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November 14, 2011 / Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

Plastic Monday: The Challenges of Going Plastic-Lite

So, it’s been three weeks since the Green America editors started our challenge to purge “stupid plastic” from our lives. The “Take the Plastic Challenge” issue of the Green American should be hitting your mailboxes—or perhaps you’ve already received your issue. If you’ve had the chance to read it, let us know what you think!

As I’ve worked to get the unnecessary plastic out of my life, I’ve run into three major challenges:

  • I’ve discovered that by far, my worst challenge is packaging, especially food packaging. (Looking at Andrew and Sarah’s Plastic Monday posts, I’m sensing a trend with food-related plastic.) I am lucky enough to have a family-owned grocery store nearby that doesn’t wrap its produce in plastic (Trader Joe’s, I’m staring at you.). But here’s my problem: I hate cooking. Hate, loathe, despise it with the white-hot, fiery passion of a thousand suns. I envy all of you who love it—I wish I did. But there are so many other things I’d rather be doing—playing with my kids, reading, tackling one of my many unfinished art projects, or, chief among my options, eating something that someone ELSE has cooked for me. Unfortunately, my partner hates cooking just as much as I do, so the two of us have a habit of aimlessly opening and closing cupboards  around dinnertime as if hoping we’ll magically conjure up an organic, home-cooked, four-course meal by sheer force of will. That has yet to happen.
    .
    You can probably guess where this is going. Organic dinners-in-a-bag have long been a standby for those nights when I’m too tired and grumpy to cook, and I’m all over Ethnic Gourmet and Amy’s Organic microwave lunches. But now I’ve seen the plastic-free light. Those microwave meals have had to go.
    .
    SOLUTION: So now, I’m forcing myself (and my husband) to cook more often. I’ve dusted off my slow cooker and my collection of cookbooks with phrases like “quick meals for busy people” in the title. And even though I have a black thumb, I’m still inching my way toward having my own garden. I now have some herbs in containers, and next year, I’m going to try a raised bed of something (preferably something I can’t kill). I’m still waiting for the “joy of cooking” to hit me, but it hasn’t yet. However, the joy of eating fresher, tastier food is starting to make up for it.
  • Toys: I just had a birthday party for my youngest daughter, and even though I told the parents of our little guests that they did not need to bring gifts, of course those wonderful, polite people brought them anyway. We got lucky, and the majority of the toys were either wooden or mostly wooden (i.e., board games).  A couple of people, knowing how much my daughter likes to draw, sent art supplies. (Markers are plastic! Ay!)We celebrate Christmas in our house, and Santa doesn’t want to be a Scrooge, so he does bring a small, sane number of gifts. Art supplies and books are big, as are gently-used-but-new-looking items that Santa secretly finds on eBay or Craigslist. But sometimes, my 5- and 7-year-olds just want one of the “it” toys, and the “it” toys always tend to be plastic. And I just found out that the dolls they’re currently going crazy for have styrene bodies and PVC heads.
    .
    SOLUTION: I’m trying extra hard to steer them toward sustainable toys from my old standby, Hazelnut Kids, and some of the other toy companies in the National Green Pages. (Imagination Box Co., anyone?) And like I said, I try to ensure that most of their gifts—even from family members—tend to be gently used, green, or of the educational/artistic variety. We also take extra-good care of our toys (I’m rather OCD about ensuring that all the little bits and pieces stay together), so they can be handed down to another child when mine have outgrown them.This year, I’ll also forgo the markers and let my budding Mary Cassatts try out a pack of artist pastels instead. And when we go shopping for the local Angel Tree, where we buy gifts for an anonymous low-income girl or boy in our area, we’ll go as plastic-lite on the gifts as possible.
  • Tupperware: A new study, discussed at length in the “Take the Plastic Challenge” Green American, found that all types and shapes of plastic—even those with recycling code numbers 1,2,4, and 5, which were previously thought safe—leach hormone disrupting chemicals when heated. So I’m minimizing my Tupperware collection, since my main use for them has been dumping hot leftovers into them.
    .
    SOLUTION: I’m sending some of the flimsier #5 “disposable” food storage containers I’ve been saving and reusing to Preserve’s Gimme 5 program, which recycles #5 plastic and turns it into Preserve personal care and kitchen items. (Preserve tests the plastic in its products to ensure that it doesn’t contain harmful chemicals.)I already have some glass containers I’ve started using for leftovers, but they are fairly large. I’m  making an investment in some smaller stainless steel and glass containers, and use the remaining Tupperware-style containers for cold items, only.
    .
    And gentlemen, you may consider this one a bit TMI, but women’s hygiene products are also a plastic problem in my life. I know, the solution is simple since plenty of green companies offer plastic-free alternatives, but I have to confess, I’ve been lax about embracing them. I will, though, and in the next couple of weeks, Green America senior writer Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist and I will be (tactfully) discussing that particular green step.
    .
    So there you have it—my biggest challenges so far. What are your biggest challenges to going plastic-free? And if you’ve gotten your issue of the Green American, what did you think? 

