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Jan Lee headshot

The Industrious Bee: Replacing Plastic Products with Beeswax

By Jan Lee

The greatest challenge to “going green” these days is finding suitable replacements for our carbon-based conveniences. Things like plastic wrap and zip-lock bags have become household mainstays. Plastic packaging can extend the life of fresh food like meat as much as 4-5 days on the shelf.

The environmental cost of materials that by and large aren't being recycled, however, is significant. According to a study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging that was produced in 2013, 40 percent of it ended up in the landfill. That includes plastic wrap and baggies that often don't make it into a recycle stream.

But apiarists may have found an answer. And they have early pioneers -- and bees -- to thank for the solution.

Long before plastic wrap was on the market, there was beeswax. Ancient Egyptians used it as a preservative in many functions, including writing. Artists have used it to strengthen clay in sculptures and model-making. Of late, it's become the magic ingredient for everything from candies to candles.

Several new start-up companies have figured out a way to use those same adaptable characteristics to benefit food preservation. etee, based in Toronto, Ontario Canada, spent about a year researching the properties of beeswax in an effort to create a pliable food wrap that didn't have to be chucked into the garbage after one use.

What the company discovered was that by adding essential oils and soy or resin to the beeswax, and then infusing organic cotton with the mixture, they were able to create a flexible "sticky" wrap that was not only reusable but had antimicrobial properties to help guard against food spoilage.

According to etee, beeswax wraps work best for preserving cold foods like leftovers, fruits and vegetables and for providing pliable covers for bowls and other utensils. etee doesn't advise using the product for wrapping raw meats. But it does point out that the wraps can be easily washed in light, soapy cold water and reused as many as 150 times.

Other companies like Bee's Wrap offer their own colorful versions of this technique, each with a compendium of secret ingredients to ensure the beeswax stays flexible.

As I read through this growing list of beeswax household products, I worried about the bees. Would expanding an industry that relies on their by-product be harmful?

To get that answer, I reached out to two apiarists from British Columbia's honey-producing region: my brother, Jeff Lee and his wife, Amanda Goodman Lee. Jeff and Amanda are the owners and founders of Honey Bee Zen Apiaries Ltd., which produces the Swan Valley Honey brand in Kootenays and niche varietal honeys from the Vancouver Metropolitan market. Jeff also serves as the First Vice President of the BC Honey Producers' Association, which represents one of the largest sectors of the Canadian honey market.

According to Jeff, beeswax wrap isn't really new. It's a modern take-off on an old and trustworthy method of food preservation.

"Think of 'wax paper' as sandwich wrap," he said. "The precursor was waxed cloth," back before it became cheaper to use a byproduct from carbon-based extractives. The budding food wrap industries of the mid-20th century figured out that there was sense in the way that early homemakers preserved their foods, that could then be capitalized on with the advent of wax paper. That is, until more durable plastic versions of wrap came along.

Still, Jeff said, "there's been a real uptick in this kind of product being produced," with companies like etee and Bee's Wax discovering the secret to larger mass-production.

The wraps are simply a natural way to reuse what is left behind from the bee's busy production cycle. "It's a good use of wax, a byproduct we produce from extracting honey," said Jeff.

It's hard to imagine busy cooks opting for washable, reusable food preservation methods in the place of pre-made plastic bags and and wrap. The same of course, was probably said at the advent of the plastics industry. Today, almost a century after that transition, we seem to be at a new starting point, this time with a growing number of consumers that are willing to take on a bit more kitchen work if it means decreasing the global demand for plastic products.

Flickr/Jenia M

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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