Thursday, April 2, 2009

Plastic Ponderings

JessTrev ponders plastic: confessions of a recovering Ziploc-aholic. I'm sure many of you are avid Beth Terry aka Fake Plastic Fish fans just like me. A woman who single-handedly got a huge corporation to recycle and take responsibility for their environmental impact? Must be larger than life. I had the pleasure of meeting Beth at last year's BlogHer in San Francisco, and was so impressed by her calm, peaceful demeanor. I often think of her when confronted with gratuitous or excessive plastic packaging and wanted to join in the Green Moms Carnival she's hosting about plastic consumption.

Why the frack is there so much plastic around? I'm no engineer, but among the many purposes I can spot seem to be: plastic helps to prevent theft, retard spoilage, keep costs down, minimize breakage, circumvent rust, and performs unique functions (ie siphon hose or iv). Multifaceted material. Too bad about the giant plastic garbage patch in the ocean (plastic outweighs surface zooplankton 6:1!), the fact that it doesn't biodegrade, and the pesky leaching issues. Seriously. It's an adaptive material. That's why I don't completely rid my life of plastic, I just try to get rid of the foolish (in my humble opinion) uses.

At the Trev house, we do the usual things to minimize plastic packaging: buying in bulk, bringing reusable grocery and produce bags, avoiding take-out containers (by bringing Tupperware) and skipping the disposable cups, plastic food wrap, and resealable baggies (we do have a few coveted ones we wash and reuse, particularly for freezer use). I occasionally buy products just because of their packaging. For instance, I recently sought out ketchup in a glass bottle since the idea that something can't truly be organic when it's leaching plastic out of its container stuck with me (heh heh). Sometimes I avoid buying products altogether (read: rotisserie chickens packaged in plastic clamshells, which used to be a staple in our house). Or I make my own (ie, salad dressing) or do without. I would say I do this about 75% of the time. Next step I need to take: following Beth's lead and writing all of these companies (I've sent a few letters but need to get on this!) to let them know the rationale behind these purchasing decisions.

I also try not to buy things gratuitously packaged in plastic. If I do, I get a really big size. For instance, I get my kids California Baby fragrance-free bubble bath. I got tired of the cost and pile of containers in my recycling bin a while back and decided a while back to pony up the $$ to get a giant gallon-sized bottle from the manufacturer. It lasted us for three years! And the containers (with a pump) were fiercely contested on freecycle! This one is tricky, though. I clean with baking soda, and recently found giant bags of it at Costco. Smaller boxes are cardboard and therefore recyclable. But bigger bags? Last longer, are cheaper, probably use less energy to create and ship, and keep me from using more toxic ingredients to clean. For now, giant bags o' baking soda stay in. For product materials, I try to avoid plastic (ie I got a glass cutting board recently) but if I do get plastic (ie painting tray liners for my recent house refresher) I go for recycled plastic content.

At Casa Trev, we do love our electronics. One way to skip the planned-obsolescence hamster wheel in that regard is to follow my honey-geek personal MacGyver's path and relentlessly research new tools while saving useful items (cough: pack-ratting away every cable and piece of functional electronics you've ever possessed). Recently, we got a really cool (but plastic!) wireless music player which said tech guru hooked up to an old-ish (circa 1990s?) boom box in the kitchen and a spare laptop. Music while I am cooking! Woooo hooo! And, as my friend noted with amusement, should y'all need to play any of your old cassette mixed tapes, our kitchen is the place to go! So: new plastic purchase, but re-use of old, unused plastic item. Possible avoidance of many plastic items (cd clamshells) since I'm currently addicted to Radio Paradise, which beautifully enough, is advertising a ceramic travel mug (no plastic taste!) on its website...but I digress.

