Have you ever wondered what we would do without plastic wrap? I can see how we could survive without plastic shopping bags or the copious quantities of plastic packing in use today, but how would we successfully cover food so it is safe from contaminants, stays fresh and doesn’t spill, if not with plastic wrap?
The question arose the other day when my neighbours and I were ticked off by a council inspector who took it upon himself to rifle through our recycling bins and discovered that someone was disposing of both plastic bags and plastic wrap in theirs. My first thought was, “who would think that plastic wrap could be recycled?”
But beyond that, it got me thinking, and actually not for the first time about these two scourges of the modern world and about plastic packaging in general.
We are all aware of the environmental disaster caused by the ever demonised plastic shopping bag. The mind boggles at the statistics regarding usage and wastage and I, like growing numbers of other shoppers, dutifully go off to both the farmers market and the supermarket with my French market baskets and feel pangs of intense guilt if I ever forget them.
The lovely young man on my favourite vegetable stall at the market, however, still insists on offering me a plastic bag, which sadly is not a biodegradable one. And the organic meat is tray packed and plastic wrapped – not the vendors choice, I might add, but if she wants to sell meat at the market, this is the requirement.
My friend L travelled recently in India and Thailand and was fascinated to learn that some towns in India are plastic-bag free. This hasn’t necessarily reduced the mountains of other refuse but is a positive start and shows a growing awareness. Goods are wrapped in recycled paper or a hand-made cloth drawstring bag, which apart from being reusable, undoubtedly provides employment for somebody.
Thailand, on the other hand, she reports, seems to have embraced non-biodegradable disposable items to the point that even a cup of iced coffee comes in a plastic bag with a straw. Even worse is that pre-prepared market food is packaged in polystyrene clams, where once they might have been neatly wrapped in a banana leaf.
However, plastic wrap doesn’t seem to arouse the same level of concern, although there has been the odd alarming health report over the years proclaiming its dangers when heated. It therefore seriously alarms me when I see professional chefs tightly wrapping food in plastic then poaching it liquid that may or may not be at boiling point. As far as I can tell, it’s all about the shape: a chicken breast or fish mousse becomes a perfectly formed log for human consumption and post artful plating.
Chef techniques such as this are all very well, but belong (just) in the professional kitchen, not the home. At home I reluctantly use plastic wrap, restricting it to its original intended purpose of covering cold food to keep it fresh in the fridge. I don’t want to eat food that has made contact with plastic during cooking.
I worry about the public perception of this culinary technique and have seen evidence of its unwise use. There is a popular method buzzing around homes in which you line a small cup with plastic wrap, break an egg into it, twist and knot the plastic to create a small parcel and then lower it into boiling water. A perfectly shaped poached egg results, but what happens to all the chemicals in the plastic when heated?
There are a few ways for home cooks to safely regulate the water temperature and ensure it is kept low enough to keep the plastic safe (if indeed that is possible) but what’s wrong with a pan of salted simmering water with a teaspoon of vinegar in it to set the egg white? Or a run of the mill poached egg mould?
The same issue exists with using plastic wrap to cover food in the microwave, which I have seen people do, bizarrely. I’ve also seen that plastic melt onto the plate or even into the dish the person is trying to warm.
In the days before plastic wrap or plastic anything much, my elderly friend told me that she used to have a supply of little elasticated cloth covers to stretch over dishes of food. She’s wash and re-use them over and over. She recalls struggling with the arrival of plastic wrap and the concept of using it only once before throwing it away.
We should now all be struggling with the plastic pollution we are causing with our love of plastic wrap.
Without a doubt we need to find a better way, though I’m not suggesting a return to dinky little cloth bonnets. But where are the statistics wrap usage and wastage and when, I wonder, will a biodegradable, Eco-friendly option be readily available?