I come from a long line of reusers and recyclers. My grandmother was renowned for reusing plastic bread bags. I’d see them rising like smoke in the dish rack as they dried, waiting to be loaded with strawberries or cinnamon buns.
Today I faithfully trek my bins to the recycling center. It turns out though, since the first curbside recycling program came along in Madison, WI, back in 1968, Americans haven’t been very good at recycling plastic—only about 7 percent of it gets recycled.
Whether it’s the nearly shapeless plastics of bread and shopping bags or their numbered resin counterparts, plastics and the compounds they’re derived from—crude oil and natural gas—have proven harmful to the environment and our health. They tarnish beaches and natural habitats, tainting water supplies and forming everlasting synthetic islands in the Pacific the size of Texas. So the glow I get from recycling has been trumped by the need to reduce my dependency on plastic.
A Toxic Love Story
In her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Freinkel explains that the plastics we try to wrestle out of our daily lives were once hailed for their potential to reduce our environmental footprint. Used as substitutes for endangered supplies of ivory and tortoise shell, plastics were expected to help save animals from extinction. Ironically, those man-made materials sometimes clog the windpipes of the sea turtles they were supposed to protect.
But is it really possible to live a plastic-free life? Oakland, CA, resident Beth Terry has been striving to do just that since 2007. She cites 81 ways to succeed on her website, www.myplasticfreelife.com.
Refusing to bring new plastics into her home, Terry thinks deeply about each purchase, researching what may contain plastic, from chewing gum to the liners of cardboard juice boxes. She eliminates packaging by bringing her own containers to fill at the grocery store (including ones for meat); forfeits frozen food; and packs lunches in reusable cloth sandwich bags. Her trash bin takes months to fill, thanks to composting and hauling what she calls “the dry stuff” to recycling. Terry’s top two ways to get weaned off plastic are to carry reusable shopping bags and give up bottled water.
Editors at Rodale.com suggest that if you forget your shopping bag, simply put items back in the cart and wheel them out to your car. The editors spent a month trying to be plastic-free. They concluded that living entirely without plastic was impossible, but lessening their dependency on it certainly wasn’t. They learned some valuable lessons. The easiest? Refusing a straw. A more time-consuming task involved examining the weekly trash and zeroing in on the most frequently used plastic, such as food packaging.
Storing meals in metal, enamel, or glass containers also eliminates leaching. Leaching would have terrified my grandmother. A recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found nearly all plastics to be harmful to food, whether or not they contain phthalate (DEHP) or bisphenol A—two chemicals known to tamper with our body’s estrogen and commonly used as softening agents in plastic wraps and epoxy resin liners in canned goods. Testing a variety of plastics designed to hold food—including corn-based and newer BPA-free resins—the researchers measured some type of estrogenic chemical leaching from 98 percent of plastic bags and from all of the plastic food wraps after microwave heating, dishwasher moisture, and UV light exposure.