The following is a transcript of my talk at Green Sangha’s Rethinking Plastics Conference on Saturday. I wish all of you could have been there. We had speakers on ocean plastic pollution, the chemistry of plastics, the truth about bio-plastics, sustainable activism, extended producer responsibility, cradle to cradle design, and finally my segment on personal actions. To those who were there on Saturday, this “transcript” will be a little bit different from what you actually heard because I’ve had time to polish it up a bit.
From Personal Journey to Systemic Change
First, I want to show you a video that explains who I am and what I am doing about plastic in my life…
So, do my personal changes make a difference? When we look at the scope of the problem, at albatrosses dying from ingesting plastic, plastic bags blowing in the streets, cases and cases of bottled water sold every day, do the actions of one person matter at all?
To help answer that question, I want to read you part of a recent article from The Onion:
[For copyright reasons, I won't reprint here the entire text of what I read at the conference. Please do click the link above to read the whole thing.]
WASHINGTON—Wishing to dispose of the empty plastic container, and failing to spot a recycling bin nearby, an estimated 30 million Americans asked themselves Monday how bad throwing away a single bottle of water could really be.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” thought Maine native Sheila Hodge, echoing the exact sentiments of Chicago-area resident Phillip Ragowski, recent Florida transplant Margaret Lowery, and Kansas City business owner Brian McMillan, as they tossed the polyethylene terephthalate object into an awaiting trash can. “It’s just one bottle. And I’m usually pretty good about this sort of thing.”
“Not a big deal,” continued roughly one-tenth of the nation’s population.
“What’s one little bottle in the grand scheme of things, you know?” added each and every single one of them.
The plastic we as individuals use each day adds up. But even if all of us who are aware of and care about the problem of plastic pollution were to change our habits, would that alone be enough to solve the long-term problem of plastics in the environment? Probably not. We need legislation to mandate Extended Producer Responsibility [requiring companies to pay to deal with the full live cycle of the products they manufacture or import] and we need bans or fees on plastic bags and other single-use plastics. So why bother with personal action at all?
In June of 2007, I saw the photo that changed my life. It was a dead albatross chick, like the ones Manuel Maqueda showed us this morning, but this photo was taken long before he and Chris Jordan made their trip to Midway this summer and brought back the photos that have awakened the world to this problem.
I was stunned. Suddenly, I realized that my everyday actions were connected to and had a devastating impact on creatures I hadn’t even known existed. The bird was full of plastic bottle caps and other detritus of modern day life, and it was out in the middle of the Pacific thousands of miles from civilization. I couldn’t go on living the way I had lived, knowing what I now knew.
I had been one of those people that chose plastic bags at the grocery store over paper on purpose. Every time I went to the gym, I bought a new plastic bottle of water and threw it away in the trash can because there were no recycling bins handy. When I heard that Trader Joe’s was opening up in our neighborhood, I sang for joy each morning in the shower. “Trader Joe’s is coming! Trader Joe’s is coming!” After I stopped buying disposable plastic, I found the only thing I could buy at Trader Joe’s was alcohol in glass bottles. And now that I’ve stopped drinking, I can’t buy much of anything in that store! (Except cheese. Right now they have a plastic-free cheese!)
Conclusion 1: Personal change matters because when we realize our intimate connection to and impact on the rest of life on the planet, we simply cannot continue to live in a way that causes needless harm. We have no choice but to change.
Caring about animals was my entry point into this issue. I’ve heard from other people, especially moms, that for them, the health of their children was their gateway. Many of us are concerned about the chemicals that can leach from plastics and harm our bodies. And the fact is that until manufacturers are required to disclose all the additives and plasticizers that are mixed into the plastics they produce, we have no way of knowing if the plastic around our food is safe or not. Bottles may be labeled “BPA-free.” But what chemicals have replaced BPA? And how safe are they? When manufacturers in China removed the lead from PVC products, many of them replaced it with cadmium, an even more toxic metal. And how about the dyes, antibacterials, flame retardants, phthalates, and other chemicals added to plastic?
Conclusion 2: Personal changes are important for our own health and the health of those we love.
So, I started a journey, first to find out how much plastic waste I was actually generating and then to find alternatives for as much of it as I could. Each week, I would collect, weigh, and tally my plastic waste and list it out on the blog I created, Fake Plastic Fish. I took my time and made changes slowly. Recently, there have been several journalists who have done experiments to live completely plastic-free for a week or for a month. And all of them fail miserably and conclude that it can’t be done. And it’s true that it can’t be done all at once. It’s a process that takes time if we don’t want to burn out.
So how did I make enough changes and find enough alternatives to get my plastic waste down to under 4 pounds in 2009? By changing the menu.
We are menu-driven.
We look at the selection of products and services and activities available and make our choices from those that are offered. But what if what we want is not on the menu? What if we go to a restaurant and don’t see what we want? We have several options.
We can go to a different restaurant. Likewise, if the plastic-free alternative we are looking for doesn’t exist at Safeway or Trader Joe’s or any of the other stores where we are accustomed to shopping, we can search elsewhere. I started shopping in grocery stores with bulk bins, bringing my own bags and containers instead of buying off the shelves. And I searched online for products I hadn’t previously heard of. Klean Kanteen water bottles, for instance. To-Go Ware containers. A little online shop called Life Without Plastic. Another called Glass Dharma. EcoBags. Bar shampoo. And one of the best finds of all: Etsy.com where I could ask small, independent craftspeople for what I wanted and for the type of packaging to use, and get what I couldn’t at large, mainstream retailers.
