About a week ago, just before I started this pledge, I responded to an email at work inviting people to set up appointments to get their flu shots.

I don’t get sick very often, and when I do, it’s not too bad. The only time I’ve taken antibiotics in the past five years was when I was abroad in Ecuador—and honestly, I’m not sure what I took. The doctor explained the medication in Spanish, and a Google search of the medicine’s name yielded few results.

I think one of the reasons I don’t get very sick is because I’m diligent about getting my flu shot each year. As I walked toward the meeting room where they were distributing the shots, I had a sinking feeling. I’d been talking to my co-workers about my pledge off plastic just minutes prior, so the subject was on my mind: I was certain that the shots were going to be in plastic syringes. And, sure enough, they were.

So I got out of line, returned to my desk, and mentally prepared myself for the flu that would inevitably strike me some time during the next three months.

All this got me to thinking about the medical industry, in which plastic has allowed great strides in sanitation. The use of disposable syringes means less likelihood of spreading contagion. Plastic pill bottles means each medicine can be uniquely labeled. Coverings for thermometers and other medical tools means less time wasted sanitizing instruments.

On the other hand, all that waste has to go somewhere, and you can bet most of it isn’t getting recycled. So can you avoid plastic when it comes to medicine and visits to the doctor? I checked Beth Terry’s site—my most reliable source of advice—and her Plastic-Free Living Guide is silent on the matter.

When it comes to over-the-counter medicines, such as painkillers like Tylenol and antacids like Tums, the solution seems fairly simple. There are natural alternatives. For painkillers, all it takes is a quick Google search to yield recommendations for a suite of herbs and foods to help with pain. For antacids, I found one site recommending baking soda (which I’m quickly coming to suspect is the non-plastic solution for just about everything—cleaning, deodorant, toothpaste). Other recommendations I found included bananas, chamomile, apple cider vinegar, ginger, and turmeric.

Still, that doesn’t solve the problem of plastic pill bottles. I suspect pharmacies would be loath to let you bring in your own bottles, and in my search for a solution, I discovered an even bigger problem with taking medicine while being plastic free: Many pills have plastic in their coatings to allow for timed release. I tracked down a study from Harvard that raised concerns that these plastic coating might even be harming us:

Laboratory studies show that some phthalates are reproductive and developmental toxicants. Recently, human studies have shown measurable levels of several phthalates in most of the U.S. general population. Despite their widespread use and the consistent toxicologic data on phthalates, information is limited on sources and pathways of human exposure to phthalates. One potential source of exposure is medications. The need for site-specific dosage medications has led to the use of enteric coatings that allow the release of the active ingredients into the small intestine or in the colon. (Article Source)

Although relying entirely on natural supplements isn’t necessarily the solution, my pledge off plastic does have me wondering more about what we’re putting in our body, and the assumption that everything that’s FDA-approved is really that safe. Can we know the long-term effects of housing our pills and medicines in plastic? The danger of BPA in plastic drink containers wasn’t discovered until well after use of the plastic was widely adopted. So, what other plastics that we take for granted might slowly be poisoning us?

I’ve had a lot of conversations about my pledge off buying and consuming plastic products since beginning the project a week ago. I keep hearing one question over and over:

Is plastic really that bad?

Most of the people in my life make some effort to recycle. To various degrees, Seattle recycles plastic bags, bottles, tubs, jugs, caps, lids, food & beverage containers, non-prescription pill bottles, and plastic cups. I discovered in the process of writing this blog that the following plastic items cannot be recycled: prescription pill bottles, plastic utensils, corn-based compostable plastic (which must be put in the compost). In other words, we can’t simply rely on those little recycling numbers to tell us what we can recycle.

So back to the question of whether plastic is really that bad? Yes. Even if I recycle? Yes.

A fishing net washed up on the Olympic Peninsula.

At the start of this blog, I pointed to the trailer of Chris Jordan‘s moving documentary, about how plastic is causing the slow death of thousands of albatrosses in the Midway Islands. The affect of plastic on our oceans is more personal, though. I don’t visit the beach often, so when I do, I notice the steady increase of detritus that has washed ashore. This summer, I visited the Olympic Peninsula, where the coastline was strewn with plastic, from small colorful splinters, up to enormous fishing nets and buoys. We’re fortunate here in the U.S., where trash facilities and recycling have slowed the decline of our beaches. When I visited Costa Rica a couple years ago, I was shocked by what I saw. Deep in the rainforest of Tortuguero, where the beaches and villages were accessible only by river boat, the coast was blanketed with garbage. You could see more plastic than sand. And this was on a beach where sea turtles traditionally laid their eggs.

