For plastic-free July I decided to get a bees wrap sandwich wrap.
Why? Well, I kept seeing those packages at Fable farm, especially the sandwich one with the wooden button in front (a special fancy wrap just for sandwiches!) and I kept thinking about it as I put my sandwiches into little plastic bags. Sure, they were re-used plastic bags, that had been washed out and dried, but it still didn’t quite seem to fit with the spirit of the month.
So what is bees wrap, anyway? I had vaguely heard of it and seen it in packages, but this hadn’t given me a great idea of what the product would actually be like. Somehow I had an image in my head of a square made of wax, like from the edge of cheese. Cool, but sort of impractical. How could a piece of beeswax wrap anything? When my mother got a piece to test it out as a cover for her glass bowls, I realized the obvious: it’s not just made of beeswax.
The base is a piece of cotton, which has been coated with a combination of beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin. As you can imagine, this coating creates a seal that can keep things fresh and keep them from drying out. When you unfold it, it feels durable, and slightly waxy. It has a sweet smell, like honey, though that will fade after the first few uses and washes. Just keep away from heat; after all, you don’t want it to melt like a fancy candle!
The Bees Wrap website says that the wraps can last for about a year with regular use, and they are totally compostable or can be used for firestarters when they’re all done. Even the packaging is compostable and plastic-free (the plastic-looking bit in the front is made of cellulose; this woman-owned business tries to be as sustainable as possible and, in an example of apt alliteration and perfect punning, is a B-corp to boot.)
Bees wraps come in many sizes, even an extra-big one for wrapping bread or even—a cool idea I never would have thought of—laying out to roll dough on. Part of what makes them good for re-using is that the bees wrap squares are naturally antibacterial. This is because of the beeswax and the jojoba oil.
Jojoba oil, which I had never heard of before I read the ingredients on the back of the package, comes from a shrub native to Arizona, California, and Mexico. It’s used mostly in cosmetics, because of its properties—being antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, analgesic, hypo-allergenic, and anti-inflammatory. It’s technically edible, though not digestible, so you wouldn’t want to use it to cook with, and it was used in wartime to maintain weapons. It also, like any oil, seals in moisture.
Covering cloth with some kind of oil to waterproof it isn’t a new idea. Tar was traditionally used to protect every part of sailing ships, from the wood to the sails. Wax-covered thread was also used to make overcoats.
Beeswax is an even more versatile substance, used for and in everything you could possibly think of (candles, cosmetics, dentistry, sculpture, writing tablets, bow making, musical instruments.) It’s also waterproof, antibacterial, antifungal, and edible. Because of the propolis in it (Greek: defense of the city. What an apropos name!) it doesn’t go bad. The beeswax found in ancient tombs is even still good.
Beeswax is also used in painting—as a stabilizer in oil paint, and in encaustic, or hot wax painting. What’s that? It’s where you add pigments straight into melted beeswax (although there can also be other ingredients) and then use that as a paint; usually straight onto wood.
The oldest use of hot-wax painting dates all the way back to the 1st century BC. Remember the Roman-Egypt mummy paintings? Those portraits of the deceased painted on top of boards, that were then placed over the head of a mummy? Well, those were made using the hot wax method. The technique is still used in painting today, after the Roman method of treating the wax was rediscovered by painter Fritz Faiss.
History is full of things like that, re-discovering old techniques that were put aside for a while, and forgotten. It gives an interestingly unexpected shape to the ideal of progress, which instead of moving in a straight line ever upwards seems to cycle back around, so that what was old is new again—just like that saying.
All photos by Sara Barkat except the final two by L.L. Barkat.