The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 10, 2013

Thinking About Toothpaste at a Meditation Retreat

It’s been a busy two weeks, and I haven’t had a spare minute to write a blog post. I shouldn’t actually be writing one now because I’m at a silent meditation retreat, and it’s not really allowed.


But being here at the retreat center, a place I’ve come twice a year for the past 14 years or so, I remembered something that happened here 9 or 10 years ago, and thought I’d share.

On one particular retreat, I forgot to bring toothpaste. And I remember walking down the hill to the local drugstore, then Elephant Pharmacy, and contemplating my choices.  Natural toothpaste like Tom’s of Maine or toothpaste full of synthetic ingredients like Crest or Colgate.  Plastic packaging wasn’t even a consideration back then.

[Note: I realize there are problems with Tom’s of Maine toothpaste too.  Keep reading.  This post isn’t really about toothpaste.]

I remember turning my nose up at the Tom’s and saying to my friend Mark who was with me, “Ooh.  Icky.”  I chose the sweet, minty fresh Crest and felt kind of smug about NOT choosing the “hippy dippy” option.

As you know, things have really changed since then. A couple of years ago, it happened again… I forgot toothpaste.  And deodorant. This time, I went to the local convenience store and bought a cheap box of baking soda to satisfy both needs.  And I was super careful to only use one little bar of soap. And I remember one year wandering around the retreat center at night and turning off all the non-necessary lights that had been left on.

Anyway, my question to you is… how does this happen? How does someone go from choosing the yummy tingly toothpaste to the one that maybe doesn’t taste as great but leaves you with a clean conscience in addition to clean teeth?

This is the million dollar question. Because seriously, judging people for choosing what feels or tastes or smells good is not going to get them to change.  So what do you think will?

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Helen Lancaster
4 years ago

I love you, thank you, thank you, thank you,. I have called toothpaste companies asking about recycling the darn tubes and talking to other people and This is the first I have seen an alternative. I so appreciate your blog. And YOU. ❤️ Helen

idumppaintin theocean
9 years ago

You go to a meditation retreat, only to wander around late at night turning off lights, when you could be sleeping? Funniest thing i have ever heard.

9 years ago

First of all, thank you for your inspiring work. I’m currently in the process of ‘becoming’ plastic free and found your wonderful blog. Your question addresses a genuine question I had been asking myself for the last couple of years. I myself also grew up with simple environmental principles (don’t litter, love animals), but the 80’s progressive attitude of ‘freeing’ yourself from household chores (cooking…) prevailed and I conveniently joined in to discrediting the ‘hippy dippy’ lifestyle as over-romantisizing nature, new-age and naive.

This all came to an abrupt halt and a life-defining epiphany when I found out I had ulcerative colitis (which turned out to be celiac’s, but whatever…). The idea that anybody can become truly sick by what they ingest or are exposed to (e.g. environmental toxins) – and not just the extremely frail – made me question my ideas, morals and my lifestyle. Now, 5 years later, I’ve gone from being a city-type consumer who’s interested in arts, fashion and a tight body to a down right hippie who knits, maintains a PERMACULTURE garden, eats organic and vegan/vegetarian living the quiet life and now wants to abort plastic. As you pointed out in your book’s intro, this process wasn’t only about saving the environment, it was a whole personal transformation, starting with how you treat yourself, define yourself and how you perceive your environment, or – in short – awareness. It was accompanied by a softening of my heart, an opening up, allowing vulnerability and accepting boundaries. I can definitely understand how looking back one can be bewildered about the potential for personal change. How it sometimes can be a bit scary and you question of how much ‘you’ still is left at the end.

In the end, disregarding if you choose a plastic free or cruelty free or join green peace or the peace squad, my personal take on it is the prerequisite for true change beyond the mere attempt to do something differently is a truly compassionate, open mind and heart, for yourself and for others that allows growth. Until now, that way of living was also the only way I was able to provoke change in somebody else.

9 years ago

We do it slowly.

