Thoughts at the Dawn of the New Year

The year 2011 is coming to a close. I always find myself doing a lot more reflecting around this time of year than I usually do. I don’t always make specific resolutions–I have found that this is a recipe for my ending up feeling discouraged and like a failure right around around mid-February. For instance, if I resolve to eat more healthfully and read intellectually-stimulating material, I will find myself stress-eating chocolate and refusing to read anything but Goodnight Moon. Which is a great book. But…you know.

So, even if I don’t make any specific resolutions, my process involves taking stock in some way. Mostly, it’s about noting what distance I have travelled over the course of the past twelve months. Gradually, my attention turns toward the year to come, the fledgling annum preparing to emerge under the watchful gaze of the world. What will the new year bring, I wonder?

WIth regard to this project, my process mostly consists of trying to figure out how I am doing, and what else I can do to lessen my impact on the earth. The main discovery I have made is that I could easily shop less. There are some purchases that really do improve my quality of life. However, I feel that my life is cluttered with a great deal of unnecessary junk, both physical and emotional. The New Year is a great time to clean out, reduce, and simplify in all ways. I spent a satisfying hour or so cleaning out my childhood bedroom (I am home for the holidays) and I am planning on making a few trips to Goodwill. The next step, though, is not buying new stuff with which to fill up the space I’ve created. And this will reduce my plastic usage significantly, I think.

My final thought: even if you do want to go shopping–and believe me, I am not anti-shopping–you can still take reusable bags with you and save some plastic that way. The people at The Gap gave me sort of a funny look, but whatever. I can take it.

We Can Only Do What We Can Do

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I’m afraid that I have fallen prey to a common environmentalist bug: guilt. My enthusiasm and zeal for reducing my plastic usage slowly soured as the holiday season set in. My positive outlook devolved into a paralyzing sense of hopelessness. I began to view any purchase this holiday season with dread and more than a little bit of guilt. Was this gift for my brother packaged in too much plastic? Was the present for my mom recyclable? I felt stuck and yet the harder I tried to unstick myself, the more complete my paralysis became. I meant to write a post two days ago, and my main excuse was that I had a bad cold and felt drained most of the time. But I knew, too, that I dreaded writing because I felt that I was failing.

The challenge for me has always been balancing realism and optimism and also how to translate big ideas into small, achievable steps. For this project, my idea is pretty big, and I need to remember that I am not going to succeed in reducing my plastic usage if I try to do it all at once. I have already begun replacing household products with alternatives made from non-plastic materials; I have continued to avoid plastic bags whenever possible; I have asked for no receipts when I make purchases (they are often coated in plastic); and I am planning on taking another batch of empty toiletry bottles to Origins tomorrow as part of their recycling program. I am doing what I can.

SO: the moral of this Christmas Story is not that you’ll shoot your eye out; instead, the moral is that we can only do what we can do. With that in mind, here is wishing you a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, a Joyful Kwanza, A Happy Boxing Day, a Happy Belated Solstice, A Cheerful Festivus,  and a very, very good night.

A brief history of plastics

“In one sense,” Alan Weisman writes in The World Without Us, “plastics have been around for millions of years.” This is because, as Weisman points out, plastics are polymers, or carbon and hydrogen atoms linked together to form chains (148). Man-made plastics, however, are a relatively new development. When Leo Baekland, a Belgian chemist living in Yonkers, NY, mixed carbolic acid–or phenol–with formaldehyde, he found that the combination produced a moldable substance that hardened as it cooled. He christened it Bakelite. The year was 1905.

As new chemical combinations were found that formed different sorts of polymer chains, and increasing number of consumer products made of plastic entered the market. The true blossoming of the plastics industry, however, came after World War II, when the world was revolutionized by the introduction of more and more plastic consumer products, including acrylic textiles, Plexiglas, and cling wrap (Weisman, 149). In 1946, a small company in Leominster, MA, introduced a new product called Tupperware.

The manufacturing of plastic goods today is usually done by melting down what are called plastic resin pellets called nurdles, which are themselves created by reacting petrochemicals such as ethylene with polymer catalysts in order to turn them into polymer chains of various sorts. Plastic nurdles that have escape from shipments end up in…you guessed it! The ocean. Bad news bears.

But why is this a problem? Wouldn’t the nurdles and the plastic bags, and the plastic bottles and bottle caps, etc. simply float around harmlessly in the ocean? Not so fast. One factor is that that additives are usually added to make plastics more pliable or more UV resistant. And even though some toxic additives,  such as those used in PCBs, have been banned since the 1970’s, there is still PCB plastic out there that is slowly leaching highly toxic and hormone-disrupting chemicals into the ocean. Another factor is that nurdles and other plastics, when mistaken for food by marine organisms, can end up clogging their systems and killing them (Weisman,145-155). And, even from a anthropocentric view, this is not good: if plastics are ingested low down on the food chain, these smaller organisms will eventually be eaten by something else, and on up the food chain until you reach, well…you and me.

Setbacks.

Dear Reader,

I am afraid that I have had a few setbacks this week. I bought a take-out lunch on Wednesday and it came in not one but TWO plastic clamshells. Plus there was the plastic fork to boot. I stared at it for a while and felt guilty.

