Plastic use is ramping up in many parts of the world, and recycling usually isn’t enough to keep massive amounts of materials out of the environment that can be devastating to wildlife, and life in general.
Humanity’s current level of plastic dependence may seem hopeless, but one woman, author Beth Terry, has taken it upon herself to prove all the naysayers wrong.
She’s been about as plastic-free as a person can be since 2007, and she’s chronicled her experiences in the book “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too.”
Beth recently joined AltHealthWORKS.com to talk about her biggest challenges, what other people should know about her lifestyle changes and much more:
AHW: Hi Beth thanks for joining us, so let’s start with the question everyone’s been wondering the most about: have you really been plastic-free since 2007?
BT: Yeah, well I’ve been working on it. There’s still a little bit of it in my life here and there like today, I had to buy a battery for my phone but for the most part I try really hard not to buy anything plastic.
AHW: And what exactly inspired you to begin this enormous undertaking.
BT: The whole story is in the intro to the book, but basically back in 2007, I had heard a story on the radio about a guy in New York trying to live without creating any environmental impact, he called himself the “No Impact Man (Colin Beavan)” and he was writing a book about it.
So the book is out now and it’s also a documentary. I heard him on the radio and I was really inspired by what he was doing, I went online and stumbled upon an article showing the plastic pollution problem in the ocean.
Nowadays almost everybody has heard about this but back then that was the first (we’d heard of it). I say a photograph of a dead albatross, a chick halfway between the U.S. and Japan…they were really horrendous pictures. Here they were far away from civilization yet all of the world’s plastic was washing up here.
The mother albatross birds fly across the ocean, mistake the plastic for food and bring it back and feed it to their chicks. The island was strewn with carcasses with tons of plastics on the inside. I looked at that and saw the plastics we’re using on a daily basis; lots of bottle caps, utensils, straws and toothbrushes. That was the very first time I made a connection between my personal actions and the impact on creatures in the environment.
Then I read further and learned about the chemicals in plastic and it was clear to me that there was virtually no difference between albatross mothers and human moms feeding plastic chemicals to their babies; with them consuming foods packaged in plastic.
I decided to see if I could live without acquiring any new plastic, that was my idea. I wasn’t planning on doing it this long at first, I thought maybe I’d do it for a few weeks and see how it went.
AHW: How have you gone about organizing this remarkable commitment?
BT: I started by making a spreadsheet; I’m an accountant. I made a spreadsheet every week of the waste we created, then I made a blog and started doing research into what the alternatives were. I blogged about everything and the waste I was generating, and began to ask what could I do instead of this or the other…It really took off.
A lot of people were concerned about this issue so I thought, what can I personally do? So a couple of years ago I gathered all the info put it all together in a book, it was more organized and a step-by-step guide so people can learn about what the problems are and what they can do about it.
AHW: So what’s one of the first, simplest changes you made that everyone can emulate?
BT: The first thing was deciding that I would never take another plastic bag when grocery shopping because I was actually the type of person who would request double bags on purposes. I was using plastic like crazy so I decided to take a reusable bag with me, I have always had one but I decided I’d never take another plastic bag. For the most part it has worked out.
The bag I use (Chico bag) is polyester but I made an exception for those because they take the place of so many disposable bags. A couple times I was carrying things in my hand; I don’t have a car so it wasn’t a matter of bringing it to my car.
Also on vacation with my husband, we carried fruit in our shirts.
The second step was quitting bottled water; I actually wasn’t really drinking at home but at the gym I was so I got a reusable stainless steel bottle and brought it anywhere. Those are the first two things that anyone can do.
AHW: Nice, and what if everyone would change just that?
BT: I don’t know but I think it could be huge, maybe. There’s a whole chapter in my book on plastic bags and on plastic bottles.
From that point on, I decided I wasn’t going to have any more takeout food packaging so I would take a little stainless steel container with me everywhere. I would also take leftovers to take home in my own container; I had a utensil sit and a glass drinking straw too.
