8 Reasons Why Personal Changes Matter
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 life 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-away 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 soap nuts. 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.
My husband and I have this discussion frequently with me leaning toward the personal change feels useless at times while Bill feels it is very important. This doesn’t mean I don’t make personal efforts. I’m just more likely to drop them when they become too difficult.
Thank you for this list to help me feel better about our personal efforts. In the end I feel that making these changes in our lives help to show that it isn’t that difficult, help us to serve as an example as people tend to act as their social group acts, and keep us from appearing to be hypocrites when we advocate for societal change.
Awesome post and really terrific video. Very, very thought provoking. Thanks for doing it.
P.S. Did you know you had a plastic pumpkin hanging in the kitchen the entire time you were filming there? I did laugh…
I’ve been using canvas grocery bags for a while and want to try cloth produce bags. There are many suggestions here that I would like to try. I didn’t like the metal taste I had when I used stainless steel drinking bottles. I found a site that sells glass drinking bottles called lovebottle.net. The bottles are on the pricey side but well-worth the extra cost, at least for me.
Beth, this post was nothing short of life-changing. I’ve avoided plastics in some areas of my life for years, but never really looked at the whole picture of how I use plastic – what a scary eye-opener.
I love that this happened to be the top post when I discovered your blog, because you make such a great case for the power and importance of small personal action. Since having kids, I’ve had to scale back so much of my public political activism – can’t risk getting tear-gassed while pregnant!
My focus has shifted to the personal choices I make an individual and a parent. You outline beautifully why those are important and how they help us become more powerful when we move beyond the personal into the political…
This is getting long for a comment – I think I’ll need to write my own long post about it. :)
thanks, again, for such rich food for thought!
I’m sure you have come across similar news stories, but was browsing the BBC site + came across this video:
Oh, I feel guilty that I didn’t come to hear your speech now… Wonderful job! I’m sure it was even more moving in person! :)
So very well said! I mentioned you here:
This is one of your best posts yet! When is your book coming out? :-)
I realy liked this post. The video is great.
You have certainly changed the way I look at plastic, and I’m trying to use less of it. For example, I switched to a bar of soap instead of the liquid ones I always had, I’m trying out a shampoo bar, and just today I bought organic dish washing soap that I can get refilled at the local store.
You are such an inspiration!
Great job! I wish I could have been there to hear you. :)
Thanks so much for sharing this. I have recently been coming to terms with my consumption habits, and definitely with the amount of plastic waste I create. Its just crazy how much stuff I throw away, and sometimes changing seems like such a daunting task. Also, I’m not living in a country where being environmentally friendly has entered into the public consciousness at all, and the lack of options has been difficult to deal with. However, I really found this post encouraging, and making changes in small steps is a great way to tackle this huge issue. I’m looking forward to doing a thorough reading of this blog to get more ideas. Thanks so much for showing this can be done and sharing it with the world.
*sigh*. I just love you. In a totally non-creepy, non-stalker way, I promise. Thanks for doing what you do, you constantly inspire me. :)
I hope there is a change a comin’ and that we are not like the civilizations that Jared Diamond wrote about in his book Collapse. Most remarkable were the Easter Islanders who, though they were dependent on trees and could see them thinning out as they cut them over the years, went right ahead with the cutting until the trees were gone and, soon after, so were they. If limits can’t be appreciated on an island, where in the world can they be understood?
Though not quite as dramatic, the other civs he wrote about did essentially the same thing, even the mighty Maya. Are we a different kind of people these days? We’d better be because it’s the whole world we’re dealing with now.
I can’t add to what’s been said above — awesome post and video. Count me among your disciples.
Your mention of cheese reminded me of the time when I was a young man and worked at a small store that sold cheese by the piece. Part of my job was to slice the cheese off a big wheel at the customer’s request, then weigh it and wrap it in paper and twine.
I was thinking about that cheese a couple of weeks ago, which for some reason tasted better than anything I’ve had that was wrapped in plastic, and I wondered if there was anywhere that still served cheese custom cut from the wheel. I’m glad to hear that someone still does.
Your blog is one of my daily reads, I find it very inspiring. While I can’t currently see living my life plastic free, partly because of where I live and for some choices, for me and my family, sometimes plastic packaging is the lesser of 2 bad choices. But I have been an “eco freak” for a long time and I continue to remove more plastic from our lives in a small but continual way:)
Best post ever. Love the video! You are setting an awesome example and are living proof that personal choices DO make a huge difference. Go Beth!
Loved the Video.. It amazes me when you go through your list how much influence you have had on me! LOL I use the lunchbots I got through your blog. Love em. I use the skoy clothes I won on your blog- in fact I need to order some more- the ones you sent are just about worn out! I use baking soda occasionaly as scouring powder, but also use BON AMI. Some things sadly I wont give up like milk, although I use paperboard instead of bottles- Paperboard is recyclable here- and I of course carry my own water bottle and my muggsly around as opposed to bottles of water and disposable drink cups. I have a big ways to go to be a fake plastic fish, but the journey of a thousand miles starts with a few steps.
I’m addicted. I look forward to your every post! I am becoming more aware of the plastic in my life (ouch!) and am slowly making changes. We can and do influence people around us (I blog about being more green and holistic and I love it when people approach me to discuss one of my posts!) I have started my plastic purge, and am proud of it. Thanks for sharing your efforts and helping us to become more aware. We will pass it forward. =)
Bravo! I am going to share this, it’s awesome!
great job – well said
Totally right-on post.
You are an inspiration- and have helped me to become more aware of plastic use in my life- I don’t always cut back- but at least I am more coqnizant of my choices. Thanks.
You continue to inspire me. I hope you know that the work you are doing here is so valuable, and is helping to create change far beyond yourself.
GREAT video and blog! You are right-on with all you are saying and doing and are such an awesome role model for us all. If we all do our part the ripple effect will become unstoppable and lead to real and meaningful change. I think it is so important for people to realize the collective power we have to make change in our society. Thanks so much for all you do lead the way. You have had more impact than you will ever know! With much admiration & gratitude-Laurie
Beth–Really fantastic post. It sounds like a great beginning to your book! I’ve been lurking here for quite awhile and you’ve been a big inspiration to me. I have definitely changed the way that I live my life because of you. Your personal actions have made a difference, I have no doubt of that.
Beth–This post is just fabulous. (Really.) It is both inspiring and makes me want to cry. Perfect. Thanks.