When I was a kid, dinner was three or four veg, and, of course, the ‘main event’ – a pork chop, a piece of chicken, a fish or whatever. The only thing that came into our house in plastic was yogurt – six little tubs stuck together. The vegetables were peeled and chopped before dinner, the meat was fresh from the butcher or fish shop, the bread was still warm from the ovens of our local bakery, in its brown paper bag. Even the milk came, delivered to the door, in glass bottles. How all that has changed. And, in terms of our health and the disaster we’ve very evidently made of our environment – not for the better.
When did the natural, local, seasonal ‘normal food’ that I grew up on get re-branded as ‘organic produce’, with an inflated price tag that my mother wouldn’t have been able to afford, while ultra-processed food, bearing a sizeable paragraph of scientific-sounding ingredients printed in small text on the back of the plastic packet, become ‘normal ‘food’ instead ?
When I was a teenager, ordering a ‘sandwich’ meant getting your pick of fillings between two slices of fresh bread – cut into little triangles if the place was fancy. Now, the default setting seems to be for them to put the sandwich into a sandwich press and serve it hot, whether you wanted it that way or not. Scones and apple pie are served straight out of the microwave – the pastry and dough most often turned into a warm, gluggy mess, without any consideration about whether you might have preferred them cold. It’s not just a personal taste issue. Picture, for a moment, the number of microwaves and ovens being fired up across the nation in cafes, restaurants and hotels to impose heated goods on hapless customers as we grapple with an energy and climate crisis. Might it be that sandwiches are toasted and the apple pies heated because they are not as fresh as they should be? We’ve all learned the trick of reviving stale bread by popping it in an oven.
And then there are teabags. How many cups of tea are drunk in Ireland each day? Well, somebody did the research and it’s 19.6 million. That’s 19,600,000 cups of tea – an average of 4-5 for each living soul on the island. Multiply it out to get an annual figure and it’s a whopping 7.15 billion cups of tea. That’s a cuppa for everybody on planet earth, consumed just in Ireland in a year. When I was a teenager, that would have been one hell of a lot of compost for the roses. But it can’t go on the roses these days, can it? Because most teabags have plastic particles.
Loose tea has to be of a certain quality. But put it in a teabag, and you can get away with using the broken leaves. Paper teabags burst easily, but by adding some plastic, they become much stronger and, therefore, no longer compostable. Perhaps more concerning are the number of peer-reviewed studies on the plastics in teabags that have found worrying results. A chap called Hernandez, and his fellow scientific team, investigated the release of microplastics and nanoplastics from tea bags during brewing. They found that “all of the tea bags released microplastics and nanoplastics into the water, with some releasing up to 16.2 billion particles per bag”. However, with our fast, disposable, convenience-focussed lifestyles, we’re too busy to water roses, and teabags are easier to pop into the trash where the problem of how to dispose of them is taken away each week and we don’t have to face it. In fact, 97% of us use teabags instead of good, old honest, better quality loose tea. So more than 115 square kilometres of paper – often with plastic particles – is used each year so we don’t have to use a spoon and risk spilling a few tea leaves on our counter tops. That’s enough paper to gift-wrap the city of Venice and enough micro and nanoplastic particles to make me wonder about what it might be doing to our health. Cancer cases in Ireland, for example, were 169 per 100,000 in 1960. In 2017 that had more than doubled to 372 per 100,000. I’m just saying… And don’t even get me started on the little plastic coffee pods for those who are too lazy to grind or have not yet mastered the fine are of extracting a spoonful of coffee from a jar.