We do it by waking up to the fact that without realizing it we are indoctrinated into the “use and dispose” culture. I remember the 1st time I heard “planned obsolescence”. I thought it ridiculous then but most people around me nodded in recognition that this was how things “today” worked. I miss craftsmanship; the process of creating that which is useful and beautiful and long lived.

We do it by waking up to the fact that without realizing it, we have been indoctrinated to eat “processed” (non)food instead of real food. Process food is/was considered “progress”, an innovation, somehow better. We do it by changing this notion and returning to real food and the ability to cook it ourselves.

We do it by waking up to the fact that we are connected to the rest of life on this planet and that we can’t live on this planet as if we had another one to go to.

10 years ago

This is a long post, but I think these kinds of transformations are never simple and short. They have to do with the way we think about everything.
I had an awareness of environmental issues (and love for nature) as a kid, coming from a kind of alternative upbringing, but trying to reconcile that with a distaste for the gross “hippy dippy” stuff, I internalized the passion for environment into a sense of”I care”, while in a lot of ways just trying to be normal or exceptional.

I thought the only way to change things was with money, and I was going to make a lot of it. In discussions I’ve always been clear about my belief. In high school I tried going to meetings for the Environmental Club, but it was mostly people from one social group and I didn’t feel very welcome – but they inspired me with some of the things they did, even their shallow judgements that came with knowing very little about people.

In college, when we had to fend for ourselves with a kitchen, I became very passionate about recycling, and using earth friendly products and organics. Coming home, I was also interested in cooking and generally doing things for myself.

But, it was pretty much documentaries on Netflix that got me into all this. I’d seen a PBS healthy food documentary that my mom bought, which was really changing the way I was thinking (that took some warming too). I was watching a bunch of movies online about health, to get myself fired up. In a movie about veganism there was some information about the effects of livestock on the environment, which reminded me that I do care. So I started watching other documentaries focused more on that issue. I checked out as many blogs as I could by the documentary filmakers, which led me to Beth’s blog. This blog, and some films and other sources have lit the fire under me about plastic, but I’ve been looking at other sources for other issues.

Does this have a moral? I’m not sure, but I think one idea is to avoid the hippy-dippy stuff. In my house, I know with some of my “greening” initiatives, I’ve started settling for not doing the most I possibly can to make things aesthetically pleasing. I think this is to the detriment of their popularity. People are more interested in doing something new if it looks fun. So sometimes I think I should put pretty labels on things, sew around the edges of the rags I use in the kitchen in pretty colors, put up some more decorations. The same thing happened when I got into healthy eating: the more I got away from eating potato chips and pizza the less I wanted to, so I was making my food taste less like those foods. But people who wanted fast food were less interested in trying the things I could make. Even though I could have made something healthy that appealed to them, they appealed less to me, so I wasn’t making them.

Leuth Novotny
10 years ago

baking soda — works great & comes in cardboard boxes! :)

Deb R
10 years ago

Beth, you have asked a million dollar question! And there are so many great answers in here. Can I start by first saying its so lovely and refreshing to read comments on a blog that are helpful, constructive and thoughtful? Not necessarily the typical blog comment string! I would add to the list below that one super important thing is educating kids from early – thinking about materials life cycles and where their purchases come from and go to, from an early age, is so important. I think there is a small subset of us that have a “come to Jesus” moment as adults regarding our ecological footprints -I include myself in that demographic, as I didn’t grow up necessarily thinking much about this until I was an older teen/young adult. But I think one of the best ways we can create adults that think about this stuff is to reach us as kids when a) we tend to be more open-minded and b) it encourages attitudes that stick with us throughout our lives.

So just a couple examples from stuff Ive personally done: with my own kid, we talk regularly about where the things we buy, especially her toys or things she gets as gifts, come from, where and how they are manufactured, whether they can be recycled, and how we can pass things on when we are done with them so that other kids can use and enjoy them and extend their lives. As she’s only 7, we don’t get too much into the details, but we do touch on these things. With my community, I volunteer in my school’s PTO with recycling and reduction ideas, including this year we started implementing “party packs” of reusable, washable dish ware that the classroom owns so that every time there is an event or a birthday party, the teacher isn’t using and throwing out 25 sets of partyware. Stuff like this that gets integrated into kids lives both through direct teaching and through just being a part of their every day activities is, I think , essential to spreading the good word on how we move ourselves collectively away from a disposable life style.

