Sunday, February 4, 2018

Five Ways to Get Out of the Plastic Habit

I've been working on reducing the amount of plastic we depend on in our daily lives for a long time.  It's a process, because plastic is pervasive in our culture.  It's in everything.  The keyboard I'm typing on has plastic keys.  Nearly everything that comes in the mail is packaged in plastic.  Most of the items in the grocery store are, at least, partially, wrapped in plastic.

So, while I would love nothing more than to completely eliminate using all plastic, ever, it's not a cold-turkey kind of thing. Sometimes, we have to pick our battles and make the choice that does the least harm, because all of the choices do some harm.

And sometimes, we have to start with one thing, make it a habit, and then, pick the next thing.

That's what this article is about - showing you what we did to get the plastic out.


1.  Cloth is Reusable

Many years ago when my youngest was still a baby, we helped organize a Spiral Scouts troop in our homeschool community.  For those, who don't know, Spiral Scouts offers an alternative to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts that is co-ed.  Its earth-centric ideology appealed to us and most of the badges were focused on living more lightly on the earth.

One of my family's personal badge projects was to make reusable cloth bags to take to the grocery store instead of using the plastic bags provided at the store ("Paper or plastic?"  You know?).  Just so that you can understand how long ago this was, the grocery store wasn't selling reusable bags, yet, and we were quirky.  It was before South Portland charged extra for plastic bags, and before there was a sign out in front of the local Hannaford asking, "Did you remember your reusable bags?"  These days reusable bags are de rigueur.  Back then, most of the baggers had no idea what to do with our reusable bags.

It was our very first, little baby step toward getting the plastic out, and while we still end up with a few plastic bags (there's one bagger who insists on using plastic, usually without asking us.  We pick our battles, and usually reuse those plastic bags for garbage anyway), mostly, we don't have very many plastic bags in our house.  If I forget my bags, and I can get away with it, I just walk out with my purchases in hand, rather than in a bag.  I get some strange looks, but whatever.


2.  Reduce rather than Recycle

Back during those Spiral Scouts days, as a troop we talked a lot about recycling.  One of our leaders spent a lot of time trying to drum into my brain that *not* using plastic in the first place was far better than recycling it.  It took me a few listens to really understand what she was saying, because in my mind, since there was a solution for using the plastic, rather than wasting it, one was just like the other.

I was likening it to food waste.  If I grow a pumpkin in my garden, but we don't eat it, I will throw the pumpkin in my compost pile.  It becomes the dirt that I add to next year's garden in which I grow more pumpkins.  There's not waste, and it is recycling ... ish.

Unfortunately, plastic isn't pumpkin, and the recycling of plastic is not nearly as neat and eco-friendly as composting uneaten food.  Plastic can not be composted, first.  It doesn't breakdown the way organic matter does.  We all know that, right?

My mistake was in thinking that the plastic was fully reusable.  It's not.  In fact, not all plastics can be reused at all.  Some plastics are single use. Period.  But they don't breakdown.  So, then what?   What happens to the millions ... billions ... [----]llions of pounds of plastic material that is used once and then discarded?

Some of it finds a really cool life as countertops or building materials.

But too much of it ends up being shipped somewhere else and then just dumped or buried in a landfill.

WE don't have to see it or worry about it or think about it, because we put it in our little blue (plastic) bins by the curb, and it gets whisked away (by a gasoline-guzzling garbage truck), and we get to feel good that our recycling bin is more full than our garbage can.  Yay me!  Ouch on the breaking of my arm patting myself on the back.

I have to thank my old friend, LML, for working so hard to drive this point home.  It took me a while to have the Aha! moment, but I did.  Thanks for steering me in the right direction.

So, what do I do?  I make more conscious decisions when I decide to make a purchase, because recycling it isn't the same as not using it in the first place.


3.  Imagine a New Life Before You Take It

What are you going to do with that tiny yogurt container that doesn't have a lid? 

I'll be honest.  We used to like Chinese take-out.  I know.  Plastic.  But .... 

Those plastic take-out containers were reusable.  Deus Ex Machina would pack leftovers in them to take to work. 

We don't do Chinese take-out anymore, because of food sensitivities (which is a different story altogether), but I still look closely at what we're purchasing for ideas about the next life that product will have after I bring it home. 

Paperboard is burnable.

Plastic containers with lids can be reused for a variety of storage needs.  We can also use them as a scoop for our chicken and rabbit feed.  They're great as seed starting pots or for growing herbs.  The goal is to figure out what one plans to do with the container once it's finished holding whatever item it held when it was brought into the house - and the ultimate goal would be to find a use for it that doesn't include the garbage (unless turning it into a garbage receptacle is the plan.


