Where We’re At

As most of you know, my family just spent four months buying as close to no plastic as we possibly could. Our “experiment” was an extremely successful primer in simple living, one that we continue to be instructed by. We are much changed. So what does life look like now that the rules have been lifted?

Well, I’m still making soft cheeses like chevre and ricotta. I make our yogurt and sour cream. I’ve started buying hard cheeses like jack and cheddar from a local source. Yes, it’s packaged in plastic. But it’s organic and local, and while I might have avoided personally creating trash when I bought cheese from the grocery deli in my own container, I noticed they wrapped the (non-local, non-organic) cheese right back up in a fresh piece of plastic wrap after serving me. So that’s one change.

I’m still making our tortillas, bread products, and crackers. I did buy a can of tomatoes, which is lined in a BPA containing plastic. My first canned product in ages. It felt…kind of sinful and unnecessary, but also kind of wonderful. Oh, and we’ve been having a bit of a strawberry  feast for the last couple weeks. Just couldn’t wait for their local season after so long eating home preserved apples all winter. They are wonderful, and I vacillate between disgust at the plastic cartons piling up in our normally empty trash and pleasure in my daughter’s pleasure. Hopefully she’ll get sick of them soon.

Some folks might wonder, why not keep going the way we have been? For us, that’s not an option. We have cars to maintain, a house to hold together, bodies to nurture, and a growing child to care for. As I’ve learned in the last few months, this requires very, very little plastic. But it does require some, and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t need it. Also, we have a growing commitment to local foods–I want to try to get as much as 4/5ths of our fare from local sources this summer, and sometimes this means choosing plastic packaging over a non local, unpackaged food. I’ve struggled with this for the duration of our fast, but am now ready to switch my priorities just slightly so that local takes precedence.

So, basically we are continuing to implement our new ways of living, and ending the rigidity of the actual fast. In my mind I’ve devised an elaborate flow chart that helps me to decide when a plastic purchase is appropriate.

I ask myself: Do I really need this?

No: Don’t buy it. Yes: Am I sure?

No: Try to go without for awhile. Yes: Is an alternative available?

Yes: Buy the alternative. No: Am I sure?

No: Look around more. Yes: Ask,

Will this help us to live more ecologically overall? How durable is the plastic? How much can it be reused before being thrown away? Can it be found secondhand? Will it bring us joy, encourage creativity, enhance our life in a way that is ultimately responsible?

Things that we’ll probably be buying in the near future are: drip irrigation supplies, glass storage containers with plastic lids, a bottle of oil lamp fuel, fixtures for the gutters we are installing this spring, and key ingredients that help us to cook from scratch and reduce our packaging waste overall. Assuming of course, that these things meet the criteria laid out above (i.e. no alternative available). Still, there are lot’s of things a four month plastic fast won’t give you a chance to run out of–I’m just now starting to wonder about craft paste in a glass jar, and a refillable ink pen. It’s things like this that we’ll continue to investigate and incorporate into our lives.

So the journey continues to discover what we really need, and how we can best acquire it. Thanks for coming along with us.

April Plastic Tally

It’s that time of month again, when I excavate under my kitchen sink to reveal all the new plastic trash we’ve accumulated in the last month. If you are new here, this is a monthly ritual in which I take account of how much plastic our family of three brought into the home when doing everything in our ability to not bring in any. As I learned pretty early on, we were never able to get it down to zero–plastic lids are acceptable if no alternative is available, and as you’ll see there are other transgressions.

This will be a familiar picture to anyone who’s been around for the tally before. Lot’s of milk bottle caps. A handful of missing rings. (Did I say this was scientific? Not really.)  There are a few extras this month because I wanted to finally make sour cream and had a bit of trial and error buying the right kind of cream. More on that later. The ink pad isn’t trash and hopefully will be around for a while, but it does represent my big, pre-meditated plastic purchase of the month. You’ll also see a lollipop wrapper, a mini yogurt container I needed for starter, a ketchup bottle lid wrapper, the last of my plastic yarn wrappers purchased mail order back in January (I had no idea anyone would think of labeling yarn in plastic!), some random cellophane, and the bag from my vital wheat gluten debacle back in February or so. A sort of sad follow up to that quest for plastic free VWG is that by the time my packaged stash ran out the store that carried it in bulk discontinued it. Yup, that was Whole Foods in case anybody wants to complain. I’d hate them outright, but they also started accepting #5 plastic for recycling. Bring them lot’s of trash, please.

