Montreal·PERSONAL ESSAY

My zero-waste life has me craving strawberries

A couple of years ago, my wife and I decided to go zero-waste, as much as possible. And while it is gratifying, I can't help but feel that I'm missing out, says CBC journalist Elias Abboud.

Trying to go waste-free requires many sacrifices during the weekly shop, CBC's Elias Abboud has learned

CBC journalist Elias Abboud, who hasn't eaten strawberries in several months, can't wait for summer. That's when strawberries are available in stores without plastic packaging. (CBC)

A couple of years ago, my wife and I decided to go zero-waste, as much as possible. I say "as much as possible" because we both realize we'll never be able to do it 100 per cent, and like anything in life, there are always some compromises.

It was more of a gradual, unconscious progression.

It started with refusing plastic bags, then taking our own bags for produce to the market, followed by taking our own jars and containers to the bulk stores and butcher shop.

Bit by bit, we've gotten to the point where we take out a single garbage bag to the curb, once every five or six months. And while it is gratifying, I can't help but feel I'm missing out.

From October 2018 to March 2019, my wife and I produced a total of one black garbage bag of waste — and an old kettle. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

This past winter, it dawned on me what I was missing out on: strawberries.

I hadn't purchased strawberries in nearly six months.

With the development of different varieties, we're lucky enough to get local strawberries throughout the summer and into September and October. There's nothing better in the morning than fresh strawberries with our homemade yogurt (made from milk that comes in refillable glass bottles), or a little dish for dessert after dinner.

In the summer, the berries are sold in little cardboard baskets, which leaves you several zero-waste options:

  • You can transfer the berries to your own container and leave the basket with the vendor.
  • Take the basket home and recycle or compost it.
  • Or bring it back to the vendor the next time you're at the market.

But come winter, no berries for brekkie. Nothing for dessert. They now come all the way from Florida or California and are sold in single-use plastic containers.

And while, technically, those containers are recyclable, putting it in a recycling bin is not always the answer.

During the winter months, berries are sold in single-use plastic containers. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

The goal of zero-waste is not only to reduce the amount of garbage you put out on the curb, but also to cut back in general. And that means cutting back on what goes into the recycling bin.

Plastics in Quebec don't always end up recycled, and there's no way to trace where they go once they arrive at one of the province's 23 sorting centres, according to Karel Ménard.

"You don't know if it's recycled here, out of the country, or if it ends up in a dump," Ménard said. He said there is no traceability of recyclable material in Quebec.

I did, however, find a compromise to my berry quandary. I'm lucky because I live a five-minute walk from Montreal's Jean-Talon Market. One of the vendors recently began selling greenhouse strawberries from Ontario, and they taste as good as Quebec strawberries at the height of the season.

Yes, they are shipped to the vendor in plastic containers. He removes the berries and resells them out of little plastic tubs. I bring my own container to transport the berries home. OK, the plastic containers do end up in a recycling centre somewhere. But at least the strawberries are not being trucked to Montreal, over thousands of kilometres, from somewhere in the southern United States.


Go grocery shopping with Elias Abboud as he looks for package-free produce:

Tag along at the market with CBC's Elias Abboud as he explains his grocery shopping tricks to reduce waste. 1:42

What else am I missing out on?

Grapes. They come in plastic bags. Until I find a place that sells them in the little tissue paper wrappers like in the old days, I probably won't be buying grapes for a while.

The same goes for cherries when they're in season. I love cherries — the deep, red-coloured ones, and the yellow ones from Washington State. Again, they come in plastic bags.

Speaking of cherries, I've had to give up cherry tomatoes. The greenhouse vine tomatoes are a poor substitute for real, field-grown summer tomatoes. So I used to buy the little cherry tomatoes which are far more flavourful. Unfortunately, they come in plastic clamshell packaging.

Time and money

It's not just about the yummy treats I'm losing out on. Going zero-waste takes up a lot more of your time — and cash.

My wife and I both work full-time which leaves two all-too-short days to get the groceries done for the week. That involves preparing the various jars, bags, containers that we're going to use for our groceries.

This is one of the shelves in my pantry. The labelled jars contain various ingredients bought at various zero-waste bulk stores in my Montreal neighbourhood. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Next, it's running the errands. We're not doing a one-stop shop where we fill up on everything we need for the week.

A typical grocery run involves a trip to the little shop around the corner to get milk in the glass bottles, then to the butcher shop, then to the market for fruit and vegetables, then to bulk store No.1 where we use our refillable containers, then a few blocks west to another little shop that has the good olive oil in bulk, and then back about 30 minutes east to bulk store No. 2 where we pick up the rest of what we need — again in our refillable containers that, by now, are mostly filled and are getting pretty heavy to schlep around. All is done on foot, not in a car.

All this doesn't include the time to make the homemade granola, the aforementioned zero-waste yogurt, and the easy, though time-consuming, loaf of bread for the week.

And it isn't cheap.

At the shop with olive oil, I filled half of my bottle for $13. The full bottle cost $15 when I used to buy it at the grocery story. My zero-waste olive oil costs almost twice as much as the store-bought stuff.

You can usually pick up a decent, garden-variety cheddar cheese for grating on your nachos or using in a grilled cheese sandwich for pretty cheap. After a scan of this week's online flyers from the province's main grocery chains, I found a 400-gram block of extra old cheddar cheese for $4.88, which works out to $1.22/100 g. The problem is that it comes wrapped in a big hunk of plastic.

The local cheese store at the market sells a much better quality cheese: a Quebec-made cheddar wrapped in environmentally friendly paper. But, the price of the better cheese is more than twice the price at $2.84/100 g.

Shoppers can get an excellent quality, made-in-Quebec cheddar cheese at the cheese store or pay about the same amount for a much larger piece, wrapped in plastic, at the supermarket. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Don't get me wrong, I want to do this. I want to continue to do my part to reduce the plastic that goes into our landfills and ends up in our oceans. I find the whole effort rewarding, especially when I take that one garbage bag out every six months. But I also don't want to empty my bank account.

I'm open to suggestions. But until my favourite foods come in less packaging, and at a cheaper price, I'll have to continue to work on that compromise between living a zero-waste life, eating some grapes or strawberries from time to time, and live with generating a little bit of waste.

About the Author

Elias Abboud

Journalist

Elias Abboud is a journalist at CBC Montreal.

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