Turning Art into Action
One thing The Art of Sustainability project has done for me is provide a regular process whereby I see amazing environmentally inspired art with a message. The messages range from “protect our oceans” to “prevent more extreme climate change”, from “reduce waste” to “preserve habitat”, and on and on. The creativity is inspiring, the messages, to me, compelling, and they have a common underlying thread: PLEASE ACT and ACT NOW. When I heard about #plasticfreejuly, I decided to see what changes I could make to heed the messages to reduce waste and prevent plastic pollution.
This is a summary of my #PlasticFreeJuly journey. It has by no means been a perfect journey, as my July was not 100% plastic-free. However, there will be more stops ahead, and it has been a fun adventure with much learned. I was ready to go beyond the basics – reusable shopping bags and coffee cups. So to dive deeper, I decided to tackle some of the other plastics I use daily, some single-use, some not. I focused on health and beauty products, and foods in plastic packaging. There was no rigorous weighing of options, I must admit. Rather, I looked at the plastics I saw myself using (or discarding) each day, and looked for available alternatives that suited me, either from a cost or convenience perspective. I was looking for repeatable options preferably, that would survive July.
July’s “Plastic-Free” Destinations:
- Beef up the Basics: OK, I went into July with a fairly well-stocked set of what I’d call the Plastic Alternate Basics: reusable coffee mugs, shopping bags, cotton produce bags, reusable food containers, and reusable or compostable straws and utensils. So for July I set some rules: no reusable cup or bag = no purchase. This resulted in having coffee at the coffee shop a few times when I really wanted it to-go instead, or sometimes skipping coffee until I could get my cup. Full confession, I did get one frosty iced-coffee this month in a disposable plastic cup. Sigh, a moment of tired weakness. Oh, there were a couple deli purchases that required new plastic containers. So now I’ve stashed a couple in my shopping bag pile. But otherwise, the tactic of sprinkling cups, mason jars, and bags at the office, in the car, and by the door at home helped immensely in my somewhat-plastic-free July.
- Laundry Detergent: After my April blog post “Plastic Apocalypse” which featured Stuart Haygarth’s Tide Chandelier, I’d just had it with plastic laundry soap containers. Haygarth’s glowing orb of plastic containers haunted me. I searched for “plastic free laundry soap” and found Tangie from Waste Free Products. (Yes, there are powder detergents that come in paper-board boxes, but the boxes have a plastic coating as a moisture barrier so are not recyclable.) Tangie products are made in California, so fairly local to Seattle, and offered the most local product I could find at that time. I ordered their laundry soap paste, which is a soap sized bar that comes in a small compostable paper box. I’ll save my current laundry soap jug to refill with the paste and dilute the paste water to make my new liquid laundry detergent. I have not tried it yet but will add a comment below once I have. I like that this approach skips the paper vs glass container conundrum and jumps right to much reduced and compostable packaging. Additionally, since we are not shipping the water which I will add at home instead, it likely has a lower transportation emissions impact on the climate. At $0.08/load, this is less than the detergent I buy now.
- Shampoo and Conditioner: When I’m in the shower, besides the bar of soap, I’m surrounded by plastic. Shampoos, conditioners, make-up remover, baby shampoo, and shave lotion. So for my personal July journey, it was time to hack away at some of those bottles. When I’d ordered my laundry paste, I also purchased Tangie shampoo and conditioner bars. With the first order, WasteFreeProducts offered the option to include free loofah discs labeled “shampoo” and “conditioner”, which are very handy and help the bars dry and last longer. (Note as of today, the loofah option appears to have been replaced with wood drying discs that require purchase. Or just cut up your own loofah.) I finished my bottled set earlier this month and started using the bars, and I LOVE them! My hair feels soft and clean. It’s also easy to use just a tiny amount of conditioner, which is great for my hair type. My 7-year old daughter started using them this month, and it’s really good for her curly hair too; her frizzies are much reduced. I keep the set on their labeled loofah bases in a metal wire soap dish that suctions to the back shower wall to keep them out of the shower spray. The cost was about the same as buying a new set of eco-friendly shampoo and conditioner at my local drugstore, and based on usage so far the bars should last as long as a bottle if not longer, so this eco-swap might also be a cost saver for me.