This is the CSA pile. Apple cider, local raw honey, garlic, cheese, and a few bags I couldn’t realistically transfer the contents of to my  cloth bags. The local food arena is one area that I’m going to loosen up about as we enter the Plastic Free Lite phase of our experiment. If something is available locally, but packaged in plastic, I might choose it over a non-regional, unpackaged version. But only if we really need it, it really makes sense, and I can’t find an alternative locally or convince the producer of the error of their ways.

A broccoli tab, a plastic lined bag of cat food and some packing bubbles. Can I just that I had a whole lot more of those packing bubbles, but they’ve been stowed away in the shed in case of future shipping needs. I inherited a sewing machine from my grandma, and it arrived safely thanks to a sea of this stuff. My mom sent it for me, and I have to add that she also padded the box with some thrift store clothes she thought I’d like.

not included here is the bag of ice we bought for our road trip without even considering it was in plastic. An excellent example of how invisible plastic can be when you need it and have blinders on. Or the beer bag we got on that trip. And probably some other things, like the plastic wrapping on the neck of a wine bottle. Who saves plastic when they’re tipsy? Also, I don’t save things like olive oil lids with plastic inserts, or junk mail with plastic windows in the envelopes. Just to give you full disclosure.

Thanks for your interest in my trash! Have a nice day.

Gratitude for the Journey

So much to say as our plastic fast draws to a close, but basically all I need to say is not much is going to change.

I’ll buy bleach, at last, and maybe rice cakes. And I’ll feel less guilty when I can’t resist a new ink pad for my rubber stamping.

But it’s been a good thing, this unpackaged life, and I’m feeling mighty grateful for all it has taught us.

Unexpected abundance, indeed.

Why cut short a good thing?

Our less-plastic life has been made possible by the old fashioned gods of making do and doing without.

I offer them my thanks, now:

To the ancestors, and the children yet to come;

To the earth, our home.

And to our expanding knowledge of how to live lightly and fully upon it.


Many thanks to all of you for sharing the journey.

It is far from over.

(PS, I’ll post our garden party on Monday so we can all enjoy a weekend offline. Still time to contribute…)

Road Trip

We fired  up the old VW over the weekend and took a little road trip to Truth or Consequences. Nope, that’s not a metaphor, just New Mexico. It’s warm down there, with hot springs, the big Rio Grande, and old friends, both human and plant, to reconnect with. And of course, we did our best to not let a little road time not devolve into one big potato chip indulgence. In other words, to keep our no new plastic ways alive in a slightly more challenging setting.

What I learned is, the same rules apply to the road as at home: Keep it simple.  Make do. Substitute. And, you know, relax.

I made a batch of cookies and crackers, and goat cheese (cuajada, my favorite fresh, raw cheese) the morning we left. (Yes, we were about three hours behind schedule.) I thought of making everything in advance, but E. had the novel idea that we just wing it. Which was good, because in a way this was practice run for our plans of extended road tripping this summer. When, no doubt, some compromises will be made, but perhaps not as many as it first seems. After all, folks did a fair amount of moving around in the millennia before plastic came on the scene.

We ate things a lot like what we eat at home: eggs and potatoes, cooked with garlic and spinach. Pasta with local asparagus and chard. Sandwiches. Oatmeal. We brought along plastic jugs for water, and a few of our old plastic bags to keep the bread and greens in. We brought a supply of cloth diapers, but Cora is a natural at peeing in the woods. For snacks we brought along things from the bulk aisle of our home store: cheese sticks, nuts, granola. It was fine.

We did end up acquiring one plastic bag. When we stopped at a gas station in T or C for a six pack of beer, and they said it was illegal to bring it outside without a bag. The bag came in handy though, because trash happens. And sipping a brew by the dying coals of a cedar fire, the crescent moon setting over the mountains, well, some things in life are just meant to be.

Happy travels!

March Plastic Tally

For all my fretting over falling of the wagon, looking over this month’s new plastic trash was rather reassuring. (By new plastic I mean things we acquired and disposed of since January.) An exercise in the pleasures of archeology. Sort of.

~ Last month E. and I attended our first party alone together in a long, long time. He drank beer from the keg in that green cup, and I took my wine in the little clear one. The fork was for our friend’s birthday cake, and we shared it.

~ Wine wrapper and plastic cork.

~Two out of a total of four Lamb’s Pride yarn labels. They actually say they are recyclable, but don’t give a number. Perhaps I should send them back to the company with a note asking--why? why must you use plastic? Anyways, my almost-done-sweater is lovely. And I’ll get yarn locally next time.

~The usual milk bottle caps. Any ideas on something crafty I can do with my collection?

~A toothbrush wrapper. I got the kind of brush that you replace the head on. The replacement parts also come in a plastic package, but with four in a pack it seems like less waste overall. Maybe.

