A Practical Interlude

Seems like I could go on and on forever musing about the poetic and philosophical reasons to reduce plastic waste. Yes, it’s lovely to live in a way somewhat approximating my great grandmother’s youth. Yes, I’m baffled at why it took me so long to make simple changes that bring me so much pleasure, not to mention a whole new understanding of what it means to live more lightly on the earth. Yes, the light reflecting on the snow is beautiful. Etc. Today I’m postponing my regular programming for a bit of practical, nitty gritty advice on how to get by without plastic.

Disclaimer! Partly why I’ve not given much how-to advice is because each of our needs are so different and I am confident that you can find the solutions and methods for your family. My only real advice is to Just Say No to plastic whenever possible. Buy food in glass or paper, buy it in bulk, or make your own. Inevitably, though, after I give my just say no spiel, I get asked:

But what about…

Plastic bags used for bulk food and produce? I was on the verge of bringing my glass jars to the store with me to fill with beans and rice when I thought of cloth. I made a few dozen drawstring bags in sizes that range from “enormous head of kale” to “poppy seed.” Durable produce keeps well in them for a week or so. Fragile greens like lettuce do well once transferred to the salad spinner or a lidded bowl or jar. Things like carrots and celery can be kept partially submerged in a bowl of water.


Milk? Look for it in a returnable glass bottle. If this isn’t available, it might be better to choose a recyclable plastic jug than a carton, which is plastic lined but not recyclable.

Cheese? Most grocery store deli sections will cut you a hunk of cheese from their bulk supply and wrap it in butcher paper. Bring a reusable container to cut back on paper waste. Lunch meats are also available this way. It is fun and surprisingly simple to make soft cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella. This book tells all, but an online search probably would too.

Yogurt? I’ve had my ups and downs making goat milk yogurt, then switched to a commercial brand sold in glass jars, and am now making my own from cow’s milk with great success and for impressive savings. You can use your favorite natural yogurt as starter, or buy the little packs (plastic free!) in the refrigerator section of your store (or online). No fancy equipment is needed, unless you count the thermometer, which is helpful. Also of interest is this company that recycles #5 plastic (which yogurt containers are made from), something that most cities do not offer recycling for.

Toilet paper? I get asked about this one all the time. Even big box stores sell individual rolls wrapped in paper. If you really want to get eco-groovy, though, cloth wipes are not as weird as they first sound.

Crackers? This was one of the things I was most concerned about how we’d do without because it was one of the few things my daughter would reliably eat. But for that same reason I was a bit relieved to remove them from our cupboard. Why are organic kid’s crackers made with white flour and sugar? Why? I’ve only found one brand of paper wrapped cracker in our town, and my daughter won’t eat them. Well, now that she’s forgotten all about those peanut butter sandwich ones, she’s starting to a bit more. Anyways, I make crackers every so often.

Bread? I make all of our bread with the five minute a day method. It feels a bit like cheating–no kneading–but is so good and easy that I don’t care.

Chips and tortillas? Try your local burrito shack—many sell them in paper bags, oftentimes made fresh. Also, look around your town for a Mexican bakery/grocery where tortillas get made fresh and can be popped into a paper or cloth sack. No luck? Here’s my post on tortilla making.

Body care items? My co-op offers many shampoos and lotions in bulk, but I’ve been enjoying making my own (my recipes are here and here).  If that’s not your style, this company makes shampoo bars which I’ve heard good things about. Toothpaste is one thing I’m not ready to give up. Could it be one of the best inventions of the modern era? Look for it in a recyclable aluminum tube. Hint: Tom’s.

CDs and DVDs? Download music, rent movies.

Tupperware? This post discusses quality storage.

Everything else? Seek and ye shall find. Most of the time, anyways, if you’re patient and persistent–two skills I’m discovering my capacity for.

We’ll return to further Deep Thoughts…sooner or later, no doubt.

In the meantime, what ways have you found to reduce plastic waste in your home?

A Journey in Thanks

I should have said yesterday that we didn’t just one day wake up and stop having trash in our garbage pail. It’s been a slow process of weaning ourselves off it these last five months. This journey to figuring out how to live with less waste is ongoing, but already so much goodness has come out of this simple commitment. Really, it’s almost like the minimum of trash is a side benefit rather than the point. Some of my favorite things from along the way:

:: Accessing my inner resourcefulness. That is, learning to cook root vegetables.

:: The rhythms of making bread, cheese, and yogurt.

:: Fearless trial and error.

:: Stepping outside the gates of the industrial food kingdom for a wholehearted return to whole foods, local foods, unpackaged foods, homemade foods.

:: Mindfulness and attention at the store, in the home, on the road, in my head.

:: Becoming a part of the strong and growing community of people who recognize that while we might not be able to change the world, we can change for the good of the world.

:: Discovering that saying no to plastic is not an act of deprivation but an invitation to partake of gifts previously unimagined and ever so benevolent. It is, in essence, about saying yes to an unwrapped life.

