Plastic-Free Vegan July

Written by on Sep 16, 2019

From the editor: a friend of ours, Mac MacDaniel, went plastic free for the month of July and wrote a guest post for our blog! Enjoy:

For me, veganism was first and foremost an environmental decision. I certainly didn’t take any pleasure in the knowledge that animals suffered and died for me to eat meat and dairy, but the animal rights argument alone wasn’t enough for me to consider giving up animal products. It was only when I learned about the environmental effects of animal agriculture that I began to reconsider my diet. When I learned, for example, that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — more than all transportation combined — or that animal agriculture is the leading cause of water pollution, how could I not change my lifestyle?

Now, granted, I’ve never been a perfect environmentalist. Sometimes I Uber places I could walk or bike, and I take a transatlantic flight about every other year. But I try to do a little better all the time. Going vegan twelve years ago was an attempt to do better, as is having never owned a car, and my decision not to have children.

This year I participated in a campaign called Plastic-Free July, which discourages people from purchasing any plastic or goods packaged in plastic for the whole month of July. I’d been interested in the “Zero Waste” philosophy as a logical extension of my general environmentalism and veganism, and as gimmicky as some of these internet “campaigns” can be, I welcomed the arbitrary motivation to try and go a month without producing any new plastic waste.

If y’all remember your first bewildering trip to the grocery store after deciding to go vegan, you’ll sympathize with my first Kroger run on July first. In the same way that you were frustrated by the inexplicable ubiquity of milk powder and eggs, I was clueless where to even begin with finding things that were free of plastic packaging. It was a bit overwhelming at first, to realize suddenly how much plastic I use, even as a reasonably environmentally conscious vegan. But in the same way that grocery shopping got easier as you built your mental list of things that you could eat, I learned how to enjoy my life while generating (almost) no plastic waste.

Like an omnivore having their first conversation with a vegan, I became obsessed with protein. All my usual sources of those sweet, sweet amino acids came wrapped in plastic, and so every time I looked at a block of tofu or some delicious Boca “chicken” patties, all I could see were strangled sea turtles. It was chilling.

I’ve always been a fan of seitan, both for it’s lean texture, culinary adaptability, and the way the sound of it frightens Christians. But try as I might, I couldn’t find any stores in Richmond that sell gluten in bulk or in paper bags. So, in an effort to avoid strangling any precious sea turtles, I rashly bought the first paper bag of gluten I found online, which just so happened to weigh 50 pounds. Any vegan will tell you that we are always minutes away of dying from protein deficiency, so a bag of pure protein clocking in at just under a third of my body weight would likely keep me alive for all of July.

Loaded with enough gluten to hold the whole west coast hostage, I felt a little more sure that I’d survive the month. Now, I know what you’re thinking: what about actual vegetables? Well, I’m vegan, but I’m also American, so vegetables were an afterthought. Looking around the produce section, I had never really noticed before how many fruits and vegetables come wrapped in superfluous plastic. Why do we insist on wrapping corn in styrofoam and plastic? Are we so removed from agriculture that we’ve forgotten that corn already comes in its own wrapper?

I won’t walk you through every ingredient on every shopping trip I took during July, but suffice it to say, it was an eye-opening experience. The organizers of Plastic-Free July try to be accommodating, telling people to do what small steps they can, whether it be refusing plastic straws, single-use shopping bags, or carrying your own water bottle. But I wanted to take it as seriously as possible, only buying plastic if it was an item I felt was necessary and there was no way, no matter how inconvenient, to buy it without plastic.

By the time July was over, I had learned a lot of tricks for avoiding plastic, and come across some insurmountable obstacles. Now, I know that groceries and food are very individualistic, and so the lessons I learned might not be relevant to you, but in case any of them might be helpful, I’d like to share some tips I picked up during my Plastic Free July experience.

Bagels and cream cheese

One of my biggest obstacles at first was finding bread. Kroger doesn’t carry any bread whatsoever that doesn’t come in a plastic bag. As someone who loves bagels, this was devastating. I started going to Nate’s Bagels on Cary St. Not only are their bagels delicious, but you’re supporting a local business. They sell their bagels in paper bags, and if you bring your own container, they’ll sell you their homemade cashew cream cheese in that rather than in the plastic tubs they normally come in. I highly recommend the rosemary sea salt bagels.