I would always get in the habit of saying, “Please don’t bring me a plastic straw.” Some restaurants would put their food in a container for me and some wouldn’t. It’s just a matter of asking.
AHW: Were there any places that couldn’t believe what you were asking considering the conformity of the times we live in today?
BT: It was just different for them, even though I live in the Bay Area. My husband would bring the container to get hot sour soup, and they would always want to put it in a plastic bag even though it was a handle; they still wanted to put this hot thing in a plastic bag and it doesn’t make any sense.
For the most part, people are willing to comply. We had to learn how to cook and start making a lot of our own food most days though.
AHW: What are some of the more advanced steps you’ve undertaken and when did they start?
BT: I’m the kind of person that when I get started on a project I want to go full force, I kicked into high gear from the start and there’s been ups and downs; times when I was stuck and couldn’t figure out what else to do. I made some discoveries, figured out what I want to do again…I discovered I could get bread without any plastic, if you went to bakeries where it was no sliced you can have them put it in your own bag. It’s easier to store without plastic, it keeps it fresher.
Also, I fell in love with mason jars and started using them for everything, especially in the freezer. Luckily I haven’t had any glass jars break in my freezer yet.
AHW: So we know this lifestyle is hard for the average person adopt. What are some of the future alternatives to unhealthy, environmentally damaging plastic out there?
BT: Plastic is made from carbon and carbon is what life’s made from so theoretically you can make plastic from any plant material or animal based material. They’ve made plastic from milk; the carbon is so dense that it just happens to be really easy to get enough from oil and natural gas but it’s a little harder to get from plants.
There is Nature Works, a company making plastic out of corn (editor’s note: the hope is that these companies will not use genetically modified corn), and another one making plastic from microbes fed sugar (mostly from corn too). The thing about it is that it could be good to make certain durable items out of plants instead of out of fossil fuels. It still takes a lot of energy to make packaging that’s only going to be around once and then thrown away so I’m not really an advocate of making more packaging even if it’s made from plants.
The other thing I say in the book is that plastics, even those made from plants can have toxic additives. There are numbers in the triangle on the packaging that tell you what plastic it is but nothing about what is added to it. Usually a container will have things that affect the strength or color or flexibility or slipperiness, all sorts of chemicals to give it the properties they want. The plastic industry is not even required to disclose some of them; we know about BPA and phthalate; tests done have shown even plastics labeled BPA-free have some of the same endocrine-disrupting capabilities.
So a plant-based plastic is not a panacea even, if they use it there is no way to know if it is safe, we have to take their word for it and I’m not really willing to do that.
The other thing about plants is that when it comes to ones like corn, there are certain big environmental issues; corn has lots of chemicals already (and is GMO).
AHW: Do they use these chemicals for cost-cutting?
BT: Not cost-cutting, it’s the certain qualities they want so they have to add things to it. PVC is rigid for example, rigid plastics; in water pipes they add phthalates to make it soft so it would be a matter of scientists developing safer chemicals and then disclosing to us so we can make better choices.
One of the things I like to say is when I go to the grocery store we have ingredients labels but the plastic packaging is not labeled and those are actually ingredients in your food.
Campbell’s got the BPA out of their cans but they won’t say what the alternatives are. Vinyl is one of the alternatives actually.
AHW: That doesn’t sound too healthy.
AHW: So has this been a big sacrifice for you? Be honest…
BT: Honestly I don’t think of it as a sacrifice, this has really been fun. There are tons and tons of solutions and ideas; recipes, do-it-yourself stuff and resources. It’s just a different way of think but I honestly don’t feel deprived at all.
There are two ways of looking at it, on one hand we as a people can reduce exposure but even so we’ll still be exposed to it in the environment, it’s produced in such massive quantities. So the other important step is to get legislators to pass laws to protect us. In the Senate they have the Safe Chemicals Act; stuff like that needs to be passed.
AHW: What are some other unique ways to get plastic out of your life?
