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  • Writer's pictureTori Marshall

An Honest Look At Going Plastic-Free in Viroqua (On A Budget): January

Going plastic-free can seem a daunting task. Where do I start? Do I need to buy a ton of metal replacements for what I already have? How much is this going to cost?

When I started thinking about waste, my husband and I had just moved to Viroqua. We didn't have any kids or pets, we had stable finances, and we were idealistic. I'd seen those videos where someone went zero waste and stuffed their entire year's worth of trash in one mason jar--and not a half-gallon jar, mind you, a pint jar. A lot of articles and blog posts had crossed my computer screen, giving tips on going zero waste and how to save money while doing it. I felt prepared. We were already quite frugal, so it didn't seem unreasonable to achieve our own "trash jar." We jumped right in.

Let me tell you, a lot of those videos do not take into account living in rural America. Paychecks are tight, bulk bins are often distant, and prices are often higher because of our remoteness. Our first zero waste experiment wasn't perfect by any means, but I think we did alright for ourselves. Though certainly falling short of one "trash jar" a year, we did succeed in sourcing some non-plastic alternatives to things we already used. We started composting our food waste and declined straws at restaurants. All in all, we were pretty proud of ourselves and had plans to take greater steps in the future.

Then things changed. We became unexpectedly pregnant, and it turned our lives upside down. I was so unwell during pregnancy that I wasn't working. We had many, many unexpected expenses preparing for the baby's arrival, and we needed a new car. We had worries about the potential for lead in our rental (as our son's blood tests would later confirm were justified). I often felt alone in this new town with no friends, no nearby family, not even co-workers to make conversation with. Zero waste living was pretty far on the back burner. After our son was born, things were a bit better. We still had our difficulties, as any new parents will, but we were making it work. And while I was nursing, I had a lot of time to read about zero waste, plastic pollution, and human impacts on the environment. I was filled with renewed zeal to produce as little waste as possible.

But another curveball came soon after: the pandemic. Closed bulk bins, lost job opportunities, and the stress of an unknown global virus made it difficult to focus on reducing our waste.

Let's fast forward to today now. While certainly not "back to normal" we've definitely come a long way since the beginning of the pandemic. We have a better understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, so we know which precautions are effective and which ones are not. This has thankfully meant the return of the bulk section. So I'm again diving headfirst into a zero waste lifestyle. I made it my New Year's resolution to be more mindful of our purchases, thinking specifically about plastic. And I'd like to invite you all to join me on the journey.

The Goal

At its most basic, my New Year's resolution is to be mindful of the plastic I am buying and wasting when I grocery shop, and to document what I buy for 52 weeks. Ideally, I would love to radically reduce my plastic waste, but I'm not going in with any such expectations. There are also some caveats to this:

  1. This is specifically looking at reducing waste from the grocery bill. I'm not tackling household goods or anything else here.

  2. I need to stay within my budget. This is about $125-$150 a week. I make no claims that this is representative of most people's budgets, but it is mine.

  3. This is not a "challenge." I'm not going to do anything and everything to go plastic-free. There are a lot of things I consider when shopping, and being low waste is now added to that list (not superseding the list).

  4. Most of my grocery shopping is done at the Viroqua Food Co-op and Walmart. My grocery needs include both affordability and high quality food, which are usually at odds. That means I shop around, and these are the stores I've settled on.

  5. I'm buying more than usual. We're expecting another baby this summer, and I'm starting to stock our freezer with homemade meals. That means buying more food to prepare, which puts pressure on the budget. As a result, I may not be able to get as much plastic-free as I would like.

  6. Transparency is the name of the game. I want to give an honest look at how someone might attempt to reduce their waste. Sometimes I'm not as successful as I want to be, and that's okay. Perfection is not the goal.

With that in mind, come on in! Step into my kitchen and see what I've bought in the month of January!

Week One

Total Cost: $170

Oh wow, look at all that plastic! Doesn't feel like I'm off to a great start! Some of it was more or less unavoidable: the plastic wrapped bread, tortillas, tofu, cheese, fish, and hummus. I did intentionally buy a large bag of cheese. One big bag produces less plastic than if the same amount of food was packaged in smaller bags. I bought the plastic bag of apples because having organic apples is important to us, and the loose apples at the co-op are much more expensive. Same goes for the romaine hearts.

See those plastic packaged mushrooms? Yeah, that was a complete brain freeze on my part. I forgot I could get those loose.

I was also overbudget quite a bit. After the holidays we came home to an empty fridge, and I needed to stock up on some basics. We also had one more holiday gathering that I was cooking for, so there were some specialty items I wouldn't normally buy.

But let's look at the wins:

  • Lots of produce without plastic bags.

