Kitchen Warriors

An anti-plastic brigade is cooking their way out of the climate crisis

Photo by Andrea Strong

A few years ago, Dani Schuller started cooking. Not just dinner for her family, or packed lunch for work, or the occasional fruit pie. Anything she would have purchased in a package, she began making from scratch — cream cheese, yogurt, crackers, “Oreo” cookies, loaves of bread, chicken nuggets, even chocolate syrup.

She did this not because she was a particularly passionate home cook. She did it because of plastic. She did it because recycling is a myth. She’s part of a nationwide movement of climate change activists fighting the battle from their kitchens.

Of all the plastic trash we make — and we’ve made 8.3 billion metric tons of it so far — only about 9 percent of current plastic waste is recycled. Twelve percent is incinerated, which is not particularly great for air quality or health because more than 99 percent of plastic is derived from oil, natural gas, and coal. And because its destruction by incineration also uses fossil fuels, environmental groups now recognize plastic as a major contributor to climate change.

The rest of that plastic waste — 79 percent — ends up in landfills, mostly in developing nations, where it can take 500 to 1,000 years to degrade. Every year, 13 million metric tons of plastic arrive in landfills, 8 million metric tons of which end up getting washed into rivers, lakes, and the ocean, where it’s often consumed by sea life and sea birds.

If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. For context, that’s 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

Plastics are not just bad for the environment; they’re not particularly good for people either. Plastics can affect health in a number of ways,” said Jeffrey A. Morrison, a practicing physician with more than 15 years of experience focusing on environmental influences on health. “One way is due to plasticizers — dangerous chemicals like BPA and phthalates — which are added to plastics to make them more pliable and translucent, and then leach into our water, food, and through our skin, he said.

In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that BPA was found in 93 percent of urine samples they took from people over the age of 6.

Rather than acknowledge the role it has played in polluting the world, the plastics industry launched a campaign to ban legislation to reduce plastics and to continue to profit from a product linked to species extinction, ecological devastation, and human health problems. In Tennessee, the American Progressive Bag Alliance backed a state bill that would make it illegal for local governments to ban or restrict bags and other single-use plastic products — one of the few things shown to actually reduce plastic waste. The bill was signed into law in April.

If you haven’t crawled into a dark hole by now, stay with me; there’s a little light at the end of the plastic-filled tunnel. Plastics reduction legislation is in the works in many progressive municipalities (New York and California have banned plastic bags), and similar plastic straw bans are gaining momentum as well. In October 2018, the European Parliament voted to enact a complete ban on some single-use plastics, including drinking straws, disposable cutlery, and plastic plates.

In the meantime, a growing number of activists are working to reduce plastics — starting in their kitchens.

“If we can make it, we make it,” said April Guilbault, a health coach in Norwalk, Connecticut, who makes a full grocery store’s worth of products: granola and granola bars, pasta sauces, sweets like caramels and marshmallows, drinks like fresh-brewed iced tea and homemade hot cocoa mix, and a slew of snacks and staples: taco seasoning, popcorn, salsas, barbecue sauce, stocks, muffins, breads, ice creams and sorbets, and much more. She even makes her own laundry detergent and vegetable spray wash.

Over in Brooklyn, Sarah Adams, a Brooklyn mother of two, said, “I just cannot pick up a plastic container and feel good about it.” The entrepreneur who makes nearly all of her food from scratch — hummus, crackers, popcorn (doctored with fresh parmesan or nutritional yeast), romesco, pesto, yogurt, baba ganoush, and more.

“My kids are like, ‘Mom, can we get this huge bag of Smart Puffs filled with 12 little bags of Smart Puffs?’ and I just can’t.”

Her DIY habit has turned into a business; she will launch her line of Shab’s Sauces this fall. She uses glass jars and is consulting with a packaging consultant to find a lighter-weight compostable material for the future.

