Monday, April 25, 2011

Of Plastic Eggs, and other musings

A harried Greenmom wonders if she's the first parent to ever order her kids to go clean their rooms just so she can get twenty minutes or so of peace and quiet to herself...

I think about plastic kind of a lot.

I think about how it's generally Not A Good Thing, and then I look around my house at how much of it I have around here.

For one thing, I have only really been working on the Green Thing for a few years, and there was a lot in my house before. For another, I honestly have mixed feelings about the Green mantra that Plastic Is Evil, All Must Be Eradicated From Our Lives (Beth Terry's fabulousness notwithstanding).

Is the problem plastic itself, or is the real problem cheap plastic that it almost universally treated as "throwaway"?

I'm asking this not to be provocative or start any arguments--it's a serious question, and I have a lot more research to do before I can come to any conclusion. And I have not completely discounted the possibility that part of this is an apologetic for my own use of plastic in those areas where I can't bring myself to give it up. Because, sadly, in the world today, we're not really presented with many of those happy choices between The Good Choice and The Wrong Choice. It's not a Star Wars movie where some wise and adorable green wrinkly Muppet-character will step up and pronounce sagely, "The path to the Dark Side this is!" We are faced, every day, with choices between awful-for-the-planet and maybe-one-shade-less-awful-for-the-planet-but-who-can-be-sure.

Where plastic is concerned, a few things are fairly clear: disposable plastic water bottles, not to put too fine a point on it, suck. It's a case where there is absolutely no question--petroleum-derived energy/consumption used to produce something that will hold something that's just as easy to get and carry in a permanent container--dumb. pointless. The Dark Side This Is. The whole thing about BPA and other endocrine disruptors in plastic products--also pretty clear, dangerous, not a good idea. Plastic grocery bags? Please.

But then--okay, I'll come Out and confess one of my own lingering-plastic-use areas, the one that frankly led to this post. For example, Saturday night the two adult Easter Bunnies came home from a 3 hour church service exhausted. They paid the babysitter, confirmed that the children were asleep, and proceeded to go about their work. That work involved going into the closet downstairs and pulling out the (plastic) ziploc bag filled with (plastic) empty hinged eggs, filling them with a piece of chocolate or a few jelly beans, and hiding them all over the house.

The chocolate and jelly beans should have been free trade and all-natural; I'm afraid they were not. (My husband went shopping for them, and while he's an absolutely amazing partner and a great guy all around, he is still a green work in progress.) But those plastic eggs, in the exact same ziploc bag, have lived in that closet since we moved into this house, and in the closet of another house for several years before that. Every year I quietly rescue them after they are emptied, and every year they go back into that closet and come out again, and I anticipate that this will continue for as long as the Easter Bunny visits our home. Obviously we bought them before Green was much of a concern, but I have to admit, even now, they don't cause me a lot of sleep loss. And the joy and excitement in our house as those brightly-colored orbs are discovered is pretty unparalleled.

I have a few more plastic-use areas that occasionally give me guilt pangs, but honestly not enough to make me stop. My ziploc bag addiction is fairly well-documented, and it will probably be the last of my disposable plastic areas to go--it's the ziplocs that facilitate most of my freezing-in quantity cooking (like when I make little individual half-cup muffin things of frozen cooked beans or broth to store for later use), and I really do rinse and re-use them whenever I can and until they fall apart. I know I could be better that way; I'm trying. My kids' "waste-free" lunches are only waste-free because I send them with sandwiches in Wrap-N-Mats (fabric and plastic) and other foods in the little re-usable plastic containers you can get at the store. Whenever plastic spoons sneak their way into the house, I start sending those to school with the kids too, with instructions that they bring them back home for washing and re-use. We have plastic flashlights that have been around since well before we got married, plastic Legos that I used to play with when I was a kid and which my kids still enjoy, a plastic colander to drain the pasta, the stuff is everywhere. (And then there's my computer, on which I'm now typing...)

