Sunday, June 6, 2010

Week 1 Plastic Tally

OK, so it is actually a little less than a full week; I began collecting my plastic on June 1st. However, I want to have a regular weigh-in day, and Sunday will probably work out best, so here we are.

The grand total for Week 1: 6 oz. of plastic.

I was really quite discouraged at the amount of plastic I'd accumulated in the (plastic! But not new plastic) bin for this week, until I weighed it out. Actually, I still feel apologetic, and feel the need to point out that a lot of the items in this week's collection, things like the yogurt container and hand sanitizer bottle, are from purchases from weeks or even months back. Hand sanitizer, like liquid soap generally, is something I'll be avoiding in future: I've swapped over exclusively to bar soap and powdered, which comes in cardboard (though with a little plastic measuring cup, unfortunately), with the possible exception of dishwashing detergent. Though my friend Hystery tells me borax works for washing dishes, so we'll see.

Among the pieces of plastic waste here is packing material from the scale I bought for measuring plastic waste. Guess what the scale is mostly made of? That's right...


I'm wary of the temptation to deal with this challenge, as all others, in that good old fashioned American way, by buying more stuff. I did consider alternatives to having our own scale. After all, my husband teaches science--Peter has access to all kinds of fancy measuring equipment at school. But I was hesitant to add yet another job to his already busy life. He's pretty indulgent of my quirks and passions, and, though he shares my concern for the impact of plastic on the planet, it's different for him--he's not "under a concern" as the Quaker phrase is, feeling a kind of bone-deep urgency to change our way of life.

The whole question of how spouses of people trying to follow an inconvenient cope is an interesting one. I know I've met a number of Quakers who are war tax resisters, and that's pretty tough on a spouse who doesn't feel the same intensity in their witness. Resisters' husbands and wives also face the possibility of losing their home--or the certainty of never owning one--and the impossibility of getting loans or credit, among other things. Hard to do that if you don't fully share a leading.

And then I think about people like No-Impact Man, and his wife and child, who didn't sign up for a radical witness, but had it chosen for them. That is asking an awful lot.

Not that Peter is making a fuss. He's putting aside a number of his own favorite foods and beverages, until we find plastic-free alternatives he can use. He's giving up his favorite soda, and the yogurt is really his love, not mine; I cook with it, but it's a daily indulgence for him.

Eventually, we'll get him a yogurt maker and maybe a seltzer maker, too, and have a try at recreating that favorite soda recipe of his.

All of which will also involve... plastic.

Again, I feel odd about buying tools and toys to help us beat back our habits of consumption. But everything this week has been about balancing one need or urgency against another. Nothing has felt simple.

Maybe that is why this process isn't feeling especially satisfying just yet, or like it has gotten me any closer to that Spirit that was the impetus for trying it.

Then again, maybe the answer to that is in staying up too late, wasting too much time on trivial Web surfing and computer games. There is more than one kind of plastic in my life capable of being a barrier between me and the Spirit of Life.

In any case, there you have it: Week 1. If my consumption were to hold steady at this level for a year, I'd finish the year with less than 20 lbs. of plastic waste--less than a quarter of the American average. But I doubt it will be that simple.


  1. I'm pretty sure you can make yogurt without a yogurt maker. I had friends who did it, I think with just a bowl and a heating pad (which is, of course, plastic, but possibly also more likely to already be lying around?

  2. I actually didn't tell you that borax works just as well. That must have been someone else. Stasa maybe?

    I'm making my own cleaning "detergents" for clothes and dishes and making decisions about whether or not to exclude my Dr. Bronner's from my list of unacceptable plastic containers. I can make lots of lots of useful cleaning solution out of just a little Dr. Bronner's, a bottle of which lasts for several months. I have been shaving Kirk's soap and will melt it down to see if it is a viable alternative to Dr. Bronner's concentrated liquid soaps. I cannot use Dr. Bronner's bar soaps because they contain palm oil which is also on my verboten list.

    One of the items on my list of things I won't give up (until there is a good alternative) is soy and almond milk in plastic lined cartons. As a vegan mother, I have to worry about balanced nutrition and this fortified milk is a significant component of our diet.

    Your discussion of how one handles this kind of commitment with a partner and family who are less committed is really important. My husband and children are also very supportive but they are not wholly dedicated at an emotional level as I am. At times, I am resentful of the errors they make as a result (husband buys soda without thinking about it, son complains every time I tell him he can't have a favorite processed food). At other times, I feel guilty about what I'm doing to them. Once again, Mother has made up the mind of the entire family. They go along with it mostly because "When Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." But is that enough?

    I also find that while they are getting used to going without favorite things, I am increasing my domestic work load to minimize their aggravation. I'm the one who does the extra preparation, housework, baking, etc. to make this work. Is this a gendered trap? What should I do about it?

  3. My partner makes all our yogurt, without a yogurt maker, and the process is fairly simple. The main thing the yogurt maker helps with is keeping the temperature constant while the yogurt is setting, but there are other ways to do this. My partner puts the yogurt jars in the oven, which he turns on periodically for like a minute and then turns it off again, so it stays just a bit warm. There are lots of recipes online.

