The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 28, 2007

A House Full of Plastic

Beth, for someone trumpeting about giving up plastic, you sure have a lot of plastic in your house. Just look at this. What gives?







Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve brought something to the office in a plastic container and received the response, “Beth! That’s plastic! I thought you were against plastic!” And some of my attempts to explain that I either bought the item at a thrift store or I am using something I already had have been met with blank stares or outright skepticism. So I feel like I need to spell out, for the sake of clarity, what my goals are in this project and the guidelines I’ve come up with for myself in order to reach those goals.

Fake Plastic Fish Goals:

  1. To reduce the need for new plastic to be produced since petroleum is a non-renewable, polluting resource, and the production of plastic wreaks havoc on our eco-system in all sorts of ways.
  2. To keep existing plastic out of our waterways and landfills where it can cause further harm.
  3. To limit my exposure to toxins that can leach from certain types of plastic.
  4. To educate others about these issues so that my actions can have a farther-reaching impact than those of a single individual acting alone.

That’s it. You can read more about the problems of plastics in my post, What’s Wrong with Plastic Anyway?

Here are the Guidelines that I’ve come up with during the course of the project in order to meet these goals. They basically follow the 3 R’s:

  1. REDUCE: If at all possible, do not buy any new plastic items. This is sometimes really tough, as you know. And in each week’s tally, I separate out the new plastic I’ve purchased from the items I already had and am using up. This is the main strategy for meeting the first goal, keeping new plastic from being produced.That means that I’ll seek out products with no packaging first, and next choose items packaged in sustainable, biodegradable materials rather than plastic.If I need something new, I’ll look for products made from wood or glass or natural fibers rather than plastic or other virgin petroleum-based synthetics.If I can’t find a non-plastic option, I’ll attempt to find it used from either a thrift store or from Freecycle.And if none of those options work, I’ll buy something made from recycled plastic, like a Preserve toothbrush or an Urban compost tumbler.

    And I guess I should have stated first that before I consider any of the above options, I’ll ask myself if I really need the product in the first place. Maybe I can borrow it from a friend. Or maybe I don’t need it at all.

  2. REUSE: Reuse existing plastic as many times as possible before throwing it away or recycling it. This does lead to a house full of plastic. Plastic bags drying over the sink. Plastic containers storing food in the freezer. Plastic grocery bags reused as grocery bags many times or reincarnated into other interesting objects. Reusing plastic keeps it out of the landfill, the ocean, and even from clogging up recycling sorting machines.And giving to or obtaining items from thrift stores or Freecycle is another way to reuse plastic. When I buy a plastic tray from Goodwill, I am keeping that bit of plastic out of the landfill. Likewise when I give some plastic plant pots to a local Freecycler, she’s keeping them out of the landfill. The items are being reused, just not by the original owners.Which brings me to the issue of cottage cheese containers.You may have noticed the photo of cottage cheese containers in the freezer and thought, “Wait! Those have never been in Beth’s weekly tally,” and you would be right. They were purchased and the contents consumed by the other human who lives in our house and who has his own set of guidelines for living responsibly on the earth. My tally each week only contains my own plastic. If Michael brings home food packaged in plastic that I share (and he actually brings home very little), I include it in the tally. But if I don’t eat it, I don’t include it.That said, I’ll reuse his containers as much as I can. It’s the same principal as buying from Goodwill. I may not be the original owner, but I can give these plastic items several more lives before sending them off to be melted down.The bags and containers that I reuse are generally one of 3 types of plastic: #2 (high density polyethylene, or HDPE), #4 (low density polyethylene, or LDPE), or #5 (polypropylene, or PP). To date, studies have not shown that these plastics leach harmful chemicals. That doesn’t mean that they don’t. But so far, they’ve not been found to.
  3. RECYCLE: Recycle whatever plastic I can that cannot be reused. This is the very last option and one that I use sparingly. Recycling is not a one-for-one trade when it comes to plastic. It’s actually downcycling. When you recycle a water bottle, you don’t get another water bottle made from recycled plastic. The bottle is made into something else. Which means that in order for more bottled water to be produced, new containers must be created from virgin plastic. Recycling a container is better than putting it in a landfill, but the best option would be to avoid purchasing the item in the first place.Most of the items I’m recycling are those I can’t reuse because of the danger of toxins leaching into my food. These are generally items I already had in my house before I became aware of the problems of plastic, and now I’m left with problems of disposal. These plastics are #3 (polyvinyl chloride, or PVC), #6 (polystyrene, or PS, aka Styrofoam), and #7 (polycarbonate, or Other.) Also, #1 (polythylene terephthalate) bottles should not be reused because they are difficult to clean and can grow bacteria.#3, #6, and #7 plastics are a big problem. I can recycle all of them at work in Daly City. But I do wonder if that is the best means of disposal. If these plastics are in fact so polluting and dangerous, perhaps the recycling process causes even more pollution. But at the moment, I don’t have enough information to know of a better solution. (I wonder if the hazardous waste facility would take them.) If anyone else has an answer, please let me know!And finally, any plastic that can’t either be reused or recycled is transferred to the big, white bag in my storage room, aka Beth’s Plastic Purgatory. At this point, I haven’t sent any of it to the landfill. I want to see how big the stash gets by the end of the year. And I’ll be curious to find out if recycling channels open up for any of it in the future.
  4. REPORT: Report my successes and failures as honestly as possible. Okay, this is a fourth R that I added myself that corresponds to goal number four. And I do have some guiding principles when it comes to reporting on this blog.I want to be as open and straightforward as I can in reporting the steps I’m taking to reduce my plastic waste and the results. And I recognize that these are my personal decisions and that they are not necessarily better than someone else’s.I do want to be an example and help others to become aware of the amount of plastic in their lives. But I have no desire to judge or condemn others for their choices. I’m no saint and really have no desire to be or to preach as if I had all the answers. So if I ever do come off as preachy or self-righteous, I hope readers will gently point it out to me. (It comes with being the oldest child, I think.)

