The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

December 17, 2009

No Impact Man Ch 6 – 8: Plastic-Free Cheese, Saving Money, Living in the Dark

no_impact_man_bookAs always, the questions raised in my No Impact Man book posts are relevant to everyone whether they have read the book or not. Please join the discussion.

Two days ago I asked: Why are that the majority of Fake Plastic Fish readers female (according to Quantcast)? Reader “underbelly” responded with a theory of gender roles that are still promoted by the culture:

To me, the green-o-sphere seems to be dominated by people in charge of the domestic realm. And since gender disparity still overwhelmingly exists in things like parenting, cleaning, cooking, buying household items, etc., guess who reads more about non-toxic cookware?


Sure, [eco-men] out there, but as long as little girls help mommy cook during Thanksgiving while little boys watch football with daddy, there will always be this disparity.

Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man, happens to be one of those eco-men who defies gender stereotypes. In Chapter 6 of the book, he learns to diaper his daughter after deciding which type of diapering he feels is the most eco-friendly (cloth) and explores the world of local foods how to prepare them for his family. (He does all or most of the cooking.) He learns to purchase foods only from the local farmers market, sticking to what is in season and letting the availability of foods determine what he is going to cook, rather than the other way around?

Here are a few questions:

1) How many of us try to limit our diets to local foods — in whole or in part — and in so-doing, how many have had to learn to cook foods we might not have grown up with?

In our family, we have learned to appreciate cabbages, hardy greens, and various types of fruits we’d previously never bought, like persimmons and pomegranates. Granted, we live in the Bay Area where we have access to a wider variety of local foods all year round than much of the country. And as in Beavan household, Michael does a lot more cooking than I do.

2) What kinds of plastic packaging do you see at your farmers market and have you ever discussed this issue with the vendors?

Beavan is able to buy more types of plastic-free foods at his NY farmers markets than I have been able to. I have to pass up tofu packaged in sealed plastic containers, grains in sealed plastic bags, nuts, dried fruits, and local meats also sealed up in plastic. The hardest thing for me is the cheese. Beavan was able to purchase cheese without plastic:

Before the local eating phase, I hadn’t been able to find acceptable cheese because it all came wrapped in plastic. Not here. They cut the cheese from hunks and wrap it in paper. To do them one better, in front of a cheese-maker who keeps pasture-fed cows, I self-consciously pull out my own muslin cloth, to avoid the paper. ‘That’s what we all used to do,: the vendor says appreciatively.’

Unfortunately, our local cheese vendor, Springhill Cheese Company, sells all of their cheese in heavy plastic shrink wrap. My goal is to find out the name of Beavan’s cheese vendor and contact them to learn how they manage to bring cheese to market in bulk, keeping it fresh, without wasting cheese, so that I can use them as an example when I ask Springhill to do the same thing. I’ve already contacted one who is going to get back to me after the holidays. I’ll keep you posted.

On a positive note, our Temescal Farmers Market is banning plastic bags beginning in January, as I wrote in a post back in September.

3) What benefits have you personally gained from eating locally?

In Chapter 7, the family cuts out all new purchases, except for food, underwear, and socks. Beavan’s wife Michelle learns to “shop her closet” and to find clothing at second-hand stores. She’s also able to give up addictions to material things that she had been using to distract herself from the difficult moments of life. But what the family also discovers is that after the “No Trash,” “No Carbon-Producing Transportation,” and “Local Foods” phases of the project, there was very little they could buy in the first place.

Living the Fake Plastic Fish No Plastic project has had the same effect on me. Plastic is so ubiquitous in our world that it’s very difficult to buy anything not encased in the stuff. Or made out of the it.

4) How has making one lifestyle change indirectly led to other changes in your life, whether additional benefits to the planet or to your own mental and physical well-being?

Giving up plastic means I eat fewer processed foods, for one thing. It also means I have to be much more mindful of the purchases I do make. I can’t live as unconsciously as I did before.

Beavan goes on to question our negative attitude towards materialism, explaining that if we perhaps valued the material world a bit more, we’d be less inclined to create trash, buy and toss, pursue or disposable lifestyles.

