With the preponderance of plastic items everywhere you turn, it’s a real challenge to figure out how to reduce my use. Take, for instance, the celebratory picnic of grandson’s swim team season two weeks ago. Hotdogs and hamburgers would be furnished, but each family was to bring along “prepackaged” sides to make the meal complete. Prepackaged? I visualized single serving chip bags, plastic containers of fruit or pudding, industrial cookies and brownies, wrapped and sealed in plastic before packaging in paperboard boxes.
How to reduce my family’s plastic contribution?
Here’s what I decided to do. I baked a batch of home-made oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips, and put one cookie each inside a single paper sleeve.
I had found a supply of these online when preparing a promotion of Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File at an old-time crafts festival.
Then I cleaned and sanitized 24 small plastic cups that included plastic lids, which came with the free USDA summer lunches provided during COVID for the grandson. I selected ripe and attractive grapes, chunks of melon, and a bing cherry, and made two dozen fresh fruit cups. I sealed them with the cleaned lids. Okay, I know. This was still in plastic, but at least it was re-used plastic before it was tossed into the trash bins.
This reducing plastic thing is hard. It’s everywhere, and we’re so used to it, we don’t even think about it anymore.
After watching the documentary The Story of Plastic with several friends and neighbors last month, and reading Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, I am convinced we need to move toward a plastic free world sooner, rather than later. Like maybe, yesterday. Or last year.
It’s not going to be easy. Look around. Nearly everything we do, everything we have, everything we shop for at the local stores is–if not made of plastic itself–wrapped up in it, sealed with it, packaged, bottled, bagged in it. We are so used to plastic in our lives, where do we even begin?
Beth Terry has some really good ideas about that. Her book is chock-full of tips, personal stories (mostly from her experiences), and suggestions for alternatives. I highly recommend it for everyone. It’s written so engagingly, that I was trying some of her ideas with each chapter, without waiting to finish the book. For quick starters, she also blogs at https://myplasticfreelife.com/
For instance, take plastic bags. These nuisances are very bad for the environment, totally unnecessary, but so hard to avoid. I am old enough to recall the days before plastic bags when everything was bagged in paper bags. And of course, we were urged to change our habits then to save the trees! What about the days before paper bag convenience? What about a hundred years ago? What, even, do some other countries do today (or at least in the more recent past, before the bag-pushers got to them)?
People once were responsible for providing their own take-out crates, bags, or boxes. And in some places, that custom still exists. Here at home, it seems that every worthy organization offers free re-usable shopping bags. Some are more road-worthy than others, but at least they aren’t hard to find. I have a dozen in my car, ready for toting new purchases. The good thing about cloth bags is that they can be tossed into the laundry and cleaned for reuse. We just have to remember to take a few into the store when we get the week’s provisions.
If you are a little short on bags, Beth Terry offered good ideas for making your own. How many of us have a drawer-full of old t-shirts we’ve collected at various events? I know I do. They serve a purpose for a day or two, and then gradually get buried under other shirts. Try digging out some t-shirts you haven’t worn for years and make them into shopping bags.
Trim the sleeves off, just outside the seams. Trim the neckline to make the top opening bigger. This need not be hemmed, just leave it raw cut.
Turn the shirt inside out and sew two seams across the bottom. Two seams adds strength.
Turn it right-side out, and you’ve got a bag.
If you happen to have a tank top that hasn’t been worn for a long time, it’s even easier. No sleeves to trim! Just double-seam the bottom edge and it’s a ready-made bag.
If you have no sewing machine, just cut a fringe and tie knots along the bottom. For a festive look, add beads, or other bits of things.
You can express yourself with the shirts you choose, and have a Uniquely You collection of reusable shopping bags. Or make some to give away each time you shop.
One other homemade bag suggested in the book is one crocheted out of plarn. I had never heard of plarn, but it’s a thing. Google it and you’ll find all kinds of video instructions on how to make a ball of “plarn” (that is, plastic yarn) from shopping bags. There are detailed instructions on the crocheting process, and even patterns for other items, like bedrolls for homeless people. (Really!) Talk about re-using something. A bedroll would take lots of bags from landfills already overflowing with once-used plastic stuff, or re-purpose hundreds that otherwise might blow into the trees in your hometown or the pond in your park, and might even provide a bit of comfort for those with precious little of that commodity.
My experimental plarn bag, still light-weight, but with the strength of 50 single-use bags:
Show and tell reusable homemade bags at the screening of The Story of Plastic:
Zero Plastic, Step One: Carry (and use!) reusable shopping bags.
Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by a glut of information on a topic, the immensity of a problem or a challenge, that I quite literally don’t know where to begin. Plastic pollution is such a topic. Plastics and me have had a decades-long feud. Though I grew up in the early days of the plastic boom, love for the natural world and wilderness led me to associate plastics with everything cheap and shoddy. The preponderance of the growing available products—from cheap tourist souvenirs to Tupperware (remember the parties??!)—helped me associate the word “plastic” with things that lacked authenticity: cheap imitations, counterfeit, false, fake, superficial, synthetic, and MAN-MADE.
As I moved from my parents’ home, my older sister gave me a set of dinnerware; four each of plates, bowls, and cups—a generous gift to start my adult life. But I was horrified because they were PLASTIC! I’m sure she felt conflicted and confused by my reaction, but the plastic set was returned to the store and traded for a couple pieces of cast iron cookware. (I later settled on a set of ceramic dinnerware.)
Shortly after that, I discovered No More Plastic Jesus by Adam Daniel Finnerty that became a guide book for life. Once again here, plastic meant fake, artificial, and superficial. It has been my lifelong passion to seek genuine things. Some of those are indeed crafted by human hands (take pianos, for example, or the handcrafted furniture in my office made in my father’s woodworking shop), but they use what Nature provides, not what chemists can create by manipulating petroleum into indestructible other stuff.
Having studied a science discipline in my undergraduate curriculum, (geology, a “natural science”) I get testy when people sneer at science and scientists in general. I recall a class I took in preparation for a secondary teaching certificate in the physical sciences. It was called “Science, Technology, and Society” and was a forum to examine ethical questions behind scientific exploitation of Nature’s gifts. Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.
Chemists are scientists too. Just because we know how to re-form the molecules in petroleum and natural gas into long, indestructible polymers, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Discarded plastic products pile up in waste streams and emit the toxins added somewhat secretly by petro-chemical companies to enhance product qualities, clog waterways and swirl in our oceans. It’s becoming clear that even though we humans discovered how to make cheap single-use plastic products, we should not be inundating our planet with the stuff.
Environmental writers around the world note that some plastic products are very beneficial. In the medical field, plastics save lives. In transportation, they help make our vehicles more fuel efficient. On a piano keyboard, plastic saves the lives of elephants whose tusks formerly were used to cover wooden keysticks.
Most of the beneficial plastics are meant to endure for decades. Those we encounter on grocery shopping trips are meant to be thrown away. Single-use plastic products, packaging, and shopping bags have become a huge global problem. And that’s got lots of people riled up, justifiably.
I’ve been reading Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers, Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle, and Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry. In addition, there are numerous blogs addressing plastic pollution with ideas for each of us to make a statement–and a difference–in various ways.
The pictures painted by each of these authors show a global emergency. If we don’t curtail the production and use of single-use disposable plastics before the plastics industry is a century old, there will be more plastic items in the Earth’s oceans than ocean life. No form of animal life –not even humans—will be free from synthetic polymers in the organs of their bodies. (Discover Magazine, “Microplastics are Everywhere, But Their Health Effects on Humans are Still Unclear”, Jillian Mock, January 11, 2020)
Plastic pollution is a global crisis and it’s driven by the petro-chemical industry. In my hometown, every year a group of volunteers cleans our beautiful park of plastic trash as an April, Earth Day project. How disheartening to see the confounded stuff return before May 1! Some trash blows in, other items are carelessly littered, still more is “harvested” from appropriate trash receptacles by roaming nocturnal wildlife.
Our homes are filled with the indestructible polymers. With daunting names like low density polyethylene, (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, (PS), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE), nylon, or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), these “poly-mers” are found in items from children’s toys to floor coverings, to toothbrushes, to water pipes, to cookware and grocery packaging to nearly everything else.
The Story of Stuff organization has produced a documentary, The Story of Plastic. This film takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it has on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe: fields full of garbage, veritable mountains of trash, rivers and seas clogged with waste, and skies choked with the poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing. With engaging original animation, archival industry footage beginning in the 1930s, and first-person accounts of the unfolding emergency, the film distills a complex problem that is increasingly affecting the well-being of the planet and its residents.
Locally, we’ve been given a chance to view this highly acclaimed film as part of Marquee’s Green Screen summer film series, Saturday July 24, 7:00 pm in the lobby of the theater. Local residents are invited to come to the screening. There is no admission charge. To view the film’s trailer, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37PDwW0c1so. Bring questions and ideas about combatting the local glut of plastic trash. Be sure to RSVP on Marquee’s Facebook event page so organizers can plan accordingly. For a five-minute animated condensation of the documentary, see https://www.storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-plastic-animation/