The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

February 27, 2014

Is It Cheating to Stock up on Restaurant Burritos?

So, I’ve talked and written a lot about how Americans seem to be addicted to the convenience that plastic packaging affords us. I know I sure was… eating frozen microwavable meals in plastic trays, energy bars in plastic wrappers, and water in plastic bottles. But I need to confess something. Just because I gave up plastic doesn’t mean I am not above a little convenience. It’s just that now, my idea of convenience looks like this:


Instead of this:



While most days, I eat whole foods that I prepare myself, and I pack homemade lunches in reusable tiffins and jars, I still like to stock up on plain foil-wrapped bean and cheese burritos from Cactus Taqueria, a local restaurant in my neighborhood.


I bring them home (in my reusable bag) and store them in the freezer for those days when all I have time to do is grab something as I’m heading out the door and pop it in the microwave at work.  (Of course, I remove the aluminum foil first!)

Still… I sometimes feel guilty about this reliance on “convenience foods,” especially because I know that even though I’m not bringing home any plastic, the restaurant used plenty of it.  You can’t exactly cite your “Don’t ask; don’t tell” policy when the plastic tortilla bags are in plain view.



I put this question to my friend Danielle Richardet, the awesome plastic-free blogger I wrote about in September who makes her own tortillas from scratch.   I can’t find the conversation in my email or text messages, so I’ll try to paraphrase what she said.  It was something about how you can try to be perfect, but there’s really no such thing, and sometimes you have to settle for “better” and be okay with that.

The reality is that there is a lot of hidden plastic that we inadvertently consume every day simply by being alive in this modern age.  If you ever eat in a restaurant, you consume plastic.  If you buy anything from a store, you consume plastic… even if you buy it from a bulk bin.  Because often, the foods in the bulk bins come shipped in great big plastic bags.  And even if they weren’t, there was probably some plastic involved in growing the food in the first place.  Organic farmers may have used plastic sheeting to keep out the weeds.

The idea of living a plastic-free life is not to become so perfect at avoiding plastic that you feel smug about yourself.  Realizing just how unavoidable plastic is when you really trace back the life cycle of a product can wipe that smug grin off your face and provide a humbling perspective.  Our personal actions DO make a difference, though.  I know it can be tempting to say, “Oh, the problem is so big, I might as well give up.”  Don’t.

Danielle posted a powerful quote from Gandhi on her blog last week.  It expresses what I tell myself (albeit much more elegantly) whenever I start to feel like my personal actions don’t matter.

It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.

So, we just have to keep trying to do the best we can.  Because it matters.  And sometimes, our best is a handmade organic burrito from Cactus Taqueria that is wrapped in foil instead of plastic and stored in the freezer beside the homemade cat food and farmers market kale.  Right?

In what ways do you settle for “good” instead of “perfect”?  And are you able to give yourself a break?



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7 years ago

Restaurant food is loaded with sodium, fats, and oils. Cheese is not vegan. It seems like the “zero waste” and un-plastic gurus are still eating animal products. The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change, so this baffles me. You’re okay with eating animals and contributing to climate change on that scale as long as the animals are wrapped in foil?

It is so easy to make home-made burritos with whole unprocessed foods that don’t include unhealthy ingredients. It also doesn’t take a lot of time. Plus unless you rode a bicycle or walked to the restaurant, you have to factor in the greenhouse gases of your car.

I guess the cognitive dissonance of being only against plastic isn’t making much sense to me, since you allow for other climate change inducing behaviors, like eating animals and driving a car.

8 years ago

Hi, I have a question: is it healthy to store food in foil paper in the freezer ?

9 years ago

I make my own frozen burritos. I make a half-day of it and cook all the ingredients (steamed kale, homemade spanish rice and refried beans, maybe some king oyster fakon, seasonal veggies, salsa, enchilada sauce, roasted potatoes/homemade tempeh sausage/scrambled eggz, etc) and set them out on my kitchen table and make each one different so I don’t get bored. Freeze on a baking sheet until solid, then pack in an airtight container. Super convenient, and I know where everything came from! Just make sure all the fillings are room temperature or warm before wrapping.

5 years ago
Reply to  SarahGiraffe

Thank you for sharing, SarahGiraffe!

9 years ago

I know this feeling all too well living as a vegan. In the same way it’s impossible to indirectly avoid dealing with plastic, it’s impossible to indirectly avoid dealing with animal products. But we all do the best that we can. It’s not about perfection. That will only drive a person crazy.