So yes, my house and world are awash in plastic. And I’m trying to navigate these waves of plastic as mindfully and responsibly as I can. You may not see me carrying a brand new hemp grocery tote or frantically purging my house of plastic in order to fit some trendy “green image.” But hopefully I’m making choices that are in line with my values and the goals I have set because in the end, that’s what matters.

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Crafty Green Poet
16 years ago

Excellent post and interesting discussion – radical garbage man has brought up some interesting conundrums in this whole issue.

Beth Terry
16 years ago

Hi Radical Garbage Man!

I think that given the two choices, you made the right decision about the peanut butter. I guess the best choice would have been to have foregone the peanut butter and eaten something else until you could get to the co-op. But cravings are cravings, and we can’t be all good all the time, can we?

I’ve thought about your suggestion that I should include my husband’s cottage cheese containers in my weekly tally. But I don’t think that they are the same as your benefiting from visiting parents. I don’t actually get any benefit from them at all because I don’t eat cottage cheese. And if I weren’t reusing his containers, I’d be reusing glass containers, so it’s not like I need him to keep buying cottage cheese so I’ll have containers for storing leftovers.

Like I said, if he brings something home that I can’t resist, I will add it to my tally, even if I’ve only taken a small spoonful. But not if it’s something just for him. He’s his own person and would be buying these things for himself whether he lived with me or not.

(We’re a pretty independent kinda couple.)

Stretch Mark Mama
16 years ago

It’s so true that once people label you “green”, they expect you to walk a very tight line. But being extreme is neither possible, nor fun!

Radical Garbage Man
16 years ago

I think this is a very reasonable approach. I have to resist the temptation to purge and binge on more sustainable/enviro-friendly choices in my cupboards.

I think it’s important for everyone to remember that ditching all of your tupperware and then buying brand-new fancy glass storage containers is BAD for the planet. I really appreciate the thought you’ve put in to your waste management hierarchy, especially the emphasis on reduction and reuse.

I have one, small critique of your reporting method: I think you should report the spousal cottage cheese containers. I know it’s not fair to have to claim materials that weren’t your choice to begin with, but hey, isn’t that what the entire planet is doing? When I visit the parents and participate in their unsustainable lifestyle, I’m benefiting from their abuse of resources. This doesn’t mean that I won’t visit my folks (or that you should ditch the spouse); we just need to acknowledge the ways we are implicated in their decisions. So let’s see the cottage cheese on the list (with kudos for reusing them — I do this too).

Now for confessional time: I had a choice yesterday at the supermarket. I was caving in and buying peanut butter. I have been refusing to buy it for a while, telling myself that I’ll make the trip to the co-op and grind my own at their cool bulk peanut butter machine. However, the last time I stopped by the co-op, I didn’t bring a reusable jar (which is the whole point of my abstinence at the neighborhood grocery) and since I bike to the store, I don’t get out to the co-op that often and blah, blah, blah, excuse, yadda, yadda.

I should note that when I say peanut butter, I mean a jar of something that only has peanuts as an ingredient (and maybe salt).

The dilemma: peanut butter in a glass jar, proudly labeled “recyclable jar” and packaged with lots of green on the label implying (but not explicitly saying) that it’s organic or something and shelved in the cooler next to the organic juices and dairy, but (in the fine print), containing salt and made by ConAgra Foods — ADM’s competition to be the evil empire and put more local farmers out of business OR a plastic jar (which, it should be noted, is also recyclable even if it is less sustainable than glass) with no salt and made by a small company in the next state over which specifies no GM peanuts. (Caveat lector: I have no idea whether ConAgra uses GM peanuts, this could be a sneaky marketing ploy by the smaller company if they know full well that no one uses GM peanuts, but aren’t bragging about it — but I would consider it likely that there’s some frankennuts out there in Nebraska.

I chose the plastic — what’s a radical garbage man to do? This is the kind of anguish that reading your blog produces, so keep up the good consciousness raising work!