When buying new, I consider alternatives to plastic. Does the item's plastic confer some advantage? Since I just broke a small storage jar of vinegar on the tile floor of my shower, I'm betting that breakability is going to be high on everyone's list. But all I needed to do to avoid the breakage was to change a habit -- to keep the jar on the floor of the shower instead of up high on a shelf. Does the item's plastic pose a threat to human health (ie, will the plastic leach as was the case with BPA? if food contents, are they acidic or fatty?) Then I avoid plastic use altogether. And I keep in mind what my father --at age 70--responded when I talked to him at length about toxins leaching into food: "Honey, I am seventy. A slow-leaching plastic is the least of my concerns." So, for my dad, his personal health is not a top issue when it comes to plastic like it may be when I'm thinking about my still-developing babes in arms. My dad's a birdwatcher and naturalist, so he does use a reusable metal water bottle. Just, in his case, he won't stop using his plastic food containers. In my case, I often end up giving useful plastic items to someone like him who has different concerns so that the item will end up in use rather than in a landfill. My local listserv and freecycle have all taken in plastic items I'd rather not use but didn't want to chuck (and a few of my neighbors chuckled when reading my 'this is not bpa-free' disclaimer lingo).

Then there's the reuse of packaging - we love classico jars in our house because of their screw tops and seeking out plastic alternatives. I use glass jars to freeze soups, pesto and stock. I have found all-glass food fridge storage containers, and all-metal snack containers for my kids' lunchboxes (which are neoprene, but multi-use). That's not to say that we don't have some plastic -- quite a bit of it -- lingering around. But I've made sure that the plastic that stays in kitchen circulation is BPA free and that it gets limited use.

In general, I'd say I probably use half the plastic I used to, but still have a long way to go. These days, I am struck by small things: a strip of plastic on a glass spice bottle. And the omnipresence of the material: yogurt tubs used to be made from wax coated cardboard, right? and weren't cereal boxes in the day lined with wax paper? I wonder now about why so-called progressive and green companies aren't returning to older, pre-plastic packaging options - cost? lack of awareness that their target market cares deeply about this issue? If it's the latter, I have a bunch of letters I need to go write. Many thanks to Beth for making me think more carefully about a substance that's toxic to create, doesn't degrade, causes environmental pollution, damages wildlife and natural habitats, and threatens human health -- and is absolutely everywhere.

P.S. My favorite trick for purging of cheap plastic toys, courtesy of Green Bean? Stashing the most offensive of the lot in a designated spot and dropping them off at my (enthusiastic) kids' dentist's office. She has a ready supply for her treasure chest -- and I only have to bring two items back to my house.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I do miss those roasted chickens. I covet them every time I'm in Whole Foods. But not enough to break my commitment to living without disposable plastic.

Sounds like you're doing a great job in your house!

JessTrev said...

Thanks, Beth, for your leadership!

Eco Yogini said...

This was a nice post. I have been reading Beth's blog as well and am astounded by her ability to eliminate plastic. It has inspired me as well and I'm planning on making homemade liquid soap for a recycled glass soap pump. WOOT.

Also- i really appreciated the Battlestar Gallactica reference with 'frack'. I am so sad it is over...

matersum said...

I appreciate this post's honesty, particularly in relationship to how it's unrealistic to simple ban plastic in one's own life. Oh, I'm sure it's possible, but for the random joe family, it's usually just not that simple.

So thank you. :) I enjoyed it.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

What the frack? Do I detect a Battlestar fan?...

Great post on limiting plastic consumption. If only we could all do as well as Fake Plastic Fish...

JessTrev said...

Eco Yogini + Erin Conscious Shopper: yup! guilty as charged. looooved Battlestar Galactica!

Can't wait to hear bout your homemade liquid soap, EYogini - my little ones keep having issues with the bar flying around the kitchen! ;)

matersum - thanks! glad it worked for you - I definitely shoot for honesty...

Alison said...

Great post! If I can toss in my 2 cents I seriously need to write a letter to Target (and maybe everyone else does too). There is a super Target 4 blocks from my house and they sell lots of organic produce...shrink wrapped in plastic! Every, stinking piece of organic produce they sell is in PLASTIC. So, we pick up a prescription, maybe some organic salsa in a glass jar (the Archer farms salsa is both cheap and tasty) and then we drive across town, where we can buy our produce plastic free...not sure which is worse, but it makes me ill to buy produce that has been individually wrapped in thick plastic! Talk about gratuitous...

