A peek into cupboards can reveal a world of plastic problems

Examining the packaging and the products in your cupboards can be a first step in evaluating shopping habits and making changes that reduce your ecological footprint.

An audit of what you buy may open your eyes to the amount of waste lurking in kitchens and beyond

Reka Vasarhelyi is the green workplace co-ordinator for Green Calgary. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

My kitchen is littered with good intentions and the detritus of convenience. 

At least that was my takeaway from a sort of green audit conducted by Green Calgary's Reka Vasarhelyi.

She was a bit more diplomatic. 

"I think in your kitchen you had some standard packaging that might be a little hard to get around, like we talked about there are some options for refilling instead of rebuying those," she said. 

"But I think you're doing really well in terms of not having an overwhelming amount of single-use products in there, and really that is the change you want to make, just those single-use products."

Vasarhelyi, who is the green workplace co-ordinator for Green Calgary, says there's a role for plastic, that it is useful, but it's important to reduce the amount we use and the duration with which it's useful to us. 

Pre-audit audit

Opening my cupboards, fridge and bathroom to a certified professional in reducing waste was a bit nerve-racking, and even before the audit my mind was racing over the various items that I didn't need to buy, the packages that didn't need to be there, the easy purchases picked because there's not enough time in the day. 

Glass containers in my crowded cupboard, perfect for filling with rice or beans or noodles, sat full of nothing but the promise of a trip to the bulk section.

I'm certainly not alone in my less-than-perfect habits. Canadians produce staggering amounts of waste, and plastic has been identified as a serious ecological concern. The federal government promises to ban some single-use items. 

According to Statistics Canada, the country produced approximately 25 million tonnes of waste in 2016. Households accounted for just over 10 million tonnes. 

Only about nine per cent of plastic produced in Canada is recycled, and according to a recent report prepared for Environment Canada by Deloitte and ChemInfo Services, in 2016, Canadians threw out 3.3 million tonnes of plastic, 12 times more than was recycled.

A glimpse into cupboards and fridges can reveal a lot of excess packaging and some well-intentioned empty glass containers. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The fact Vasarhelyi thinks I'm ahead of the curve is troubling, even if I've started refilling some cleaners in old spray bottles at a local shop and do try to buy less stuff stuffed into plastic bags and containers. 

Plan ahead

What's most striking is the amount of planning required to make a significant greener shift, rejecting the modern mantra of convenience or death. 

But Vasarhelyi recommends starting small.

"Changing away from that convenience factor is just switching your habits, really," she said.

"We just think that's the way we do things. It is really hard to do all at once, don't get me wrong, but making that one single change, bringing your coffee mug to your coffee shop instead of buying the disposable coffee mug, that one change helps make the other changes easier."

From something as simple as a reusable coffee mug, would-be zero-wasters can start stockpiling glass pasta sauce containers and the like, lugging them to the grocery store to refill with sauces and dry goods. 

Vinegar containers can be refilled and the vinegar itself used as a greener house cleaner. 

Travel and trips

It takes forethought to be green, and trying to put it into practice can show how difficult it can be to get all you need in a neighbourhood.

A bulk store that's worth its weight might require jumping in a car rather than riding a bike. It could take time. Rather than hitting the big chain grocery store with its rows upon rows of plastic-wrapped vegetables, you might have to take trips to various stores or hit a farmer's market. 

If you're lucky, there's a place nearby that will sell bulk soaps, lotions and cleaners to refill plastic spray bottles or empty containers. More likely, that's another journey. 

If you visit the butcher, stainless steel containers are great for holding your meat on the trip home, but big stores might not allow it. 

Vasarhelyi recommends ditching shampoo bottles for things like shampoo bars that have considerably less packaging. Checking to see if the soaps and shampoos are healthy for the rivers is important, too. 

What to do?

The suggestions aren't earth-shattering, there is nothing that I didn't really know. There are some tips, sure, but mostly it's a reminder of what is, or should be, well and widely known. It's a reminder to look into your cupboards and pause.

What could you do differently?

It could feel daunting. In a global context, it could be downright debilitating to think of the scope of the waste. 

And yet Vasarhelyi, who deals with these questions every day, is optimistic. 

"Everyone's got those days where you feel overwhelmed, but even just over the last couple of years, the change that I've seen in Calgary getting onto the zero-waste fast track is crazy," she said. 

"We used to have one refillery in the city; now we have three. A lot of the grocery stores, even in these big chain grocery stores, are letting you refill and bring your own containers and refill there."

People are curious about shifting their habits, according to Vasarheli.

"It's not something that's this weird idea that no one wants to reach for," she said.

"I am optimistic, and we have to be. There's a lot of people on this planet and a lot of waste that we produce and it's up to us to make that change, and I think it's happening."


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.