Hello, Goodbye: Getting Ready for Life After Plastic

This well-loved and sun bleached trike was dropped off by a friend a month or so ago, and we so appreciate the timing. If it had been offered in the new year, we wouldn’t have been able to accept. That’s the terms of the plastic fast (January 1-May 1) we’ve committed to: Love what you got, make do without what you don’t. We’ve been getting ready to live by this motto for several months now, not so much stocking up (see exceptions below) as learning how to live without the things we once thought were so essential. In the process, we’ve been saying hello to some new products and goodbye to others. In no particular order, the things on my mind these final days are:

Hello:

:: Hello Glue in a can. I love making small books and collages, and burn through glue sticks like nobody’s business.

:: Hello chevre, yogurt, and sour cream cultures. I ordered them from here, and am stocking up as they unfortunately come in tiny plastic bags.

:: Hello mineral pigments in metal tins. Goodbye liquid makeup in a tube.

:: Hello water activated paper tape. Yep, there are times when string just won’t do the job.

:: Hello Compressed natural cellulose sponges. I’d love a Skoy cloth or two, but rags will have to do.

:: Hello fruit juice sweetened ketchup, the only one I can find in a glass jar. It’s good for us, right?

:: Hello cloth baby wipes. A solution of 2 tbsp baby oil, 2 tbsp baby shampoo, and a cup of water make cleaning bums a breeze. I also stack a few to the needed thickness for menstrual pads. We’ve been using cloth diapers since our daughter was born, but not always at night. So bye, bye disposables.

:: Hello renewed sense of right livelihood and balance.

Goodbye:

:: So long, Braggs, beloved condiment that has been with me all my days. I still can’t figure out what you actually are, but I’m forsaking you for tamari from the bulk section of the co-op.

:: Goodbye, condoms. At a mining museum I once saw old tins that held one reusable, animal gut “shield.” As far as I know, nothing like that is available today (or actually effective). Instead we’ll continue using Fertility Awareness (which has worked for us for ten years), and hoard our little stash of latex for fertile day emergencies.

:: Bye, bye, Monterey Jack. We can buy bulk cheddar and baby swiss (and bring it home in a tiffin), but no jack. I’ve been making lot’s of simple soft cheeses and appreciate the way they’ve expanded my culinary world, but this is a favorite, and we’ll miss it.

:: Farewell, contact lenses and associated waste. Hello glasses! (Not me, him.)

:: Adios, cheap underwear and socks from big box stores.

:: So long, canned tomatoes and coconut milk. I’ll keep writing letters to your manufacturers asking them to package you in glass, but until, then, be well.

:: Good riddance, Ebay.

:: Bye for now, snack food for kiddos. Okay, I’ll confess, I bought C. a giant bag (no cardboard) of O’s, but have stashed them in a jar for emergencies.

:: And a fond farewell to feelings of guilt and powerlessness. Thank you for propelling us to make these changes!

::

If the things on these lists seem, well, minor, they are (but let’s talk again in February, shall we?) That’s what I’ve learned during these months of weaning off plastic – we don’t actually need (much of) it. Some exceptions that my pragmatic side asks me to acknowledge our need for are:

:: The occasional plastic cap on milk bottles and the like. Before buying plastic parts I’ll try to go without, or make my own (mayo and toothpowder, for example). We’ll be saving all plastic that makes it’s way into our home, maybe for a fabulous art project if that glue turns out to be worth a dime.

:: Motor oil. Our cars are old, efficient, and kept alive by regular transfusions of oil. But we’ll try to keep it to a minimum by driving as little as possible.

:: Cat food. I’m not planning to make Nippy give up wet food, though one friend pointed out that if I really cared I’d make it for her. I guess we all have our limits. I’m having trouble finding dry food in a paper bag not lined with plastic. Suggestions? As for cat litter, let’s just say Nippy will be spending more time outdoors.

For more on changes we’ve made to make trips to the grocery store plastic free (easily the biggest hurdle), read this post. The long-time plastic-free blogger Fake Plastic Fish has a much more comprehensive list of changes and alternatives here.

Hands

Forgoing the plastic wrapping that seems to blanket the earth these days has meant relying on our hands to provide the same basic foods and goods we only recently bought heavily packaged from the store. Lately my hands are my teachers, showing me all kinds of things I didn’t know I could do. Hands, in fact, seem to be the primary tool in a plastic free life. These days mine knead bread and stir pots, roll tortillas and express milk from goat udders, pick rosehips for tea, crochet scarf after scarf, and hang diapers on the line. If that sounds like Little House on the Prairie but with radiant heat floors and indoor plumbing, it is, and I love it.