10 years ago

Everyone performs bad plastic habits for different motivations. For that reason, I don’t know if there’s one method that would work for everyone, or even for most people. For me, I became more aware of plastic use in food because I have a sensitivity to red 40. Reducing my plastic exposure in food has lead to better health for me. However, I still struggle with eliminating plastic from my life in other ways, even when I know it would give me better health.
But hey, while you’re at a silent meditation retreat, you could contemplate the eight worldly concerns (samsaric dharmas). I think that’s a good illustration of worldly (plastic) motivations.

10 years ago

What changed for me was when I tried some Toothy Tabs from LUSH. You just need to get used to crumbling a tablet between your front teeth then brushing it round the rest of them (it foams up). Natural ingredients & packaged in a tiny cardboard box. Lots of flavours to chose from too. Sounds like a promotion but I don’t work for them!

10 years ago

EcoCatLady I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Appealing to enlightened self-interest covers most bases, including those few people who act from true altruism. I was going to comment separately (for the first time on this blog) but you’ve covered all of what I was going to say and more. I have been a supporter of sustainable and organic (way back when “organic” actually meant something) for over 30 years, and I have never observed any true change in people’s behaviour, including my own, without a component of enlightened self-interest. Further, the solutions we propose, to people who wish to make better choices, absolutely MUST work at least almost as well as the less sustainable, more mainstream options or products, or we poison the well against further beneficial change.

10 years ago

Tracey TieF

We were poor growing up. My Mom sewed my “jam” shorts. I wasn’t really into them, they were homemade and I was self conscious. I went to church camp and another girl had short made out of the same fabric. I asked her about them and she was sooo proud that her Mom cared enough to sew for her. It changed my perspective from embarrassed to grateful. Sometimes it’s an attitude you exhibit that helps others.

I caught my city cousin checking out my pumps last weekend. They are a high-end brand. I paid $8 for them at goodwill. She didn’t ask me about them or I would have straight up told her the whole story. I have the money to buy retail but I no longer need to spend money to buy confidence. Most of my outfit was thrifted or vintage. I was raised on a farm, I specifically remember my Dad telling me that everything has a purpose and it is our responsibility to care for the Earth the best way we can. He was recognized by our community for outstanding conservation and it made a big impression on me. I might have been 8. I’m a small farmer and I try to walk the walk the best way I can. I don’t think I should ask my customers to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. I find that women start to get interested in living greener when they have kids. They want to safe guard their children and so they begin to educate themselves. Their choices grow out of their new knowledge. Just an observation, I’m a childless Auntie by choice.

10 years ago

EcoCatLady yeah, we usually act from enlightened self-interest. I’ve said the same thing for years! It’s (sadly) easy these days to make that argument as the effects of our toxic behaviors are increasingly right in front of our eyes. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, it’s just human nature. We all need to be clear as to the consequences of our actions. As one matures, one hopefully learns to be more abstract in our understanding of cause and effect.

Many years ago, however, in my home state, billboards were put up equating drunk driving with accidents and death with no change in driving behavior. When they changed the message to Driving Drunk=DUI and jail, compliance escalated.

Consequences. It’s all about consequences.

Malena Taylor
10 years ago

I know it’s not about toothpaste..but we need to send you some of our plastic-free toothpaste (; On the “note” I feel you!

10 years ago

Reenie what a unique way to think about the challenge–to help people feel like creators in the process. I completely think you have hit upon something–and helping people “own” their own journey of discovery is really important. A great parallel example is kids and veggies. Most kids here in the States are not huge fans of raw veggies–even my kids, who have grown up in a mostly vegetarian house! But it is proven that if you give kids the responsibility for making the salad (as age appropriate), they start to realize all the options before them, and they get such a sense of accomplishment that they start eating their creation, and before you know it your kids enjoy salad! I imagine it would be so similar to adults and plastic/chemical-free things.