4.  Creative Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic are Pretty Cool

I loved the Tightwad Gazette.  I have all three volumes of the compiled newsletters, PLUS I have the 2 1/2" compilation volume.  I didn't live in Maine when Amy first started her newsletter, but I really wish I had found her (or other frugalistas) back in the day.  I'd have saved a ton of money and really enjoyed using my creative brain to imagine new ways to not spend more than I had to. 

The one thing that I could never quite get on board with was the reuse of ziplock plastic baggies.  First of all, they're pretty cheap cheap to begin with.  I know.  It all adds up, but pennies to wash a bag or pennies spent on hot water and soap.  It's a trade-off, to me. 

Second, those washed bags are just ... I don't know ... ew!  If I've stored cheese in the bag, and the cheese gets moldy, I'm not really thinking I want to wash and keep that bag. 

Then, there's the fact that most of the time, the cheese already comes wrapped in plastic.  It was a total "duh" moment for me.  If I'm careful when I open the packaging, and then, I carefully wrap the plastic back around the cheese and use a rubber band to hold it closed, I don't need plastic ziplock bags. 

Sometimes I'm a little slow.  I'm sure all of you were already doing that - you know, reusing the packaging the product came in, rather than repackaging it in ziplock storage bags.

I've stopped purchasing ziplock bags, and I'm having a hard time remembering what all I used to need them for. 

The second half to this option is to consider how we purchase things. 

Instead of single-serve yogurt, can you make your own ...?  If that's too much of a learning curve, what about purchasing the big container of yogurt and portioning it into little jelly jars?

For us, we discovered it's possible to still have the convenience for most things and to avoid the waste.  We just have to make conscious and thoughtful choices.


5.  Try an Almost-Plastic-Free Option 

I've been trying to cut the soda habit here at Chez Brown for YEARS!  First, I was successful in eliminating the really bad stuff - the stuff that contains high fructose corn syrup, because we started buying only local sodas (which are a lot more expensive than the other stuff).  These are made with only real cane sugar AND they're almost invariably packaged in glass bottles.

So, woot!

But then, we had this financial snag, and we needed to cut down on what we spent at the grocery store, and so the high priced sodas were no longer an option.

We discovered seltzer water.  It's cheaper than soda, mostly, and doesn't have high fructose corn syrup, but ... darn it all, it comes in plastic bottles.

A friend turned me on to the SodaStream, and THAT solved both problems.  We can mix our own syrup, for those who want it, with just sugar and water.  I like mine straight-up.  Just carbonated water.

So, my family is okay with making our own seltzer water here at home using tap water from the kitchen sink.  We're saving a lot of money, AND there's no plastic ... well, except the SodaStream case is plastic, and the bottles we use to make the seltzer water are plastic, but all of that stays in my kitchen.  There is no plastic waste.

It was nice to find a compromise solution that made everyone happy, and that was a more eco-friendly choice.  The SodaStream is even more eco-friendly than the local sodas in glass bottles, because the glass still needs to be recycled, which takes energy.  With the SodaStream, we reuse the bottles for carbonating the tap water, and we drink the water out of a repurposed glass jar.

Repurpose and reuse?  Whoa, wait!  I've come a long way since that first cloth bag!

We still have a lot of plastic in our lives, but contrary to what the deniers claim, every little action does - or can - make a difference ... even if the difference is only in helping us find a more personally satisfying way to spend our time and money.






1 comment:

  1. I do occasionally re-use the gallon-size ziplock bag (with the slide across zipper), I don't mind washing it out, drying it, spritzing it with vinegar water and drying it again (I have a little indoor laundry line I hung up for just such things) inside out and by a clothes pin gently grabbing it by a corner. I use it to store veggie scraps (the ends, skins, etc) in the freezer to then use when I make a big batch of broth to can. I have on occasion used a glass mason jar, but it can take up a lot of needed room in the freezer and is less forgiving than the flexible bag than can mold itself around other frozen items in there.

    We have also taken to buying a big thing of yogurt and portioning it off into little jelly jars, and we do try to remember our reusable bags for grocery shopping. I also bring my own produce bags as well, and if I ever have the luxury of being near a bulk foods store, I do bring in mason jars, fabric bags, etc for such a glorious event.

    We also feel that sometimes it is a necessary "evil", but we will reuse and repurpose as much as possible. Plastic containers with lids definitely get used for the hubs to take his dinner to work (and they have a recycling center nearby he can toss them into at the end of the week/month (whenever he finally cleans them out of his car)).

    We definitely burn anything that can be burned, or shred and/or add to the compost pile.

    We're not saints, but we do consciously think about what comes into the house, and what can be reused and/or recycled before just tossing into the trash.

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