9 years ago

What about those stackable Pyrex glass dishes you can use in oven or freezer? (They do have plastic lids, but I had to start somewhere.) You can get them in a set on Amazon, some round, some rectangular. I don’t know how to put a link in, sorry.

9 years ago

abzarndt With feelin’…

9 years ago

As always, a thoughtful and inspirational post, with thoughtful and inspirational responses. The Gandhi quote is wonderful, and speaks so beautifully on the topics of doing our dharma and offering service. If we cannot walk the path with love then what is the point. If we become eco-perfectionist-terrorists (to others as well as to ourselves!), then haven’t we missed something? I find with many things in my life I move and change in stages. I make changes and leaps forward, and then I plateau off. Sometimes I even take a few steps back, only to move forward again when I am ready and able. As many others have mentioned, our choices send out ripples that effect the world around us. Even if one of us was able to in some way embody this idea we have of “perfection,” it would not save the world. But when many of us can keep coming together and informing and inspiring each other, well then, we become a movement, a wave of change. So if you’ll indulge me here for a moment, I am inspired to share this little bit of the lyrics at the end of Arlo Guthrie’s song Alice’s Restaurant:

And friends, somewhere in Washington enshrined in some little folder, is
a study in black and white of my fingerprints. And the only reason I’m
singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar
situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a
situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk
into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get
anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if
one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and
they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony,
they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.
And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in
singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s
an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said
fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and
walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.
And that’s what it is , the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacre Movement,
and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it come’s around
on the guitar.

GO Box Scott
9 years ago

Thanks, Beth, for the imagery and the Gandhi quote. There’s also an option for hot take-out burritos that does not require packaging waste: GO Box. It started in Portland a few years ago and is now available in Sacramento, too.

Joe KomaGawa
9 years ago

Oh, I like your comment from Gandhi. I will remember that.

Joe KomaGawa
9 years ago

I am sorry this is off point. I just found your blog from On point NPR adio program
Recently I was disheartened to see that the various McDonalds here in my area of Japan, no longer really separate paper from plastic. Sure they keep the separate bins, but when the employee comes to take it all out, it all goes into the same bag. there is a small town not too far from here which used to do 23 separations of household waste. they became famous. that’s a bit much. they have these huge folders for the separation instructions….well I doubt they are still doing that. In our neighborhoods we do 3 kinds of plastic separations, pick ups on 3 different days, but as I have discussed this with my wife, we really doubt that they spend the time in separation of these separations. the problem is that houselholds don’t rigorously separate, and some do none. Oh they have to put their waste into the right colored plastic bags’ or be too obvious about their carelessness, or they can or they won’t get picked up.
Plastics in our lives as you have described are simply overwhelming. We are just now having a small wave of people bringing their own plastic bags to the supermarkets, and getting a 2 yen discount.

9 years ago

I have found that finding perfect replacements are difficult at times. We occasionally do take out when we are exhausted, with its trail of plastic, poor treatment of employees, and rain forest destruction, and though I’ve trained DH to refuse a straw, a milkshake in plastic sometimes makes it into our home, as do condiments. The condiments I make DH’s problem (take to work) in hopes he’ll refuse in the future, but the plastic cup and the GUILT :((
If it were just me, I’d jump at the choice of a frozen burrito, wrapped in foil, from a local shop.
One of the great aspects of your blog is offering reasonable, realistic alternatives for us: I’ve worked my way through plastic > ceramic > pyrex storage containers. None are sustainable, as I’m learning, having broken my *third* pyrex container. BUT, next will convert [more] to stainless steel, per your review. At least with those, it’s “just” the gasket that won’t be recyclable should I destroy them as well!
We are all still a Work in Progress.
Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Abhishek Gupta
9 years ago

Taking an extreme position to begin with is always a sure shot recipe for failure, instead if one sets up sub-systems that will eventually lead to the goal that is always going to yield results. NO PLASTIC is a goal that can end up being frustrating and eventually not worth the fight for many. Its similar to adopting Sunipod. Reduction in grid dependence is a better system to have than having a goal of absolute grid freedom in one shot. Which one’s more sustainable?