42 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Aspensong Rose / Nov 14 2011 2:19 pm

    Try to look at cooking as another interesting art project…

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 8:49 pm

      Rose, I don’t know why they don’t feel like the same thing to me. Oddly enough, I love baking!

  2. I moved into a rural area where recycling is unheard of except for the plastic that can earn a few dollars. Drives me insane. I saved my plastic wrap and containers for a year, the plastic wrap alone filled a 20 gallon trash container with room to spare for more. It was heavy despite the fact it was mostly plastic wrap.

    I realized today I can ask for other wrap from companies I buy from often. Perhaps if enough of us write to these companies they will begin using a different wrap, like paper? What happened to butcher’s paper? Was it recyclable? I use to reuse it a dozen times over, easy to clean and rewrap food in.

    Any other ideas? mmmm

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 8:56 pm

      Connie, isn’t plastic wrap maddening? I can’t even imagine saving it and being confronted by all that non-recyclable waste!

      I doubt if you can actually recycle butcher paper, since paper with food residue will generally contaminate the recycling stream. Plus, most butcher paper has a thin plastic coating inside to make it leak-proof. If it feels slippery, that’s probably some type of plastic! And the tape or sticker used to seal it is generally plastic, too. (I’m just a downer today, aren’t I?)

      Your best bet is glass or steel containers. A distant second-best would be recycled aluminum foil. You can check with your municipal waste center to see if it will accept clean, used aluminum foil for recycling, too, which would make your foil a not-so-distant second-best option.

  3. Kate E. / Nov 14 2011 4:54 pm

    I think food is the toughest one for me. I am still searching for a good solution to the big plastic tubs of organic lettuce and spinach that they sell at my local supermarkets. I grew lettuce for the first time this year and had enough for 2 salads for my family of 5…I guess I’m not a green thumb! :)

    It seems as though there are infinite ways we can reduce plastic at the company level from those little plastic windows on boxes of pasta to a stick of cheese wrapped in plastic inside another bag of plastic and so on….

    Can’t wait until more companies catch on to this and offer better alternatives! It seems like that is where the biggest difference will be made. I completely believe that every small action matters, but until it is easier for mainstream America to buy less plastic, it will continue to be a big problem.

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 9:01 pm

      Kate, the organic lettuce/spinach tubs are also maddening. My local grocery offers loose lettuce and spinach that I can put in a reusable produce bag, but then it’s not organic. Horrible choice, and when my farmers’ market is closed for the winter, I generally go with the recyclable tub of organic greens to avoid the chemicals. I feel your pain about growing so little lettuce–I’ve done that before!

      I’ve started writing to companies that have ridiculous amounts of packaging and telling them I won’t buy again until they minimize it. It’s my hope that enough people will start to vote with their wallets and choose the products with less or no stupid plastic packaging, so the companies will eventually catch on.

  4. Beth Terry (@PlasticfreeBeth) / Nov 14 2011 6:23 pm

    “a habit of aimlessly opening and closing cupboards around dinnertime as if hoping we’ll magically conjure up an organic, home-cooked, four-course meal by sheer force of will. ”

    OMG, I know that one! I still do it. Over and over again. It never works. And I have had to learn to cook. It’s really not so bad. In fact it can be fun. And a lot of meals are actually not hard — it’s more the IDEA of cooking that is hard more than the actual tasks. Just don’t think about it. :-)

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 9:04 pm

      Ladies and gentlemen, Beth Terry! Beth is featured in our most recent Green American and has a wonderful blog at http://www.myplasticfreelife.com

      Beth, part of my problem is that no matter how hard I try, I tend to burn, over-salt, undercook, or otherwise mess up my meals. I took a cooking class a couple of years ago that helped with that, because someone walked my kinesthetic self through all of the steps to make some really nice dishes properly. I should make time for another one, and add to my small, sad repertoire of successful entrees.