10 years ago

For me, it began after we’ve had a car accident. Have you ever experienced what was depression and the feeling you were bearing all the misery of the world? That what happened. It was the feeling of guilt. The guilt of knowing I was deresponzabilizing myself my putting my garbages in a black opaque bag to hide the shame. One thing bringing another, when tou start, you cannot stop!

I personnaly think you have to touch people right into their own personal existence but without making judgement; otherwise, they close up like an oyster and even do the opposite. Also, money talks! It’s like making DIY laundry detergent; when you teach people how to make it and how much they will save, it captures their attention.

We have to find other means than always talking about the environment because people do not feel concern and are fed up with all that stuff related to climate changed and so on and honestly, how to not agree? I’m really concern with it, but I’m tired of bad news, I want innovations and solutions I can apply to my everyday life. I want a government that won’t only talk about the economy, the deficits and blablabla. On the long run, it’s not sustainable.

Hope my message was not too creepy :P And Beth, I admire your courage and you have balls! How can you make big companies listen to you and generate change?? That is awesome!

10 years ago

I’m with you! I use organic or non-toxic baking soda and sometimes hydrogen peroxide and other times organic apple cider vinegar with the baking soda. My gums are healthier than ever and my breath is just as fresh as anyone else. Plus my dental floss is not catching between my teeth due to lack of plaque; I think the vinegar dissolved it. I got to this point after I read Gorgeously Green and every toothpaste label in three different health food stores. I was shocked and realized there is nothing safe on the market shelves. Back to the basics for me! I write about basics for your health as well at my Slow Down Daisy blog. Thanks Beth for writing for the masses, your are doing us all a great service.

10 years ago

Its a great question. I wonder the same thing as I changed my habits just like you. I think people have to get the impacts of the chemicals, plastic, etc to them or to something that they love doing. I also think that people assume that they will have to give things up or not be able to do it if they start to take care of the environment. I dont think there is an answer for every one that is going to be the same. I think food is a place to start since it makes them think about there health. Once they think about that then the other just starts to seem natural to be in action about like plastic, water and everything else. Education is definitely one to start the conversation and people are bringing that up more and more.

10 years ago

Yes, this is the hardest thing for me. It’s very similar to ‘go vegan’ or even just ‘eat healthy’. When I suggest Japanese wives to cook ‘brown rice’ instead of ‘white rice’, most of them say, “I know that it’s much healthier. But my husband (or kids) don’t like brown rice, so I can’t change it.’ Even if they get a colon cancer or high cholesterol, they prefer to serve what their family want to eat!

As you know, most of Japanese food products are packaged nicely in plastics, because the recycling rates in Japan is much higher than US (70 to 80%) and people are so accustomed not to feel guilty about buying it since it will be recycled. Of course, I explain them that ‘recycle’ is not the best solution. But it is hard to ‘change’ their life style like we have done.

To me, it was easy to ‘refuse’ plastics because I didn’t want to kill innocent animals and future of this planet. It was as easy as when I became vegan (for the same reason). But if people who don’t care so much about the future or health, what can we do to change them?

10 years ago

I took a soap making class and that sent me down the rabbit hole of a more natural way to live. Then I had a baby and that was all she wrote. I am always on a quest to do better for my children. Do I want to fill them up with chemicals and leave behind a legacy of trash or try and tread lightly so there is something to leave behind.

Tracey TieF
10 years ago

I teach people how to make better choices and better body care products. In my experience, people “get it” different ways:
Some changed when they connect with a problem, like environmental degradation or a human rights abuse.
Some change only when that problem has a face, an individual person harmed such as a family member getting cancer.
Some change when it becomes easy, or fun to change.
Some change when people they care about change.
Some change for the sake of their personal health, or that of their children or family.
I try to tell people the reasons to change, and show people how easy and fun it is to start doing it. I hope I hit a few marks in taking this approach.
I held a contest once, asking my clients what they learned that surprised them or made them “change”. When I feel tired and less than useful, I read Wynette’s winning entry.
What made you change, Beth? Did it start with the albatross?
I think about how I used to “be a Breck Girl”. We were poor, and my mother washed her hair with baking soda, but buying this brand of shampoo in my teens made me feel as if I belonged in some tiny way. When I got my legs as a person, I didn’t need to have a brand lend me support and I could be the freak I am today!

