In a lot of ways, the frum world is miles ahead of the secular world when it comes to not being wasteful. We have gemachs for all sorts of things that would be otherwise used once and then shoved into storage or donated to a charity (which can often be a way station between your home and the dumpster). Caterers have arrangements to donate leftover food to those in need. There are so many wonderful WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages in Jewish communities that help people give away or resell food, shoes, clothing, home decor items, and more.
Even so, when it comes to the amount of trash we generate, we’re miles ahead of the secular world, too. It’s not that frum Jews are inherently wasteful or unconcerned with the environment, as the secular media might have people think. We have larger families and two working parents is the norm, so we often opt for convenience: more packaged food, more disposable dishes on the table and the kitchen. We have Shabbos and yomim tovim and simchas, which happen without regard to how heavy our workloads were that week, how many children were sick, and what community responsibilities we fulfilled. It’s simply not realistic for most if not all frum families to give up their disposables entirely.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t cut back. Each person has to make her own cheshbonos and decide where she can sacrifice time and convenience to grow in the area of ba’al tashchit without sacrificing her sanity or her ability to enjoy Shabbos, yomim tovim, and simchas.
In Cleveland in the last five years, the standard for kiddushes, vorts, etc. has gone up dramatically. Everything is fancier, with plastic replacing paper and individual servings (with their own single-use containers and spoons). Living in a frum community means living with pressure to keep up with the Cohens, to buy things we can’t afford, and things that we want but don’t actually need. Alex Flexsher wrote beautifully and clearly about this problem recently for Mishpacha. But the issue is more complicated than that. It’s not just pushing to keep up; it’s the subtle community pressure against pressing back against consumption and waste.
A few weeks ago I happened across an online conversation in which people who had grown up in poverty were answering the question, “What things that people take for granted were missing from your life when you were poor?” Some of the things mentioned I would only associate with extreme poverty: not going to the doctor when a person is sick, living in a car. But aside from those examples, it was striking how many things that are markers of poverty today would have been run-of-the-mill in our grandparents’ or perhaps great-grandparents lives: lots of hand-me-down clothes, not having prepackaged snacks, not using paper towels, reusing containers, and more.
Every time we add plastic baggies to the shopping list, I wish there were another way to get snacks to school and back, but silicone bags are too pricey for something that will most likely get lost, and I worry homemade bags would make my kids stand out, when some of them are at ages when they just want to fit in. For right now, I just put it on my “Not Yet” list.
But I have found one way to replace plastic bags with a low-waste solution: glass freezer containers. Once a month, we go to Costco and stock up on chicken, buying the biggest packages they sell and breaking it down into meal-sized portions. Although I’m comfortable washing out and reusing a ziploc bag that’s held popcorn or waffles or baked goods for reuse, I don’t trust I could ever get a bag that held raw chicken clean enough that I would feel safe using it.
There are so many points on a journey to lowering our waste and enhancing our focus on this beautiful world HaShem has created for us that call for personal decision. There is no right way, or wrong way. Any time I want to make a change or move forward, I ask myself, “Is this building my avodas HaShem? And can I and my family make this change b’simcha?” Everyone’s answers will be different, and that’s so much more than okay.
So, back to my frozen chicken problem. After much searching (silicone bags came highly recommended, but were too much like plastic bags for our taste, with the same concerns about food safety), I happened across a set of glass freezer containers with BPA-free lids. Although I trust the FDA’s assessment that low levels of BPA (a kind of chemical used in plastics) exposure are fine, one of the benefits of lowering your waste is removing exposure to these chemicals.
When we bring home our haul of chicken, we now separate it out into these stackable glass containers that are ready to pull out to defrost for Shabbos. One container is enough for our family; if we are having guests, it’s easy to pull out more. In addition to not feeling that pang of regret when I throw a plastic bag away, the containers stack more neatly in the freezer.
The one downside? We decided to make this change in the middle of the winter. Toiveling was a very frosty adventure, to say the least.
There are so many options out there, so it’s easy to choose the one that’s right for you and your family. We got this set, but we may find we need to add more in other sizes as we transition away from plastic storage. We just won’t do it in January!
Have a beautiful week, and I’ll talk to you next Thursday,