For all of these things, and for all the things to come, I am so grateful.

First Month’s Reckoning

In the venerable tradition of plastic free bloggers, here’s a semi-complete* accounting of the plastic that made it’s way into our house this month. Sneaky stuff, I tell you.

The first thing I had to come to terms with was that saying we wouldn’t be buying ANY plastic was, as my skeptical friends pointed out from the get-go, impossible. At least, for beginners like us it was. Choosing glass jars still meant a plastic seal around the lid, and sometimes a plastic lid. Considering that we didn’t buy any foods in plastic bottles, tubs, bags, or wrappings, as well as canned goods, this seemed like a necessary compromise. Nevertheless, we managed to cut back a little more each week, learning to rely ever more on the wondrous bulk aisle (what will we discover there next?).

So what do we have here?

A toothbrush package. Yes, the toothbrush was also plastic, you won’t be surprised to hear. We actually have two new ones, but I haven’t opened the other. They came from the dentist and neither of us were able to say No Thank You to that little souvenir at our checkups. We did, however, decline the dental floss (we have plenty) and the cheerful plastic gift bag.

A plastic cork. Kind of a gamble, unless you know the wine from experience. We know one NOT to get, now.

A couple of little hook hanger thingies from who knows what. Socks?

Plastic wrapping from a glass supplement bottle. The man needs his glucosamine, but not the extra wrapping. I’m going to write the company.

Seals from glass bottles of ketchup, yogurt, almond butter, mayo. It bears mentioning that I bought the humungous jar of mayo to avoid this quandary if and when we ever run out. Since we’re still buying milk in returnable glass jugs (see below) I’ve started making yogurt from that. For a quarter of the price, I might add. Almond butter comes in bulk, so I’m not sure how this made it into the cart. And ketchup. Well, we’ll see about that.

A screw-top from…something.

A butterscotch wrapper. From the mailman.

Five milk caps, and slightly fewer rings from the milk jugs. Apparently I’m not as diligent as I thought I was about saving trash. It doesn’t come very automatically after a lifetime of tossing it.

I call this little pile Friends and Family. It became apparent on around January 2nd that we wouldn’t be able to say no to gifts of plastic. Dinner guests are so happy to bring the roasted piñon gelato or the salad, and we’re so happy to have them (the guests, that is), that there’s no point letting our experiment come between us. For the record, we didn’t ask for these things. Just a little company.

The windup chatterbox was a late Xmas gift to Cora from the neighbor girls. She loved it for the hour it lasted before breaking.

And now for the moment you’ve been waiting for. What was it that Kyce couldn’t resist? What was so irresistible and necessary that even this woman with convictions of steel (!) couldn’t say no to it? Was it the cheese crackers for her little girl? The pint of blueberries? Nooo. It was a puny bottle of citric acid. Totally premeditated and I remain unrepentant. With it we made goat milk mozzarella. What can I say? I was craving pizza. And that little bottle will make an awful lot of cheese. Look for it in our trash pile come October.

There you have it. Our plastic trash from this month. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Looks like an awful lot. Sadly, we don’t have a before picture showing our haul back in the days before we started cutting back. So you’ll have to believe me when I say this is quite an improvement.
Wish us luck for next month.

* Semi complete only because there are some things still in use, like the odd plastic bag from our CSA and a few lids. Also, astute readers will note that the styrofoam I posted about a while ago is nowhere to be seen. Apparently we couldn’t bear to keep that sad reminder around.

The pledge

When I first agreed to this plastic free scheme (despite my ever growing enthusiasm, it was my husband’s brain child) I thought we’d be lone eco-freaks filling our muslin bags at the co-op. To my delight, we are far from alone. So, so many of us are looking for ways to live less wastefully, inspiring each other to ever greater heights of eco-freakiness. Witness this here pledge from the Plastic Pollution Coalition. I like it. Especially the first bit about just saying no. That’s all it takes, folks. I promise you won’t go hungry. It might even be kind of fun. Try it for a day, a week, or as long as you like.

Single-Use Plastic Emergency Response (S.U.P.E.R.) Hero Pledge

I will follow the “4 Rs” of sustainable living in the following order of preference:

Refuse:

Just say NO to single-use and disposable plastics like bags and bottles, straws, cups, plates, silverware and razors. Instead, bring your own shopping and produce bags to the market. Carry a reusable bottle with you for drinking on the go. Bring your travel mug to the coffee shop. Pack your own utensils. Skip the straw. (Plastic straws are for suckers!) Bring your own containers for take-out or ask for non-plastic disposable packaging.

Reduce:

Reduce waste: buy in bulk, choose products with the least packaging, look for products and packaging made from renewable resources, and avoid plastic packaging and containers. Choose products that have the least amount of disposable parts, like razors with replaceable blades and toothbrushes with replaceable brushes.

