Our Plastic-Free Dream 2011

Simple, fashionable and reusable.

Last year we wrote about our desire and quest to become plastic-free in 2010. A year later, we’ve donated most of our Tupperware and replaced it with new glass containers. We’ve significantly reduced our use of plastic thus eliminating much of the waste from our lives, and we’ve become avid composters, even to the point of composting our used facial tissues. It has been a difficult road to climb with lots of twists and turns along the way and even though we’re not perfect, we’re working on our goal to be free of plastic.

In the first couple months of trying to eliminate waste, Jason would walk into a grocery store, turn around and walk out the door without purchasing a thing. “Everything is in plastic!” he’d fume. From milk, to cereal, to plastic bags for produce, to … well, you name it, just about everything around us was packaged in plastic. Of course, we eventually returned to the stores because we needed to keep our pantry stocked. When we returned to those well-stocked aisles, we agonized over every purchase. Do we buy products, even local ones, that have been packaged in plastic? And if we do decide to purchase something in plastic, there’s the other dilemma: can it be recycled or is it trash? Where’s the recycling code? What does the number mean?

Then there are the restaurants, especially the Chinese take-out joints in our neighborhood. Did that take-out just come in styrofoam again? Which restaurants pack their food in biodegradable containers and which ones don’t? Is it ok to order the hot and sour soup Jason likes even though we know it’s going to come in a plastic container? Will we reuse it? Should we?

To help others get off the plastic “heroin” or to at least reduce the waste in their lives, here are a few ideas for kicking the habit that we’ve struggled with this last year, and are still struggling with today:

1. Kick Plastic Bags: Be conscious of your use of plastic bags. They’re everywhere and they’re garbage. Reuse your grocery bags and stop using plastic bags for your produce. We all should be carrying reusable bags in the back of our cars now for hauling the groceries home. Why do we need to use plastic bags to put our produce in the grocery store cart? Those carts are designed to contain most of what you buy. It’s our biggest pet peeve from last year and we still don’t understand. And we wish we had a dollar for every time we saw, and contintue to see, someone place one or two pieces of produce in a plastic bag, then get to the register where the cashier grabs another plastic bag and places the plastic bag holding the produce inside it. Two bags wasted when even one wasn’t needed. If you have a few plastic produce bags sitting in the cupboard or closet, grab them the next time you head out to the store and reuse them if you have to have them at all.

2. Compost: Composting is not a political issue! Just this year we were accused of making a political statement (presumably a liberal one) because we compost. How things have changed since Jason was a child learning about composting, not by the tree hugging hippies in San Francisco but by his extreme right-wing, conservative, Regan-loving Grandfather back in the 1970’s and 80’s. Composting is a most conservative principal if ever there was one. Using waste to create something new, conserving what you have, is by far the most practical principal in the conservative creed.

Why do we have to bring politics into this anyway? It should just be human nature that we compost the items that turn into dirt and complete the cycle of life-sustaining food production instead of sending it to a landfill to become a mucky mess with the rest of everything else we don’t want. Waste is hardly conservative. Compost when and where you can. Do you really know what can and cannot be composted? If not, find out quick. Your local waste disposal company should have information to guide you. This is a great list to guide you around the home.

Know your codes and recycle.

3. Recycle: Most of the waste we produce ends up in the recycling bin. Just by being conscience of what we are throwing away we’ve been able to separate real trash from reusable waste. The trash that will end up in landfills or worse, our oceans, represents a very small percentage of our total household waste. The last time we took out the trash it was early November. The current garbage bag in our kitchen trashcan still has a little room in it. And when we do take it out it will probably weigh less than 10 lbs. That’s right, two guys who cook every day are producing less than 5 lbs of landfill-bound trash every couple of months. That’s amazing when you consider that the average person in the US produces 4.5 lbs of trash a day. [Source: EPA http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/rrr/reduce.htm]

Find another life for your empty bottles. Cost is virtually nothing!

