I remember sack lunches from my school days. PB&J or tuna salad sandwiches wrapped up in wax paper (or those wax paper bags that came out later), or sometimes bologna with a slice of processed cheese. Always on plain white Wonder Bread — the “American way.” Potato chips or Fritos (when they came out, after being invented in Texas), and sometimes a pickle, some celery or carrot sticks, or an apple or orange. Hard boiled eggs were a safe bet. Often a small chocolate bar, cookie or brownie for dessert.
Of course, we never had lunch boxes, but always put everything neatly into a paper sack or, on occasion, into the cellophane bag the bread came in. The contents of both were likely to be ravaged in transport. The hard stuff smooshed up against the soft and we had to learn that a smooshed sandwich was edible anyway. Pears were my favorite fruit, but seldom survived being hauled around in a paper sack.
Thinking back on the number of school lunches I carried, I can appreciate how plastic changed my world. Back then, food was wrapped in wax paper, foil or white or brown butcher paper; or just carried loose. Of course, anything slightly damp could leak out or soak through and weaken the bottom of your lunch sack, and cause it to fail, usually in the midst of a crowd of kids heading into the lunchroom, creating a scene of great hilarity for everyone but you. Tuna sandwiches could be a problem if they were too juicy, and the aforementioned ripe pears were another. Pickle juice was always a threat to the integrity of your lunch bag. Pickle-juice flavored brownies were not good — but we never let that stop us.
These wrapping limitations also impacted food at home. We didn’t have the array of Tupperware and plastic containers in use today, so food was generally wrapped to keep it fresh. Bowls could be covered by the appropriately-sized plate or foil; and lidded glass jars could be used for left-overs. The cooking pot with lid was a lazier way to put food into the fridge, but worked reasonably well. Our fridge was a cornucopia of smells and we replaced the bright yellow Arm & Hammer Baking soda box at the back of the fridge religiously.
It was our habit to regularly sniff and inspect our food before eating. Preservation techniques were often rudimentary away from the kitchen, and it seems that food-related illness was more common than today. I suppose, as a kid, throwing up was more or less something you expected to do on occasion. In a class of thirty or so in a school of several hundreds, daily vomiting was not rare, and was always the occasion of great mirth, unless you were the vomiter or vomitee.
It’s no wonder that plastic wrap became so universally popular. A cheap way to preserve and isolate food that limited smells, contamination and leaks was a real lifesaver. It helped to preserve food in ways that were previously impossible. Bowls could be sealed, tidbits could be wrapped up, and when done, the plastic wrapper could be conveniently tossed away. Plastic wrap and sealable plastic containers literally changed the world.
Plastic is still changing the world six or more decades later. One issue, however, still relates to tossing the plastic away. Plastics degrade very slowly in the environment (if at all) and even if properly disposed of, plastic seems to find its way into the environment. Sure, lots get there through everyday littering, blowing out of vehicles or through processing emissions. Some people and entities intentionally dump their trash into rivers or the oceans. In micro- and macro- form, plastic is a devastating disruption in the world’s environment.
However, memories of that pickle juice-soaked PB&J sandwich are a reminder to me that plastic bags and plastic wrap are a life necessity, and we should treat plastic with some reverence. Honor the convenience and safety of plastic, but protect our environment. It deserves a proper disposal in a landfill or incinerator, or should be reused or recycled.
Mother Nature thanks you.