Phasing Out Plastic

I want to be a tree hugger.

I felt like I was doing a pretty good job meeting that goal. I live in a relatively small house. We have a high-efficiency furnace and LED light bulbs. I bring my own bags to the grocery store. One of our family vehicles is a Prius.

Another way I thought we were doing a good thing for the planet was the ratio of trash to recyclables that we generated. On trash collection day, we’d have the trash bin less than half full, while the recycling bin would be practically overflowing.

Paper, glass, metal, plastics. Look at all that stuff we were sending off to be recycled, to find another use, and to live on outside of the waste stream! How environmentally-friendly of us,right?

Maybe not.

I read recently that in the US, only about 9 percent of plastic is actually recycled, while about 15 percent is incinerated, and the rest, despite all our good intentions and time spent painstakingly sorting, is sent to the landfill with the rest of the garbage.

Additionally, plastic is not infinitely recyclable like glass or metal, so even if it is recycled, it’s often made into something that cannot be recycled again. I’ve also read estimates that say by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

That sounds like a fun family vacation. Can you imagine? Hey kids, let’s go to the beach and look at all of the plastic swimming around.

Anyway, as depressing as these statistics are, we can either be sad and do nothing, or we can be sad but do something. I’ve decided recently to take a look at all of the plastic in my life and work on reducing how much of it I use.

Some swaps have been pretty easy, and in other places I’m stuck. Here are a few of the less-obvious places where I’ve managed to make the switch:

– For a recent party we bought compostable cups, plates, and flatware. It was all made of cornstarch. It was good quality and I don’t think anyone noticed the difference. I was tempted to save a few items and do a little experiment to see how long they actually took to break down, but instead we brought all of the unused pieces to a family birthday party the next week and they used it up.

– We started using compostable trash bags. This is a big one. If you have compostable things in the trash, but they are locked inside a plastic bag, they don’t have the chance to really break down, so you may as well have done nothing.

– I switched from body wash in a plastic bottle and a bath pouf to a bar of soap and a washcloth I can throw in the laundry. Sometimes I miss all the sudsy foam, but I’m still clean and that’s the important part.

– I bought a waterproof fabric shower curtain so I can wash it when it gets funky instead of throwing out a plastic curtain and buying another one.

– Speaking of the laundry, the latest switch we made is to a concentrated brick of detergent that we mix with water at home and keep in an old detergent jug. The brick is the size of a bar of soap, but it makes a gallon of detergent.

– I’m having mixed success asking for no straws when we go out. (Some communities are actually banning them, and some businesses don’t even offer them unless asked).

We don’t go out so often that it’s fresh in my mind, so sometimes I forget and then there is my drink with a straw in it. Cue the guilt about the sea turtles and their straw-stuffed noses.

You can, if you remember to do so, carry a glass or metal reusable straw in your bag.

– If you don’t mind getting a few strange looks, try bringing your own container when you go to a fast food restaurant, coffee shop, or other counter-service establishment.

I’ve found most people are more than willing to fill my metal water bottle with soda from the fountain instead of giving it to me in a cup. But this requires some education. I hand them the bottle, and there’s an awkward silence, which I find myself filling with some lecture about how our world has a plastic problem.

– I like my soft serve in a dish, but I’ve been ordering the cone to avoid the plastic. I have yet to bring my own dish and spoon along to the ice cream stand. That may be crossing the line, but I think I am committed enough to take that risk.

I’m stuck on replacements for hair conditioner, toothbrushes, and contact lens solution. So far I have not been able to locate any of these in a non-plastic form. Readers, if you’ve figured these out please let me know in the comments!

(Also, for the record, flushing your throw away contact lenses is definitely a bad idea).

In the end, all we can do is try. Every piece of plastic we don’t use doesn’t have to get thrown out. I’d like to think there are more of us doing the right thing than the wrong one, and if you were on the fence, maybe I’ve inspired you to join me.

If you’re looking for statistics about how much plastic is actually recycled, try here.

And here’s some information, if you think you can stomach it, about fish and the threat to them that is posed by all the plastic in the ocean.

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