Reuse:

Reuse preferably nontoxic (glass, stainless steel) containers and goods to make less waste. Bad habits are disposable, containers are reusable.

Recycle:

Recycle what you can’t refuse, reduce or reuse. Recycling is a last option because it uses energy, and there may not be a market for the refabricated materials.

Oh yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. Ready to sign on? Click here to take the pledge.

If you’re still not convinced that your actions can make a difference

you might enjoy this post from Fake Plastic Fish on Why Personal Changes Matters.

Live and Learn

Our experiment in living without new plastic has been going swimmingly,

but what would it be without a few lessons along the way?

Such as, don’t assume ones favorite restaurant has eco friendly to-go-ware.

I felt sick bringing home all this styrofoam with leftovers from a rare dinner out. Ever practical and searching for meaning, I looked for the lesson in the disaster. Apparently this week’s take home message is something along the lines of Always Be Prepared. Or maybe it’s to get out of the house more often.

I’ve trained myself to always have canvas bags filled with an assortment of small muslin sacks, a couple jars, and a plastic squeeze bottle at the ready in the back of the Suby when I’m out and about. To that stash I’ve added a tiffin for situations like the one above. For good measure my purse now houses a set of silverware wrapped in a napkin. Some folks even carry a glass drinking straw, but I can’t imagine what would happen if my Favorite Pickpocket got ahold of that. Oh, and if you’re in the market for a new one, a mason jar with a sock cozy makes a splendid travel mug.

Our ways are changing, slowly but surely, and it’s encouraging to see the new ways taking hold. The experience of accepting food in styrofoam felt like a threshold moment, right on the brink between who we’ve been and who we are becoming. My hope is that it never happens again, but in the meantime it offered a reminder that lest we get too smug about our good deeds, there are many more habits from a lifetime of careless complacency waiting to be cracked open and remade.

Whoa

So here’s what I’ve been wondering:

If I’ve always taken for granted

that disposable plastic is necessary for life

and am now discovering that this isn’t the case at all,

what else have I believed

that isn’t true?

Drying Out

There are days when I wonder why we even bother trying to live in a way that produces less waste. Does it really matter, I sometimes ask myself, if I don’t buy the bag of chips or the new hair clip or whatever else it is I want so badly? Almost everything in our culture – from the aisles lined with spiffily packaged food to the promise of the American Dream – tells me that the answer is no. In fact, there are days when not buying my kid crackers seems downright ridiculous.

But more and more, what’s absurd isn’t my cart of rye flour and raisins in muslin bags. What’s absurd are those bursting aisles of boxes and bags and cans and jars that seem less like a source of sustenance and more like a clean and well lit landfill. I don’t see the food anymore, just the waste.

The rushing river of consumerism moves so quickly, with so much force, that when we are caught in it, it is almost impossible to tell how carried away we’ve become. Without making this commitment to living without plastic for even a few months, it would have been close to impossible for me to sit on the banks, watching all the cool stuff get swept by.

I feel, sometimes, like one of the addicts I used to nurse at the hospital. Just as I start drying out from that rushing river you might call Modern Consumer Culture, I start asking what’s one small hit/bag of chips going to do? I’m ready to jump back into the current, to get swept away again.

Because of that vow, I am discovering ways to drown out the all-pervasive voice of culture and advertising and a whole lifetime of pretty much getting what I want. And I look at that bag of chips and ask two new questions: How was the earth harmed to make this? How will the earth be harmed when I throw it away?

I can’t always articulate an answer, but the gist of it steers me back to the bulk food aisle, or home to do some knitting, or for a walk on the land. Like any addict, I sometimes ask the higher power for help. The moment passes. And I feel relieved to be sitting out the deluge, drying out little by little.

Living the Questions

I’ll confess I’ve lain awake at night (well, once, after eating too much chocolate) wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into. What are the “rules?” How will we keep to them? And why, exactly, are we doing this? Depending on my mood this scheme to go plastic free can seem anything from absurd to impossible to the best thing we’ve ever done. That we are sharing it here, well, that adds an edge. What if we “fail” in front of everyone?

Of course, there’s nothing to fail at. This isn’t a contest or a dictate that we must follow Or Else. It is simply an experiment in simple living. What will happen when we stop buying plastic, I can’t say. We’ve made this commitment in order to find out. Rather than worrying over the details of how we’re going to pull this off, or what it is we’re attempting, I’d like to share two of the larger questions that have guided me on my journey thus far.

In her book The Open Space of Democracy Terry Tempest Williams confronts ecological complacency by asking, “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” She also asks, “If I am committed to seeing the direction of our country [world] change, how must I change myself?” Folks, I have no idea what the answers are. All I can say is that I’ve reached that point and am setting out on a journey of change, curious to find out.

In fact, you might say that if we’re making any kind of a New Year’s resolution, it’s to live those questions more fully and more fearlessly.