In fact, I wrote a post on this very subject two years ago.

5) Has learning to live more sustainably given you a stronger appreciation for the physical objects that pass through your life? In what ways?

In Chapter 8, Colin’s family turns off the electricity. It’s a radical step, and he knows it. In fact, he wonders if he’ll be considered a fringe wacko for doing such a thing and undermine the goals of the environmental movement. After all, everyone’s not going to live in the dark.

But finally, he realizes that the project is an experiment to see just how much we can live without. To find out what works and what doesn’t. And he decides that rather than being someone who simply gives up in the face of immense opposition, he wants to be the type of person who is at least willing to try something new. He tells the story of Zen monk who decides that world peace would be created if he could get all the world’s religious leaders together in a hot tub. And he decides that the best person to approach first is the Pope. He travels to Rome and presents his petition to the ranks of Catholic leaders until be gets to a particular cardinal who finally nixes the whole idea. Beavan writes:

But why this story gets told again and again in the Zen school is because of the sheer “just try” energy of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s approach. It suggests that instead of trying to save the world by sitting around figuring out the best course of action, we should just start trying to save the world. If we all just start trying from where we are, even if some of us fail, one of us or a couple of thousand of us will cross the finish line and get the job done.

6) Have you ever taken on a seemingly insurmountable task simply with the idea of trying to make a difference? How do we feel when we come up against opposition and how many of us are willing to persevere in the face of that?

I believe that all of us are making a difference in the world as it is right now by living our lives out in the open and (to quote what has become a cliche at this point) being the change we want to see in the world. And facing challenges can only make us better humans, even if our objectives are not met. None of our efforts are wasted if we learn from them.


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13 years ago

Beth: I want to tell you that I finally bought plastic free cheese. It is from Europe (Italy I think) from happy cows and wrapped in wax. It was gigantic hunk of cheese. And since I bought the entire damn thing I got 10% off in discount. So it pays off twice. The cheese guy wanted to still wrap it in something and I had to insist that the wax was plenty of covering.

I came into sustainability via personal finance. It is an obsession I have, thinking about money. The intersection between money, the planet and our own happiness is something many people encounter in some form or the other. For me I began cooking from scratch to save money (it wasn’t for the midway island birds or anything else). Then once I began cooking from scratch my palate became refined and I began seeking better quality raw ingredients, stumbled upon Pollan’s writings and wham! I turned into a locavore. I am not 100% locavore, but I eat very ethically – fair trade, organic and so on. Aside from coffee and chocolate I do eat all meals in season.

A few months ago, your last question would have had me answering “no”. But now…I have started a seemingly insurmountable task.I want the entire city of San Diego to be car-free. And I have complete confidence because by the time I reach the end of my lifetime, that will be the reality. But I’d like people to transition voluntarily. So I have no worries about detractors and so on. :)

Benefits from eating locally….I realize how my money impacts my economy in a very real way. Even when I buy non food items I make sure it is manufactured in the US. I don’t want the country I’ve made my home to go down the toilet. I would like the guy in Ohio who made my utensils to be employed and happy.

13 years ago

When I lived in the UK, I used to buy cheese from a vendor at the farmers market that brings almost everything uncut. I’d just put the cheese in my own container. I did that dozens of times and never had any problems.

I’ve spoken with one of the cheese vendors at my farmers market in Washington DC. They bring everything pre-cut and wrapped in plastic. He said that it is logistically unfeasible to cut the cheese on site because the market gets very busy. He didn’t mention anything regarding contamination.

13 years ago

I wonder if doing the right thing or being oblivious is better.

As we all should know, fisheries are in dire straits because of overfishing. I found a nice recipe for Halibut and went to the store to get some. Only frozen was available and it was $15 a pound on sale. I was happy to see it because finally the cost of overfishing is hitting home. It astounds me that the price of tuna remains so low.

Prices go up and people stop buying regardless of their attitude toward the environment. Doing the right thing by not buying things that are directly or indirectly bad for the environment does not help to drive up their prices.

