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Acting Green by Acting Retro – Food Storage the Old Fashioned Way.

A New York Times article today,The (Possible) Perils of Being Thirsty While Being Green, caught my attention since it brought up the issue of reusing plastic water bottles. That’s soooo yesterday. We haven’t re-used plastic water bottles in years, mostly because of the massive over distribution of scary literature by one of the moms at our preschool a few years ago.

I realize not everyone has had the bejesus scared out of them by another mom, so this article is worth a read. Like many green issues regarding toxins in everyday items, avoiding reusing any plastic water bottles seems like the best course, since selecting the ones that can be reused seems to take excessive amounts of time and research. Buying a few stainless steel bottles available here and hereand at many sporting goods stores, seems like a better choice.

The food issue however, looms larger in my house as I pack a lunch each day and worry about both saving the planet and exposing my child to toxins. Some days I am absolutely appalled by the amount of paper and plastic waste I generate tenderly packing natural, organic, healthy food for my offspring in his politically correct lunch box.

Paper, in most cases is recyclable; assuming it ends up in the recycling bin and not in the trash can at school. Plastic however is not and ends up in landfills.

And so I’ve begun to switch to better choices. Rather than tiny zippered plastic bags I’ve switched to old fashioned, natural wax paper. Just like my mom used to use! Both waxed paper and waxed paper bags can be composted and degrade quickly.

After reading about the importance of a natural versus petroleum based coating though I’m careful about the brand that I buy. Bags made with a petroleum based coating, like plastic are not biodegradable. Waxed paper and paper bags coated with paraffin are a better option. Natural Value, both paraffin coated and widely available at health food stores, is the brand I buy. I’m a sucker for convenience.

I’ve also started what I call “medieval wrapping. That is, I wrap sandwiches and other larger lunch items in a cloth napkin. I buy these by the dozen at discount stores and have been using them instead of paper napkins at mealtimes for a few years. Now I use them for packing lunches too.

Since they are inexpensive, come in a variety of colors and patterns and can be thrown in the washer after use, they make a great, cheap alternative to zipper bags for sandwiches, whole fruit, cookies and even larger, less crumbly snacks. Though for some items a rubber band or even a fancy ribbon or string is recommended to keep food contained in the napkin and not scattered across the lunch table.

Acting green often requires acting retro…often a fun endeavor!


  1. Frank Jones says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. I worry about the tremendous amount of wasteful packaging that we use with food and other household items. I am very careful to recycle or compost most of my household waste and my trash can usually contains only ‘disposable’ packaging.I would love to see more discussion of alternatives to the wasteful and hazardous materials we use for everyday life.

  2. I love the idea of using cloth napkins to wrap up sandwiches!

  3. Hi there. Great article. But I think you are mistaken a bit about paraffin-coated waxed paper. It is indeed petroleum-based. The only kind of waxed paper that is not petroleum-based is made from soy wax and not widely available in the U.S. I’ve spoken to the Natural Value people who have not switched to soy wax out of concerns about buying GMO soy. I guess petroleum-based wax paper is better than plastic, but it does come from oil. Just wanting to set the record straight.


  4. Hi Beth,

    Thanks for stopping by – I love your website and now…I love the conversation you opened up about paraffin.

    OK- agreed, it is made from a petroleum byproduct…I wasn’t clear enough in my post.

    But, now that we’re discussing it,..I went ahead and started doing some research on it and I’ll agree..paraffin is better than plastic but not as good as soy, from an environmental standpoint.

    It actually is made from a material that would normally thrown out during the production of petroleum based fuel products but, is not a renewable resource. It does biodegrade better than plastic though…. This is one of those areas where one is caught between a rock and a hard place. Many people are concerned about the effects of soy on growing boys so that may or may not be the best choice either.

    Any other thoughts on this…I’m still researching and would love to see what others think.

  5. I guess finding reusable options are better than disposable. Waxed paper and wax-coated cardboard are one of those gray areas. I love your idea of wrapping sandwiches in cloth napkins. I myself have a couple of Tupperware sandwich boxes that I still use, but that’s only because I already have them. I wouldn’t go out and buy new plastic Tupperware. There is something out there now called the Wrap-n-Mat, but it’s coated with vinyl, which I wouldn’t want touching my children’s food (if I had children.) Please do let me know what else you come up with!

