Perhaps you already bring your own reusable grocery bags, have kicked the bottled water habit and know better than to microwave in plastics, but still find daily life swimming in plastics and want to use less of it. After recycling, the average American still generates a half pound of plastic refuse daily, a concrete indicator of how deeply entrenched are plastic materials in our 21st century lifestyle (USEPA, 2010).
Rational reasons to cut back on plastics fall into one of two spheres: limiting exposure to hazardous chemicals associated with plastics – like bisphenol-A, phthalates and flame retardants – or reducing the harm to the environment incurred at all stages in plastics’ lifecycle, from extraction of the petroleum needed for manufacturing to disposal of the non-biodegradable finished products.
Short of adopting a Tarzan-like jungle existence, it’s probably impossible to completely eliminate plastics from modern day life, but with a little digging and shopping savvy, you can enlarge that dent in your plastics consumption. Some ideas follow.
GROCERIES: It can be daunting to find anything at conventional supermarket chains (e.g. Albertsons, Ralphs, Vons/Safeway) not packaged in plastic. Stores select inventories based on their market niche which, for conventional supermarkets, is mainstream brands that emphasize value at competitive prices. Plastic packaging is simply cheaper to produce and transport than, say, glass, so packaging choices are limited for most products.
Avoiding plastic packaging is much easier at so-called natural foods markets that serve a different market niche. They stock a plethora of brands where the manufacturer has responded to consumer interests in a healthier lifestyle and alternative packaging. Non-plastic options are available for most items storewide, many of which are also organic, though you can expect to pay more than for the mainstream brands. Here are some specifics I found perusing my local Mothers, Sprouts and Whole Foods markets.
There are anywhere from a few to many options in glass containers for common pantry items including ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, molasses, spices, nut butters, steak & barbeque sauces, vegetable oils, vinegars, fruit juices, sodas and bottled water. Many of the labels might be less familiar to mainstream shoppers, like Cadia, Annie’s Naturals, Lakewood Organic, and OOgavé. A wide assortment of vitamins and dietary supplements are sold in glass too.
Milk typically comes in plastic jugs or plastic-coated paperboard cartons. I located four brands in returnable/refillable glass bottles: Straus Family Creamery, Broguiere’s, Claravale Farm and Whole Foods label. Likewise, two yogurt brands come in pint or quart glass jars, White Mountain and Saint Benoit, and the latter also offers single servings in ceramic cups. Though butter in paper or foil-wrapped sticks is commonplace, I found only one margarine brand, Earth Balance, in sticks instead of plastic tubs.
No matter where you shop, you’ll cart away less plastic by investing in a handful of reusable bags designed for fresh produce and bulk items like nuts and dried fruits. Many washable produce bags are available on the web, made from mesh or cloth. Or, they are easy enough to sew yourself from fabric scraps.
PERSONAL HYGIENE: Natural foods stores also stock several lines of facial care products (cleansers, toners) and skin moisturizes offered in glass, like Suki, John Masters Organic and Evanhealy. Some cosmetics brands have committed to using glass or metal containers too. There is even a brand of deodorant sold in glass spray bottles (Weleda), or you can go for a deodorant bar made of Himalayan crystal salt in paperboard packaging (Deo-Bar). All-cotton swabs, without the plastic stick, are available too.
My personally favorite find is Eco-DenT, a brand of dental floss offering silk floss and vegetable oil wax alternatives to mainstream nylon floss with petrochemical wax. It comes in a recyclable cardboard case.
DINING: Keep a few sets of silverware in the car’s glove box for visiting eateries that serve plastic utensils, and carry reusable take-out containers in the trunk for leftovers. If frozen coffee store drinks are your weakness, keep a travel drink container handy too. When throwing parties, do like our grandmothers did, use real dishes and silverware, or at least choose service items carried at natural foods stores made from renewables, like corn starch and wheat straw.
HOME MAINTENANCE: Though powder detergents are sometimes packaged in cardboard, even environmentally friendly liquid cleaning agents are sold in plastic. However, it’s quite easy to make your own cleaning supplies from simple ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and lemon. Enter “homemade cleaning products” in your search engine for recipes to tackle every household cleaning job.
When undertaking home remodeling, choose renewable materials whenever possible, like wood windows & doors, cork flooring and cellulose or cotton insulation. Be aware that plastic decking lumber can’t be recycled so will eventually be landfilled.
SCHOOL AND OFFICE: Choose backpacks made of canvas over vinyl ones. Use paper lunch bags or reusable cloth totes in lieu of vinyl lunch boxes. Waxed, parchment and butcher papers are all good substitutions for plastic sandwich bags and cling wrap.
The Center for Health and Environmental Justice in New Yorkmaintains extensive online inventories of non-plastic alternatives for every sort of school/office supply and where to purchase. In addition to necessities like 3-ring binders, files, organizers and address books, the listing includes some surprising options, like bamboo-cased flash drives and highlighter wood pencils. Many items are available at mainstream office supply stores.
DRIVING: A vehicle’s interior plastics (dashboard and seating, e.g.) contribute to that infamous “new car smell” by off-gassing dozens of volatile chemicals, many known to be hazardous. To help car buyers avoid the biggest offenders, last year the Ecology Center in Michigan released its latest rankings of over 200 recent models. The Honda Civic and Toyota Prius were rated first and second best. Eliminating polyvinyl plastics from interior components contributed to the Civic’s high status, though other plastics were substituted. So consumers might still be limited to selecting a car with safer, but not less, plastics.
The explosion of consumer plastics was an outgrowth of petroleum-based industries developed in World War II. That plastics are so durable and do not biodegrade seemed a good thing at the time, and the toxic nature of many chemicals associated with plastics was unknown. Today, the wisdom of a culture so entrenched in plastic materials is being reevaluated. While scientists continue to delineate all the health and environmental impacts of plastics, we already know that fetuses and young children are most susceptible to toxins and that plastics are amassing in even remote ocean regions.
It’s incumbent on us all to rethink our consumer choices and opt for materials we know are safer for our children and the rest of the planet too.