Kiwi fruit is available regularly here for $1 a pair. I’ve been watching the labels and they change from New Zealand to Italy to wherever the crop is coming in, always somewhere far from here, yet it is cheap. That is only because oil is cheap and that will eventually change.

Plastic is a different matter because no matter how much we use, it will always be cheap to make. Low prices can so easily overcome reservations about a purchase.

My point is that good intentions can only go so far and they do not cause prices to rise. Price increases have a huge impact. So maybe this is a rationalization for “enjoy it while you can”?

Kyce at Old Recipe
13 years ago

On the question of gender: It was my husband that first had the idea of going plastic free. It seemed impossible to me at first, but the momentum carried us into our new life. We’ve been figuring out how to do this for several months now, cutting back and learning to provide for ourselves. On Jan first we begin our vow to buy no new plastic. Because almost all of our plastic use is linked to food, it’s been up to me (the housewife) to figure out how to cook whole foods, make yogurt and bread and all the other things we now eat. My husband does milk goats once a week at a local milking co-op, which is a huge help.

We joined a CSA, and have been loving it even in the depths of winter. They do use a fair amount of plastic bags to divvy up the food, but we are talking to them about going back to just bringing in boxes of food for individuals to separate.

In response to the Xmas tree question, in the West it’s very green to get a permit from the forest service to cut a small tree, reducing the density of overgrown forests. I couldn’t post this to the discussion for some reason, but wanted to chime in. On my blog I also shared our solution: A hanging wreath of evergreen branches we cut ourselves and decorated like a mobile. Pictures at

Cheers, Kyce

13 years ago

A while back I came across an old photo of a child processing food of some sort with a wood stove in the background. The caption told me that he was stringing up green for drying on a rack like a clothes dryer, behind him in the photo. It had never occurred to me that people dried greens for the winter. But I dry leeks, and celery tops, and all kinds of teas, so why not arugula, or kale?
Now, I rely on frozen vegetables (some from my garden, some from my coop) a lot in the winter, plus squashes and other produce that keeps well like potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips. But if I had to give up electricity… hmm…

When I was a kid and we were too poor to make our fridge work – I forget why, maybe electricity, or it was broken – I kept a breadbox full of food out on a plank outside the kitchen window.

I want to start a community free school called Old School where we can teach and learn to preserve our local foods, package without plastic, live well with less that we love all the more for it.

BTW, if you want to make your own shampoo, here I am making it on Global TV on the 6 o’clock news: Handmade Gift video…

Cheese, as I know from my food coop, can get contaminated very easily. Cheese cutting equipment must stay very clean, and handlers must also be very clean. We would like to think anyone serving food it as clean as need be for cheese. I can see how producers would be afraid to not enclose everything in plastic. Consumers blame producers if the food goes off, food is discarded past best before dates and stores must take returns on items that are spoiled. I bet that 9 out of 10 cases of spoilage are from improper handling. When I dispense body products I have made into the client’s own container, my guarantee of shelf life ends there, because I don’t know how they’ve cleaned the container.

What I am saying is that we as a society need to become re-educated about how to live – re-informed about how people used to do it.

13 years ago

If I bought only local grown foods right now (-40 C for the better part of 2 weeks here in Mid-western Canada) I’d eat … maybe some red/green/yellow peppers, yougurt and cheese. Not even any hardy winter crops are done locally. There is no farmer’s market in the winter. And I have little interest in doing enough to sustain food even part of the year (my mom does and feeds us her extras which isVERY nice).

I do what I can. Taking my own bags, using cloth produce bags, buying less- in order to reduce waste. But sometimes, when I”m at the store, I feel like i am alone in the fight.

13 years ago

I went to home depot last weekend and brought home 4 cans of paint on the metro, does that count as an insurmountable task? :-)

Actually, it was one of the rare occasions that made me think car ownership might be a good idea – until I thought about it and realized I actually just needed to plan better. Bring a sturdy bag to carry the paint in (yea I know, no bag, I’m nuts) or a friend to help or use my Zipcar membership, instead of just hopping on the metro and going to buy paint. Really heavy paint.

Oh from my attempts to eat more seasonally (if not necessarily locally) I found out how much I love butternut squash. Huge benefit.