Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
I started shopping at my farmers market this summer. I've noticed people putting fruits and vegetables directly in their totes, without taking the plastic bags some vendors offer. But how do you keep produce fresh in the fridge without the plastic?
Not long ago, I asked myself that same question. I had recently invested in a large set of organic cotton reusable produce bags, and while I was feeling mighty proud of myself each time I ventured out to the market (look how eco-friendly I am! Who needs those wasteful plastic produce bags?), the scene in my fridge a few days later was less than pretty.
Stored in plastic, fruits and vegetables would have normally stayed fresh for at least a week. But left in my new reusable bags, all my beautiful produce fast turned into a wilted, spoiled mess. (Even the "crisper" bin seemed to do just the opposite, no matter what the setting.)
I've written before about the enormous environmental implications of wasted food; needless to say, my cloth produce bags were not coming close to offsetting the yearly 34 million tons of food waste to which I was now contributing.
But obviously, there were reasons to avoid the plastic bags, too (wildlife-destroying pollution, needless oil consumption, endocrine-disrupting chemicals). They also didn't seem necessary: After all, plastic produce bags only came into being in the 1960s; plastic grocery bags, a decade later. There had to be a way to keep my fruits and veggies fresh without them.
Enter Beth Terry. As author of the blog My Plastic-free Life and the recently released book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, Terry knows how to keep everything from persimmons to parsnips fresh with nary a plastic bag in sight: She's lived plastic free (and not just in the produce department) since 2007.
Terry's storage methods come largely from Ecology Center Farmers' Markets in Berkeley, CA, which created this guide on how to store more than 60 kinds of fruits and vegetables. But being the plastic-free pro that she is, Terry of course had some suggestions to add. With her help, I've created a condensed version for you that includes her input, below.
*Note: While the Ecology Center guide occasionally calls for paper products, Terry tries to limit these; she opts for cloth bags or plastic-free reusable containers instead. ("While plastic is truly problematic, all single-use disposable bags and wrappers have an environmental footprint," she says.) She suggests a variety of different bags and containers on her site.
Apples. Store on a cool counter or shelf for up to two weeks. For longer storage, place in a cardboard box* in the fridge.
Citrus. Store in a cool place with good airflow, never in an airtight container.
Apricots/Nectarines/Peaches. On a cool counter or fridge if fully ripe.
Cherries. Store in an airtight container. Don't wash until ready to eat; added moisture encourages mold.
Berries. Very fragile; stack in a single layer if possible in a paper bag* or reusable container. Only wash before you plan on eating them.
Dates. Drier dates (like Deglet Noor) are fine stored on the counter in a bowl or the paper bag* they were bought in. Store moist dates (like Medjool) in the refrigerator for longer than a week, either in cloth or a paper bag to minimize moisture (Terry says a glass mason jar also works).
Melons. Store uncut in a cool, dry place, out of the sun up to a couple weeks. Cut melon should be in the fridge; an open container is fine.
Always remove any tight bands from your vegetables to allow them to breathe.
Asparagus. Place loosely in a glass or bowl upright with water at room temperature (will keep for a week outside the fridge).
Avocados. Place in a paper bag at room temp. (To speed up ripening, place an apple in the bag.) Terry places hers directly in the fridge; for a cut avocado half, she keeps the pit in and places it in a glass wire bale jar.
Basil. Store in an airtight container/jar loosely packed with a small damp piece of paper* inside, left out on a cool counter.
Broccoli. Store in the fridge: Place in an open container or wrap in a damp towel.
Carrots/Celery/Radishes. Cut off tops to keep fresh longer and place in a closed container with plenty of moisture. Terry stores these immersed in containers of water in the fridge (change water frequently).
Corn. Leave unhusked in an open container if you must, but corn really is best the day it's picked.
Cucumber. Wrap in a moist towel in the fridge. (Terry likes plain cotton tea towels.) Fine in a cool room if you're planning on eating them within a day or two.
Garlic/Onion/Potatoes. Store in a cool, dark, place. (For onions, good air circulation is best; don't stack.)
Greens (Collards, Chard, Kale). Store upright in a glass of water (like a bouquet) on the counter or fridge. Eat these vegetables first, since they lose color quickly.
Lettuce. Keep damp in an airtight container in the fridge. Terry admits that salad greens are difficult to keep fresh; her strategy is to eat these early in the week, though some of her readers have had success vacuum packing in glass.
Spinach. Store loose in an open container in the crisper, cool as soon as possible.
Sweet Peppers. Only wash right before eating; wetness decreases storage time. Store in a cool room to use in a couple of days, in the crisper if longer storage is needed.
Sweet Potatoes. Store in a cool, dark, well‐ventilated place. Never refrigerate.
Tomatoes. Also never refrigerate. Depending on ripeness, tomatoes can stay for up to two weeks on the counter.
Zucchini. Fine for a few days if left out on a cool counter, even after cut. Wrap in a cloth and refrigerate for longer storage.
Easy-peasy, right? (Refrigerate snap peas in an open container, by the way.) Do you have other plastic-free methods that work for you? If so, please share them in the comments, below!
An earlier version of this post incorrectly linked the product recommendations listed on Terry's site to lifewithoutplastic.com