In 2007, while Beth Terry was recovering from surgery she stumbled across an article with a photo of an albatross whose stomach was filled with everyday plastic items she regularly used. It hit her like nothing ever had. The picture drove her to the decision of getting plastic out of her life to the absolute fullest extent possible. In April 2012, her book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habitand How You Can Too will be in available bookstores.
Here is a bit of her story.
Is it possible to live a life 100% free of plastic?
It is possible, but it would be really hard and not very practical. You wouldn’t be able to participate in society. I wouldn’t have a blog or a computer if I didn’t use plastic. I wouldn’t have a phone. But I have found ways to reduce my plastic consumption in those areas by buying them used instead of new. There are also plastic things I have not been able to avoid such as prescription bottles.
What was the hardest thing to give up?
In the beginning it was cheese, but I have now found plastic free cheese. I knew I could go to a deli and ask them to put cheese in a container I brought from home, but the original cheese was still wrapped in plastic. I found a company out in the Bay Area that sells wheels of cheese. I want it plastic free so I have to buy the whole wheel. I then grate it and freeze it.
How has the plastic free lifestyle movement changed since you started in 2007?
There is a ton more awareness now. There are a lot of cities trying to ban plastic bags or put fees on plastic bags. There are people trying to get plastic water bottles out of public buildings and schools. Awareness is really growing, but I think people are dealing with plastic on a superficial level. There is still so much plastic that is being generated every day. I think people think as long as they recycle they are doing they are doing their part.
Why isn’t recycling plastic solving this problem?
A plastic bottled put into the recycling bin is not recycled into a plastic bottle. It is recycled into polar fleece or carpet. It slows down the process from cradle to grave, but that product [made of plastic] will eventually end up in the landfill or the incinerator. The majority of the plastic recycling from the US gets exported to China or Asia and the factory conditions there are abysmal. This contributes to pollution problems. There are recycling companies in the US. Most of them are in the southeast, but for all practical purposes for me living on the west coast – any plastic I recycle is going to China.
When you are bringing your own container to delis, how do people react to this?
Some won’t do it, some are happy to do it, some think it is quirky and some think it is a great idea – it is saving them money. Some people will thank me for it. Some cite some nebulous health code which I do not believe exists.
Has this made your life more or less expensive?
Overall I save a lot of money because I consume a lot less.
Do you feel like you are missing out on anything?
No, I feel like I am gaining something. Being able to live simply, knowing I have a choice of what I buy, knowing I am in control and really thinking about the full life cycle of the things I purchase feels really empowering to me.
How did this transition to a plastic free lifestyle happen?
I did not do this all at once. I thought going for it all at once was a recipe for failure. In all of 2007 I think I was still buying cheese in plastic, because I had not found an alternative and I was not willing to go without. I really recommend [the gradual approach is] how people should do it.
What should someone’s first steps be if they would like to reduce the amount of plastic they generate?
The easiest step is to bring your own grocery bags to the store. The other thing is bottled water. We can all carry reusable water bottles with us if we think we need water all the time.
You have actually contacted companies asking them to use less plastic in their packaging. What are the reactions to this?
Sometimes I won’t hear from them. Sometimes they will send a letter thanking me and other times they say, “Yes you are right. What can we do?”
One example of that is Laundry Tree. They sell soap nuts which are little berries to wash your clothes. They work well. The woman from this company was packaging them in plastic bags. When I wrote to her and asked her if she would consider changing her packaging, she wrote me back and said that she had been thinking about it and asked me for help. In less than a month she had alternative packaging. One reason she could do it a lot easier than a lot of companies is because she is a small business, but big businesses can change too. It is always worth it to write to companies whose products you buy frequently. In 2008 I spearheaded a campaign to get Brita to recycle their water filter cartridges and it worked. People have to speak up.
In what places do you find it most surprising to find plastic?
Chewing gum has plastic in it.
