Even as cooks grow more conscious of the environmental impacts of their own kitchens, some eco-unfriendly habits remain hard to break. Cheap and convenient, plastic wrap, unfortunately, does its job well. You’ll find it littered throughout recipes to wrap foods for later, cover a bowl of dough, lay atop a dish to microwave it and more.
How did it even get into our kitchens? Plastic wrap went from a World War II item for safeguarding planes from water damage to a must-have kitchen item for the “modern” 1950s housewife. Once discarded, it spends the rest of its life, like other plastics, stubbornly resisting the process of breaking down.
Its design, said food historian Ken Albala, made it “the dominant form of plastic in the kitchen from the ’50s.” Unlike previously opaque packaging materials, plastic wrap was clear, so you could see how fresh something was before buying or unwrapping it. It was also far more malleable than clear cellophane, which couldn’t stick to surfaces or itself, and allowed air to pass through.
Original marketing for plastic wrap hinged on fear, Albala said. “The way they really sold it was by frightening people that bacteria would grow on your food and this was more hygienic and cleaner.” And so, “In a decade people went from never using any kind of plastic wrap to suddenly saying: ‘This is something I have to have in my kitchen. Life cannot go on without this or I’m going to kill my family.’ “
Albala said that plastic wrap and products like it are all about convenience: “If you look at the values of the consumers in the ’50s and ’60s, anything that made their life easier and that all their neighbors were using, why would you do anything else?”
These days plastic wrap has product alternatives. With increased consumer concerns about the environment, a quick internet search will lead you to new products such as stretchy, washable silicone bowl covers; popular beeswax-coated cloth from companies like Beeswrap or Abeego; mixing bowls with matching lids; a dishwasher-safe microwave cover to stop the splatter; even brand new Compostic wrap, a plastic wrap alternative that claims to decompose in 12 to 24 weeks without leaving toxins behind.
You may not even need a new product. Look around your kitchen for items you may already have, such as compostable parchment paper, and think about making small tweaks to your kitchen practices, whether that means setting a plate on a bowl before microwaving its contents or transferring leftovers to a lidded container.
Whatever mix of methods and items you have, you’ll want to take time to get used to it. Julia Clancy, a chef and recipe developer, likes using Beeswrap because it creates an airtight seal around pasta and pie doughs, can be folded into parcels to hold fruits and veggies, is freezer-safe, becomes more malleable the more you use it, and helps her speed up cleanup in the kitchen by becoming a movable surface on which to work.
But it wasn’t just about acquiring a different product; it was also about putting it in her line of sight.
“When I’m introduced to these more sustainable solutions, it’s almost like I really have to push myself to use them because the other stuff is so habitual, so easy,” she said. She still keeps plastic wrap and bags around for certain cooking purposes (such as flattening meat since beeswax cloth can’t be washed with hot water as the wax will melt), but she tucks these away in her pantry, out of sight. Keeping more sustainable items on the countertop made them easier to reach for, to the point that using them has become second nature to her.
Once you eliminate an item, you may start to wonder why you ever reached for it in the first place. When coming up with the idea for his mostly plant-based restaurant Oyster Oyster, in Washington, D.C., chef Rob Rubba intended to incorporate sustainability into the foundation of the restaurant in as many ways possible — including eliminating plastic wrap, which he says Oyster Oyster does not use at all.
“I was just thinking about how much plastic wrap or cling film I’ve used over the years and how just everything gets wrapped with it,” he said.
From there, he and his staff brainstormed ways to cut it and other single-use plastics. The results: planning ahead to avoid waste (and subsequently finding ways to repurpose anything that gets left behind), sourcing sturdier containers, foregoing certain cooking techniques (for example, sous vide), and exploring what packaging storage options are available (his team wraps butter in parchment paper).
“As long as it was something that we could compost, then it was OK on our list,” Rubba said. While certain options, such as beeswax cloth, aren’t options for his professional space because of health codes, he incorporates items like it at home.
When it comes to baking, endless recipes ask you to cover dough with plastic wrap while it rises. But Zachary Golper, chef and owner of Brooklyn-based Bien Cuit bakery, says there’s no need for that when a damp towel is available. Very rarely does his bakery use plastic wrap — in fact, only one item he can think of, pâte sucrée (a type of pastry dough), requires it.
“I think that you could either go extremely primitive on it and the results are going to be fantastic, or you can go buy all the latest, nonplastic sealing gear,” Golper said.
For higher hydration doughs, Golper recommends topping with a plate or sheet pan, but that’s about as high-tech as you really need.
“I love the idea of people stepping away from plastic as much as possible in the home where it’s really not necessary,” he said. “It just becomes so challenging because industrially, our things are wrapped in plastic. … It’s very hard to make the moves to get away from it. So any small move that’s made by a massive amount of people, I think that’s going to tip the needle a little bit.”