20 February 2012

Step 15: Wean Off Plastic

A full list of the Simple Living Challenge steps can be found here.

I spent a good deal of my life in blissful ignorance about plastic. I've never had a particular liking to it but I also didn't mind it too much. Until several years ago, when I started seeing more and more articles about the toxicity in plastic bottles and the dangers of plastic baby toys. At that point, my interest was purely personal, just like the one I had in makeup and cosmetics. But after opening my eyes to the plastic problem, I started seeing more - the amount of yogurt containers and milk boxes we were throwing away each week started to feel overwhelming.

I read about the increased accumulation of microplastic debris in the oceans coming from the waste-water of washing machines. The polyester and acrylic particles from my own clothes were going straight into the bodies of sea animals and back to me in the fish I was eating. I read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the terrible effects human consumerism has on innocent animals. Had I thought about them before? No. Did I want to hurt any animal? No way.

But what could I do, change industry? I didn't think so. At that point, I stumbled upon My Plastic Free Life - a website that opened my eyes to another reality - a single person CAN make a difference!

Beth Terry, the founder of My Plastic Free Life (previously known as Fake Plastic Fish) is joining us today for a powerful push towards simple living. Because plastic, the symbol of modern disposable life, is one of the greatest obstacles on our way to deliberate and inoffensive living.

Beth has been blogging since 2007, collecting and tallying her own plastic waste (in 2011 her plastic waste reached the minute 2% of the U.S. average!) and researching plastic-free alternatives.

Apart from receiving truthful information about the impact of plastic, on her website you can get encouragement to learn more about your habits by examining your garbage and calculating your plastic footprint. You can collect your plastic waste (both recyclable and non) for one week or more. Then photograph, tally, and post it on the Plastic Trash Challenge page. 

Before you go on to Beth's plastic-free interview, I would like to let you in on another great news -  you can already pre-order Beth's book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, which is going to be released in April 2012.

This book is not your average guide to weaning off plastic. It is rather, an unusual combination of a personal journey from helplessness to empowerment, and a guiding light to letting go of the eco-guilt, offering strategies for coping with overwhelming problems, and ways to relate to other people who aren’t as far along on the plastic-free path. 

Many green-living activists claim that sticking to the simplified version of modern life is in fact rather complicated. Since 2007 when you started your plastic-free journey you have gone through so much effort to list plastic free alternatives of everyday products. How hard is it to be living a relatively plastic-free life nowadays?
These days, it's not very hard at all. The hardest part was initially finding the plastic-free alternatives or developing new habits that felt strange at first.  But after almost 5 years of doing it, it's pretty much second nature to me.  I don't want everyone to have to reinvent the wheel, which is why I post all my discoveries on my blog and share lots and lots of solutions in my upcoming book: Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.

In Europe we tend to use the plastic grocery bags for throwing out our trash. The people who decide to give up the plastic bag have to buy plastic trash bags, which is basically the same. Lots of Norwegian grocery stores start introducing biodegradable plastic bags but while at first I got excited, I learned that biodegradable plastic is good only when left under the sun to degrade. Once in the landfill it acts the same way as regular plastic. So, what do you throw your non-recyclable trash in and what is your opinion on biodegradable plastics?
We actually don't use any trash bags at all.  First of all, we compost all our food waste, so that keeps icky stuff out of the regular garbage bin.  We use newspaper or re-used paper bags in the compost pail.  For regular garbage (which is really not much since I'm collecting all my plastic for educational purposes and nearly everything else can be recycled), we use an unlined bin.  It mostly ends up being dryer lint (which we can't compost because there are some synthetic fibers in it), thermal receipt paper (which should never be recycled, since it contains BPA), and a few miscellaneous other bits. But mostly? We don't make much actual landfill trash to begin with.

I agree that we should give up bottled water for both reasons you mention - the toxins that might leak and the fact that it is the same tap water we have flowing at home. But there are countries where tap water isn't good for drinking. I know that large parts of Spain and Germany, for example, cannot enjoy the luxury of clean water to drink from the tap. What could people do if they are in such a situation?
Many people don't want to drink directly from the tap because the water either contains contaminants or just doesn't taste good.  There are many different kinds of water filters/purifiers that can be used, depending on what kinds of contaminants are in your water. First, you should get your water tested to find out what's in it. In the U.S., all water utilities are required by the Environmental Protection Agency to make their water test results available to their customers. But even after checking those results, it's a good idea to test the actual water coming out of your pipes, which could leach contaminants.  The Environmental Working Group has a great water filter buying guide.

Refusing plastic is a matter of personal decision and attitude to life. Do you think it should be a shared passion in the family and if not, how can it be handled properly?
I do share my passion with my family and friends, but I do not nag them to do the same things as I do. I believe in leading by example.  y husband has made great changes in his habits after I started attempting to live plastic-free, but these were all his personal choices. I don't try to control his behavior because I think that only creates resentment and can result in the opposite of what you want!

How did giving up so many foods change your life in the short and long term? Was there a moment when you wished you hadn't made the decision to start reducing your use of plastic?
Giving up frozen foods and other pre-packaged convenience foods was difficult at first but ultimately has given me a real sense of connection to the food I eat.Shopping at the farmers market not only avoids plastic packaging, but gets me in touch with the people who are actually growing my food. And it's just healthier.

What advice would you give to those of us who want to start using less plastic but are still unsure of what to begin with?
I started with bringing my own bags to the grocery store and carrying my own reusable water bottle.  Those were the two areas that I felt would have the biggest immediate impact and also were the most doable for me. But everyone is different. The best thing to do is to analyze your own plastic consumption and figure out what changes you could make right away. I encourage everyone to take the Show Your Plastic Challenge, either privately or online, to really understand your personal plastic footprint.

What could an aspiring plastic-free enthusiast learn from your book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too that is not on your website already?
The book is full of resources and is organized in a way that is easy to use as a quick reference guide. But it also contains lots of personal stories - my own as well as those of truly inspiring people who have gone beyond personal changes to create an impact on a wider scale. It is full of tips from my readers, new research and analysis of recycling, bioplastics, silicone, and other "solutions," and I think can be used to make the case to other people about why plastics are problematic and why reducing our consumption is the best solution of all. It would make a great gift for anyone who wants to get started.

Share your experience: What is your attitude to plastic? How much do you think you can reduce your plastic footprint if you set your mind to it?

See also:
Step 1: Embrace Your Imperfections
Step 2: Simple Living as Men's Trait
Step 3: The Rules of Simple Home Organization
Step 4: Simple Crafting for Happy People 
Step 5: Simple Scheduling and Planning Routines
Step 6: Spend More Time With the People You Love 
Step 7: Spend More Time Alone 
Step 8: Connect to Your Inner Self 
Step 9: How to De-Stress 
Step 10: Learn to Live With Less and Enjoy it
Step 11: Start a Debt-Free Life
Step 12: How to Overcome Consumerism
Step 13: Declutter Your Life 
Step 14: Get Rid of Toxic Cosmetics and Reclaim Your Natural Self 
Step 16: Celebrate Your Story
The Final Step: Gratitude 

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