While it’s hard to estimate the precise impact that personal choice can make, what is certain is that this category of consumer is growing fast. According to Nielsen, nearly half of U.S. consumers “would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.” And these consumers spent $128.5 billion on sustainable consumer goods products last year.

Eco-conscious shoppers have grown their sales by nearly 20 percent since 2014, which is four times larger than conventional products. By 2021, Nielsen expects these sustainably minded shoppers to spend up to $150 billion on sustainable consumer goods, an increase of $14 billion-$22 billion.

The rise of the “sustainably minded shopper” led to an entire category of businesses growing into this space. There is the Package Free Shop in Williamsburg, the online Zero Waste Store, and the newly opened Germantown Laundromat, a solar- and wind-powered laundromat where folks can fill glass jars with bulk soap and learn about how to decrease their footprint.

“All walks of life come in through the doors, and I felt I could help educate the community on how to change our behavior to better the earth and our bodies,” Germantown Laudromat partner Tracy Martin said.

“Once I learned the truth about recycling, it was a drastic shift,” said Erica Huss, co-founder of BluePrint juice cleanse and co-host of Highway to Well podcast. “I realized I had to stop patting myself on the back for recycling and stop using so much plastic.” To reduce her footprint, she makes her own celery juice, cashew and oat milk, salad dressings, and hummus.

Debby Lee Cohen, the founder of Cafeteria Culture, the nonprofit responsible for removing styrofoam from all New York City public schools, said reducing plastic can be a magic bullet for improving both health and environment.

“We can no longer talk about healthy eating without considering how our food is packaged,” she said. “Making your own food and body care products from scratch can reap both health and environmental benefits. We urgently need to reduce the unacceptable amounts of toxic and polluting single-use plastics that we purchase, and buying in bulk with reusable containers and bags is an excellent start.”

Perhaps the most meaningful impact of this movement is the lessons it passes on: Many of these kitchen warriors have children who are being taught environmental stewardship at a tender age.

“We use very little plastic, because plastic hurts the wildlife in the ocean,” said Schuller’s son Mason, who is 8. His older sister Leela, 11, is just as committed. “Anything I used in plastic I can replace with a better version that doesn’t come in plastic,” she said. “And it’s worth it because I know I am saving future generations.”

Andrea Strong writes about the intersection of food, business, law, and policy. She is the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, a parent-led advocacy group working to bring holistic reform to school food in NYC. Follow her @strongbuzz @NYCSchoolFood.

Dani Schuller’s Crackers

If you want a more crumbly soft cracker, use all butter (4 tablespoons) and no oil. They are deliciously soft. If you want a more firm cracker, skip the butter and instead use all oil (4 tablespoons) or 1 tablespoon butter and 3 tablespoons of oil.

Ingredients

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups whole wheat flour

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter, cubed and chilled

1 cup water

Instructions

1.Brush crackers with egg whites and sprinkle with sesame seeds, poppy seeds or other spices/seeds as desired

2. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place a rack in the lower third of the oven.

3. Sprinkle baking sheet lightly with flour or line with parchment paper.

4. In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, and salt.

5. Add the butter and pulse until it is evenly distributed.

6. Add the oil and water and pulse a few times until a dough forms into a soft sticky ball. If your dough is too dry, add a bit of water.

7. Divide dough in half. Cover and set aside one half in a tea towel.

8. Sprinkle work surface with flour as needed. Add some on top of the dough, too. Roll out dough to ⅛ inch thickness, or as thin as possible. If the dough springs back, let it rest for 5 minutes and then continue rolling.

9. Using a 2-inch round cookie cutter or any desired shape or size, cut the crackers. Place on cookie sheet. Glaze with egg whites. If adding seasoning, do so now.

10. Using a fork, make a few holes in each cracker.

11. Bake 15–18 minutes. They should be brown around the edges. Let cool and crisp.

Andrea Strong is a journalist who covers the intersection of food, policy, business and law. She is also the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance.

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