The Husband groans every time some of my regular customers arrive at the market, bulging bag in hand and make a bee-line for me. I take great delight in these deliveries: they’re usually glass jars (and the odd bottle) that they have emptied and saved. Sometimes for me to refill or to fill afresh. Before I can use them, the labels must come off, the glue cleaned and the branded lids sprayed black. Jars and lids, from time to time cover entire surfaces – like the dining room table – as I clean, sort and save similar jars until I have enough of a particular size and shape for a batch of something.
Saving jars is not new. I’ve been doing it ever since I can remember and each time I’ve moved house, I’ve had to throw lots out. I hated doing it because it goes back to the days before recycling depots existed.
Newspaper, brown paper and string
I remember a time before polystyrene trays, cling wrap and plastic bags. My first memories of grocery shopping – my mother did a monthly shop – and everything came home in large, brown paper bags. Then, when I must have been about ten, the groceries started coming home in yellow and black plastic bags. They crinkled and squawked and just couldn’t keep quiet. Paper bags were much gentler on the ear and we folded them up to store for re-use – if they weren’t wet or torn. Actually, we seldom threw any paper away.
Newspapers were a fact of life: at least six, if not seven, days a week. They, too, were never thrown out after they’d been read. They piled up for lining the refuse bins, padding, packaging, cleaning windows and starting the fire. Newspaper is still the best thing for the final touch to the clearest, cleanest glass windows. Consequently, newspaper, because it’s so rare, is a precious commodity in The Sandbag House.
A trip to the butchery
When I was in primary school, my mother worked only in the mornings. The between-monthly-shops happened on a Thursday. One of these included a visit to the butchery. When we went with my mother, it was a highlight. The butcher, or Uncle Vic as we knew him, was a hulking Yorkshireman with a twinkle in his eye. The shop had large picture windows and if he was behind the counter – he usually was – by the time we were through the door, he was handing us kids, a Vienna sausage each. Yes, those red ones nobody admits to eating anymore and which they made in-house. We loved them and frequently embarrassed my mother by demanding our sausages if they didn’t appear in time. They came in long strings…and, in my opinion, made the best hot dogs.
That reminds me of my last birthday party at home and before I went to boarding school: it was in the early evening and my mother prepared hot dogs and home made tomato sauce for a hoard of 12 year old girls. A fond memory: more for the hot dogs and sauce than for the party, itself.
When I first moved to Johannesburg, and found an apartment, I had not a stick of furniture, let alone a fridge. Vegetables actually do manage to survive without a fridge and there was an old fashioned green grocer on my route home. I think that lovely old man was Spanish. I clearly remember his little shop: shelves filled with bunches of carrots, parsnips and spinach. Bins of potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions. Loose green peppers and tomatoes. I could buy one of each or ten. It didn’t matter.
He weighed my single sweet potato, two onions, a green pepper and three tomatoes on an old fashioned scale, and wrapped them in newspaper. The bunch of carrots – tops and all – were tied together with string as were the bunches of anything: spinach, turnips, whatever. Yes, then he put all my wares, so wrapped, into a plastic carrier bag for the walk home.
After all, it was 1986. A time when everyone bought and read newspapers and plastic bags were the best invention since sliced bread.
Compost, litter and plastic
Re-wind fifty-odd years to my first memory of living in a house. My parents built it, and the first part of the garden to be developed was the vegetable patch – with a compost heap – remember, me mentioning my father and the allotment? From then on, there was always a compost bowl. There still is. All vegetable peelings, egg shells, discarded leaves, stalks and the heel of the bread, all go into the compost bin en route to the compost heap.
When I have occasion to cook in someone else’s kitchen and there’s no compost bowl, it feels, to say the least, weird. Like something’s missing.
In the early days of my market journey I used quite a lot of single use plastic. I didn’t like it, but it was easily accessible (for me to buy or get delivered) and it was cheap. My soups and pâtês were all in plastic.
Shifting to glass
Then, three, going on four years ago (I’m not really sure because Covid’s screwed with my clock and my memory), I changed things. I realised that the market was a fixture in my life. I really wanted my products – my market presence – to reflect my concern for the planet. I knew that it was likely to cost me more because not only is glass (and metal for the lids) more expensive, but I’d have to factor in the cost of delivery. My little home industry would never qualify for a free delivery from a factory that routinely delivers to multinational breweries and wineries. I knew from a previous life, that even small businesses that would buy several hundred of an item, didn’t qualify.
