A life less plastic


Part of the problem with plastic — as much as we enjoy clear plastic wraps, resealable food containers, and infant incubators — is that plastics, once created, don’t ever go away. Scientifically speaking, plastic polymers do not break down to their basic minerals, the water, carbon dioxide and inorganic molecules that can be absorbed by the rest of the environment.

Plastic only breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic. Which means, essentially, that every piece of plastic created since plastic was invented in the 1940s is still somewhere on the planet.

As you likely know, if you’ve heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the trash island floating in the Pacific Ocean, a lot of it ends up in the oceans.

Images of that garbage patch and an albatross chick killed by plastics led Beth Terry to experiment with living without plastics.

“I didn’t, at the time, think, ‘Oh plastic is bad. We must all stop using plastic,’” she says. “It was just, I don’t know what my plastic consumption is, what my plastic footprint is, so I don’t know if it would be possible to live without it. So I decided to collect my plastic waste every week.”

Terry, an Oakland, Calif.-based accountant, made a spreadsheet to tally her weekly totals, and has charted the decline of plastic in her life on her blog, www.myplasticfreelife.com. She’s gradually phased plastics out, getting rid of only 2.18 pounds of plastics in 2010, compared to the 36.35 pounds she had disposed of since 2007, when she started her records.

What she discovered in this process was the second problem with plastics — they’re in almost everything.

“It became more and more overwhelming as time went by and I learned more about what things are plastic because I really, in the beginning, had no clue how much plastic there was,” she says.

Paper coffee cups were one surprise. “I thought that if I went to get coffee in a paper cup that I was avoiding plastic,” Terry says. “I didn’t know, at the time, that the paper cup was lined with plastic.”

And milk cartons are lined on the inside and outside with plastic. And chewing gum, which was once made out of chicle, a natural rubber, but has since been replaced with plastic.

Another surprising place most people are using plastics is in body wash and hand soaps. The most that plastics ever degrade is to break down into microplastics, particles smaller than five millimeters. But at that point, marine scientists have discovered, they start absorbing toxins, and can be ingested by marine animals and start working their way up the food chain, toxins in tow.

And body washes, facial scrubs and hand soaps often come with polyethylene particles — manufactured microplastics that get rinsed right down the drain into streams, rivers and oceans.

Rather than getting overwhelmed and giving up, Terry encourages an incremental approach. As she has used up plastic products, she has tried to replace them without buying new plastics — even down to her computer monitor, which she purchased second-hand.

“What’s surprising now is that it’s just become such a habit. It’s surprisingly easy. It wasn’t at first. But the more I live this way the more it just seems the way to be,” she says. “When I see people filling up plastic garbage bags of food to throw away, it just seems weird or wrong, like they pooped on the floor.”

Choose a few habits, like canvas grocery bags, buying food from bulk bins and putting them in cloth bags, a travel mug and re-usable, non-plastic water bottle, and hold yourself to them, she says. You learn a lesson about keeping your plastic-alternatives on hand when you have to do something like carry groceries out of the store in your shirt (Terry now carries collapsible bags in her purse).

And if you want to do something like bring your own stainless steel pot to the butcher’s or return containers to the farmers’ market for your next load of produce, don’t be afraid to ask, she says.

“I don’t expect everybody to live the way I do. I think that my lifestyle is extreme — it’s not extreme for me. It’s fine for me, but it wouldn’t necessarily be fine for everyone,” she says. “I want people to be mindful and pay attention to what they buy, what they consume, what things are made out of. Be aware. Be informed.”

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