Go Plastic-Free: Ways to Shrink Our FootprintJul 31, 2013 ● By Randy Kambic
Looking around us, we see plastic everywhere.
Besides the customary food and product packaging, plus store bags, consider all the nooks and crannies of our lives that plastic now permeates: eating utensils; baby and pet toys; computer keyboards and accessories; pens; eyeglasses; athletic footwear; backpacks; lighters; beauty care and pill containers; household cleaning bottles; ice cube trays; shaving razors; tool handles; hairbrushes and toothbrushes—even some facial scrubs, shampoos and chewing gum.
Beth Terry, author of Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Habit and How You Can Too, points out compelling reasons to take personal action. In 2007, this Oakland, California, resident saw a photo of the decomposed carcass of a Laysan albatross riddled with plastic bits in an article on water pollution.
“For several seconds, I could not breathe,” she writes. This seminal moment led her to further research, by which she realized, “This plague of plastic chemicals is harming everyone, and especially the most vulnerable members of our planet—children and animals—and that is both unacceptable and unfair.” She’s been working on going plastic-free ever since.
“I made a game of it; a fun, creative, step-by-step challenge,” she advises. “You can’t go through the house and think you can get rid of all plastic immediately. As items get used up, you’ll find alternatives.” Once we are in the habit of staying alert to the plastic scourge, we’ll naturally spot opportunities for healthy change-ups.
Science Sounds the Alarm
In 2011, Harvard School of Public Health researchers made news by discovering that consuming one serving of canned food daily for five days led to significantly elevated urinary levels of bisphenol-A (BPA). This plastic and epoxy resin ingredient is found in the liners of many food and drink cans and sometimes in plastic bottles. It’s known to be a serious endocrine disrupter.
“The biggest lesson since I started is the joy of less—of buying less stuff and making do with what I already have.”
~ Beth Terry
Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, altered functions of reproductive organs and other ailments have been linked to high BPA levels in several studies, including one cited in Endocrine Reviews journal. The Manchester Guardian also recently reported that the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety has stated that an unborn baby’s exposure to BPA through the mother could be linked to many health problems, including breast cancer later in life.
When plastics are subjected to stress—like heat, light or age—undisclosed additives used in their production for strength, flexibility and color can leach out and even contaminate lab results, as the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry found. Such chemicals can migrate into our digestive systems and through our skin; they can also off-gas into the air, according to a recent study by Weber State University’s Energy & Sustainability Office, in Ogden, Utah. Plus, unrecycled plastic materials can enter waterways and kill marine life through ingestion or entanglement (ocean garbage patches are major examples).
Reducing our own plastic footprint can both safeguard family health and prove that we are serious about pressuring industry to produce less of it. The key, according to Terry, is not to be intimidated or overwhelmed by plastic overload, but persist in taking baby steps (see MyPlasticFreeLife.com).
How to Begin
As a starting point, Terry notes that plastic enables the long-distance food distribution system. Reducing food miles associated with our meals helps cut down on the use of plastic. In the kitchen, use airtight stainless steel containers or glass jars or simply refrigerate a bowl of food with a saucer on top to hold leftovers for the next day. Compost food waste. Reuse empty plastic food bags and line garbage cans with old newspapers instead of plastic bags.
Milo Cress, of Burlington, Vermont, launched the national Be Straw Free campaign at age 10, when he realized that restaurants routinely give customers a plastic straw whether they want it or not.
Terry cautions, “People assume everything that carries the triangular symbol is accepted at all recycling facilities. This is not the case. What isn’t accepted is landfilled or even incinerated.” Also, according to the city of Oakland’s Waste Management Department, she learned that “Much of what we put out for recycling goes to China, and their processing standards are not as strong as ours.”
In Plastic Free, the author provides scores of tips for borrowing, renting and sharing products; buying used plastic equipment if it’s a necessity; and avoiding disposable packaging and paper products. Areas for improvement range from personal care and household cleaning products to bags, bottles, grocery shopping, takeout food, portable leftovers and lunches, plus durable goods. Activists will move on to also participate in area cleanups, donate to green organizations and write their legislators.
Randy Kambic, a freelance editor and writer in Estero, Florida, regularly contributes to Natural Awakenings.