I was listening to NPR not too long ago on my way to the grocery store and, I forget which program, but there was a woman being interviewed who vowed to give up plastic for 2008. The interviewer was giving her a pretty hard time, saying that it would be impossible to be a normal American consumer and not bring plastic into your household on an almost daily basis.
It became obvious how difficult giving up plastic would be as soon as I got to my destination. When you walk inside a grocery store, you immediately face the produce and deli departments, where everything is either already wrapped in a plastic casing or expected to be scooped up into a thin plastic bag. I suppose the latter is easily remedied with something like EcoBags cotton produce bags for your fruits and veggies, but how in the heck do you buy a block of cheese?
Vegetable oil? Shampoo? Anything bought frozen most likely comes in some sort of plastic freezer burn-proof covering. Even a paper box of saltines has four individually-wrapped sleeves inside, plastic protecting the crackers from going stale. I'm sitting at my desk right now between my notary stamp and my BlackBerry, both made of plastic. I don't buy leather, so guess what most of my shoes are made from. I often shop at La Placita Super Mercado, where, like seemingly all Mexican markets, I get one plastic bag for every three items purchased (and often double-bagged).
The grocery shops offer recycling for your plastic shopping bags; the big stores I frequent have big bins near the door in which you can stuff your monthly accumulation of Target bags, Nordstrom Rack bags, DSW bags, and all those generic white THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU bags from every other place. I diligently turn my collection over to Byerly's and Cub Foods a couple times a year.
I'm also a recycling maniac at home; everything the City of Minneapolis accepts, I give. On average, I generate just one bag of trash for every 6 full bags of recyclables. If I composted my food waste, the difference would probably be another whole bag. But going through the first few inches of my kitchen trash just now--hey, it's my garbage--I still see a ton of stuff that can't be recycled but will remain in the soil or floating in the ocean for all eternity: sandwich baggies, the blister pack from a light bulb, the cap from a carton of horchata.
Do you know about Captain Charles Moore? He's the guy who's dedicated his life to researching and documenting the North Pacific Gyre: that giant patch of plastic garbage swirling around in the currents of the Pacific Ocean. Moore founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, its site the home of the famous plastic-ridden albatross carcass photos. There you can also watch a clip of Synthetic Sea: Plastic in the Open Ocean, which is pretty disturbing. Captain Moore and a team of researchers shoved off again just last week and you can follow their latest research voyage to the North Pacific Gyre on the crew blog, updated almost daily.
Moore estimates that, unless we change our plastic consuming habits, there will be sixty times more plastic than plankton floating on the surface of the Pacific Ocean in just ten years (the current ratio there is already 6:1). Not only toxic themselves, these plastic pieces act as super sponges to all the other toxins that don't dissolve in seawater. Fish, seals, birds, dolphins and other sea creatures mistake floating plastic for food, eat it, and die. Considering the area of the Gyre is larger than the United States and extends at least 30 meters below the water's surface, the impact on our oceanic environment (and subsequently land and air environments) is detrimental.
So what the hell am I supposed to do? Devoting to a life without plastic would mean reverting to an indigenous lifestyle. Out of the question.
One of my recent vita.mn columns was about switching to eco-friendly menstrual products, and, by the time I finished writing it, I had effectively convinced myself to stop using conventional products, so I'm good there. What other little things can be done? Using aforementioned cloth produce bags at the grocery store, asking for no bag when buying anything I can either stash in my purse or carry out to the car easily, and avoiding non-recyclable plastic products and packaging in general will all help out the animals and the environment.
Obviously, some consumption of plastic is unavoidable (my car, Netflix, the screw top to my jar of conditioner) but there must be some better solutions to other regular uses. How does one buy vegetable oil if not by the plastic bottle? And what about water? Despite what Mayor Rybak would have you believe, the yellow crap coming from my kitchen faucet is far from drinkable.
Shampoo? Laundry soap? Food storage like plastic baggies and Gladware? Anyone out there have any great ideas for reducing our dependency on plastic?