  4. I've had the best luck making yogurt in a thermos, as far as keeping the temperature steady. I did this in a Victorian heat-sieve of a kitchen.
    - microwaved 2 cups milk to hot
    - let stand until blood-warm
    - stir in 1tbsp. yogurt
    - pour in thermos; leave overnight. (I wrapped the thermos in a towel if it was cold.)
    My thermos was metal, with a plastic cap. Perhaps one could be found second-hand.

    I have not found a satisfying homemade dish soap, but would be interested to find one as good at cutting grease as a detergent.

  5. Hi!

    Yes, of course one can make yogurt without a yogurt maker! I must be tireder than I thought not to have been more clear. Peter wants the yogurt maker. I've made the stuff, and recently, using a big glass jar, a sunny day with our south-facing windowsill, and a towel to insulate the side away from the sun.

    However, it made Peter nervous, and as he actually eats the stuff, I feel like his wishes should rule on this one. Since the plastic in the yogurt maker can be expected to remain in use at least as long as the two of us are still alive--my current yardstick for "it's probably reasonable"--and since it does have reusable glass jars, we're going with it.

    I like the thermos idea, though. I think I'll run it past him and see if it makes him more comfortable.

    I wonder if it was Stasa who gave me the borax tip for dishes? In any case, I'll test the theory out when we use up our current plastic bottle of dish soap.

    I'm not too worried about grease, because we eat a fairly low-fat, mainly vegetarian diet, but also because we add about 1/4 cup of vinegar to the rinse water. (We hand-wash the dishes.)

    I am not worrying much about the plastic liner on paper cartons of milk, etc., nor the plastic liner on cans of food... mostly because this way lies madness!

    I do think that every family needs to figure out what works for them as they go, and that there are no one-size-fits-all answers here. For instance, since it is Peter who is currently organizing and renovating our basement, he has the final say on whether or not to purchase the plastic storage drawers he has used for years. They are durable, and cheap, and he finds them to be just what he needs. We talked about it, and his answer in the end was "yes."

    It is single use plastic I'm aiming to eliminate, and beyond that, I'm trying to do what I can without needing to go barefoot (not a joke! Shoes are an issue) or quit my job. I also have judgment calls to make around things like packaging vs. food miles--is it better for me to buy vegetable oil, invariably packed in plastic, or olive oil, which I can buy in bulk in metal, but which has traveled many miles to come to me?

    And I want to keep in mind that if I wear myself out completely on questions like that, and have no energy left to advocate for changes to environmental policies at a larger level, that's no good, either.

    I guess what I'm trying to do is become aware, awake, and act as if the earth and the people around me matter, in large matters and small.

    Thank you so much for commenting! I'll run the yogurt suggestions past Peter, and see if my former-nutritionist husband (always cautious around the possibility of food contamination) is comfortable with them.


  6. FYI They do have Seltzer in glass bottles at Trader Joe's and the River Valley Market. Trader Joe's also has cola and root beer in glass bottles with no corn syrup in them (Trader Toe's brand). The River Valley Market also has a refill station where you can bring in any bottle, have it weighed and refill it with shampoo, hand soap, hand cream etc. Atreyu tries to enforce a rule that once 5 plastic things are in the grocery cart you can't buy anything else in plastic. Thanks to the refill station our plastic consumption has become much smaller. For us it's usually yogurt and sour cream. The yogurt maker is a fantastic idea.

  7. I love Atreyu! Now I love him even more.

    The refill station I must visit--hand cream is going to be a big issue come fall, as I am old enough that my skin really suffers in the cold weather. And a girl can actually get enough Bag Balm at a time!

    Peter, as you know, is addicted to that awful chocolate soda of his. Perhaps pre-made seltzer mixed with chocolate syrup will do the trick; if not, he has located a seltzer maker with an option of either few or no plastic parts, depending on the price you are willing to spend.

    Until we can save up for that, he's simply given it up, and is substituting other things.

    There is a plastic pull tab on the frozen juice concentrate we use, but otherwise it's pretty good. And, of course, iced tea and iced coffee are very eco-friendly--and cheap.

  8. OK--coffee isn't so eco-friendly in terms of growing it. But Dean's Beans is not just local, but also goes in for shade-grown organic and fair trade. Worth it.

  9. It is a dilemma when the rest of your household doesn't share your need or commitment to something. I'm fortunate in that my husband is supportive for the most part - as long as he isn't deprived of anything major or his workload isn't increased. So, if there is extra work involved, it falls to me. But, since I'm the one who wants less plastic, etc. I guess that's only fair.
    I'm a liquid soap lover. Hate bar soap. So, I make my own. A little time consuming, but really not hard, and I get to choose the oils I wish to use or not use (palm oil!).Sell it too, but this isn't a commercial! My daughter even uses it on her hair (with a vinegar rinse). Also, making your own lotions, body butters, etc is a snap, although, as with the soap you may have a small investment in ingredients (which also come packaged in plastic for the most part :( and I generally find a way to re-use them, if only out in the garden). It's really astonishing how much plastic has permeated our lives in the last few decades.