Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thinking About Plastic (Again)

I recently completed Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. It was super nerdy and interesting and, well, balanced. That is, it didn't just trash-talk plastic. The book told  a story of the ascendancy of plastic and the kinds of trade-offs that happened as the plastics industry grew to being the multi-billion industry it is now. The story helps me parse out some of my feelings about plastic: it's light and durable, but it never goes away.

So there may be times (when you're going to use something for twenty years, for example, and it's not something you eat out of), where life-cycle analysis will come out in favor of plastic. But the problem came  when plastic was encouraged as a means towards a carefree "throwaway lifestyle". And when it became incredibly ubiquitous in packaging. The other problem inherent is plastics is that there are so many different kinds-- that often look identical-- making them really hard to recycle.

I was struck once again by how plastic is derived from something that took millennia to develop deep inside the earth, yet, in the case of single-use plastic- we use it in a few moments then toss it, to exist on the planet for millennia more (plastic does not go away).  Not unlike gas/petrol, I guess.

I'm going to put a discussion of multiple-use plastics on hold for now. While I try not to buy new reusable plastic containers (I still use the ones we have, though), it's more difficult to wrap my head around things like toilet seats, earphones, computers, etc. Plastics are truly everywhere. Some of those things I hope to get to at some point.  Others are not a high priority (toilet seats).

What's been helpful in reducing my use of single-use plastic
  • Having a Kleen Kanteen I really like has helped a lot for hot drinks.  I have 12oz- the smallest size- so it works great for hot drinks, but it's relatively small for iced drinks or milkshakes.  
  • I discovered that Starbucks has ceramic cups and glasses, that they'll use if you ask for them.  Starbucks itself is another discussion. The great thing is that you can buy a tall frappucino (which I know, costs about a million dollars anyway) and you get the hugest glass on the planet. I can drink for an hour and still not be done. It also provides all my calories for the day.
  • Grocery shopping at set times.  It's a big deal when I go grocery shopping, so it's easy to remember all the bags (big and small) and so on.
  • We don't use many cosmetics/health/beauty stuff.  I should qualify that. We still use cosmetics that were already in the household, but we haven't bought cream, lotion, shampoo, conditioner for over a year. Our soap comes in bars wrapped in paper, and we use bicarb/baking soda as deodorant. I use baking soda as shampoo also; Eug uses soap. We DO still buy toothpaste in plastic tubes-- we'll switch from Trader Joe's to Tom's of Maine toothpaste this month for this reason.
  • Farmer's market. When we make it there, it's packaging free.
Difficult stuff (Our typical week of plastic)
  • Meat packaging, if we eat meat-- usually about once a week.
  • Cheese packaging-- we eat cheese ALL the time.
  • Sour cream packaging
  • Pasta packaging (the Whole Wheat Trader Joe's pasta is packaged in plastic)
  • Impulse drinks- such as soda or Friendly's milkshake (don't stop reading the blog, it's more of an occasional vice that I'm working on)
  • Convenience foods- such as Trader Joe's dumplings
  • Berry containers, if I don't buy berries from the Farmer's Market.
I notice that our trash output increases significantly when we're busy, which may be a strong argument for being less busy. 

For inspiration, I saw this video of Bea Johnson and her family. While the style of her home is very New York Times, I felt like much of what she does is possible if there's a gradual escalation over time.

Converting the trash can into a really large worm bin is now my (copied) genius plan in South Africa, as a large number of worms may also be able to handle all the mixed cardboard and paper produced in a household. But, as that would mean we wouldn''t actually have a trash can/rubbish bin, spousal buy-in will be important. I'll keep you posted. Any crazy plans on your side to become a zero waste household?


CB said...

This isn't a very big step, but you did mention you eat cheese all the time (so do I!), and making your own fresh mozzarella and ricotta is really, very easy! To be able to win much in the waste disposal category, you need a source of milk that's waste free....but if you have that, cheese making is super fun, and not very complicated or time consuming. (Anything other than mozzarella and ricotta, and some things like queso fresco gets more difficult, but you can really do a lot with these variations!)

Concrete Gardener said...

Do you have waste free milk? We have returnable glass bottles (so just the plastic cap) but I'd love to learn that there are options available in SA. I make marscapone occasionally, but are you able to make ricotta and mozzarella without cultures?

Concrete Gardener said...

I bought Tom's of Maine instead of TJ toothpaste this past week... and the packaging is plastic! They used to carry the metal tubes. I'll probably just go with TJ, because it costs 1.50 less...

CB said...

I don't have waste free milk - I just buy normal Douglasdale in bags at the supermarket (I re-use the bags, so am quite happy to have them). The milk may be hormone-laden, but at this stage in my life, convenience wins. I hear there are some fresh milk delivery systems in Cape Town, but I've never tried them out.

Ricotta and Mozzarella don't need cultures; you do need rennet, but you can now get a decent selection of rennet (including from vegetarian sources) pretty easily; it's at most Whole Foods in the US, and I've found 4-5 stockists in Joburg (I'm sure there'd be more in Cape Town).