Without Conclusion
9 years ago

Before you settle for plastic first find out which ones are the worst. I was watching democracy now and I was disgusted by the fact that the industries and the government are hiding just how dangerous plastic really is. Here is the link:

9 years ago

I was REALLY getting good at eliminating plastic from our lives two years ago, and then I got to a point where I was overwhelmed. I am a homeschooling mom of 4, and was struggling with some health issues, and I realized I just did not have the time/energy/brainpower to try to be “perfect” with living plastic-free. I realized specifically that for this season in life, I had to make a choice–I was totally stressed all the time from trying to be ‘perfect” in all these different areas of life, and I was particularly weighed down by plastic “guilt,” and found myself even crying at times when I tried and then still failed (like when I would request no plastic at a restaurant and they would still bring it to me, and it was too late to take it back, they would just have to throw it in the trash anyway, etc.). In other words, I was living under legalism, and it was not healthy.
So I decided I had to let plastic go, for a time. I chose to let the plastic-free focus go, and just focus on feeding my family healthily (this was right around the same time that I was learning about GMO & other harmful food issues, so chose to train myself to feed my family without those & other harmful foods first, and then when I could, get back to the low-plastic focus).
I felt badly about that, but let it go. And just the other day I realized that I *still* have been making a positive impact, even if not perfectly. The first light bulb came on when my Mother In Law was visiting and asked for some cling wrap. I got out the one roll I still have, and she exclaimed in shock at how old it was. She knew because it was from Costco, and apparently they have not sold this kind for several years now. And it hit me–I have been “using” the same roll of cling wrap for years! And then a few weeks back I ran out of ziplock baggies–again, an old Costco supply I bought before trying to limit single-use plastics. I realized not only how long I had those, but also how well we do without them in our home. (I find the times I “need” plastic wrap or baggies are when I am dealing with giving things to other people and must meet some requirement of theirs–at home we do without them just fine)
So, those realizations left me feeling much better. I am not doing things as I wish I could, but I am doing so much better than most people (I am continually shocked at how most people are STILL not informed about the harm of plastics or GMOs!) and that is good enough for now. : )
Thank you for the reminder, Beth, that plastic free is a lifestyle choice that is good for everyone, and something to achieve for, but not something to be smug about or to lord over others. Blessings to you!

9 years ago

So true! I keep wanting to buy the bamboo toothbrushes I saw online (probably recommended on here) but our dentist always gives us free toothbrushes at our visits, so I keep sticking with the FREE plastic ones. Ah, maybe one day…

9 years ago

I think it is wise to embrace the concept of “better”! I am on my first steps on the plastic free journey and for now I am aiming to reduce, rather than eliminate. I shall do my best of course, but am finding that truly plastic-free stuff can be prohibitively expensive (think artisan, craft etc) and not always suitable for my family’s and my needs. I am exploring ways to live with less and less plastic even as you say I am aware that probably whatever I buy was wrapped in plastic at source. But “better” is better than nothing! Keep up the good and inspiring work!

Anna@Green Talk
9 years ago

Beth, I think you have to make choices and your choices are so admirable. It is better to eat healthy in my opinion than fret about some of the waste that you are indirectly causing. No one is perfect. Ecocat lady nailed this response.

Nancy Nathan Baldwin
9 years ago

Ive been buying frozen veggies. BUT in my defense the packaging can be thrown in the compost :) But still.

9 years ago

EcoCatLady Well put! (:

9 years ago

When I was travelling recently, I thought about this a lot too. Normally I eat home-made food, so can control the amount of plastic I use. However, eating out comes with a hidden plastic consumption. I wonder if there is a Plastic-Free restaurant anywhere?