JessTrev said...

Oh, Alison, thanks for bringing up one of my pet peeves. Trader Joe's does the same imprisoning of cucumbers in styrofoam and shrink wrap. Enough to make your head explode. I complained to my local store manager and wrote TJ central (one of the few letters I've gotten around to writing!!). No response, though...

Emily said...

Here is the response that I got from TJ's after I sent my letter, which is below. Keep on emailing, one day they'll change!

From Web Customer Relations:


We appreciate all the feedback we receive from our customers. We are currently evaluating the information that is available concerning our

We evaluate every product for packaging requirements and we continue to explore economical Earth friendly alternatives that can deliver freshness and shelf life without preservatives. We are also using
compostible packaging for much of our packaged produce.

We are always working to balance our desire to use as little packaging as possible with our efforts to keep our products safe, fresh and cost
effective. Since our company philosophy is based on providing quality merchandise at value prices, we must consider cost in the type of packaging we choose.

We have forwarded your comments and concerns to our Product Steering Committee. At Trader Joe's, we are always striving to improve, and your
comments give us the opportunity to do just that.

Trader Joe's
Customer Relations

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, February 12, 2009 6:13 PM
To: Web Customer Relations
Subject: Trader Joe's General Feedback Form

Name: Emily
Phone Number:
Your Trader Joe's: Lynnwood, WA

Comments: Please, please change the way you package your produce. It seems incredibly wasteful to purchase small numbers of fruits/veg in a
plastic container, wrapped in yet more plastic wrap. I would MUCH rather buy each by the pound or individually out of a bin. I do applaud the variety of organic produce that you carry, but the packaging is irresponsible and I will no longer be able to buy my produce at Trader Joe's should this practice continue. Thanks for reading, and I do love
your store!

Carmen said...

Thanks for this post. Always an inspiration to hear what others are doing.

On the plastic note, has anyone noticed the excessive plastic packaging at Trader Joes? It always troubles me because the store is so darn convenient and I like many of their products.

Truffula Mama said...

I saw sections of "Addicted to Plastic" yesterday -- needless to say, I've had plastic on the brain since then!

Today, I was given a quick office kitchen tour. I was shown where the tea + coffee and filtered water gizmo were. Then, almost proudly, I was shown a closet: "And here, we even have bottled water, if you like." Thanks, but no. I don't like! I was grateful to have remembered to tuck a ceramic cup into my bag. Whew!

mother earth aka karen hanrahan said...

The more I see the inner workings of like-minded plastic ponderers I am reminded how far this project has to go and yet you mentioned things I hadn't thought about. It's really the sharing that moves all of us a step closer.

Martin at Plasticless said...

Great post :)

Your music player retrofit sounds cool. One plastic purchase that I made recently was a tiny Sony mp3 player for my daughters. I justified it with the fact that it stopped them from buying any more CDs.

Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama said...

Jess -

Great post. I too want to eliminate disposable plastic, but it is difficult - it is so prevalent. I'm always torn at the option - the 25 pound bad of bulk baking soda in a plastic bag & box, or the individual cardboard boxes, or the bulk bag from target? Which option is better? Organic ketchup in a plastic container, or trying to find glass?

You and me, the dither queens.

By the way, I like those roasted chickens too! Our grocery store switched too foil bags (I like to think because of my complaints!), but I haven't had time to investigate whether they have a plastic lining.

Anonymous said...

Jenn -- please do let me know about the foil bags if you find out. I'd love a plastic-free (or less plastic) option to suggest to Whole Foods. I'm assuming the foil is 100% recyclable, correct?

Do any of you have the option of buying baking soda from a bulk bin in your own container? That's what I do, but I realize many stores don't sell baking soda in the bulk bin. Could be worth asking!

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