The thing that makes gum chewy is plastic. It is something called polyvinyl acetate. Traditionally, the chewy part of gum came from a rubber tree. Now it is synthetic. Companies do not disclose this on label. They just say it is gum based. The only way to find out is to call the company. Even the natural gum company Glee [uses synthetics], it says so in their FAQs.
What do you use for shampoo?
There are companies that make shampoo bars and conditioner bars. I actually use a method that does not work for everyone but works for me. It is called No Poo. There is a whole movement of people that do this. I wash my hair with one tablespoon of baking soda per one cup of water and just basically scrub my hair with it. Then I rinse it with apple cider vinegar and water. I put some rosemary essential oil in there because it makes it smell good and it is supposed to be good for my scalp. My hair is really healthy and shiny. If you try it, it may take a while for your scalp to get used to it.
What about laundry soap?
The soap nuts are great. There is also a brand called Ecover. I use the powdered [Ecover] that comes in a cardboard box and has a cardboard scoop instead of a plastic scoop. Ecover also makes a liquid laundry detergent in a plastic bottle. There are many powdered detergents, but Ecover is the only one I know without a plastic scoop.
Do you have any idea the amount of plastic that is created that is actually recycled?
The overall recovery [recycling] rate for all plastic generated in 2009 was 7.1% in the United States. This is next to nothing.
Is it practical for everyone to live a plastic free lifestyle like you do?
I do not want to give the impression that I think everyone should live the way I do. I do not think it is practical for everyone. I want to see the system change. I want to see businesses change and I want to see regulations put in place that require companies to take responsibility for the full life cycle of the products they produce. I want companies to design with end of life in mind.
As a consumer it is hard not to feel helpless.
If we do not start trying it is never going to change. We as consumers have to drive the system. We have to speak up and tell leaders what we want.
Why is it that the Rwanda can ban plastic bags but the State of California cannot?
That is a damn good question. Maybe because there is more pressure from industry on legislators in California than there is in Rwanda.
How does something from a plastic toy or dish end up in a child’s body?
So many of children’s products are made from plastic. People are worried about children’s dishes breaking so they give them plastic instead. A lot of children’s products are made out of vinyl which is particularly toxic. Food containers and metal cans are lined with BPA which is toxic and a lot of people are trying to get that banned.
Plastic contains so many additives. The additives are not actually a part of the plastic. They are sort of loose within the plastic and they can leach out especially when the plastic is heated or subjected to stress in some way. Vinyl is one of the worst plastics. If you are a child and you are sucking on plastic you can digest it. The chemicals in vinyl can also rub off on their skin and off gas into the air they breathe. There are so many household items children are exposed to everyday – vinyl flooring, window coverings, just look around your house.
What is the hardest thing for people to change?
One of the hardest things is that our society is so based on convenience and not having to think before making a decision. Stopping and thinking before you buy something is sometimes difficult. We are so used to getting whatever we want whenever we want it. It is switching that mindset that I think is the most challenging but the most important part.
What is the solution to the plastic bag crisis in the United States?
I think putting a fee on plastic bags is a good idea. There is a lot of proof that putting a high fee on plastic bags reduces their consumption by 90%. Ireland and Washington DC did this and they have seen an incredible decrease in plastic bag usage and at the same time people feel they have a choice. I like the idea of people being able to make a choice, being able to make the right choice and being able to feel good about it.
There is a sea of plastic that some estimate is as large as the United States in the Pacific Ocean, others estimate it is twice the size of Texas. Is there anything being done about that?
There are organizations and companies that have plans to go out and mine the plastic in the oceans to convert it to fuel, but they can’t recover the tiny pieces which are the real concern. People have the impression that it is a plastic island that you can just clean up but it is actually more like a soup of tiny pieces. The tiny pieces are from nurdles which are tiny balls that look like fish eggs which are used to make plastic or from post-consumer plastic that is broken down due to the motion of the waves and the sun. What they are finding now is that a lot of these little tiny pieces are very toxic because they absorb toxins like oil and pesticides which end up in fish and then they end up in us.
Learn more about Beth and view different resources to help you reduce your plastic consumption at www.myplasticfreelife.com