Anna@Green Talk
10 years ago

EcoCatLady I found the same issue as you. When I built an nontoxic house, I could no longer stand the smell from ordinary fabric, building materials, or furniture. When I walk into a furniture store, I have to walk out from the headaches.

If we give our body’s a burden rest, we would easily realize how harmful all those chemicals are to us. Our bodies are pretty smart.

10 years ago

@Sarah Agreed! I thought we were using a natural toothpaste that was good for you. However, my daughter kept getting weird little blisters in her mouth under her tongue. Finally, her pediatrician said it might be the SLS in toothpaste! Yup, a week or so after using a non-SLS (JASON) toothpaste her blisters were gone.

10 years ago

One thing I’ve suspected is that people like to be creators. To have a hand in the creation of the idea, the trend, the action, the product.

Remembering back as kids, say ages 7 to 11, how empowering it was to organize a game, or to draw something, or write a poem, or bring in a certain item in lunch that no one else had. When others imitated, you felt good, and perhaps wanted to bring it back to you, do more creating.

When I have workshops on green cleaning, the participants make a couple of their own products to take home and try. Not always, but sometimes, the spark is lit then, because people will tell me later if they see me, “you should see our cleaners on the counter, and we even designed our own labels for them”. This type of thing happens, I am hypothesizing, because they feel they are the creators.

Recently I gave a coconut oil workshop. I demonstrated making 2 recipes: a candy, and a deodorant, that uses coconut oil along with other ingredients. And everyone made their own toothpaste to take home and try. They had 2 organic, food grade essential oils to choose from to flavor their toothpaste. During the evening, I heard several people talking about ways to modify the recipes, to their liking. Everyone had one piece of candy, even then, they were talking about ways to fill it with a dried fruit, or peanut butter, something to make it theirs.

When people are making their cleaners, they are like kids in art class, excited, focused, chatting, however they approach their act of creation. Yet for those who, say, change to green cleaning, or making their own toothpaste, after a workshop, I know that most have not. They’ll still buy whatever cleaners are offered, tho maybe greener ones. Perhaps only a few are empowered with the idea that they can create a different bunch of actions to support green, healthy living for us and the Earth. I have often wondered about your questions, how does one make a change from say, a yummy but not so good for you toothpaste, to one that’s blander but better. I wonder if it has to do with what they call an integrated person–one whose physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves can unite and offer support for some of the changes you are trying to make in your life. Or, if it’s an abundance of chi or prana, universal life force, that backs you up. The force must be steady and present enough to support a genuine change. Really I’m just guessing about these things.

Thanks so much for asking the question~!

10 years ago

I hate to break it to you, but Tom’s also has some chemical ingredients that, although they may be natural, they aren’t necessarily good for you. Plutonium is natural, but you wouldn’t want it in your toothpaste. Okay, not suggesting there’s plutonium in Tom’s but you get my point. Read the Tom’s label. I don’t buy Tom’s because it contains SLS’s; yes, derived from coconut but they are allergens and can cause serious problems for many.

10 years ago

I think the key to getting people to change their behavior is to stop trying to appeal to the do-gooder impulse and to focus more on the enlightened self-interest aspect of making better decisions. I was raised as your typical fast food eating, chemical product using, plastic wrapped American. The further I get from that lifestyle the more I’ve come to loathe it… but it’s not for lofty do-gooder reasons, it’s because I’ve come to feel that the highly marketed typical choices are inferior to the “real thing.”

The catch-22 here is that I think it requires removing oneself from the hype and the over-stimulation of all of the phony products to be able to realize that the real thing is actually better. I think we’ve trained our taste buds to accept the toxic soup as good tasting – but once you get away from it for a while, all of those artificial flavors and scents stop seeming yummy and start to taste and smell remarkably, well… artificial! And none of that even touches on the obvious health benefits of making better choices. I won’t drink bottled water, but it’s only partially because of the environmental impact of the stuff… I just think that it tastes like plastic!

Anyhow, that’s my take.