By Helen Whybrow
This fall, our family decided to take on what we are calling the plastic challenge. Essentially, this means we are not bringing any new plastic into our home for a whole year. We can use durable plastic goods that we own and use over and over again, but we have challenged ourselves not to buy anything new made of plastic and to avoid all plastic packaging.
We have chosen to break these self-imposed rules a couple of times. Letting our butcher freezer-pack lamb that we sell to customers was the major one. But, other than that, we have reduced our waste stream – including what goes in the recycling bin – to a fraction of what it was by not buying plastic.
Why did we take on this insane challenge? Why are we targeting plastic and not another material, like paper or metal? Even a generation ago most goods were delivered in reusable or renewable materials and companies took pride in making things that lasted the longest. With plastic, all of that changed. With plastic, so cheap and easy to discard, we became "the throwaway society" and increased our polluting of the planet exponentially.
Plastic is not biodegradable. It stays in the environment forever, and as it breaks down into smaller and smaller bits it is eaten by marine life and leaches toxins into our environment. Current estimates are that 300 million tons of new plastic is manufactured globally each year, and only 5 to 10 percent of that is recycled or, more accurately, "downcycled," meaning that it can only be turned into something less durable than what it was before and can't be recycled again.
Plastic is a truly genius invention. It's malleable, flexible, see-through, shelf-stable and sanitary. It's weatherproof and it's cheap. The problem is not plastic per se. It's our human capacity to stop noticing what we're doing, to use a great tool so much that it's everywhere, clogging our earth's arteries and showing up in places – like the stomachs of seabirds or in measurable amounts in our bloodstreams – where it doesn't belong. The big flaw in plastic design is that it is made to last forever, and yet we behave as if it were designed to throw away.
Now, Thanksgiving has arrived. Keeping plastic out of our home should be easy, right? No gifts to shop for, just a lot of eating. Honestly, though, feeding ourselves without buying any plastic has brought about the most change in our lives. We've had to give up lots of favorite foods (tortillas, vanilla yogurt, soymilk, crackers and most cheeses) as well as embarrass ourselves and feel hungry while traveling. In O'Hare airport I got all the way through a lunch line at a takeout before I realized they were putting every sandwich in a plastic box and so had to awkwardly cancel my order.
But, even at home, it has taken us three months to adapt our shopping habits: to get milk from a dairy, to make yogurt, to order in bulk, to get nice deli people to wrap hunks of cheddar in paper and to remember to take our own glass containers for bulk tamari, peanut butter and shampoo.
Everyone needs to eat, and America has decided that plastic and food are joined at the hip. In a way, it's like plastic is the new Twinkie: wrap enough plastic around your food and it will extend the shelf life almost indefinitely. In addition to shelf life, plastic has taken on the role of making products "tamper resistant." It wasn't until the plastic challenge that I noticed just how many food items in glass jars also have a plastic seal on the lid. Even many wax-coated cheeses or plastic single-serve milk bottles have a thick, plastic wrapper around them. Even fancy cucumbers are wrapped in plastic.
There seems to be a prevailing attitude of fear when it comes to food – fear of germs or decay, fear of contamination or of someone poisoning our jars of peanut butter somewhere along the supply chain. And, even though this doesn't make logical sense (what about eggs, still sold in their innocent and open cardboard cartons?), we have let plastic make us feel safe, complacent and secure. At the same time, however, there is the science that shows that plastic itself could be poisoning our food.
A great exercise is to walk through any grocery store and make a list of the products you can buy that have zero plastic packaging. Then make another list with the items that you can imagine or remember being sold to no great disadvantage with slightly less packaging – for example jars without the plastic ring, pasta without the plastic window, or milk cartons without the new plastic tops. The second list will be longer than the first.
The point is that we use more plastic than we need to and, remember, 90 percent of it is not or cannot be recycled. It's churning in a growing soup more or less permanently in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
The goal of our challenge is not to ban plastic. It's about learning to use a brilliant resource much more wisely. As David Foster Wallace said, "What is education for if not to help us be conscious about our choices?" That's what I feel we are doing with this plastic challenge – we are trying to make more conscious choices and not take plastic as a given.
When it comes to holiday gift shopping, one of the biggest difficulties this year is that we can no longer order things online. No more Amazon – the books are shrink-wrapped in that cardboard box. Those clothes in the catalogs (even Patagonia, which has some cool clothing made out of recycled plastic) all come in their own plastic bags, and often the mailer is plastic too. It would be fun to find a company that sent their goods wrapped in tissue paper, or to convince Amazon not to use shrink-wrap.
Our plastic challenge makes just another great reason to buy local this holiday season or to look out for "gently used" goods that deserve to be passed on. You can almost always get things with less packaging if you buy them close to the source, or handmade or secondhand. There are lots of beautiful examples here in this Valley. It's an excuse to get creative and seek them out.
THINGS I DON'T LOVE ABOUT OUR PLASTIC CHALLENGE
By Wren Forbes:
1. I used to think toothpaste tasted bad, but now whenever I look at baking soda, I want to gag! (It's my new toothpaste!)
2. Before the plastic challenge I would eat yogurt all the time. Now we have to make yogurt and we don't get around to that often.
3. Going on trips is another hard thing when you can't buy plastic. Our family travels quite a bit, and our problem is that pretty much any airport or gas station is full of plastic. Which makes it hard to eat! In the airport I saw apples shrink-wrapped in plastic!
THINGS I LOVE ABOUT OUR PLASTIC CHALLENGE
1. It always feels really good to look inside the grocery bag and see everything wrapped in paper or wax.
2. I find that we have changed our habits a lot. We are always aware of what we are buying. When we're at a restaurant sometimes I catch my mom or dad about to put one of those little plastic milk containers in their coffee and then they remember and say, ''Oh yeah, no plastic!''
3. The other thing that's been a big improvement is that we spend a lot less time and money on shopping because we have so few choices and have simplified how we eat. I think shopping at the co-op in Montpelier is good because they have a bulk section and basically everything you need.
Helen Whybrow is the co-author, with her husband Peter Forbes, of the forthcoming book, A Man Apart: Bill Coperthwaite's Radical Experiment in Living. Wren Forbes is their 10-year-old daughter. They live in Fayston.