~Mac and cheese cheese pouch, and a ring from a jar of almond butter.

~Orange plastic strings from a few haybales. We need lot’s more of that.

~Styrofoam cup that we neither wanted nor asked for, but didn’t say no to quickly enough at a low blood sugar stop at the burrito shack drive through.

~A label from one of the several bouquets of daffodils we got for Cora’s birthday. And some veggie labels.

~A bottle of kid’s probiotics.

~Tub of sour cream left behind by our house-sitter after spring break. It was 3/4 full, and we were all in heaven. Cora ate it by the spoonful.

~A new printer cartridge, at last. We actually excavated an old printer from our shed in hopes that it would use less ink, and found a few cartridges in the box. So far we haven’t really had to deal with the ink question, but this is symbolic of an ongoing quest to get off the un-refillable cartridge habit.

~Plastic wrapping from a puzzle and CD Cora received for her birthday.

~Potato bag from our CSA.

Also this month I bought the following items, with full awareness of their plastic content but convinced that their usefulness justified it:

~A bottle of lye for soap making.

~Two strawberry starts–my present for Cora.

~A mesh plastic bag of onion sets. I had to have them, but felt so guilty I gave half to a friend, along with the offending bag.

~Also, we’ve been searching for plastic-free lamp oil, and were resigned to just using candles for our unplugged evenings. Then a friend gifted us with a quarter bottle of oil that he’d gotten just in case before Y2K, and we accepted it, gratefully. Or maybe I’m mis-representing that, because we actually begged him for it.

I think that the sheds of friends and neighbors should be fair game, though. The more we share and spread around tools and materials, the more we get to visit, and that makes the world a happier place to live in. And cuts down on new purchases of plastic. So if you need any lye, come on by. I’ll share, so long as you take the bottle with you. 😉

System Cleanse

I once heard a prominent holistic MD give a talk on the importance of making dietary changes in order to facilitate healing. He said he asked all his patients to make some kind of change. Often, it was to simply return to whole foods. Sometimes it would be more prescriptive, a cleanse say, or a certain regimen such as for heart disease or cancer. But even if an individual ailment had little to do with food, he’d still ask them to alter their diet in some way, even if it was only a symbolic way. The reason was because while broccoli and green tea are good for our health, deeper healing is partially facilitated by intention. Our bodies need that symbolic act, that change in diet, as a show of our commitment to transforming a pattern that is not serving the system.

I’ve reflected a lot on that idea lately. You might even say that the larger intent of this otherwise eccentric and unusually rigid (for me) experiment is something along those lines. The idea of cleansing our system while making a commitment to further growth and personal transformation has fueled this project from its humble origins back in the days when it felt impossible.

I’m looking forward to the healthy reintegration of plastic into our lives. It will be nice to be able to buy tortillas every now and then, and to have sour cream with our beans. Despite my occasional griping, though, I am feeling very grateful for this commitment. This is not the kind of thing I’ve done much of, and it has been a powerful act. It has taken me on that long dreamed of journey to the olden days, and given me an education in made-from-scratch like you would not believe. It has wakened me from the cultural sleep, and opened doors to a world in which there are countless ways to praise this good life while living as simply as possible.

So onward we go, into the last month of this simple fast. It will carry on, surely, as we have so much left to discover the alternatives to. I’m not thinking of that so much right now, though. It’s just the external details of what is really about inner change. The kind of change that can’t always be spoken, but is there, singing loudly, nevertheless.

These Days

I have a guest post over at the One Small Change blog. They’re the good people who have created a bit of a phenomenon of environmental changes–small and large–in the blogosphere and beyond. My post is called A Plastic Free Primer.

In the meantime, the river’s a-running and my little bug turns two this week.

Every so often I think about how to create a simple, sweet, and plastic free party for her. But mostly we’re just digging in the garden.

February Reckoning

Goodness, is it already time to tally up our monthly accrual of plastic waste again?

More milk caps, a lollypop wrapper, a plastic lined macaroni and cheese packet, some wrapping from something or other, rubber bands and plastic tags from produce (you can safely bet that there were a few more of these that got swept away during dinner cleanup).

Now is as good a time as any to bring up the butcher paper quandary. It’s surely plastic lined. We’re eating a lot less meat these days, but still, it’s not something we’re ready to give up completely (and no store will let me bring home raw meat in my own container). So that’s one area where I’m compromising. You don’t see that here because saving paper with raw meat juice on it would be a health hazard.

One other slip I had this month was buying fresh local lamb at the farmer’s market before I realized it came in a plastic vacuum sealed bag. Did I already tell you about that? It was a bummer.

