend came around, it was time to get to work.

Compost

Yesterday was cold but after the sun came out and warmed things up a little I did a bit of weeding, a little raking, and checked out the status of my compost pile. I follow the lazy composting method of throwing it on the ground but have been exceptionally lazy in that I rarely bother to turn it. Much to my delight there was some rich dark crumbly stuff underneath, which you can see just a bit of in this picture. If my shovel wasn’t broken I would’ve turned it more. That’s one thing on my “things to buy” list.

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Backyard compost pile

1015Y Onion Transplants

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Onion success!

This was my primary goal of getting outside this weekend. These babies needed to get in the ground and get some water. Now there are a couple dozen onion transplants scattered about my garden bed, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce

Next up was to use up some of my old seeds that might not make it to next season.

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I’ve tried growing a little bit of this lettuce indoors but wasn’t too impressed. Maybe it’ll work better outdoors. Or maybe it’ll freeze and die. The only reason I bought this last year was because I made the mistake of going into a Walmart where I saw seed packets for 20 cents each. I really need to stay out of those places.

English Peas

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I was a bit surprised to find planting peas on the gardening calendar for this season, but there they were. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of planting the peas without first soaking them in water overnight as the instructions state. There may not be much hope for this year. But fingers crossed anyway and heavy watering for the next couple of days.

By the way, use #238 for t-shirt yarn: substitute for twine in garden trellises.

Danvers Half Long Carrots

There were just a few of these seeds left, so I found room for an extra row in the garden bed. Historically for me these have taken several months to mature so once again I have my fingers crossed that these will turn out okay.

A Sunday Indoors

Okay, so I didn’t spend all of today indoors, but my gardening focus was all indoors as I prepped for the Spring garden.

Four tomato seeds and three pepper seeds are now each nestled into their own pellet container or yogurt pot and all together in a small baking dish in a plastic bag. This should make a nice mini-greenhouse for them. I’m planing to start a few more in a couple of weeks so I have plants ready to transplant at different times.

I also started two mini-pots of thyme from seed. The seed packet they were in had time to harvest listed as 180 days so no holding my breath until those are ready.

Last of all was another packet of lettuce to finish up. This one is a microgreens variety which, although it tastes alright, produces such a small amount of greens and is so annoying to harvest that I probably won’t bother to get any more such seeds again.

It’s two dark to take decent photos now, so in conclusion here are photos taken earlier of my two Meyer lemon plants grown from seed, over a year old but not obvious by looking at them. Poor little guys.

Wish me luck!