I did a lot of homework: volume, shape and, of course, cost. I did spreadsheets. Thought, agonised and bothered The Husband with my thinking. I figured I could entice locals who bought, to return the jars and get a discount on their next purchase. I bit the bullet, ordered and around the time of the year that The Husband suggests we to review my costings, made the change.
As it turns out, not only do regular customers return the jars (locals and regular visitors alike), they bring more. There
has been another are some real advantages that I hadn’t expected: all the products last longer in glass.
Let me explain –
- Hot products bottled hot in sterile jars means they’re effectively “canned”. The shelf life of my chicken liver pâtê has almost doubled since I’ve been potting it. The soups that used to go into plastic, I now put into old mayonnaise and pickle jars. They’re also sterilised and I pour the soup into them when both they and the soup are hot. Then the lids go on. As they cool, as happens with the pâtê, the jars seal to form a vacuum.
- Cold products, like the salads or the curries that I sell and which have fresh leaves as accompaniments, also last longer. When I’ve not sold all the meals at the market, a week to ten days later, I’ve gingerly opened the jars to be
pleasantly supriseddelighted at how little the contents have deteriorated. We’ve eaten them with relish and they’ve saved me from cooking for more meal than one!
- Berries, like strawberries, also last longer in glass. Our strawberry patch is little and we have to compete with the birds for fruit. That means we must often save several pickings to have enough fruit for something meaningful. I rinse them, not just of the dirt they might have collected, but in vinegar and pop them in a jar and into the fridge. Again, and at the risk of repeating myself, they stay fresher than in plastic. Even Mr Tupper’s ware.
My awareness of the environment, as I’ve mentioned, goes back to my Dad. My Standard 8 (year 10) Geography teacher entrenched it. That year, 1978, I have distinctive memories of my first encounter with the greenhouse effect, heat (and pollution) domes as well as the danger of rising sea levels if the polar ice caps melt too much.
That’s how many years ago?
Nobody was listening. The world wasn’t listening. The energy crisis of the same era, rather like now, was an economic rather than environmental issue. Different from four decades ago, the energy crisis, certainly in South Africa, is partly being used as a way of introducing renewable sources of energy. That’s not enough.
Theoretically, the move away from fossil fuels would see the end of plastic. But would it? Nope. Plastic is recycled and in comparison with a standard human life, indestructible. And all the information about recycling is confusing. And plastic – even single use plastic – is incredibly useful. This Forbes article says it more eloquently and clearly than I ever could.
I am often freaked out and angry at the amount of plastic that finds its way into our home. It’s neither welcome nor do we have a choice. Products that used to reach the shelves in glass or tin, like Colman’s mustard- and baking powder, are in plastic containers. Finding loose, unwashed vegetables is well nigh impossible.
Did you know that unwashed potatoes last longer – especially kept in the dark under newspaper – than washed potatoes? They’re less likely to go green.
Often, there is more than one layer of packaging – polystyrene trays and cling wrap. Then there’s the vacuum packed (in plastic of course) product that’s wrapped – again – often gently laid on a polystyrene tray and smothered in cling wrap.
Speaking of which, did you know that if you instantly liberate the mushrooms from their plastic and polystyrene prison, and store them in a brown paper bag, they don’t go slimy, and last very well in the fridge?
This begs the question about what happens to the discarded packaging. Some of it goes into our recycling bins. Not all of it may: if it’s contaminated by food, it may not and ends up in landfill. And that’s the best option.
In my small corner
The magnitude of the problem compounded by how pervasive single use plastics are, might suggest that doing something it at an individual level is entirely futile. Sometimes I think it is. Then I think it isn’t.
I cannot not. It’s in my genes. In my quiet way, at the market, and as far as possible, I choose to use paper and glass. Sometimes, like with pickled fish, I have no choice and every time I make it for the market, I agonise. Jars, the right size for that product, would make it prohibitively expensive. One solution – for orders – is to ask customers to provide their own containers. I do. They do.
So, at the market, I pack bread, koeksisters and rolls in brown paper bags. If folk need a bigger bag for all their wares, they can buy a brown paper carrier. It’s all paper and entirely biodegradable. Better than that, it’s robust enough to use again. And again.
If folk say, “Oh, I love your packaging,” and ask why I use glass, I’ll tell them. It’s just my small bit in the quest to be plastic free.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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