  • Peanut butter, pasta sauce, and artichoke hearts in glass jars instead of plastic.

  • Egg carton without a sticker, so the whole thing can go in my compost.

  • Coffee in bulk.

  • Spices in glass rather than plastic.

Week Two

Total Cost: $125

The second week of January we all had covid. That meant no grocery shopping for us! A family member did our shopping for us that week, and we were very grateful. We didn't burden them with the extra hurdle of our low waste ambitions, so there was a lot of plastic. This was both disappointing and strangely encouraging. While we could plainly see that the conventional way to shop had a lot of unnecessary plastic, it also showed us that being mindful when shopping does pay off.

Week Three

Total Cost: $153

A lot less plastic this time around! There was again some unavoidable plastic packaging: bread, tortillas, fish, bean sprouts, salad greens. The plastic wrapped cauliflower I've always found annoying, and the Co-op only sometimes has loose cauliflower; no luck this time. The roasted seaweed snack was a bit of a treat, and so far as I know not available without plastic packaging. I also bought peanut butter in a plastic container because it was much cheaper, and I knew some other items on my grocery list were going to be pricey. I do sometimes buy that brand of peanut butter anyway because the lids fit perfectly on mason jars and I can never have enough of them!

The wins:

  • Again, lots of produce without plastic.

  • Condiments in glass containers!

  • The veggie burgers and celebration roast which, while not plastic-free were at least clearance items. I consider clearance shopping to be an important part of living low waste. Better to be used than thrown in the dumpster, right?

  • Oats from the bulk section. While more expensive than what I usually buy, it was nice to use the bulk bins again. I bring my own jar and a funnel to the Co-op to get my pantry staples without waste.

  • Bread from Rhythm Bakery. A splurge item, but with the benefit of less plastic!

Week Four

Total Cost: $134

More unavoidable plastic, though less of it this week: bread and tortillas, yogurt containers, and cheese. The plastic-bagged grapes are irritating, as I know my mom used to buy grapes loose. This is a recent plastic "innovation" that serves very little purpose and frustrates me to no end.

The wins:

  • Produce, produce, produce! I even remembered to get mushrooms loose!

  • Baguettes on clearance. Again, not plastic-free. But it saves the bread from being wasted.

  • Chickpeas from the bulk section.

Week Five

Total Cost: $147

Well now, that looks like a lot of plastic. Most of this was unavoidable, though I did forget again to get mushrooms loose: bread and tortillas (I'm sensing a theme), fish, cheese, yogurt, produce like green beans and cauliflower. I ran out of frozen corn that I'd put up last summer, so had to buy a plastic bag of corn. The cartons of milk have less plastic than a plastic jug, but are still lined with plastic inside, making them difficult to recycle. I buy milk in glass containers when it's on sale, but that isn't very often. I was also really disappointed to learn that the Co-op no longer sells sprout seed in its bulk section. Sprouts are a winter staple for us, so I had to buy the plastic bag of sprouts. It also cost more because all the bags were the same price; I could no longer buy alfalfa sprouts alone, which was the cheapest option when it was available in bulk.

The wins:

  • Produce is still a winner.

  • Pantry items in bulk. I had to stock up on a number of things this week, so this was pretty noticeable.

  • Pasta without a plastic window. We all know what spaghetti looks like, right? So why do we need to see it?

  • Tea in bulk! I bring my own container.

  • Oil and cheese in large containers. This isn't plastic-free but it is plastic reduction.

January Conclusions

This is hard. I am often forced between staying within budget and getting something plastic-free. There's only so much shopping around I can do in a small town, and many choices are taken away from the consumer. There simply is no easy way to buy bread and tortillas without plastic. Yogurt, tofu, bags of grapes, cauliflower, cheese--the list goes on. There are definitely hardcore zero waste folks out there who would argue that I should just make some of these things at home, but that just isn't feasible. Nor should it be expected.

If plastic-free living is only accessible to those who have the time, money, and inclination to make it happen, then we will never be able to make a significant dent in plastic pollution. The root of the problem lies in our systems. They are inherently wasteful and force anyone who is operating within those systems (read: anyone who shops in a grocery store) to be wasteful as well. This should not be. While individual efforts like the one I am embarking on can be useful, they are not the solution. So what is?

The solution is focused effort to change our laws, systems, regulations, and values. There is hope here. Activists have brought plastic pollution into the public mind, and more people are recognizing the problem every day. There are global efforts to reduce waste, both by common citizens and lawmakers.

This goal of living in a plastic-free world will take time...but it is possible. It can start with me, and with you.

Let us know in the comments what you've been doing to reduce plastic pollution, and if you have any suggestions! (Also, if you have any good ideas on where to get bread or tortillas without plastic, I'm all ears!)


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