I also like what Susan Lydon says of hand crafting in her book The Knitting Sutra:

“The sensation is almost impossible to describe (she writes),

as it occurs through the hands rather than the mind and is utterly nonverbal in nature,

but it feels as though invisible teachers were guiding your movements.

Perhaps it is not that at all but merely a connection to the collective unconscious

or a kind of ancestral memory common to us all …

you don’t know it’s there until you tap into it by accident,

with a particular motion of the hands, and then suddenly,

with an almost electric shock, the body remembers.”

What are you learning from your hands these days?

Toxic Plastic News Roundup

While I might sometimes question the benefit our decision to go plastic-free has on the planet’s health, there is no question that it is one of the most significant changes we can make to improve our own well-being. The growing mountain of evidence continues to show that despite its prevalence in our society, exposure to plastic isn’t always safe for us, and especially not for our children.

In November The Official Journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry released a study linking phthalate exposure to ADHD in school age children.

Equally horrifying is this study by Environmental Health Perspectives that links prenatal BPA (Bisphenol-A) exposure to aggression in two year old girls.

For an article about how BPA has been shown to be present even in “BPA free” bottles, click here. I know we can’t escape the ubiquitousness of these chemicals, but it is upsetting to think that even when we think we are “safe” we probably aren’t.

Speaking of Bisphenol-A exposure, Treehugging Family reports on a study done by Consumer Reports showing how BPA leeches into many common canned foods, including organic ones.

So what is safe? I just can’t say anymore, especially after reading this icing on the cake piece about the migration of toxins from ordinary food packaging, like cheese.  The author of the study says, “even manufacturers of plastics do not know the full extent of chemicals that are present in their products.” So at least I know I’m not alone in my ignorance.

While BPA and phthalates are unavoidable completely, we can take a simple step to reduce our exposure to them: quit plastic. It will help keep your family healthy, and who knows, it might just help the planet, too.

Thanks to Life Without Plastic and Treehugging Family for leading me to these stories.

Just to be clear (b/c it’s not always obvious where the links are on this blog), the highlighted bold white words should take you to the studies I mention.

Quality Storage

Well, call me a product of my times and culture, but nothing gets me excited about saving the world like cool gear. Specifically, I’d like a whole freezer filled with stainless tiffins like this one a friend brought me from India. I’ve also been coveting the glass storage containers for sale at my local co-op. As much as I’d like to stock my house with such things, I don’t really need them. And cutting back on plastic just to get lots of cool new “green” gear just doesn’t make sense to me.

Of course, a gal does occasionally need to satisfy her yen for New and Wonderful. While doing my Christmas shopping at the thrift store last week I treated myself to a small assortment of mismatched bowls of different sizes and vintages, all fitted with a carefully chosen plate-lid. Ta-da: our new very cute and eco (but not freezer or travel worthy) tupperware.

If you’re sure you can’t live without a freezer and travel worthy tiffin of your own, a local Indian food market would be a great place to look for affordable and authentic ones. If you’re stuck out on the mesa but have a few pennies to invest in your personal scheme to save the world and the economy (one cool gear item at a time), check out Life Without Plastic, where the high quality tiffins, glass containers, and much more will make you, too, want to swear off plastic forever.

Getting By

So far nobody has asked us why we’re taking a plastic fast. Seems to me that we’re not alone in wanting to clean up our act. What we get asked about is exactly how it is we plan to get by without the substance that seems to be literally engulfing the planet.*

Good question. A few weeks ago, I couldn’t have begun to answer it. I was busy filling my cart with what looked good, had a USDA organic label on it, and was cheap. Yep, that included a lot of plastic wrap, bottles, tubs, and bags. No doubt about it: food is at the crux of our plastic habit. Maybe that’s why it seems so difficult to “live” without it. I’ve done some thinking since then. And started making changes, some of them so simple I’m embarrassed it took a vow of abstinence to implement them. From easiest to most challenging, here’s the general program:

:: If we can find an alternative to plastic, we get it. This means simply choosing the product packaged in paper or glass (metal lids a bonus), or sold in bulk. It does occasionally take an additional twenty seconds of scanning the shelves before finding the plastic-free item in question.