BT: One way to get not just plastic but chemicals out is to switch from commercial deodorant to baking soda. That is what I use, I put tea tree oil in there too and it works better than any commercial deodorant I’ve used. For cleaning, baking soda has so many uses as well. I clean the kitchen and deodorize with it. Some people wash their hair with it.
Vinegar is great for cleaning also; for hair washing there are conditioner and shampoo bars that don’t require any packaging. You can use a bamboo toothbrush, although it can be hard to find the right bristles if you’re a vegan.
AHW: How about hemp bristles, wouldn’t that be cool?
BT: Definitely. We’re just waiting for hemp in general.
AHW: Yeah, (laughing), right.
BT: Another thing people don’t realize is that chewing gum is made from plastic (and alternatives are hard to find). A lot of times anything with paper is coated in plastic, ice cream cartons, food trays, anything leak proof will probably have plastic in it.
AHW: What do you do when you’re traveling?
BT: I carry my own mug with me sometimes; never take a plastic cup. For ice cream instead of buying from the store I’ll go out and get a cone, although I don’t eat it as much. I think I’m a healthier person overall without eating much processed food; I shop at farmer’s markets and bring my own bags.
AHW: What about recycling, how effective is that in solving this problem?
BT: A lot of times people think recycling is the solution; first of all it doesn’t address any chemical issues; second of all most plastics can’t be recycled, it’s a really low percentage even if you put it in the bin.
There’s one in Tulsa, Oklahoma that actually only recycles numbers 1 and 2; all the rest get incinerated.
The majority of plastic from the U.S. and Europe gets shipped to China for recycling, it doesn’t get shipped here. The conditions we have for recycling are pretty environmentally hazardous.
But really there’s a lot of stuff we don’t need. We use one thing and move on to the next but now I will try to find them second-hand; if something breaks I’ll fix it, I won’t throw it away.
Some things you can’t avoid like the phone battery though.
AHW: What would you say to people who say it’s too inconvenient to make these changes?
BT: One thing I would say is that the harm from the chemicals in our food, water and air, that is pretty inconvenient. The medical bills from illnesses linked to chemicals in plastics are pretty inconvenient so it’s a matter of what you consider to be convenient or inconvenient in that way.
One thing I always stress is that people shouldn’t try to do everything at once. It can feel inconvenient when you suddenly get rid of all the plastic in your life at once. But that’s why I wrote the book, I wanted to create a guide for people to make it easier.
AHW: Is it hard for people with kids?
BT: I get a lot of tips on my blog; a lot of times the kids will actually get the parents to change though, they say, why are you throwing that away, using plastic et cetera, so that’s cool.
AHW: What about this challenge you’ve devised?
BT: That involves the idea of getting an idea of what your personal plastic food print is. What you do is collect waste for a minimum of one week, look at it and take a picture then answer a bunch of questions about it. That’s designed to get you to think about your lifestyle; what are the things that you could change easily and what may be a little more different?
AHW: What about buying produce?
BT: Some things like apples and bananas don’t need packaging, you’re going to wash then when you get home anyway right? Really bags are only needed for little stuff and you can use cloth produce bags; there’s information in the book.
Some stores such as co-ops, you can bring your own containers and weigh things yourself before you buy and they’ll deduct the weight of the container.
The biggest message here is to be conscious and start by doing whatever you can. That’s why I have the challenge at the end of the first chapter of the book, it’s a good way for people to get an idea of what their plastic use is in the first place then they can start prioritizing.
What’s so funny to me is that those fruits and vegetables have been touched by so many hands and been all over the ground; you have no idea what happened to them so the idea that you need a bag just to get from the store shelves to the house is so weird to me. It’s already been exposed to so much other stuff that you’re just going to watch it anyway.
AHW: Anything else you want to tell people about how they can make a difference?
BT: Just take it easy and go step-by-step, and realize the choices we make do make a difference and we can all make a difference.
AHW: Thanks for joining us Beth, we will certainly take that message to heart.
BT: Thanks for having me.
This article first appeared on Nick’s website www.AltHealthWORKS.com. To view the article in its entirety and to also see a video of Beth speaking at TEDx, click this link .