      • Melissa B / Nov 15 2011 1:06 am

        In Orlando there were a few places like “A Dinner Affair” where you could go with friends and make several meals to take home and heat later (byo Pyrex). You could make a fun night of it. I’ve taken a few cooking classes at Whole Foods that are fun. Or, do what I did last night and make a bunch of meals in one night – I made 6 sweet potatoe & black bean burritos & 4 servings of congee.

      • TracyRysavy / Nov 15 2011 10:11 am

        Melissa, I telecommute from a small town in the Midwest, and we don’t have one of those nearby. What a wonderful idea! Next time my husband’s job transfers us to a city, I’ll definitely look for one.

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  5. jj / Nov 14 2011 7:17 pm

    I am not a fan of cooking, either, especially right when I get home from work, tired and hungry. My solution to that has been to cook a big pot of *something* on Saturday afternoon, and another big pot of *something* on Sunday afternoon, and package the leftovers in individual portions for the freezer (usually my work lunches, occasionally my supper), and the fridge (for two or three easy suppers during the week). While I don’t like cooking any better, it saves me the weeknight frustration, and saves me a fortune in lunches, as well. Once you’ve done this for a few weeks, you have a pretty good variety of options available. I find that soups, stews, chili, and pastas with sauces freeze best, but have also been known to do rice-and-bean dishes, or Indian – anything with a sauce will probably work fine.

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 9:05 pm

      JJ, that’s a wonderful idea. I really need to figure out how to cook in bulk. I swear, my husband eats four times his weight at every meal (and doesn’t gain a pound–grrrr), so even when I THINK I’ve cooked enough to have leftovers, most of them tend to disappear!

  6. Jon Hanley / Nov 14 2011 7:55 pm

    I am Co-Chair of the Mayors Green Committee here in Chestertown MD, and plastic bags are banned effective January 19, 2012!!! We have had many community outreach programs to help everyone comply, and have handed out reusable totes for free at our fabulous Farmers Market each Saturday.

    We will also be handing out free totes at all affected stores for the next two months, along with guidelines on keeping totes clean and germ free. This is very important to prevent bad things from growing in our reusable totes for our non vegetarian residents.

    We also suggest corn based BioBags at our stores. Too pricey though, and I’m not convinced on the actual benefits to our planet. The Township also funds collection and shipment of #5 plastics to Preserve Products.

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 9:12 pm

      Jon, that’s amazing! Congratulations on successfully enacting a bag ban, and I hope the plastic bag companies and their lawyers stay far, far away from Chestertown. We will have to feature your story in the Green American sometime! Maybe the next one … hmmmmm.

      As for the corn plastic bags, we have a nice web exclusive on the benefits and pitfalls of bioplastics online at http://www.greenamerica.org/go/bioplastics

      Long story short, corn-based plastics have some issues because they are taking up farmland and other resources that should be used for food, and because they’re often made from genetically modified corn. Also, there isn’t much infrastructure for composting bioplastics as of yet, so they often end up in landfills, where they generate methane gas and don’t really break down completely.

      If bioplastics are made from more sustainable feedstocks, like agricultural waste, and are actually composted, they could be a real boon to the environment.

      In either case, though, a compostable bio-plastic bag (which should be labeled as such) should break down in the ocean, instead of floating around into perpetuity, so that’s a plus. But as you’ve already figured out, your steps to encourage people to buy and use reusable bags are the best option!

  7. kerry / Nov 14 2011 8:48 pm

    Tracy you are too funny! Thanks for sharing. I totally get the plastic container for lunch dilemma, not to mention microwave issue. I would like to work more on not using the microwave, but “I try” to avoid putting plastics in there. My blog promotes ecolunchboxes, check them out if you get a chance (gotthebestlife.blog.com). On another note something I have found helpful are Dekor’s biodegradable diaper bin bags…they last long eliminating frequent plastic use, plus biodegradable! Keep up this great discussion.

    • Geeta Jyothi / Nov 15 2011 7:36 am

      this is a wonderful discussion.
      I wounder why people try to avoid the microwave. It takes less energy than cooking on the stove and Nutritionists at Harvard Medical school have found that it preserves vitamins better. In addition, it has preset setting for Rice and fresh vegetables and even a novice can put them in a glass or corning bowl and cook them perfectly every time.