Tracey TieF
9 years ago

After a talk this week by Jon Young, I walked my bike to the subway with a client who is becoming a friend. She told me what an inspiration I was to her and what about me had helped her change to a life less plastic. I thought about your column on that, Beth. She said that seeing me make choices inspired her. I thought that making those options available to others made a difference (teaching, selling alternatives to plastics, refilling body care products etc.
As a seller of bulk things, it is the exception to receive bulk items NOT wrapped in plastic. It is telling that I can name what I didn’t receive in plastic (even if it was inside a cardboard box): soap nuts that I negotiated to send me in a burlap sack which I had to send her, paper-wrapped toilet paper, and African Black Soap which came delightfully wrapped in kraft paper inside a cardboard box. Glass bottles? In #4 plastic. Except for the case packs directly from the manufacturer come to think of it! Ceramic filters? In plastic. Stainless Steel Lunch boxes? In plastic. Glass jars? In that super useless filmy plastic that’s always broken open anyhow. But zinc oxide, salts and baking soda are in double walled paper. That the supplier then wraps in ultra thin plastic.
I’ve had requests to not package in plastic from suppliers go horribly wrong. One family business that makes totally not plastic items told me I was forcing her to be more wasteful by not wanting each item separately zip lock bagged. To prove her point, she uses crap loads of bubble wrap that she tells me she had to buy new. Another supplier responded to my request to reduce the plastic wrapping by putting my hundreds of glass jars in filmy ultra thing plastic bags and dumping them in giant overweight boxes with some packing peanuts. So unpacking these is a dangerous mess of reaching into the packing peanuts and picking out broken glass. It’s awful, and I am sure they are packing this stupidly just to punish me for asking. Of course, the breakage is my fault because I requested low plastic.
So on that Mercury Retrograde inspired note, I want to conclude that I agree: we do our best, we aim to consume less, and if everyone else got on board, we might be able to turn things around. Buying from bulk bins doesn’t mean NO plastic, but it means the plastic burden is shared with many. That’s better.

9 years ago

Totally in touch with this emotion right now – in fact I just wrote a long rambling guilt post about my most recent eco-sins. The conversation that it generated gave me some food for thought.

The reality is that what we as individuals do is much less important than what “everybody” does. So a big portion of our job as environmentalists is to try to encourage and inspire other people to follow our lead.

But when we cross the line from responsible living to self-imposed misery, I think we do more harm than good to our own cause. If the picture we paint is one of deprivation and suffering for the sake being more “righteous” we’re pretty likely to turn people off from wanting to join us – and we’re even likely to give ammunition to folks who oppose our views.

Sustainability has to be sustainable for the people too. And people have to live within the realities of the societies that surround them.

That doesn’t mean we should give up, but it does mean that we should give ourselves a break when it comes to eco-perfectionism. If everybody on earth lived 1% more sustainably it would have vastly more impact than a few of us hanging ourselves on a sustainably harvested, organically grown, locally produced, plastic-free cross.

9 years ago

SweaterDoll Well said.

9 years ago

This doesn’t answer your question (thinking ’bout it) but KUDOS for buying local!

Danielle Richardet
9 years ago

Will do. Btw… when I was searching my texts first, I was busting up laughing at so many of our conversations. #thanksformakingmesmile

Beth Terry
9 years ago

Dude, send it to me!

9 years ago

The nature of living on this planet, even if we were naked and running through the jungles laughing and playing, is that we cause harm as well as benefit. Picking fruit and vegetables, we harm bugs. Ploughing fields we disrupt tiny habitats. We can minimize our impact but we will always be participating in some kind of harm inadvertently. It’s part of living, that everything is fleeting, including life. The very best we can do is respect life, love each other, and do our very best.

9 years ago

So true – I’m not perfect, but I let that be OK. I let the slip ups, or the ‘easier’ option sneak in. Fresh berries would be 4-8x frozen at the store, and I’m sorry, I just can’t accept the costs (when most fresh STILL come in punnents, vs bags, so plastic or plastic!?)
But every time I whip out the bamboo fork instead of a single use plastic one, it’s a start. It won’t change the world today, but it is a small step in the right direction.

Sheri Puckette
9 years ago

That looks like a nice way to handle convenience food! Yes, you could make your own tortillas…but we all have to decide what we can handle with our own personal schedules/lives. In our culture it is extremely difficult to avoid ALL plastic (as you say, even bulk comes in plastic wrap to the store). I feel guilt about still using plastic at times in the freezer, for space reasons. My round freezer jars take up more space than stacked, flat frozen ziplocks. So I prioritize, putting fatty foods in the glass and easy to wash out/reuse things, like blueberries, kale or peas, into bags. Then wash/reuse them many times over.

Danielle Richardet
9 years ago

Beth, this post is awesome. Of course, (challenge accepted!) you know I found our conversation! ;) A LONG email chain in June on my birthday! I think you captured perfectly what I said and always say. xx

Beth Terry
9 years ago

Danielle Richardet I tried to quote you, but I couldn’t find the conversation. I think it might have been in a Words With Friends game. :-) I used your Gandhi quote here as well.

9 years ago

I agree that we have to keep trying to do the best we can. I think that kind of mindset is what will ultimately convince people to start trying to cut down on plastic and waste in general. Instead of putting pressure on people to be perfect and generate no waste, it helps them see that it is a journey instead :) I always say that ANY reduction in plastic/waste is a good reduction.