Eco audit: bringing your own food and drink

Back in the holidays of my childhood, if you were travelling – you brought your own food.  Yes, there were service stations, and you might occasionally be allowed to buy a cup of tea. But you had your packed meal with you, and that was that.

I recognise now that cost was probably the main factor here.  Two children, one parent working (and sometimes between work), you would save money where you could.  Holidays cost – save your money for the main areas like travel and accommodation.

And when you’re driving as your way of getting to your destination, having the food with you means you can be flexible.  You can respond to sudden calls of nature, inviting looking picnic spots, and immediate cries of starvation.

So for a long time, it essentially Felt Wrong to buy food to go.  Things in disposable packaging. It had an impact, too, on school lunches, where I remember very little in my lunch box that was throw away.

I also recognise that, when coming to issues of the environment, we tend to adopt a particular section of it that we feel strongly about.  Packaging is one of mine.  Just so you know. It may help when I seem to be getting more nit-picky about it.

My teenage self would no doubt be shocked by how easy it is now to buy – and throw away – food and drink when you are out and about.  And astounded by supermarkets selling so many things in individual packaging for school lunchboxes.  (We’ll presume they are more for school lunches – on the basis of the marketing – but not exclusively.)

Yes, it is cheaper to buy items in the supermarket than buy take out in a shop.  But you are still dealing with all that packaging.  And while most local councils ignore much of the plastic packaging that is generated, it is all going in the bin – into landfill – and so on.

I’m noticing certain patterns as I consider what happened after I left home.  Student years – go back to your flat for lunch.  Or someone else’s flat.  Or possibly buy food in a university cafe – where at least it was on plates that would go back into the kitchen for washing.  When there is little money, and/or your commute is very small, it is the easy choice.

The choice gets harder in a work environment.  We are all expected to be Busy.  Our time outside work feels more limited.  And the argumentations for buying food on the go increase.  Work places have to put a reasonably strong emphasis on the environment, too, before it becomes socially less acceptable to buy and junk lots of bits of takeaway food  with its inevitable packaging.

My teenage self would no doubt find it hard to understand the rise of convenience items in today’s society, that are used for a short time (the time it takes to make, store, and later eat a sandwich), and then discarded.  And it does seem like the tide is turning a bit.

More of the eco stores will sell reusable fabric wraps for sandwiches.  It is particularly easy to buy sets of plastic storage boxes for taking food with you.  And you can get fancy storage too – ones where you can keep your salad dressing separate, or heat part of it up and not the other, and so on.

Now I am, for my part, at the stage of lunchbox filling for others, it’s become part of the routine.  If I had to make sandwiches every day, I would probably rebel.  But making some things in batches and freezing them – like mini meatballs, or mini baked omelettes, means that school lunch decisions are much quicker.

The complication is when we are travelling together by train.  If you are carrying all your luggage, all your items for staving off boredom for long train journeys, it can be hard to lug all the food with you too.  I’ve probably come to a place of compromise on this – and I know it’s an occasional scenario, rather than a regular one.

So, is this obsession, or common sense? I know that I find it harder and harder to buy certain food items without lots of packaging in supermarkets.  And although in an ideal world, I would be wafting from market stall to market stall, selecting my produce, that’s not where I’m at – nor many of us, I suspect. (Plus market stalls don’t necessarily favour paper bags over more plastic.)

The tricky bit is where we buy heavily-packaged items because it’s what society encourages us to do.  That we’re doing well if we Buy Stuff.  And that it’s OK to do so – regularly, and without much thought.

If anything, that’s the bit I want to keep an eye on – because, I suspect, that argumentation will come up rather a lot this month.