      • TracyRysavy / Nov 15 2011 10:13 am

        Geeta, it’s not the microwave itself that I’m avoiding–just those microwave convenience meals that come in plastic trays, plastic wrap, plastic-lined boxes, etc. I do still put my food in glass/Pyrex and cook it in my microwave. I did not know about the Harvard study–fascinating!

  8. TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 9:18 pm

    Thanks, Kerry! The Eco Lunchboxes look really great, as do the funky eco-lunchwraps on the site (http://www.ecolunchboxes.com). Thanks for promoting our GreenDeals.org on your blog, too (and best of luck making the transition to being a working mom)!

    • kerry / Nov 14 2011 9:34 pm

      No prob and thx! The new working mom is a guest blogger, I am the reverse, goal is to be a “stay at home full time working mom!” These are great comments everyone’s been posting!

      • TracyRysavy / Nov 14 2011 9:41 pm

        Oops–that’s what I get for not paying attention to the headings. : )

  9. raggedrose / Nov 14 2011 11:05 pm

    Food packaging is definitely the worst! Just try to buy cheese or meat that isn’t wrapped in plastic!

    I do have a few tricks we use for other plastic-related issues. They’re not ideal, but you do what you can.

    Waxed paper and aluminum foil: we haven’t bought plastic wrap in years–my mom used to wrap my sandwiches in waxed paper, and it still works today. It’s a little less convenient, as it doesn’t cling, but aluminum foil is a good substitute in those cases. For things like pie crust dough, waxed paper with a layer of aluminum foil to seal it works well. And waxed paper is also compostable.

    Canning jars: They’re glass, so they have to be padded if you bring them for lunch items, but they’re made to take heat, and if you take the lid off, they work well in microwaves. They come in a variety of sizes and are great for storing leftovers–and they’re infinitely reusable. Also, no toxic leaching when heated, which to me makes the inconvenience of dealing with breakable containers worth it.

    Washing and reusing plastic bags for produce and the like: Many vegetables can be bought without getting bags at all. What we can’t buy with no packaging, such as lettuce mixes, strawberries, etc. we bring bags for. Once we got in the habit of bringing cloth grocery bags, putting a bag of plastic bags in with them was easy. And once you have a few of those plastic clamshells that lettuce mixes come in, they can be washed and filled again almost indefinitely.

    Planning our shopping trips so we can go to places that facilitate low or no packaging items. A weekend farmers market trip gets us veggies for a week, and we can pack them however we want. I know we’re incredibly lucky to live in a place where there are farmers markets year round, so this will not work for everyone. But what are the strengths of your area?

    Planning meals in advance. It took a bit of adjustment, but eventually I found that a farmer’s market run, followed by a couple of hours in front of the TV with a chopping board and a bunch of containers gave me prepacked ingredients that can be pulled out during the week to make cooking dinner a lot faster. This makes it possible for me to avoid buying plastic wrapped precut veggies and premade meals and still be able to make a home cooked nutritious meal quickly on weeknights. Everyone’s time and requirements vary, of course, but there are ways to make boring chores more interesting. For me it’s afternoon cooking shows and a cutting board, for you it could be something else entirely.

    This discussion is a great starting place. Just talking about the subject makes something normally under our radar come back to awareness, where we can think about it and see if there’s something we can do about it. And it makes me feel less like a loon for carrying canning jars to work *g*.

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 15 2011 12:07 am

      Rose, this is an amazing comment. Thanks so much for all of the helpful suggestions! For those of you out there who want an even greener wax paper, you can find unbleached wax paper from Natural Value (http://www.naturalvalue.com/nonfoods.html). Greenfeet.com and GreenlinePaper.com, both Green America Green Business Network members, sell it.

      I telecommute for Green America from Wisconsin, where sadly, there isn’t much fresh produce in the winter. However, last year, I discovered a nearby winter farmers’ market, which offers a lot of homemade canned goods–and lovely fresh bread. All you northerners like me, if you’d like to find a winter farmers’ market in your area, visit http://www.localharvest.org .

      And canning jars are wonderful–and pretty, too. I wouldn’t think you are a loon!

  10. MamaLovey / Nov 14 2011 11:45 pm

    I’d like to chime in on the women’s issue. I switched to a Diva Cup about two years ago and it is the best thing ever!!! It took about three cycles to really get the hang of it…but I’m a slow learner. Lol.