Conclusion 3: Personal changes allow us to vote with our wallets and support small, alternative businesses that are doing the right thing.
Another alternative, when what we want is not on the menu, is to go home and make it ourselves. In doing this project, I learned that there were so many things I could make myself with simple everyday ingredients that could be obtained nearly plastic-free. I learned to make my own mayonnaise, mustard, chocolate syrup, and cat food. I learned the wonders of baking soda for deodorant and cleaning and even washing my hair. I learned that vinegar and lemon juice were terrific cleaners and that I could make my own homemade cough syrup.
Conclusion 4: Personal changes help us develop our own ingenuity and creativity and teach us how to be more self-sufficient.
What if you can’t find what you want at another restaurant and you can’t make it yourself? Another option is simply to do without it. There have been several kinds of things I’ve had to give up since beginning my journey to live with less plastic. Frozen convenience meals, for example. Whether Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese or Amy’s Organic Mac & Cheese, there are simply no frozen foods packaged without plastic. They come in plastic trays or plastic bags or cardboard trays coated inside with plastic. Ice cream cartons are coated with plastic, as are milk cartons and paper cups. And I also had to do without the plastic-packaged energy bars I’d been living on.
Giving up these things helped me realize how plastic convenience packaging had been contributing to an unsustainable life. I was eating processed foods that weren’t good for me in the first place in the name of convenience. I had more important things to do than worry about the food I was eating. I was rushing. Stressing out. Tossing food down my gullet just as I was tossing out the packaging it came in. Colin Beavan, who wrote the book No Impact Man, asks, “Is a waste of resources a sign of a waste of life?” And I would ask, “Is a throw-way lifestyle the sign of a throw-away life?”
Conclusion 5: Personal changes help us to examine our lives and evaluate what is helpful to our physical and spiritual well being and what is not.
So what if the thing you want is not available anywhere else, you can’t make it yourself, and you are not willing to do without it? You could ask the cook to make it for you anyway. You could ask the restaurant to add that item to its menu. And in my quest to live a life with less plastic, I’ve done that several times. Whether asking companies to ship my products without the usual Styrofoam, bubble wrap, or plastic tape or asking them to stop leaving plastic advertising on my door, I’ve had some successes. Last year, I discovered a great product: LaundryTree soapnuts. The trouble was, they came in a plastic bag. So I asked the owner of the company if she had thought about packaging them in a compostable bag. She loved the idea, and within a month, she had developed an all new type of packaging made from recycled paper and had switched over.
Changes like that are fairly simple for small companies. Not so easy for huge corporations. My biggest “ask” came about when I was changing my Brita water filter cartridge. I went online to find out how to recycle it and discovered that there was a mechanism in place to send back Brita cartridges for recycling. The trouble was, the system only covered Europe. The North American branch of the company had been purchased by Clorox in 2000, and to date, they had not developed a way to recycle the filters. So I enlisted others to create a campaign, a web site, a petition, and a drive to collect used water filters, and less than a year later, Clorox called to tell me they had devised a way to recycle those Brita filters.
Conclusion 6: Personal changes help us to see the limits to personal change. These limits represent the places where we need to put our energies in asking companies to change.
What if the restaurant is actually selling bad food? You won’t eat it. And you wouldn’t let your family eat it. You could just skip it or make your own or go somewhere else. But you realize that it’s a bigger problem. Other people will come to that restaurant and get sick from the food. So you reach out to the law and call the health department. Well, the same thing happens with plastic. We can bring our own bags, but that won’t prevent plastic bags from being distributed. We can bring our own reusable bottles, but that won’t stop bottled water sales. We can avoid products containing BPA, but that won’t stop manufacturers from producing them and marketing them as safe.
At that point, we understand that the problem is bigger than we are and that we need help from those to whom we have given authority to protect us. Our government. We need Extended Producer Responsibility legislation. We need bans on disposable bags. We need protection from harmful chemicals and laws requiring full disclosure. We need Green Chemistry Initiatives.
Conclusion 7: Personal changes help us to realize that personal change is not enough. We see that as hard as we work to green our own lives, the problem is systemic. We must work to change the system. But until we make our own personal changes, we may not have enough investment in the outcome to push for the bigger steps that are necessary.
But how about all the other people who are still eating at that restaurant day after day, eating the same food that is served to them even if it’s not healthy? They are not looking for another restaurant or making what they want themselves or doing without or asking the restaurant to change. And they’re certainly not calling the health department. Perhaps these people don’t know they have a choice. Maybe they’ve never considered that there was any other way. Until one day, they overhear another diner asking for something that’s not on the menu. And a light bulb goes off in their head. Suddenly, they realize maybe they too can have something different.
Which is exactly what I am trying to do with my life and this blog. My lifestyle may look extreme. But I don’t expect everyone else to make all the changes that I have. My purpose is simply to show what is possible. My list of plastic-free changes is just another menu of choices. It’s certainly not complete. All I ask is that readers try a few things from the list. Work on them until they become a habit. Then maybe add other changes. Do them slowly. Keep at it. Be creative and discover new ways for themselves.
Conclusion 8: Personal changes set an example for others to follow and to realize that life can be different.
If I can do it, surely others can.