Nutritional yeast

For any ingredients like beans, grains, and especially nutritional yeast, I recommend Ellwood Thompson’s. They have the best bulk section of any grocery store in the city, and they’ll happily tare any container you bring in.

Gluten

If you, like me, love seitan, you can also invest in a 50lb bag of gluten for around $120. Not only does it come in a paper bag, but the unit price ends up being cheaper than the plastic bags of Bob’s Red Mill that I used to buy. The bag I bought was produced by Cargill, which is a huge company with its fingers in a lot of pies, including livestock. Given the choice between buying a vegan product from a company that also produces animal products, or buying wasteful plastic, I chose the former. But we’re all trying to navigate an inherently unethical market in as ethical a way as we can.

Barbecue Sauce

My favorite way to prepare seitan is slather it in barbecue sauce. But all of my usual sauces like Sweet Baby Ray’s all come in plastic containers. So I went searching for any that might come in glass, and stumbled across Pioneer Woman brand sauce, which comes in a glass jar. I love the apple brown sugar flavor, it has become my go-to even after July ended.

Sour Patch Kids

I’m a big moviegoer; I probably go to the movies three or four times a month, and as someone who has always disliked popcorn, Sour Patch Kids are my cinema snack of choice. I used to work at For The Love of Chocolate in Carytown, and I knew that they have a whole wall of bulk candy, including Sour Patch Kids. So I brought in my reusable ziplock bag and had them tare that and snuck my contraband candy into Bowtie Cinemas. This point is cheating a little bit, however, because while I wasn’t generating any plastic waste in my individual purchase of Sour Patch Kids, the store does get them shipped in big five or ten pound bags that they empty into their bulk bins. So it minimizes the amount of plastic waste, it doesn’t totally negate it up the supply chain. 

This is an issue I try to be conscious of when eating out at restaurants. If I got a Beyond Burger at a restaurant, while I was not personally generating any plastic waste, I knew that the restaurant had to buy them from the grocery store in a plastic package. For me, the difference was that while eating a Beyond Burger at a restaurant produced the exact same amount of plastic waste as me buying it myself and cooking it, but buying Sour Patch Kids in bulk actually reduced the waste vs buying a small bag for myself.

Protein Powder

Despite what my physique would suggest, I do go to the gym fairly regularly, and like any bro, I love a good protein shake. Unfortunately the only zero-waste protein powder I could find online was out of stock for pretty much the entire month of July. So this is a place where I bit the bullet and bought protein that came in a plastic tub, but at least it was a hard plastic tub that I could recycle afterward.

Vitamins

I take a B12 supplement as well as a plant-based algae for Omega 3s. While I could find B12 in a glass jar at Ellwood Thompson’s, I couldn’t find any Omega 3s in anything but plastic.

Tofu/Tempeh

Given that the farm that produces the best tofu in the country is right outside Richmond, I thought I might have found a loophole in my quest for protein. I reached out to Twin Oaks Farms to ask if there was anyway I could potentially buy their tofu or soysage without the plastic packaging. I offered to set up a wholesale account or buy in whatever quantities they’d require in order to get it free of plastic, but after waiting weeks to hear back from them, they said that there was no way they could do that and comply with health regulations.

Almond/Oat Milk

I honestly don’t use very much plant milk in general, so while I considered investing in a nut milk bag or something like the Almond Cow, I decided that in the end it was too much time and/or money to invest in something that I can very easily go without.

Trying to avoid plastic, while frustrating at times, forced me to think about how much we sacrifice in the name of convenience. Often the difference between a meal that doesn’t contribute plastic to the oceans and a meal that does is the difference between spending an extra half hour prepping or cooking. And this isn’t to say that individuals occasionally choosing convenience is what’s killing the planet; there are obviously bigger, institutional issues at play, but I refuse to believe that individual choices do not matter.

Even though Plastic-Free July is over and I have gone back on some of the proscriptions I stuck to during July, I think the experience has led to some permanent changes in my lifestyle. Once I saw that I can go without generating (almost) any plastic waste during July, the question is, why not do it all year ‘round?

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