Whoa… I try to do my part for the environment but living completely plastic-free boggles my mind. How in the world would I get around things like, well, packaging? Toys? Cleaning products? My (GASP!) blow dryer? Oh, how my list goes on.
Beth Terry has been living plastic-free since June of 2007 and is the author of the popular blog My Plastic-free Life and the new book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too . A founding member of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Beth gives presentations on living plastic-free and why our personal changes do make a difference. She spearheaded the successful Take Back the Filter Brita recycling campaign in 2008, and her life and work have been profiled in Susan Freinkel’s book, “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” Captain Charles Moore’s “Plastic Ocean,” and the award-winning film “Bag It.”
Luckily, she still managed to find the time to answer Breezy Mama’s questions on her advice for living plastic-free.
What’s the first step in living plastic free?
For me, before deciding what actual steps to take, I needed to see what my plastic footprint was in the first place — what plastic items and packaging I was using on a daily basis and what changes could be the easiest to make or make the biggest impact. So I started collecting all my plastic waste each week and posting it on my blog, MyPlasticFreeLife.com. As you can imagine, it was mostly all single-use packaging, bags, and bottles.
My personal first step was to start carrying my own reusable shopping bags with me every time I left the house. Compressible bags like ChicoBag made it very easy because I could keep a few of them in my purse at all times. The hardest part was remembering to speak up before the cashier started to bag my purchases in plastic.
My next step was to start carrying my own reusable stainless steel water bottle and giving up plastic-bottled beverages. That was harder to remember, and there’s a funny story in my book about the first time I forgot to bring my bottle to the gym with me and thought for sure I would die of dehydration. As you can see, I didn’t die. Instead, I discovered the water fountains.
After that, it was just a step-by-step process finding plastic-free alternatives as I used up the plastic-packaged products I already had. For each person, those steps will be different depending on your lifestyle and the resources you have available.
How can moms make it a reality in their homes to live completely plastic free?
Take it slowly. One thing I stress in my book is that it’s important not to try to do everything at once. Set priorities. For example, PVC (aka vinyl) is a particularly toxic plastic which can contain phthalates and heavy metals like lead, chemicals which are especially harmful to growing bodies. Maybe focus on ditching anything made of PVC first. If you have small children, you may want to focus on replacing plastic foodware and toys — anything that will go into your child’s mouth — with plastic-free alternatives. One of my blog readers says she feeds her baby with little stainless steel demitasse spoons instead of the plastic-coated baby spoons. Another reader says she buys inexpensive plastic-free plates, bowls, and cups from thrift stores and that her children are very careful with them. It really depends on the family. The book is chock full of advice from many other moms who give tips that work for them in their homes. And I also provide a list of questions to ask to figure out what your own priorities are.
I personally still use a lot of plastic. When I started my project, I decided it would be worse for the environment to throw away the things I already had and replace them than to simply keep using the things I already had. But when I learned about the toxic chemicals in plastic, I decided I didn’t want to eat, drink, or cook with plastic anymore. So I slowly replaced my kitchenware. And I don’t buy new plastic. For example, if an electronic gadget wears out, I try to get it repaired, and if it can’t be repaired, I’ll find something secondhand on Craigslist or Freecycle. Sometimes I realize I didn’t even need the item in the first place.
When shopping at Target, for example, it can be a lot cheaper than bulk bin stores such as Whole Foods. Can you live plastic free and still shop at the cheaper stores?
There are certainly trade-offs. For me, it’s a matter of prioritizing how I spend my money. I save a lot of money by cutting out bottled beverages, processed foods, many personal care and cleaning products that are easy to whip up at home without plastic (baking soda is cheap!), and by avoiding buying brand new products made from plastic. I shop at thrift stores and find ways to borrow and share instead of buying a lot of new stuff. Those dollars saved go towards healthier foods from farmers’ markets and bulk bins. A lot of moms are able to live green on a budget.
What obstacles have you run into while trying to live plastic free and what was your work around?
My first obstacle was frozen convenience foods. I lived on them because I wasn’t willing to cook. After going plastic-free, I discovered that there were no frozen foods that weren’t either packaged in plastic or in plastic-coated cardboard. So I had to learn to eat whole, fresh foods. Not only was I avoiding the chemicals from the plastic, but I was also eating a lot better. And preparing fresh foods didn’t really take as long as I imagined it would.
Another obstacle is remembering to bring my utensils and containers with me when I leave the house in case I want take-out food or have restaurant leftovers. And also, remembering to speak up and tell servers that I don’t want that plastic straw or any other plastic with my meal. At first, it was challenging to speak up because I am a natural introvert. But the more I did it, the easier it became. Like everything else about living plastic-free, it just takes practice.
Anything else you’d like to share to help families live a plastic free life?
For me, living plastic-free had been a fun project. Challenging, yes, but also very rewarding. One important decision I made early on was to never nag my family and friends to be as diligent (some would say “extreme”) as I am. I set an example and talk to them about my choices when they ask. But nagging only breeds resentment. Since I started my project, my husband has gotten involved in his own ways. He set up the recycling/composting system at his company and created a green newsletter for the employees on environmental issues. And because of his influence, the company cancelled its bottled water contract and bought all the staff stainless steel water bottles. I doubt any of those things would have happened if I had tried to guilt trip him into going along with the program. So my best advice for families is to have fun with it and make it a game. Protecting the planet and our health can be fun.
To learn more about Beth, visit http://myplasticfreelife.com
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