The climate crisis is no longer a warning from scientists. We’ve missed that boat. We are now watching lives being torn apart by climate related disasters and even in the coastal village beside where I live, astronomical tides – the likes of which I’ve never seen in years living here – engulfed cars parked in a normally-safe beachfront parking spot. The water was splashing over window level. I don’t know about you, reading this, but to me the way forward is clear. It’s the way back. My average day, as a teenager, involved getting up, having a breakfast of porridge or soda bread with fresh poached eggs, then cycling or walking to wherever I had to go. One of the family would pick up fresh food for that day’s dinner and then we’d spend time, usually with other family members, preparing it – the only waste being organic peelings and paper wrappings. We’d sit together and chat about our day, our plans, our lives. Nowadays the equivalent meal is 52% ultra processed and leaves trail of plastic packaging that fills bin loads in each home each week. It has probably been purchased days before at a ‘weekly shop’ which stuffs up energy-guzzling fridges and freezers because there was a ‘3 for the price of 2’ sale on microwave dinners or ready-made frozen pizzas. Many homes have invested in American Supersized Fridges, these days – not only to accommodate the weekly shop, but because they hold more fridge magnets to keep more take-away menus within easy reach.
I guess what I’m strongly suggesting here, is that we need to hit the ‘reset’ button.
Let’s face it, when we started getting a few bob in Ireland, the idea of dirty, muddy vegetables that might, heavens forbid, have a snail on them, seemed to remind us too much of our poor rural past and the shadow of the Great Famine. With our booming economy, we were way too sophisticated for that. Six lovely tomatoes – all the same size and shape and presented in a nice plastic packet, that could be stacked, neatly, on top of the plastic tub of dairy-free spread and processed cheese slices, was much more convenient than misshapen dirty ones that didn’t last a fraction of the time that the pretty ones in the tray did. Admittedly, they were a bit tasteless, but that’s what the plastic squeezy tubes of ketchup, mustard and mayo were for. After all, the picture-perfect people in the TV ads put their successful lives down to a whole range of foods with yummy-sounding names. There wasn’t a single ad telling you that your life would be better with ‘a head of lettuce from Joe’s garden’ or ‘a few tomatoes from your neighbour’s greenhouse’. So, I suggest, as a result, we’ve become a nation who get more of our calories from plastic packets with fancy names and long lists of ingredient we don’t understand. Then we wonder why we’re struggling with our weight. So we buy a gym membership and use diesel, petrol or electricity to drive the few kilometres so that we can walk a few kilometres on a treadmill that’s powered by more energy. Feeling like we’ve achieved something, we reward ourselves with a caffe-frappe-machiato-latte-cino in a disposable plastic-infused paper cup that we feel smug about using because – although trees have been chopped and fuel used to manufacture it – it says ‘compostable’ on the lid. And we present at the doctors because we’re feeling anxious, ill and stressed, we find that we’re allergic or intolerant to the foods in our 52% ultra processed diet and that, for some reason, we’re deficient in many of the nutrients that we should have. But the same people making a lot of money from selling us sanitised, genetically modified and processed versions of what we used to pick from the earth, have an answer for that. You can buy little plastic tubs of all the stuff that you’re no longer getting naturally from your diet.
So, that’s what led me to make the TV series ‘Romancing Ireland’ and, from that, to get involved with others to launch the CASK – Climate Aware Seasonal Kitchen, project. The website is here: https;//caskproject.eu and the full six episodes of the Romancing Ireland series is here: https://caskproject.eu/?page_id=635
My rant is over. I’ll stop writing now. But I’ll leave you with this suggestion. We need to reset.
“Tea in a healthy balanced diet: fact or fiction? Tea Advisory Panel, 2018
Tufenkji, N., Chen, H., & Dénommée, C. (2019). Are There Plastic Particles in Tea? Assessment of Tea Bags and Tea Filters Made of Paper, Nylon, and PLA and Their Release of Micro- and Nano-sized Particles. Environmental Science & Technology, 53(21), 12300–12310. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b02540
Hernandez, L.M., Xu, E.G., & Larsson, H.C.E. (2019). Microplastics in tea: estimation of mass loading and particle numbers. Environmental Science & Technology, 53(21), 12300-12310. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b02540
Turner, A., Lewis, M., & Galloway, T. (2020). The impact of microplastics in food and beverages on human health. The Royal Society of Chemistry. doi: 10.1039/D0EN00400J
Vethaak, A.D., Leslie, H.A., Brandsma, S.H., van Velzen, M.J.M., & van der Meulen, M.D. (2019). Microplastics in seafood and the implications for human health. Current Environmental Health Reports, 6(4), 325-335. doi: 10.1007/s40572-019-00245-9