What about shampoo? That’s one question that comes to mind when contemplating what it really means to live a plastic-free life. Executive Director Linda Hunter recently spoke with writer and activist Beth Terry about her bold decision to avoid all plastic products.
Linda Hunter: When and why did you decide to lead a plastic free life?
Beth Terry: Before June of 2007, I lived like many Americans. I had piles of plastic bags in my kitchen, drank bottled water and tossed the bottles in the trash if there was no recycling bin handy, and lived on frozen microwave dinners in plastic trays. I bought whatever I wanted without considering its impact. But one night while browsing the Internet, I stumbled across an article that shocked me out of my mad consumerist ways. The article explained the problem of ocean plastic pollution, something I’d never heard of, and showed a photo of a dead albatross whose carcass was full of ordinary plastic pieces, things like bottle caps, things that I was using on a daily basis. Almost instantly, I realized that my personal actions could have a direct impact on creatures thousands of miles away, and I knew I had to do something.
I decided to try and see if I could live without acquiring any new plastic first as an experiment. I was interested to know what my plastic footprint was. And I wanted to find out what plastic-free options existed in the world. So I created a blog (MyPlasticFreeLife.com, formerly known as Fake Plastic Fish) to record everything I learned about plastic and living plastic-free, and now I have compiled the most relevant information into a useful book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (Skyhorse, 2012), to help and inspire other people who want to reduce the amount of plastic in their lives.
LH: What is the hardest plastic to give up?
BT: For me, the hardest thing was to replace those frozen microwave meals! I didn’t want to cook. I. Did. Not. Want. To. Cook! So I was determined to find a microwaveable alternative that didn’t come in plastic. I must have bought every single brand of frozen meal–both conventional and organic–just to see what the packaging was like. And I discovered the hard fact that all frozen foods come in plastic. Even if they come in a cardboard carton or tray, the container is lined with plastic. So I had to learn to eat whole, fresh foods. And I’m healthier for it!
LH: How do you carry around bulk items if you don’t have a car?
BT: Living in North Oakland, I’m fortunate to have access to great public transportation and walkable, bikeable streets, so my husband and I carry home our groceries either on our bikes or on the bus. Often, we just walk it home if there’s not too much. We also have a Zip Car membership, so we can use a car if we have a particularly big shop to do, but that doesn’t happen very often. The key is really to plan ahead and make sure we have our reusable bags and containers with us when we leave the house to go shopping. I also carry a few cloth produce bags and reused paper bags in my purse at all times in case I want to shop more spontaneously.
LH: What about items like shampoo?
BT: There’s a whole chapter on personal care and cleaning products in the book. For shampoo, there are several options. Some people enjoy shampoo bars, which are just like soap bars except you use them to wash your hair. A brand I’m testing now is Chagrin Valley. Many Etsy sellers make shampoo bars. And the store Lush sells naked shampoo bars without any packaging. Another method of hair washing, which is what I do normally, is referred to as “No ‘Poo“. You wash with a solution of baking soda and water and rinse with a solution of apple cider vinegar and water. For me, it works great and is super inexpensive. Vinegar is great for the hair, and the smell dissipates very quickly.
LH: If there could be one policy enacted on a world-wide level to address the plastic issue, what would you like it to be?
BT: I can’t choose one policy because there are several different problems with plastic that must be addressed. From a waste perspective, we need policies to restrict the production of single-use disposable products, like bags, bottles, wrappers, and containers. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, but in the environment, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, which can actually be even more problematic than bigger pieces of plastic. Many countries around the world have passed bans and/or fees for plastic bags, styrofoam, and other types of disposables.
Once we eliminate as much disposable plastic as possible, we need extended producer responsibility policies to require manufacturers to be responsible for the full lifecycle of the products they produce instead of relying on communities to bear the burden. When companies are required to ensure their products can be recycled, they will redesign their products to be more easily recycled from the start.
Those measures address the waste and litter issues, but not the toxicity issue. Plastics contain many additives to produce the desired qualities of the material, and manufacturers are not even required to disclose what chemicals they add to their plastic products. What’s more, in the United States, we don’t exercise the Precautionary Principle, which would require chemicals be proven safe before they are placed on the market. So I want to see policies that ensure chemicals are safe and that require companies to list the chemicals they are using, just as they have to list the ingredients in food. Because really, a plastic food wrapper, bottle, or container IS another ingredient in the food, since those chemicals can leach out.
LH: What the easiest ways to get started with a plastic-free life?
BT: First, let me say that what’s easy for me might not be easy for someone else. For me, the easiest first step was getting in the habit of always having my reusable bags with me so I never had to take another plastic grocery bag. I have a funny story in the book about my first attempts and what happened once when we forgot. Carrying small compressible bags in my purse makes it easy to always have a bag.
One thing I encourage people to do is to collect their plastic waste for a week or more (there is an exercise in the book for doing just that) to see what their actual plastic footprint looks like and to help determine which plastics to focus on first. Whatever you start with, don’t try to eliminate all plastics from your life at once. I started very gradually, finding an alternative as I’d use something up. I knew that if I tried to go cold turkey, I would give up in frustration. But by taking it step by step, I have reduced my plastic waste to one grocery bag full per year. And that includes both the recyclable and non-recyclable stuff. I don’t expect everyone else to be as extreme as I am, but I just want to show what’s possible and to encourage people to get started.