Sunday, April 13, 2014

The whipped cream dilemma

Our town has a pretty good recycling program. We have curbside pickup for all kind of paper, as well as glass, metal, and plastic; with the exception of styrofoam and plastic bags, anything with a numbered recycling code on it can go right in the bin. Moreover, we can take all kinds of electronic waste, including CFL bulbs and rechargeable batteries, down to the Public Works department for recycling, and there's a bin at the local grocery store for collecting plastic bags. So almost all packaging that comes into our house these days can be recycled.

The one unfortunate exception is whipped cream cans. Whipped cream is one of the few foods we tend to buy in its processed form, rather than preparing it from scratch, and for a simple reason: in a pressurized can, cream will stay good indefinitely. We once left a can behind at my parents' house for several months and found it was no good anymore, but we've kept cans in our fridge for a month or longer with no loss of quality. When you buy a little carton of cream and whip it yourself, by contrast, that whipped cream must be consumed immediately if you don't want it to go flat. Even if you whip only part of it at a time, the remaining cream in the container will go sour within a week if it isn't used.

Unfortunately, our efforts to avoid wasting the cream itself mean more waste where the packaging is concerned. You see, the whipped cream can isn't merely a steel can, which would be fine to recycle; it also has a little plastic nozzle on top, which isn't recyclable, and presumably there's also some kind of gas dispenser inside the can that's made of who knows what. I thought it might be possible to dismantle the can somehow to make it recyclable, but when I did a Google search on "recycle whipped cream can," I found that these cans fall under the category of aerosols, which are recyclable in some areas and not in others. It all depends on your local government, and our local recycling guidelines specifically name aerosols as one of the few types of container that can't go in the mixed recycling bin.

Now, in the process of searching for ways to recycle them, I also came across a couple of suggestions for ways to avoid having to buy whipped cream cans in the first place. One site recommends making all whipped cream from scratch (which doesn't work for us for the reasons named above) or buying Cool Whip in a recyclable tub (ugh). I also found a link to a site that sells reusable whipped cream dispensers, which contain a little nitrous oxide charger that inflates the cream just the way the single-use cans do. But while this sounds like an ideal solution in theory, in practice there are several snags:
  • First of all, our local grocery store only sells cream in cartons made of plastic-lined cardboard. It's not at all clear from the recycling guidelines that these are recyclable, and if they're not, we're stuck with the same problem we had before.
  • Second, while the NO2 dispensers are theoretically recyclable themselves, it's once again unclear whether we could put them out with our curbside recycling.
  • Third, the description of the whipped cream dispenser at Amazon.com says that cream stored in it will last "up to two weeks" in the fridge. It's conceivable that we might go through a cup of cream in that amount of time, but it's certainly not guaranteed, and I don't like the idea of having a deadline to use the stuff up before it goes bad. Especially since we wouldn't actually know it had gone bad until we went to spray some onto our pudding, possibly ruining the pudding in the process.
  • And fourth, there's the cost to consider. The smallest dispenser from CreamRight costs $23 and holds 1 cup of cream, which makes about 2 pints whipped. It takes one charger to produce this amount; the chargers cost $9 for a case of 24, plus $8 shipping, so if you buy two cases at a time, that works out to 54 cents per quart. A cup of cream costs about $1.29 at the store, bringing the cost up to $1.83 per quart. By contrast, a 14-ounce can of whipped cream from the store typically costs us $3.19 and makes 2.3 quarts, which works out to $1.38 per quart. So even with the cost of packaging, the canned stuff is about 25 percent cheaper.
So it seems the best solution would be to keep buying the canned stuff, but find some way of recycling the empties. So far, however, I'm having no luck finding a way to do that. If our curbside program won't take these cans, where can I take them? I consulted the Earth911 site and it said that the best way to recycle aerosol cans in our area is to take them to household hazardous waste disposal—but the NJ Hazardous Waste site specifically cites empty whipped cream cans as an example of "obviously 'safe' trash" that they shouldn't have to waste their time with. Well, okay, if they're not safe to recycle because they're "aerosols," but they're likewise not unsafe enough to go into hazardous waste disposal, then what do you do with them? Is the trash can the only option? And if so, why?

Maybe I'm just being unrealistic, but it really seems like there should be some way to have my whipped cream (without wasting any) and not have to keep throwing perfectly good steel cans into the trash. Does anyone out there in cyberspace know of an option I'm overlooking?
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