And when I feel this urge to just get it all out of my house and life...I think of when I was a kid, and my hippie parents were on board with the "buy brown eggs because they are more natural than white eggs," a very popular and pervasive "brown is natural and good; white is refined and unnatural and bad" meme at the time. And we were so sure. We now know that brown vs white is absolutely irrelevant where eggs are concerned, and that different kinds of birds just produce different-colored eggs. Brown bread/grains better than white? Absolutely. Eggs? Nope, no real difference there. We were asking the wrong questions. And I start thinking again...

Is there a line to be drawn somewhere between "acceptable" use of plastic and the kind that's wasteful and harmful to the planet? (Er...that is...more wasteful and harmful to the planet than the alternatives?) And are there any resources out there to help us tell exactly how to compare a plastic item's use and footprint versus that of something non-plastic used the same way? For example--and I ask this as someone who does use a stainless steel water bottle--how many times would I need to use my metal bottle, considering the process of obtaining the metal, processing it, and creating the bottle itself (we could also count transport, but that would apply to the water too), to equal the carbon footprint of the same number of disposable plastic bottles? I'm seriously curious. What kind of resources went into the making of my nylon recycled PET re-usable grocery sacks? How many times would I need to use those before they equal what was used to make one of those ridiculous thin plastic throwaway ones? (Okay, maybe 5, since it takes 5 plastic ones to equal what my 1 nylon one can carry.) Harder to calculate would be the fact that the disposable ones don't break down and result in more garbage, so that would have to be figured into the bottom line...but I assume petroleum or coal or other non-renewable resources are used in the production of a lot more than just plastic (although admittedly it's different, since plastic is made from petroleum), so where is the difference, really?

So...does anyone have any thoughts, or sites, or calculators to offer here? (I'm sending a note to Beth at My Plastic Free Life; I would love it if she felt like weighing in...) Any other thoughts or perspectives I'm completely missing?

I am ready to be convinced, seriously. I don't have any great love for plastic, I just keep going 'round and 'round on the same issue, and I guess I need some new data if I'm going to head in any brave new direction. So, as usual, I throw it out to y'all: Is plastic evil? Or can its effects be mitigated?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was thinking this same thing Saturday night, except we were filling eggs with various substances for a neighborhood egg hunt. Yesterday we had 20 kids from the neighborhood all racing around our park, laughing and hunting and eating the stuff inside the eggs.

Considering that we assign each kid a color to hunt for (so the big kids and the tiny kids aren't competing for the same eggs), and that we re-use the eggs each year, and especially that this is a neighborhood event where many kids from our block get to do something together, I'm not going to hold onto the guilt from the plastic here. YGMV.

Thanks for the thoughtful post! I'd say it's better to work on the low-hanging (plastic) fruit. In our case that's remembering to take glass bottles to the store to fill with oil and peanut butter so we don't have to buy fresh bottles each time. Also making our own yogurt -- the containers pile up otherwise. The eggs, for the community they help create and the pleasure they bring to kids -- and for the short time they contain food -- seem like a smaller issue.

Jen

Kristin Craig Lai said...

I love this post because it's not just cut and dry. I think about this a lot myself. I try to cut down on plastic but eliminating it, not so much. When it comes to Easter I have some problems with using the eggs the following year because my kid expects to keep and play with them. You'd be surprised how many uses she can find for those things.

I do want to cut down on ziplocs but it's hard to wrap my head around the expense of some of the very good eco-alternatives. I know it equal out over time but cashflow is a real issue so...

The other commenter has reminded me that I should try making my own yoghurt, on the other hand we use a lot of those yoghurt containers a good 15 to 20 times after the yoghurt's done.

Lot's to think about anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'm new here - found you through the Crunchy Chicken.
These are very good questions - very good. I was actually feeling guilty about the plastic eggs. I didn't grow up with them, but my husband did and his family gives tons of them to our kids every year which I find annoying. My family only ever hid hard boiled eggs.