- Toilet Paper: I know that toilet paper is wrapped in plastic wrap for hygiene and to keep it dry. It’s basically a “bag’s worth” of plastic film that I can drop off at the store-recycling bin at one of the stores I go to about monthly, but still it bugs me. I used to see individual paper-wrapped rolls at our local drug store, but haven’t spied them recently. So after seeing the Who Gives a Crap ad go by on @the_art_of_sustainability Instagram feed numerous times, I decided to try the “feel good toilet paper”. Advertising really does work I guess… I went the full distance and ordered a case of 100% recycled 3-ply, plastic-free TP. So far, it really does feel good. It’s soft enough (not scratchy, but not downy soft either) and does what it’s supposed to do without disintegrating during use. And helping fund toilets in developing countries also feels good. At a dollar per roll, it is more pricey than buying standard TP on sale at the grocery store (my previous practice) but is comparable cost-wise to other recycled toilet papers (that come wrapped in plastic). But, despite being the prettiest TP I’ve ever seen, with the patterned paper wraps (which can be reused for crafts or wrapping gifts), and a sense of potty humor that I appreciate, the fact that it’s made in China gives me pause. Great life cycle review here from The Kritic; I’ll need to confirm that similar lower carbon footprint for WGAC holds true for U.S. buyers before my next TP purchase.
- Snack Time: The daily challenge of providing healthy, tasty and packable snacks for my school-aged child has proven to be one of the largest conundrums of parenthood. Now, for July and beyond, these snacks need to be healthy, tasty, packable AND plastic-free. Which means granola bars were out. I grabbed a few reused bulk bags and headed to the bulk aisles at the local grocery and Whole Foods (bonus, WF provides paper bags for bulk purchases). After taste and texture testing with my daughter, we settled on a good blend of healthy and tasty treats: bulk sunflower seeds, dried apricots, yogurt-covered pretzels, and cheddar sesame sticks. I also started baking this Oatmeal Banana Bread. Chunky slices in an snap lock container are hearty and travel well. But, I do have to remember to bake during the weekend.
- Food Staples: Last fall my husband took up bread baking, for purely culinary and entertainment reasons. He bakes a loaf of whole wheat bread every week so we have sandwich bread covered, with the bonus of skipping plastic bread bags and the excess sugar common in standard store-bought bread. (He uses just a touch of honey.) So I identified two other high volume staples in our household, milk and yogurt, and decided to try making them plastic-free. Our local market has locally milked milk in returnable glass jugs, so I purchased some to drink and some to use to make yogurt. Thanks to this Instant Pot yogurt recipe from A Mindful Mom which shares tips for tailoring the yogurt to your tanginess tastes, the process was super easy. I’d heard that making yogurt was easy but wow, I had no idea just how easy, and at about half the price of store-bought yogurt!
- Farm to Table: Truly community supported agriculture, or CSA’s for short, are a win on many levels. Having a box of vegetables, fruit, or both, delivered to your door or somewhere in the neighborhood direct from the farm provides fresh, local, tasty, healthy, seasonal ingredients. And it comes with little or no plastic. We enjoyed a couple of boxes from Full Circle Farms this month. FCF lets you customize ingredients as well as the schedule, so we’ve been ordering 1-2 times per month so far this season. I also lucked into being vacation coverage for a friend who hosts a pick up site for fruit boxes from Collins Family Orchards. They have consistently delivered the most amazing peaches, nectarines and cherries, and at a slight discount compared to farmer’s market. Next year I will reserve my spot as soon as the announcement comes out; I moved too slow this year and they sold out before I signed up.
So, I definitely made some progress on my “plastic-free path”. It feels good to celebrate this month’s successes, while also mapping out a few more things for my ongoing adventure. Much of the above will continue long past July, and now that I’ve noticed the plastic in my home and learned how easy it can be to swap things out in some areas, I’m ready to look for some more plastic-free options. A few things I haven’t gotten to yet include tackling the toothpaste tube dilemma (they’re not recyclable, most tubes don’t even have a recycling logo and plastic number), getting my child to eat fresh peanut butter that we can grind in-store, in our own container (right now she hates it, so we buy Cadia which comes in glass jars), and buying meats and poultry that’s not sitting on foam and shrink wrapped in plastic (even the farmer’s market meats come in plastic). But, there’s one thing I gave up in July that I’m not sure I can live without permanently: tortilla chips. I might give myself a limit, I might still use carrot sticks instead sometimes, but I’m going to need to feed that particular addiction from time to time. My salsa needs its true soul mate.
Whether or not anyone can truly live plastic-free in the western world is also a question to ponder. There are advantages to plastics – they are flexible and durable and plastic packaging weighs less and can reduce shipping costs and emissions – but the loop we’ve created is certainly unsustainable. For now, using plastic alternatives where they are available and affordable, which varies by location and person, and supporting businesses who offer those alternatives are solid steps in the right direction.
My list of plastic-free living is more like “less plastic living” and is by no means comprehensive. If you want more “plastic free” tips, visit Beth Terry’s excellent website and blog My Plastic Free Life.
If you have comments, tips or resources to add, please share below. I’d love to hear from you!