I feel that I have not made much headway in the last few days. This is frustrating, but perhaps not that surprising. I mentioned the ubiquity of plastics in my first post, and the last two weeks have only confirmed this for me in countless ways. Truly reducing my plastic usage in any meaningful and measurable way is not an easy project, and it’s going to take a little while. I still feel strongly that this is a project I want to pursue. According to Stop Trashing the Climate, a 2008 report published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, reducing the amount of waste we create is one of the best ways to lessen our impact on the earth’s climate. This is because landfills are a major source of methane entering the atmosphere. (And, as you may already know, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.)

I want to continue working on this. I just need a little more structure and direction. I am going to keep researching environmentally-friendly alternatives for household items like my toothbrush and hairbrush. I purchased two Lunchbots and an Anchor Hocking glass storage container. I’ll keep you posted on any other plastic alternatives I come across that I like.

Rub a dub dub

I have decided to post bi-weekly, as it will keep me more focused on this project. Besides, my boyfriend tells me that any blogger worth her salt posts more than once a week. (“Once a week?” he said, raising his eyebrows at me. “Really? Only once a week?”) Whatever.

So here’s the deal: today, I’m going to focus on The Bathroom. According to the EPA, packaging constitutes about one third of all the waste that enters the “non-industrial solid waste stream.” And I know that an awful lot of the packaging that I use comes from cosmetics and personal care products. In short, my bathroom is busy being a very plastic waste heavy place.  I am considering buying shampoo and conditioner in bulk because buying bulk is a great way to reduce packaging waste. Having perused a variety of sites, I think my favorite is this one,  perhaps just because it is a little ridiculous to look at. (Or maybe I’m just jealous because the models pictured on the homepage are pretty much definitively cooler than I am). Regardless of whether or not I take the plunge and go bulk, though, there are plenty of other steps one can take to reduce plastic usage in the bathroom. One program to know about is Origins’ “Return to Origins” Recycling Program. They accept empty cosmetic and personal care product packages regardless of brand. I’ve been looking around for more info on how the containers are recycled, but so far reviews are really positive. I’m going to make a trip to Origins with a few empty bottles and tubes tomorrow.

I think that’s it for now.

Musings

Where to begin? This week has been a little bit discouraging. I began talking with my committee of experts about a point system, and our discussion quickly devolved into a debate over the best theoretical framework for this project. What was my overall goal here? Should I develop a system through which to determine the most harmful plastics, and then rate all of the plastic I used and focus on cutting down on the most noxious stuff? Should I use a universal “cap” approach whereby I lowered the cap by a little bit each week in order to slowly wean myself off of plastic of any sort? Can you say overanalyzing the problem?  I could see what was happening: I suddenly envisioned myself ending up crouched in a corner of my apartment, angrily shredding cling wrap in a distracted and half-crazed manner while I muttered unintelligably about the Pacific Garbage Patch.

So, in the end, I simply tracked my plastic usage this week in order to get an idea of my starting point. In total, my list included about 30 items, and I’m sure I missed some. I’m thinking that a good place to start will be plastic bags and plastic kitchen items such as tupperware. My goal this next week is to eliminate these items in my daily routine by finding substitutes like cloth bags for groceries and glass or metal containers for food storage. I will also be doing some research this week about the history of plastics, the chemical make-up of different types of plastic, and other fun plastic facts. (Get excited!) I will be using as one of my chief resources in this project a fascinating book called The World WIthout Us by Alan Weisman. I will be focusing on his chapter specifically about plastics, but the whole book is well worth a read. Check it out if you are interested in the impact we are having on this planet!

And I’m out.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first plastic bag.

Dear Reader,

I have decided to cut down on my plastic usage. Here’s why:

1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It exists. This is not good.

2. Endocrine disruptors can leach out of household items like tupperware or plastic bags. This is not good. For more info, check out this fabulous article on endocrine disruptors.

3. Making a conscious effort to reduce my plastic usage will force me to reevaluate the impact I am personally having on the earth. This will be good.

Over the past week, as I brainstormed how to structure this project, one thing became clear: plastic is in everything. When the idea for this project first came to me, I thought that I could take it on without much major disruption of my daily routine. “I’ll just get better at remembering to take my cloth bags to the grocery store!” I told myself cheerfully. “I’ll buy more things in bulk! It will be easy peasy lemon squeezy!”

Boy, is my face red. Turns out that while I was thinking this thought, I was brushing my hair with my plastic hairbrush after washing my hair with shampoo and conditioner that came from plastic bottles in a shower with a plastic shower curtain. Don’t even get me started on the plastic computer and plastic cellphone that I rely on to participate in life in the twenty-first century.

So. I’m not going to be able to completely eliminate plastic from my daily life. In consultation with a committee of experts (i.e. my boyfriend), I have decided to create a system of points that I can allot toward my plastic usage each week. The number of points per week will take into account items that I use every day (like my computer and cellphone) and will allow for a small number of discretionary plastic items. For those of you interested in my point system, you can check back next week when I will post what I’ve worked out. For those of you who have lives/normal interests and attention spans, we go back to the larger point…

My goal is this: to reduce, to educate myself and others, and to have a good time doing it. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and you can tune in next week to see if I’ve made any progress.