  6. We piloted a ‘trashless lunch’ program at the grade 1 level to instill ‘green ethics’ with kids early on and cue parents to think differently about their lunch box offerings. One of our favorite resources is Coyote Point Environmental Museum just down the road here, as their camps get very creative w/same, using ‘bandannas’ that the kids can also use for hikes and such, playing into the ‘no trails, no trash left behind’ tred lightly earth ethics…

    Treehugger always has good resources too, and I’m excited to send one of our guest correpondents to the upcoming MIT/Stanford VLAB on GreenTrepreneurs coming up at the end of the month to see what’s cookin’ on a consumer scale with productization (as opposed to greenwashing) too! Thanks for the insightful post.

  7. I have been doing a lot of research about waxed paper bags and many webstores are misreprenting Natural Value Waxed Paper products saying they are chemical free or as the name implies, natural. I’m buying the soy based bags because when it come to having to choose between petroleum products against my food or soy (even GMO based) it is a no brainer. It’s actually scary how hard it is to find out that the Natural Value brand is petroleum based- I have only found one “organic” webstore that listed these as a petroleum based product.

  8. That is true that Natural Value is, at the moment paraffin based. They are apparently researching soy based options. Its a bit of a consumer quandary from the environmental side…buy NV at a local store or soy based online…adding shipping of an individual product using oil.

    From a health standpoint, though, soy is obviously preferable.

  9. Delinor says:

    Having just learned through a well known health care provider that waxed paper is not good for health, it was suggested that tin foil be used in it’s place. The dilemma is obvious, where do we stock pile used foil? And is tin foil healthy for storage purposes, let alone cooking? Where does one find soy waxed paper? I do understand that it has it’s faults, but there appears to be no substitue that will satisy all aspects.

  10. Hi. This is great as we are trying so hard to recognize the incredible amount of waste coming from our convenient lives! I wondered what you are doing about freezing meats….is freezer paper environmentally friendly? I have used ziplocs for years and wish I could think of a viable option! Thanks.

  11. Delinor says:

    Does anyone here know anything about the “Debbie Myer’s” green plastic bags that are supposed to keep vege’s fresh? I’m looking for whether they are bio-degradeable and if the off-gas content is safe.

  12. Great idea about using cloth napkins for wrapping foods. I have been using cloth napkins to wrap up cheese instead of using saran wrap or ziploc baggies. I have also come across this ingenious Food Kozy by Kids Konserve. Same idea, reusing. The food kozy comes from Recycled, FDA approved, non-toxic, non-leaching, recyclable PE plastic. This product does not contain Bisphenol-A (BPA). They are so great! I use them to wrap my kid’s sandwiches for school, wrapping up slices of cheese, apples, etc. They are so easy to clean and reusable. Also, talking about retro, time to return to stainless steel! It is a safe, non-leaching material to hold food in. See the food containers at Kids Konserve.
    I got them at http://www.kidskonserve.com

  13. It makes me glad to see that others are concerned about the same things I am. I rant and rave at the people at work, and they look at me like I grew 3 heads. Most people don’t understand the necessity for caring about packaging etc. I still can’t get some of my friends to stop microwaving plastic food containers. I tell them if not for yourselves at least stop it for your children!

    Anyways, great ideas here! I knew they used wax paper for bread loaves in stores years ago, before plastic and that is what sent me searching for info just now.

  14. Environmental issues aside, we know waxed paper is a better choice than plastic. However, HEALTH wise, waxed paper is coated with parafin, but chemicals can leech from the plastic. Which is the lesser of the two evils?

  15. Loved the article and all the comments. Just read the new book “The Healthy Home” and it was shocking to find out the dangers of our plastics in the kitchen. After use, they all are a problem. So my tupperware, including the sandwich keepers which I have used for years are gone.

  16. “Many people are concerned about the effects of soy on growing boys”

    Yes, there are concerns about phytoestrogens in soy. But your boys aren’t going to eat the wax paper, are they? And do you think a significant amount is going to transfer to their food, especially if we are talking a cold sandwich? Also, soy wax is made from soybean oil, which does not contain much in the way of phytoestrogens.

    Finally, that soy oil is highly processed to make soy wax (by proprietary industrial processes, btw, though we know at least that hydrogenation is involved), so we don’t really know if any health benefits or risks that apply even to soy oil apply to it. Since it is a highly altered form of soy and the fact that is “soy” is practically meaningless except regarding its source.

    So I really don’t think you need to worry about estrogen effects. On the other hand I’m not aware of any studies, certainly no long term studies, that have been done on the health effects of soy wax at all. It was years before the leaching effects of plastic on our foods came out, so I wouldn’t be all too confident that soy wax is safe.

    Personally I’m going to be careful about heating food with it touching, but will continue to use it to cover things in the fridge (such as over a bowl with a rubber band to seal it).

  17. I think it’s really great that you are doing all these thing with your kids’ lunch. Nice job.


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