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 15 2011 12:10 am

      MamaLovey, EVERYONE I know who has tried a Diva Cup, Keeper, or Lunette is almost cult-like in her love for it. I have a friend who says her Diva Cup is a lifesaver when she’s traveling to or hiking in remote locations. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. I’ve been using unbleached women’s products from NatraCare, but with or without the chlorine, they’re still extra trash. Researching the plastic burden has been the extra nudge I needed to take the leap.

      Sarah and I will likely be blogging about this the Plastic Monday after next, so do come back then!

  11. Amy Livingston / Nov 15 2011 2:04 pm

    When I first heard about the Keeper, I thought, “Gee whiz, how are you supposed to use that thing at work?” I just couldn’t see myself rinsing it out in the women’s room, looking over my shoulder to make sure no one else was coming in. Luckily, my Glad Rags worked fine. I did buy the little storage bag for taking soiled ones home, but before long I found that I could just put on a clean one in the morning and it would be okay until I got home after work. And after a quick soaking, they just go right in the washer and dryer–no trouble at all. I’ve been using the same set for 15 years now and they’re still in good shape.

    • TracyRysavy / Nov 15 2011 2:26 pm

      Amy, apparently the Keeper, Diva Cup, etc. can be left in place for 8-12 hours without risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, so you may be able to make it through an entire workday without having to sneak to the sink. Also, the Keeper website (http://www.keeper.com) suggests just taking a tissue (a wet paper towel may work even better) into the stall to clean it. But if this still isn’t a step you’re comfortable with, Glad Rags (http://www.gladrags.com) are also a great choice.

  12. Betsy Evans / Nov 15 2011 2:41 pm

    “a habit of aimlessly opening and closing cupboards around dinnertime as if hoping we’ll magically conjure up an organic, home-cooked, four-course meal by sheer force of will. ”

    Crack me up!! I do the same thing in my closet – waiting for that fabulous, hip outfit to appear out of nowhere!

  13. TracyRysavy / Nov 15 2011 3:54 pm

    Don’t we all, Betsy! Although I also want mine to take ten pounds off, too.

  14. Kit GearhartSchinske / Nov 19 2011 4:22 pm

    Frozen fruit & vegie bags & the organic salad packages, and cereal bags are an issue in our house. My husband hunts, and we package the venison in foodsaver bags. Then there are the shampoo bottles and laundry detergent – even the organic less toxic brands are packaged in plastic. I’m getting overwhelmed looking around my kitchen at all the plastic: my pc, binders, kids toys, appliances, cutting boards, the outlets in my wall are made with plastic.

    This is the first plastic free post I have read. Sorry If I am getting off track. It is definitely overwhelming! Back to packaging meat, if butcher paper still contains a plastic coating, what else could I package meat in and have it last for up to 10 months in my freezer?

  15. TracyRysavy / Nov 21 2011 11:11 am

    Kit, you’re not off track at all–glad you stopped by! Buckle up: this is going to be a long response!

    You can save and recycle the cereal bags through Terracycle (www.terracycle.net). The whole “brigade” setup they have may look intimidating, but it’s very easy, and you can do it on your own or with a group. I got my daughter’s Girl Scout troop involved in recycling cereal bags with me as a fundraiser.

    Sadly, I have no alternative for the organic salad packages, so that’s Stupid Plastic I have yet to give up during the winter when I can’t grow my own salad or get it from the farmers’ market. And the only suggestion I have for frozen vegetable/fruit bags is to avoid them as much as you can in favor of fresh fruit and veggies.

    As for the shampoo, you can try shampoo bars from some of our Green Business Network members. They may not work as well if you have hard water (like I do), so barring that (Heh.), your best bet is to buy shampoo in bulk to minimize packaging.

    For laundry, I am trying out something called “soap nuts” from Yoreganics (www.yoreganics.com) which are these little nuts that you can toss right into your regular or HE washing machine. My package did come in a plastic-lined paper bag, but it was MUCH less plastic than regular detergent bottles. I will report out on the results in a future Plastic Monday.

    As for meat, if you carry your meat home from the butcher in butcher paper, you may as well leave it in there! Plastic leaches chemicals mainly when it’s heated, and you’ll be doing the opposite when you put it in your freezer.

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