Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle

The Right Use of Plastic

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I’ve come to accept plastic, sort of reconciling myself to its place in the world. Where ever I ramble, I run into it – vacuum packed tofu at the farm stand, fluorescent-colored bottle lids on the forest floor, broken lawn chairs at the curbside. I have to face it — plastic is here to stay.

I always cringe, though, when a waitress asks if she can bring a ‘to go’ box for my leftovers. This usually means Styrofoam, a form of plastic I don’t consider a friend — nor does the planet. Once Styrofoam is set free to roam the earth, it’s anti-social — doesn’t break down, mix or mingle like wood and paper do, giving themselves to the making of soil, contributing to the life cycle.

In fact, Styrofoam may never decompose.

That it keeps to itself may be a good thing though, because when it circulates, it wreaks havoc, causing cancer. I won’t put Styrofoam out with my garbage. And when I invariably acquire a piece from a generous neighbor bringing Christmas cookies, I gracefully accept my plate then sequester it to the closet to use as a paint palette. But I won’t take home Styrofoam intentionally.

So I ask, Can I have a piece of tin foil to wrap my veggie curry in? My preference, though, is to bring home leftovers in a plastic bowl and lid I keep in a potluck kit in my trunk and am trying to get in the habit of bringing with me into restaurants.

Plastic has become a basic element of our mobile lifestyle. Light and unbreakable, it’s convenient to carry. Cheap to buy, plastic cups, forks and bottles are seen as disposables and discarded after one use.

But throwing out plastic is costly.

While a paper bag takes a month to become soil and a cardboard box around two, a plastic bag can take a good hundred years to break down. And when it does, it doesn’t blend, but stays intact as tiny particles that creep into ground water and litter oceans.

Plastic pills are taken up by plants, fish, animals and us, or just hang around. Pacific Ocean currents have collected some of our throw-aways in a swirling plastic soup the size of Texas. Fish dine on bottle caps; birds don six-pack ring necklaces. Come high tide, the sea may deliver our debris to our shore.

For now, plastic seems content to seep from containers into hot soup, leftovers and lattes. Tricksters, called BPA, sneak into bodies and mimic female hormones, messing with reproductive and nervous systems. Scientists have seen BPA handed down for three generations in fish.

Let’s face it. Plastic lingers — perhaps in protest of our disregard.

So, I limit my holdings, making friends with the few pieces I have, trying to reuse them for their duration. Once I’ve got plastic in my sight, I consider it an orphan, with nowhere to go, at least for a long time. Or, I eye it as a terrorist, holding it captive, protecting the world from its antics. And sometimes, I simply recognize its value and reuse it.

Walking my neighborhood on collection day, I rescue chairs, tables and shelves from languishing at the dump. Or, I postpone their recycling.

When possible, I recycle. But not all plastic can be recycled. And only about 5% of what can, does.

Perhaps plastic has made us lazy. Intended to make lives easier, disposables mean less washing of dishes. But our loathing of labor may have led to our scanty recycling. We’ve given our selves more work, though. Because plastic won’t play nice with nature, we’ve got to babysit and find things for it to do, lest we suffer its shenanigans.

I remember the invasion of plastics. As a child, I recoiled at inert orange, purple and pink impersonators upstaging painted clay bowls, horse hair and wooden brushes, rag dolls and cloth diapers. ‘Real’ items breathed with life forces, holding imprints of human touch. They were books to be read offering insights to life, engaging and peaceful to be around. But plastic was a soulless worker who came, got the job done and left without giving you the time of day. Cold and lifeless, it felt deadening. At home, I clung to dwindling natural objects for comfort and inspiration, rubbing my fingers along irregular surfaces, tracing circles of grain, following stitches in rows.

As a young adult, I combed stores for genuine items, to find few. Used goods shops became my treasure-trove of long forgotten wooden pails, tin watering cans and glass pitchers. I brought them home and sheltered them as a naturalist protects a preserve.

I am a purist. This is hard work. Plastic is ubiquitous.

Nowadays, plastic still stops me in my tracks. Yesterday, I shopped for cane sugar, which I use for its mildly sweet flavor and even handedness with my blood sugar level. I scoped out the bulk section of a local natural food store, hoping to scoop some cane sugar into a bag I brought and transfer it to a jar at home. There was none –only palm sugar, a new item. I placed a few crystals on my tongue. ”Not too sweet,” I thought, “but not as rich a flavor.” I moseyed around the aisle to find cane sugar sitting on a shelf encased in a hard plastic container. “Too bad!” I thought, then returned to the bulk section to take a few cups of palm sugar.

That night, I made ice cream with the new sugar but didn’t care as much for the taste. So, do I buy plastic wrapped cane sugar? Or search further hoping to find it in bulk and if not adjust to an alternative? I believe so.

Taking inventory of my trash a few years back, I gasped at the glut of plastic hummus containers, pasta wrappers, forks, spoons and water bottles. Shamed, I vowed to purchase as little as possible packaged in plastic and started making my own yogurt, crackers and tooth powder. This summer, I hope to start making shampoo and pasta and muslin sacks for bulk items and produce.

I now carry a glass water bottle and keep hard plastic plates, cloth napkins and metal cutlery in my car for use at potlucks and take out. I bring in a metal spoon when I frequent a frozen yogurt shop and have ventured into a take-out pizza parlor with my own plate. Perhaps one day this will be common.

What’s plastic good for and what’s best made with natural materials?

I have never been a disposable razor fan and have bought replaceable cartridges. While they consist of little plastic, their cost has skyrocketed. Flabbergasted, I thought back on my dad’s metal double-edged razor using a simple steel blade. To me, this is the pinnacle of razor technology.

I searched family run pharmacies then chain stores but found no such models. Finally, on line, I bought an ‘old fashioned’ razor with paper wrapped blades and no plastic! All for a fraction of the cost of a plastic one! Eureka! The process took nearly as much time as buying a car, but I’ve redirected myself to one more plastic-free path on which I more happily roam!

If I need to have plastic, I try to glean used items from the curbside or buy them in thrift shops. The fields are aplenty. Eco-architect, Richard Sowa, harvested disposed items to make a floating island– a lasagna of plastic and soil.

Shower curtains, sneakers and toothbrushes of recycled material abound. When a new plastic item is called for, recycled is my choice.

But there are things plastic should not get its fingers on. A clear bag holding thrown out food scraps is a sad sight. This imprisonment of banana peels and peach pits from organisms eager to turn them to dirt is a death sentence. I delight in delivering food remains to the ground where they can join the dance of life.
As for us, as I’ve heard said, Let’s care as much about the containers we use as the food we put in them.

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