What Older Generations Can Teach Us About Plastic-Free Living

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Public Domain. MaxPixel -- An elderly woman harvests apples from a tree

The simplest, most effective solutions to the plastic pollution problem may lie in the past.

How are we going to solve the plastic pollution problem? This has become a hot topic in recent years as studies and photographs depict the awful extent to which plastic has saturated our planet. We need solutions, we tell ourselves, better ways of doing things and designing products that don't generate so much waste. As a result, innovation is flourishing.

Pressure is mounting on companies to come up with greener forms of food packaging, and on cities to improve their recycling infrastructure. Entrepreneurs are implementing drastic measures to collect the waste circulating in the oceans and turn it into new consumer products. Inventors are coming up with ways to catch plastic microfibres in the washing machine. Heck, someone even invented edible water balls.

At first glance, the future looks high-tech and cutting-edge. There's a sense that we need to move beyond single-use plastics to solutions that only science can give us. But what if we're heading in the wrong direction? What if the most straightforward answers to our problem lie in the past?

We didn't always have a plastic pollution problem. Before the mid-20th century, people made do without it and, presumably, as Mark Blackburn put it descriptively in an article for One Brown Planet, they were not lying "in the streets, malnourished and dehydrated, like a scene from some apocalyptic war," for lack of plastic water bottles. They managed just fine because their lifestyle habits were different.

To gain insight into the past, Blackburn interviewed his mother, who grew up in northern England in the 1950s. After reading their conversation and loving it, I called up my own mother, whose childhood took place in the 1960s. Although that was an era when plastics were just starting to enter the mainstream, she grew up in an extremely frugal Mennonite family in rural Ontario and didn't even see her first plastic toy until she was 7.

Looking at Blackburn's and my mother's memories of how things used to be done, it becomes apparent that we could fix so much of the waste problem by returning to the past. Here's how we can update old practices to fit our modern lives.

Fruits and Vegetables


Blackburn's mother said,

"The majority of the fresh foods such as potatoes, carrots, peas and the like were all grown locally and available seasonally. You could also get bananas and other fruits from overseas for most of the year round too. When a vegetable wasn’t in season we would have to buy it in a tin can or have something else instead. There was also a lot of dried foods available, usually in a big container. Whatever you needed, you weighed out into a brown paper bag. Items from overseas, like rice and pasta, would also be weighed and then packaged in a paper bag."

My mother said her parents had a huge kitchen garden, where they grew potatoes, corn, tomatoes, beans, onions, and more. These were eaten steadily in summer and fall, to the point of monotony, and preserved for eating throughout the winter.


We can cut down on transport emissions by buying local fresh foods that are in season. Sign up for a CSA share. Attend farmers' markets on a regular basis. Go to a pick-your-own fruit farm and stock up your freezer. Start your own backyard garden. Look for state- or county-grown produce at the grocery store.

Set time aside each season to preserve the food you buy in bulk. It's a chore, yes, but it can become fun as you get better at it. Few things are as satisfying as stocking food away for the winter. Freeze fruit and vegetables in jars, metal containers, or even old plastic bags (or milk bags if you're Canadian) that you've washed out. Make relish, pickles, soups, and sauces.



My mother said her family used to 'put up' one pig each fall for sausage, which was then canned, rather than frozen. The residual lard was used for cooking, as was chicken fat, whenever a chicken was roasted. Blackburn's mother said, "There was a meat man who would come around with fresh meats, again all wrapped in paper."


You might not want to keep chickens in your backyard (I learned that the hard way), but I do know that privately-owned butcher shops are very happy to wrap meat in paper or put it in your own containers, if you ask ahead of time. Bones should be put in a freezer bag and, once full, simmered for delicious stock.



Blackburn's mother said chips and cookies weren't as widely available as they are now, but they could be purchased in bulk, taken from glass containers and put into paper bags. My mom reiterated that everything went into big brown paper bags, that it was unheard of to use clear plastic to package individual goods.


Have you ever walked into a Bulk Barn store? The place is teeming with snacks, all of which can be put into your own reusable containers, after being tared at the cash. There's absolutely no need to curtail your snacking habit while trying to avoid plastic packaging. Better yet, make your own. I believe it was Mark Bittman who once said, "Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it from scratch."

Food Packaging


In the pre-Ziploc era, sandwiches were wrapped in newspaper, wax paper, or, as my mom said, the wide paper labels taken off a Wonder Bread bag. Everything went into a paper bag. Mom's family had a large metal can that they took to a nearby farmer to fill with unpasteurized milk. It had a little window in the side that allowed you to see the cream separating from the milk; they skimmed this off to make butter for special occasions. Blackburn's mother had milk delivered to the house in returnable glass bottles. Her lunches were also wrapped in newspaper.


For those of you who still have newspapers lying around, it can still do the job, as can a roll of wax paper. Get fancy with reusable stainless steel lunch boxes for kids, zippered cloth bags, and glass jars.

Eating Out


It just wasn't done the way it is now. My mom says she remembers going out to a Chinese restaurant once a year, with occasional visits to Tastee-Freeze after church on Sunday nights, but other than that they ate everything at home. Blackburn's mother said the only restaurant they had in town was a fish-and-chips joint.


The culture of eating on the go is a major driver of plastic waste. Our whole approach to food needs to shift if we hope to reduce the amount of trash we generate, and it requires more people to prioritize sitting down for meals in their homes. As you reduce the number of meals eaten in fast-food restaurants or in your car, you'll also reduce packaging waste considerably (and improve your health, too).



My mother said there was no garbage collection, just a dump heap down the road where they put metal, ceramics, and glass that couldn't be reused. Paper was burned in the cookstove and food scraps were composted. Old clothes were turned into quilts, many of which my family still has. There was no paper towel or Kleenex; they used cloths instead.

Blackburn's mother had a similar description:

"Tins and cans were squashed and put in the bin because we couldn’t recycle them. I do remember that the paper that originally wrapped the bread was used saved and used to wrap Grandad’s sandwiches. Once he had finished he brought it home and we burnt it in the fire. But the cinders from the fire we used to make footpaths or in the winter as grit to stop you slipping on the paths."

My parents did the same thing when I was kid, keeping the fireplace ashes for shoveling on the driveway to add traction for cars.


Start composting (even if you live in an apartment). Get some worms. Support bottle deposit programs in your municipality. Always opt for glass packaging, if given the choice, as it is the most likely material to be recycled. Shop with reusable bags and containers to eliminate waste at the source. Embrace the idea of handkerchiefs and cloth rags and napkins in the kitchen once again.