By Molly Kimball
Earth day is a reminder to continue striving to make environmentally responsible choices throughout our lives, including our diets. Trying to incorporate more products that have been sustainably produced and packaged in recycled, recyclable and/or biodegradable containers can have a significant impact on our environment as well as our personal health and wellness.
But being eco-friendly doesn’t mean you have to start grinding up egg shells and food scraps to fertilize your garden, and for some, even the idea of starting a garden, or riding a bike to work on a regular basis can seem unrealistic to maintain as daily routines. So here are 10 simple strategies you can easily fit into a busy schedule and start implementing today to reduce, reuse, and recycle — and improve your health.
1. Keep it local
Speak with any expert on eco-friendly living, and buying local tops every list. “The average food item on your plate has traveled 1,500 to 3,000 miles, requiring an enormous amount of energy and producing a significant amount of pollution,” says Sean Miller, Education Director at Earth Day Network in Washington, D.C. “Locally produced goods, in comparison, travel 150 to 300 miles on average, which is one of the key reasons that it’s so important to buy local.” There can be a nutritional benefit to buying local, as well. Farmers can let produce ripen more fully before harvest, and more time spent on the branch or vine means more time receiving nutrients from the soil. Locally-grown produce hasn’t been in transit for days, which means that it’s probably been exposed to less oxygen, light, and time, all of which can deplete produce of vitamins and phytochemicals. Your options for buying local aren’t limited to just farmer’s markets. Local seafood, dairy, and produce is available in many local supermarkets.
2. Stick with safer seafood
When scanning a menu or store shelves, it can be challenging to know which types of seafood are sustainable, better for the environment, and low in mercury and other toxins. Memorizing the stats of every species is nearly impossible, plus the information can vary within species, making it even more difficult to keep it all straight. Tilapia farmed in the United States, for example, qualifies as a best choice, while tilapia from Brazil and Costa Rica are good alternatives, and tilapia from China or Taiwan fall into the fish to avoid category. Fortunately, there are websites with information about safer seafood (I recommend fishwatch.gov); many offer seafood and sushi pocket guides to tuck into your purse or wallet. You can also download a smartphone app such as Seafood Watch for up-to-date recommendations for ocean-friendly seafood and sushi – just type in the type of fish, and you’ll get instant feedback. Or text the Blue Ocean Institute’s FishPhone at 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish, and they’ll text you back immediately with their assessment and better alternatives, when needed.
3. Nose-to-tail eating
The United Nations estimates that one-third of the world’s food goes to waste, with the United States wasting about 10 times as much food per person as Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. And while there are many contributing factors, part of the problem is that we are conditioned to discard foods or parts of foods that are perfectly edible. “Nose-to-tail” eating refers to the philosophy of using virtually the entire animal without wasting the parts that are often considered waste. The same approach can be applied to produce and other foods. Glen Hogh, chef/owner of Vega Tapas Café uses nearly every part of every ingredient that enters his kitchen. “If you’re roasting beets, don’t waste the beet greens,” he says. “They’re fabulous when cooked down, braised with pears. Same goes for celery: I’ll chop up the celery leaves and the ends that are usually discarded, and make an apple and celery slaw.” When trimming a beef tenderloin, there’s a tremendous amount of product that’s not servable as filet, Hogh says. Instead of discarding these smaller pieces, he uses them for small plates such as beef pepper steak over sundried tomato couscous, or grinds them to make hamburgers. “Minimizing food waste not only helps to keep food costs in check, it also helps to keep things creative and interesting,” he says.
4. Waste not
In keeping with the theme of nose-to-tail eating is making sure that no food – no matter how little of it you may need as an ingredient – winds up in the garbage disposal. For example, many recipes call for just a tablespoon or two of tomato paste. So instead of tossing the rest (or storing it in the fridge, only to discover it moldy a few weeks later), you can freeze leftover tomato paste. Drop it by the tablespoon onto wax paper, freeze, then store in an airtight container in the freezer, and you’ll have tablespoon-sized nuggets when you need them. Freeze leftover liquid ingredients (think wine, broth, or freshly-squeezed lemon juice) in ice cube trays, then transfer the cubes to a plastic bag and freeze for later. Even fresh herbs can be frozen for future use: Pack ice cube trays half-way full with chopped herbs, then fill with water and freeze. Store in airtight container, and they’ll be ready to use for your next soup or sauté. And one of my favorites, suggested by Brad the Cheese Guy at Whole Foods in Metairie: Get a second use from the thick (but wax-free) rinds of hard cheeses like parmigiano-reggiano by adding them to slow-cooked dishes like white beans, lentils, or tomato sauce, where they’ll impart their uniquely salty-nutty creaminess.