4. Reuse: Reuse glass containers instead of trashing them or sending them to the recycling bin. There are some great glass containers that are essentially free, with the cost of whatever food item you buy. We love peanut butter jars. These containers are perfect for food storage or for collecting items like coins, buttons, etc. Other good containers might include, jam and apple sauce jars – basically, you want to reuse jars that contained food items that aren’t vinegary or spicy. Avoid using salsa and pickle bottles since it’s difficult, if not impossible to get the smell out of the lids no matter how many times you wash them. Most glass jar labels come off with a little soaking. You can label and re-label as needed by using just a little masking tape and a marker.

5. Smart Take-out: We’re like everyone else and sometimes we just want to taste something different and we want someone else to do the cooking and cleaning. But that convenience comes at a cost. We’re more mindful than ever of what our favorite take-out and delivery spots are doing to get food out to us and we’ve made adjustments to our delivery orders to avoid plastic containers. Paper food containers are compostable and most restaurants that deliver use paper containers for many of their dishes. If they don’t, it’s worth dumping them for vendors who produce less waste. We should all be asking restaurants, including the large chains, to commit to reducing waste in their packaging and eliminating plastic containers wherever possible, regardless of cost. We’ll happily pay a little more for responsible packaging.

It’s been a very stressful year worrying about what we’re throwing away and how we might eliminate our trash totally. And you know what? We’ve decided it can’t be done completely, at least not reasonably at this point in history. But we’ve also decided that with the right changes in attitude, and policy, the production of plastic waste can be slowed and with the right technology investments, in time it can be eliminated all together. New biodegradable bags that will turn into compost within 6-9 months are now on the market. Hopefully there will be a day when all the bags we use are compostable.

We must all do our part. For now, we’ll continue to purchase selectively. As much as possible, we will reuse packaging until it outlives its usefulness. We’ll shop fresh markets and we’ll continue to prepare our own meals most of the time. We look forward to sharing more of those meals with you and we’ll keep you posted on how we’re doing in our battle with plastic!

So, how’s the plastic-free life going?

Its been a little over a week since we started our low-impact diet. To remind people of what this diet consists of, it’s a lifestyle change to go plastic-free. The concern for the ocean, ground water, and our health has started us on this change. To keep me motivated I’ve been reading No-Impact Man, and thinking about what impact I’m leaving on the planet. I can honestly say that I have not used any new plastic wrap or baggies in the week since starting. And aside from the minor set back, Steve as well has stopped his use. I sort of feel like I’m in AA. If only there was such a place for plastic addicts. Maybe a support group needs to be started. “Hi, my name is Jason and I’m addicted to plastic.”

I have to say that giving up plastic wrap hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be. When we make our bread we have replaced plastic wrap with a damp kitchen towel to cover the dough as it proofs. A left over half an onion or lemon now goes into a Tupperware container, or glass jar. Steve’s sandwiches are going into containers now too, instead of tossing them into plastic baggies. It’s really amazing what other items you can find to store food in when you make a conscious effort  to not use plastic.

Our goal is that by the end of the year we will no longer have a trash can in our apartment. I know most of you are thinking, that’s not possible? Where will you throw away your trash? First, we plan on reusing containers. Glass jars are great for storing items, and for buying things in bulk. Second, composting is such an easy thing to do. Even things like tissue paper used to blow ones nose can be composted. Third, recycle. As a last resort if we can’t compost or reuse something we will recycle it. And the things that can’t be reused, composted, or recycled we will need to eliminate from our lives. I think it’s the least we can do for living in such a wonderful place like America.

Remember the public service announcement from the 1970’s with the Native American looking over the trash dump with tears running down his face. The caption was something like, “People start pollution, people can stop it.” Well, I don’t want to pollute America any longer. Look, plastic is a petroleum by-product, which essentially is just waste from petroleum refinement for fuels. (I won’t even go there about petroleum.) So, if plastic is just waste to begin with, and the only place it ends up is in our water supply and landfill, aren’t we all just wasting America every time we use it?

I’ll get off my soapbox for now and return to the topic of our blog in the next entry, good sustainable food. Occasionally we will keep you updated about our progress and let you know of clever ways we’re going without plastic. Like in the next few days I plan to write about our attempt at making home-made kefir and yogurt. This is in an effort to stop buying the yogurt and kefir in plastic containers. In the meantime, if you’re keeping up on our blog and trying to reduce your impact, think twice about using plastic wrap or plastic baggies. There are better alternatives out there that won’t trash our world.