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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  1. Lately I have been thinking of landfills for some reason, and wondering how we haven't filled up the earth with as much plastic and other garbage that isn't biodegradable. It is an uncomfortable thing to think about. Thanks for this article.

    1. You are right, it is an uncomfortable topic and one that is so easy to ignore, at least until that big pile of garbage doesn't get your own problem, right? I hope that by changing my own lifestyle, I can help and encourage others to do so too. Look at what Beth has achieved! 2% of the average American waste!

  2. Fantastic interview, Sonya! Your posts on plastic really scared/disgusted me. It's so wonderful to know that we always have choices. We are not helpless! Can't wait to read Beth's book!

    1. Me too, Laurie, I can't wait for it to get published! I know that we will learn much more from it.

  3. I am really enjoying each of your steps to simple living. Today's topic reminds me of the zero waste home. http://thezerowastehome.com/ Over the past several months I have been striving towards a similar end, but find it difficult. It's hard to begin with such a big goal in mind. Removing the plastics from day to day life would be a great first step, making the zero waste dream much more attainable.

    1. Thank you! As for your finding it difficult to downgrade your waste - if you focus on the little goals and take your decision in small portions I am sure you won't feel overwhelmed. By the way, more on simplifying your goals tomorrow :)

  4. Using less plastic is a big part of going green, and it sounds like Beth has done an amazing job of kicking the plastic habit! I especially loved reading about how much garbage she throws away - AKA, practically nothing. :) Great interview!

  5. This is interesting--a topic that seems to be on a lot of peoples minds due to the huge island of trash in the ocean--and I always thought I wasn't much of an activist about plastic, until I realized that my one decision not to get a bag when I don't need it (something I decided when I was 10--I had a teacher I really liked that was into marine biology) and what I thought was a small choice is now probably thousands of bags I didn't throw away.

    There's a lot of plastic things we don't have control over in business and corporations (for my commercial art there's no way to change the type of paints I use since there's no natural cadmium colors and no natural acrylic substitute, although I'm switching slowly from acrylic to wood in brooches). Yet at least the things I have full control over--like a plastic bag or a type of water bottle--that I can manage.

    1. It is such an interesting juxtaposition, and I believe a great challenge to want to make the step but not be able to in all spheres of life. I personally am unable to make small changes step by step, though I advise for that!

  6. I've taken some small steps to avoid plastic, I don't buy bottled water use reusable bags most of the time, but I still have a lot of room for progress. Sometimes trying to take care of all the "should-dos" or "want to dos" is overwhelming. For instance I want to switch to organic food, avoid toxic cleaners and products, avoid plastic, reduce waste, buy less, buy recycled, etc. I've given myself permission to make very small steps towards these goals, one at a time, so I don't drive myself bonkers. I wonder how others handle making these changes without going crazy?

    1. I believe the secret is in the small steps. You are definitely going crazy if you are to change everything tomorrow!

    2. The secret IS small steps. I've been worried about how much I've been backsliding into plastic use lately, but then when I visit a friend who doesn't pay attention to it, or someone visits me, I realize how much I've reduced my plastic waste without even thinking about it anymore.

    3. Thank you for that, Angry Butterfly!

  7. Thank you for taking the time to research this and to make this information available.

  8. Sonya, thank you for Step 15. It was a pleasure to answer your questions for this post. Now, I have to go back and read the other Simple Living Challenge posts that I missed while I was trying to get all the final book edits done. Whew.

    1. The step is here thanks to you, Beth! Thank you for a very uplifting conversation which hopefully will help all of us get rid of at least a few more plastic items for good.

  9. It's funny, I'm sitting here at my desk while I read this, and in my immediate surroundings are plastic pens and markers, plastic pins for my bulletin board, my plastic computer and camera chargers, and my plastic laptop itself. It really is everywhere!

    I personally don't think I could ever kick plastic completely, but I do recycle whatever I can and try to find reusable options--like metal water bottles.

    1. Yes, I know what you mean! But while it is impossible to live completely plastic-less, we can reduce to a minimum, right? What inspires me about Beth is that she makes those extra steps we deem impossible and fights for the littlest of plastic instances. She is such an inspiration to me and I would like to be able to apply her commitment to my life as well.

  10. Great post! I try not to bring plastic into my home as much as possible but I struggle with kids toys! Even though I don't buy plastic stuff, my kids seem to magically acquire all sorts of little plastic junk. It's a constant battle.

  11. Another GREAT post...and another challenge! Since visiting Beths blog I see plastic EVERYWHERE! I am sooooo glad her book is coming out...and am so grateful she has done the legwork and research for us! AWESOME informaiton...thanks...again!

  12. Excellent post!

    Many states and counties are working on removing the plastic bags option at the checkout, and many with sales tax are working towards a greater tax on bottled water. I think both of these are good ideas, but rather than waiting for our officials to pass regulations, it would be better for us to be one step ahead of them- removing these elements from our lives beforehand!

  13. Great post, I'm always so relieved to see this information being spread and shared. Slowly but surely human beings are beginning to see the error of their ways in regards to the environment. Cheaper and faster most usually doesn't equal better or safer. I love all of my glass food containers, all different shapes and sizes to fit any kind of food item. The garbage bags that we use are made by a company called Biobag, and I adore them. They seem to need only heat/pressure to break down, in the summer months we have to be careful or they begin to decompose in the can! ;)

  14. I have been bringing my own bags to the grocery store for a couple of years and using glass bottles for my drinking water. I am glad to know I am on track. There is so much plastic all around us it will be challenging to eliminate it all, but thanks for your interview with Beth and sharing her blog I am looking forward to learning more.
    Everyday Inspired

  15. Great interview, and a lot to think about.