5. Use your freezer
When you’re buying fresh, seasonal goods, buy them in bulk and freeze them for out-of-season use.“Freezing locally-sourced produce makes it easy to eat a rainbow of colors, from blueberries to spinach to peaches to strawberries year-round,” Miller says.And freezing fresh produce – or anything, for that matter – won’t affect the nutritional value; no vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or any other nutrients are lost when we freeze food or drink.One more reason to stock up: the more full a freezer is, the less energy it requires to keep foods frozen.
6. Wash wisely
Use your dishwasher. Yes, you read that right. The California Energy Commission says that a load of dishes cleaned in a dishwasher requires 37 percent less water than washing dishes by hand. But try to wait until you have a full load to maximize the water and energy output. And skip the rinse hold setting, since heating these extra 3 to 7 gallons of water wastes energy.Don’t have a dishwasher? Your better bet is to fill the wash and rinse sections of your sink instead of just letting the water run. Same goes for washing produce – wash veggies by soaking them in a tub of water instead of rinsing them under running water for minutes at a time.
7. A better cleanup
Don’t save the cloth napkins for company. Americans use an estimated 2,200 paper napkins (per person!) each year, according to Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen, authors of “The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet. ”The National Resources Defense Council says that if every household in the US replaced just one pack of regular napkins with 100-percent recycled napkins, we’d save an estimated one million trees – and even more over time if we switched to cloth napkins. Also try swapping out paper towels for cloth towels for everyday cleanup and hand-wiping hands. Cloth napkins and dish towels take up almost no space in the washing machine, so it’s easy to just toss them in with other laundry.
8. B.Y.O. bags and mugs
No, you don’t have to be that guy at the farmer’s market, toting your groceries in an old pillowcase. But you can do your part to reduce, reuse and recycle by bringing your own bags when you shop, and some stores will even offer a small discount.Instead of toting lunches and snacks in single-use disposable bags, try a reusable insulated lunch tote, an old-school lunch box, or check out one of the bento-style lunch boxes that include several small containers. (Added bonus: built-in portion control.) The B.Y.O. theme doesn’t stop at the grocery store; coffee shops are also discounting for customers who bring their own mugs.
9. Be smart with plastics
Many plastic bottles and food containers contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that has been associated with health concerns ranging from reproductive abnormalities to obesity and insulin resistance. While that is cause for concern, you don’t have to forgo all types of plastic, just make it your business to learn the differences between them. Check the bottom of the container for the recycling numbers to help you choose plastics that are safer and more eco-friendly. Plastics marked with the numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are reportedly free of BPA and other toxins – plus they’re all recyclable. But better to steer clear of those with the numbers 3, 6 and 7, since these contain potentially harmful chemicals, and are the most difficult to recycle. Instead of single-use plastics, consider reusable containers when possible. You’ll help reduce the amount of waste produced, so it’s better for the environment as well as your health.
As we incorporate more and more of the above changes and behaviors, we’ll likely generate less waste. But no matter how efficient we become at reducing and reusing, recycling will always play a key role in preserving our resources. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generated more than 34 million tons of food waste in 2010 – averaging more than 200 pounds per person – and that doesn’t include what was recycled. Recycling programs vary by parish and municipality; in unserved areas, fee-based curbside recycling programs and drop-off recycling locations may be an option. Check out www.earth911.com for more information about recycling in your area.
The bottom line: Continuing to keep the focus on reducing, reusing, and recycling, and striving to incorporate more fresh, local foods into your lifestyle will benefit our health as well as our local community, economy, and environment