But your post got me thinking. Normally we get our eggs from our own chickens, and none of them lay white eggs. I was planning to buy some white eggs to dye for Easter but never got around to it this year. Now I'm kind of glad, considering the eggs I would have bought would have come from a scary, industrial poultry farm - something that I don't want to support. Really, would it be greener to buy those eggs than to reuse the plastic ones? I don't know. But it added to my thoughts a lot. Interesting. I'll stay tuned to see what answers you find... I'll keep looking too. ;)

Anisa said...

Ack! Not sure why my comment about the white eggs came up under anonymous - I wrote it! ;) Must have selected the wrong option! Sorry!

greenmomintheburbs said...

Kristin, yes, I'm with you there! That's something else I forgot to mention--so much of the stuff I buy grudgingly in plastic, once it's done, means I have all these reusable containers I keep using for ages. The yogurt is a good example; I don't make my own as often as I used to, but I use the containers again and again for everything from MORE yogurt to pasta sauces and soups to God knows what-all else. Chinese takeout at our local place, too, now comes in these AWESOME (plastic) lidded trays that we use for food, leftovers, children's craft storage, all kinds of stuff. Just because something may have been meant to be "disposable" doesn't mean you have to dispose of it any time soon...

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I just wrote a really long comment, and then stupid blogger messed up. So now all I have to say is read this book. Whether or not plastic is good or bad is all about the design.

Liz said...

It's a very good question. I think the thing is to start from wherever you are now. Reusing the plastics we already have means that they are kept out of landfill for longer.

For example, I have a drawer filled with plastic carrier bags. Some of these are several years old, others are more recent because people will give me a bag full of stuff. I don't think there's anything wrong in keeping the bags and reusing them as much as possible - in fact, as the resources have already been made to create them, I think to get the maximum possible use out of them is the better option and far more green than if I chucked them out after one use. My contribution bag-wise is to always take cloth bags to the supermarket, so I'm doing my bit to reduce the demand for plastic bags, and with enough of us doing that we can decrease the number manufactured in the future.

Likewise I have a plastic computer keyboard. It would be wasteful to just throw it away when it functions perfectly well, but if it breaks and needs replacing I would then consider options such as a bamboo one (my husband is already dropping hints that he'd like one of those).

We can't unmanufacture the plastic that already exists, but we can get maximum use of out it and we can affect our use of and demand for plastic in the future.

Bethesda Locavore said...

I'll second the Cradle to Cradle book recommendation. It's brilliant. And we also reuse plastic eggs - they really are awesome, now that they're already here, and using them year after year just seems like the best thing to do. But yeah, I often wonder about what goes into the creation of our "green" alternatives. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of information out there. I like to think in terms of what will happen to an item when I'm done with it - can it biodegrade? Will it recycle easily? I imagine the aluminum water bottles (at least the non-painted ones) are probably easy to melt down? But it really is a lot to think about without a whole lot of answers, huh?

Mitty said...

I agree with reusing the plastic that's already in the home, but I really struggle with keeping more of it from coming in the front door. For example CFL lightbulbs are packaged in plastic clamshells--so frustrating! And a great deal of it comes home from the store with me, tho' I am careful to buy what I can in glass jars and use muslin produce bags. But as an example, I can't buy mushrooms in bulk. They come pre-measured in plastic boxes with plastic wrap. We occasionally take a trip to a town an hour from here, and I buy them in bulk there (along with doing other errands), but the carbon footprint! As vegetarians, we tend to eat a lot of mushrooms for the flavor and texture they add. Not eating CAFO meat means carbon savings! But what about the plastic wrap?

Heather said...

Hi, I tried to comment yesterday but it never showed up - perhaps it was too long!

You asked: "are there any resources out there to help us tell exactly how to compare a plastic item's use and footprint versus that of something non-plastic used the same way?"