:: Lots of things we’re learning to make from scratch. Mostly for the fun of it. But also because we can’t live without yogurt, tortillas, ricotta, and cookies.

:: A few things we’ll have to compromise on, like toothpaste caps.

:: Some things (like tortilla chips) we’ll have to go way out of our way to get (from the burrito stands that make them fresh).

:: And some things we’ll do without altogether.

So far we seem to be getting by just fine, with the unexpected side effect of eating healthier than we have in years. Our food is fresh, whole, and, more than ever before, local. Got suggestions or questions? Holler, please.

*In the movie Addicted to Plastic it is estimated that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean, and that the ratio of plastic to plankton is 10:1.

And the answer is…

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So how does one get by without plastic? I lost a bit of sleep, I’ll confess, when faced with the conundrum of how to bring my produce and bulk food home without plastic sacks. That the bags offered at our local health food stores were supposedly biodegradable did not comfort me. I wanted to get to the next level. Without having my broccoli wilt a day after bringing it home.

The answer, it seems, is cloth. For under ten dollars I made two dozen drawstring muslin bags of all sizes, for everything from huge heads of kale to poppyseeds. I empty the bulk foods into jars once home from the store. Flours get to stay in their sacks because they are stored in the fridge. So far all durable produce like kale and carrots and broccoli is staying fresh. If I notice something drying out a bit, I spray the bag with a little water. And I do use everything within a week.

Did you know you get bag credit for every bag you bring, not just the grocery sacks that cart everything home? Or that it makes you feel like a million bucks to get home from the store without a single plastic bag to worry about an albatross eating? That keeping food in cloth and glass feels, well, nicer to the food? And that many stores sell muslin bags readymade for your shopping pleasure?

Now we both do.

Everyday Beauty

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This clay pot made it to one potluck before the knob broke off its lid and it was relegated to a high, forgotten shelf in the kitchen where it has been collecting dust for years. It is now our bread bowl. How we survived so long without such a utilitarian piece of handmade beauty gracing our everyday lives, I know not. It keeps our bread fresh without refrigeration or plastic bags, and gives us something lovely to look at and handle during the ordinary act of putting food on the breakfast table.

There are lots of reasons to forego plastic. There is the harm it inflicts to the land and ocean during its production and disposal, and the danger it poses to animals and to our own bodies. There are the questionable ethics of using petroleum and natural gas products, and the simple yearning to live with less impact.

But today the reason I care the most about is this: Living without plastic can make life more beautiful.

The Unexpected Abundance of Going Without

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Here’s the deal: we’re quitting plastic.

Not forever. For four months. Starting January first, we will buy no new plastic. Nothing wrapped in plastic, nothing made of plastic. No new plastic.

At its core this semester-long experiment is a way for us to step outside our comfort zone, so rife with cop-outs like filling our eco totes with heavily packaged food. It’s a symbolic action, but one that feels necessary to take. We can’t realistically throw away the keys to our cars or turn out the lights. We can’t move to the country and live off the grid. But we can get by without plastic.

I think.

At first, I looked at the countdown to New Years Day as a doomsday march. However would we get by? I considered sneaking extra toothbrushes and packages of baby wipes into the shopping cart each week to build up a supply for desperate times.

But a funny thing happened. Once I started looking, I saw all around me how easy it was to not use plastic. The abundance was startling and intoxicating. I mean, have you ever really looked at what is available in the bulk food section of your local co-op? I hadn’t. Those hippies figured it out forty years ago. Where have I been? Trader Joe’s, apparently.

Transitioning to a plastic free life is a bit like preparing for a trip to a foreign country you’ve always wanted to visit. In my case that foreign country is The Olden Days. A land where I get to bake my family’s bread, milk goats, and churn butter. (Just kidding on that last one. If butter came wrapped in plastic I wouldn’t have agreed to this experiment.)

Of course, you don’t need to quit plastic to do any of these things. But it all fits together, this letting go of one thing and welcoming in of another. Our desire to reduce plastic to help the planet, or at least to do less harm to it in our daily lives, was the inspiration for this experiment. The potential it offers us to achieve long dormant dreams, to grow in unexpected ways, to claim our power as agents of change—these are the things that will carry it forward.

It’s still two months from our experiment’s start date, but we’ve already reduced our plastic consumption by more than half. Simply opening ourselves to the idea of making such a big change has changed us in big ways.