Other than that, and the mail ordered yarn with plastic labels (it was wholesale!),  we seem to be doing well.

Now this pile is from our CSA. It has been an ongoing challenge for me to find ways to make the CSA experience a waste free one. This winter our CSA, which we otherwise love, has gone a little plastic bag crazy, pre-bagging just about everything. I end up carefully emptying the food from it’s plastic bags and putting it into my cloth ones. The plastic ones I give back, but sometimes they aren’t reusable–torn or dirty. Yes, it’s wasteful-ish. But I want to make the point that this is unwanted. The plastic shown in this picture is from things I couldn’t do that with — they had frozen veggies or fruit in them. I could have turned the food down, but I’d already paid for them and it’s a strange grey area for me. Would you say no to pomegranate apple juice with your name on it? On the bright side, a CSA is a great place to actually have an influence about changing wasteful practices. My voice has been heard and they are slowly making changes. And the benefits of the local, seasonal fare are worth fighting for. Besides, each of those baggies will get re-used about a hundred times around here, so they aren’t really trash yet.

Please note: This doesn’t represent all the plastic we threw out this month, only new items we purchased post 1/1/10 and have already used up. Not included are pre 2010 yogurt containers used to freeze food, many times re-used bread and produce bags that are just too funky to keep around, toothpaste caps, and other things from our pre-fast days that are just now leaving the home. Also not included are things given to us by friends–if someone brings a pint of fresh olives or a bag of chips to the house, we follow No Impact Man’s lead and enjoy the generous gesture and camaraderie, and take a break from tallying.

In Praise of (durable, necessary) Plastic

a couple of my favorite pieces of plastic…

and the places they take me.

Given this scheme of ours to not bring any new plastic into our home for four months (and beyond), you might have thought this was easy for me. You might have mistaken me for some kind of hard core enviromama with a baby in wool nappies, a kitchen full of sprouting trays, and a candle lantern glowing in the background. Well, I won’t say that I haven’t tried any of those things, but let me just remind you that a few short months ago, I did most of my shopping at Trader Joe’s. Enough said. For the sake of balance, (plastic gets such a bad rap on this blog!) I’d like to give all my favorite plastic things (at least the ones I know of no alternative to) a little shout out:

::  Gloves, ski pants, parka. You guys are the greatest. Backcountry skis and tele boots. Adjustable poles. Hell yeah.

:: Vauum cleaner. Especially the hose…

:: Helmets! Bike pumps and tires. Carseat. Car, too.

:: Water bottle sport cap, I can’t believe the level to which I love you. Please do not break or start leaking any time soon.

:: Camera, computer, pens. Guitar strings and tuning pegs. Oh geez, the stereo!

:: PLU diaper covers. Snappi. Nylon backpack.

:: Ziploc freezer bags full of apples, tamales, green chile.

:: Buckets. Diaper pail. Salad spinner. Toothbrush.

:: Oilcloth – you of the incomparable beauty and usefulness.

Plastic is, as you no doubt know, amazing. It has given us many wonderful gifts in the last sixty or so years. As a nurse, I’ve used it to save lives. As a citizen of the world, I know the time has come for me to see how far I can go without it, if not to save the planet, then at least to stop harming it in the simple ways available to me. This list is short, yeah?  Plastic is great, but it’s far from everything.

What’s on your list?

Live and Learn Part II: The Vital Wheat Gluten Fable

The day came when I really wanted vital wheat gluten. I assure you it seemed absolutely necessary. At one store it was sold in plastic bags. So of course I didn’t buy it. At the next store I saw it in a cardboard box. Jackpot!

Not quite.

I’m not sure if it was my all consuming desire that blinded me to the fact that inside that little box would be a plastic bag (like 99.2% of food sold in cardboard boxes). I thought it might be like baking soda, or mac and cheese, you know. But of course it wasn’t, and I got twice the packaging I would have ended up with if I’d just bought the plastic bag.

Here’s the kicker. A week later, back at the first store, I found it in bulk. Ack! (True to my principles, I had looked for it in bulk, but at the second store, not the first. Confused? Yeah.)

Now, I don’t go beating myself up for these accidental transgressions. It just annoys me that my unintentional “slips” are for things like vital wheat gluten instead of, say, blueberries (which we are really missing these days).

So what is the takeaway message from this little goosechase? I’m tempted to say it’s don’t give up–Just say no! So, so many of the things we need, excluding printer cartridges and that sort of thing, can be found in a plastic-free form. But for me the real lesson was to just keep on keeping on…and not worry too much about my lack of x-ray vision.

Which reminds me that I’m still looking for a plastic-free source of wool stuffing. If you happen to know of anyone who offers it in a paper bag, do tell.