I don't exactly know of any, but if you look at http://bit.ly/gI1ZpW I've put together a wee spreadsheet of the resources needed to make and process various common materials. There are three columns: abiotics (non-living stuff like petroleum, metals, clay etc. - all of which are by definition non-renewable), water and greenhouse gases.

You then weigh the reusable and disposable objects and multiply them out by their materials to find that balance point where the resources are equal. If you can use your reusable more times than that then the reusable wins, if you can't then the disposable wins.

For example, the 'break even' for cloth wipes vs. TP is 50 uses of the wipes if they're made of new cotton. For a stainless steel mug vs. styrofoam the break-even is 369 and for a ceramic mug vs. styrofoam it's only 46.

Hope that helps,

--Heather :-)

Heather said...

Pablo Paster has done a bunch of these calculations, and most of my data comes from him. You can read more of his comparisons at:

http://www.triplepundit.com/2006/09/ask-pablo-the-coffee-mug-debacle/
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2011/01/ask-pablo-recycling-toothbrushes.php
http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2008/01/14/ask_pablo_water/
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/10/ask-pablo-best-environmental-yoga-mat-choice.php
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/07/are-paper-napkins-more-environmentally-
friendly.php
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/10/ask-pablo-paktech.php
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/11/ask-pablo-is-canned-beer-more-sustainable.php

And I'll 'third' ;-) the cradle to cradle book. I heard one of the author's speak once and he was absolutely inspirational!

Rosa said...

Heather, those are awesome resources.

Personally, I try to minimize new plastics, but for plastic that already exists I go ahead and use it - I don't think throwing out a bunch of perfectly usable tupperware and buying all-new stainless is very useful, since the "cost" and pollution from making the stuff is already out there. I have been buying tiny plastic containers from the thrift store for lunch packing, because I can't find new metal and the school outlaws glass.

I do wonder about how to measure plastic use - it still seems to me that, since the mass of the plastic in the cap on 2 half-gallon milk bottles is almost identical to the whole mass of a plastic milk jug, all I'm doing is deciding between plastic in *my* milk vs. plastic in *our* environment, which is pretty much a tossup. But when I've used that measure in the blogosphere, other people were more interested in, like, total surface area. And I don't have the chemistry to know if it makes a difference in overall plastic exposure for people & animals.

Heather said...

@ Rosa:

I have a chemistry masters degree and was partway through a PhD in green industrial chemistry at CMU before I became a full-time invalid instead :-(

I would say that your *personal* exposure to chemicals is dependent on the surface area: more surface area means more food-to-plastic contact.

The environmental exposure is more complex. If it goes to landfill it is generally environmentally inactive so what matters is the *volume* as that determines how soon you need a new landfill. If it is recycled then what matters is both the weight and whether that *type* of plastic is useful as a recycled material (clear PET bottles and HDPE milk jugs would probably be the most useful, anything that's a thin film like a plastic bag or cling film is the least useful). If it ends up in the sea it will eventually end up in those tiny chips that get into animals' stomachs, although different plastics will break down differently, so ultimately it's the weight that matters although other things will determine how soon it's a problem.

Also worth considering is the weight-to-product ratio, especially for things that get shipped a long way. Plastic is petrochemicals and shipping fuel is also petrochemicals. Something shipped from far away in a light-weight plastic container will result in the consumption of less petrochemical than something shipped from far away in heavy glass.

Hope that helps!

--Heather :-)

Rosa said...

Thanks, that's all very helpful!

I'm thinking that for milk, at least, the answer really is "makes no nevermind" for me - the glass is more local, but the tops aren't recyclable here (they go in the incinerator), the plastic bottles aren't from much farther away (about 200 miles for our local bottlers) and are recyclable.

Sometimes I just feel like I spend so much time and effort figuring this stuff out and worrying about it, when it turns out to be moot. I do more good picking up plastic trash from the gutter before it hits the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

peter said...

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