Trash-covered beach along the Tortuguero Rainforest.

It’s about more than birds and turtles, though. A New York Times article reported on a recent study, in which “researchers estimated that fish living at intermediate depths in the North Pacific alone … swallow as much as 24,000 tons of plastic debris a year.”

Do you eat fish? Then some of that plastic is probably ends up inside you.

It’s not enough to recycle or reuse. Eventually, someone will end up throwing away that recycled product, or eventually the plastic container you’re reusing will get old and tossed out. In my graduate school class this week, I tallied the number of non-reusable plastic drink containers sitting on desks. In total, there were 11 plastic bottles and twelve paper coffee cups with plastic lids. That’s equivalent to one in three people in the class. Fortunately, the University of Washington offers recycling receptacles around campus. Maybe there’s no real great replacement for soda and vitamin water coming in plastic bottles, but there sure is hell is one for coffee and water. Even before this pledge, I tried to take my commuter coffee cup with me everywhere. Starbucks even offers a ¢10 discount for bringing your own cup—although the company could promote this fact better. As for plastic bottles, well don’t get me started. That’s a blog for another time.

So, recycling is good, but asking for no straw, carrying your own cup, and buying low-packaging products is better. We should all aspire to buy less and reuse more.

Since October is just around the corner, I’ll end with a few haunting statistics:

  • Americans use enough plastic wrap every year to cover Texas.(How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint by Joanna Yarrow, 2008)
  • Speaking of Texas, scientists estimate that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is two times bigger than Texas. (LA Times)
  • 60,000 plastic bags used in the U.S. every five seconds. (How Stuff Works.com)

A caiman hides among the reeds (and trash) in Costa Rica.

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On Sunday, I took my first trip to the grocery store since pledging off plastic products, and it was rough. This pledge is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Tough as it was to find food that lacked plastic packaging, it could have been worse. I eat very little processed food to begin with. More than one person has referred to my lunches as “rabbit food.” A typical day’s meals look like this:

Breakfast:

  • Breakfast Smoothie (banana, coconut milk, kefir probiotic, frozen berries, and protein powder)
  • Vitamins
  • Way too much coffee.

Snacks/Lunch:

  • Assorted Vegetables (typically a carrot, a cucumber, a green bell pepper, and boccoli)
  • Apple
  • Orange
  • Grapes or Pear
  • Homemade trail mix (dried blueberries, chocolate covered raisins, pumpkin seeds, oats, almonds, pecans, dried cranberries).

Dinner: 

  • Pasta with garlic, olive oil, and salt.
  • Glass of red wine.
  • Frozen berries.

And there you have it. I follow this ascetic food regiment probably eighty percent of the time. With so much produce in my diet, I didn’t think the plastic pledge would prove that challenging with regards to my eating habits.

Yeah, that was stupid of me.

This first foray to the grocery store was to Fred Meyer, a chain in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I scoured the store for a solution for my breakfast smoothies. I figured if I supplemented milk (in cardboard containers) for my coconut milk (which had plastic lids), I might be able to work something out. I also looked at various sorbets, but all had plastic lids or else plastic wrapping connecting the lids and containers. Eventually, I gave up my hopes for maintaining my smoothie habit, when I realized that the grocery store lacked yogurt and berries in non-plastic containers. So what about breakfast?

Cereal? Nope, most of it comes in plastic bags inside the cardboard boxes.

Toast? Even the fresh baguettes had little plastic windows in the paper so you could “see the bread.” WTF? Do we really need all these little plastic windows so we can see our food? Don’t get me started on pasta boxes.

Waffles and pancakes? Sure, the mix comes in paper bags, but try finding syrup that doesn’t have a plastic lid. I’m sure there are options out there, but not at this waffle stand.

Eggs! At last, a solution. I’m a pescatarian, so I still eat eggs and fish.

So, I have ninety days of egg breakfasts to look forward to. Yay?

What I took away from my endeavors to craft a breakfast was this: It’s not impossible to eat without buying plastic products, but unless you are willing to (A) severely limit the variation in your meals or (B) visit lots of independent food stores (such as bakeries or farmers markets), you’re going to have a rough time of it.

Still, spirits are high, and food is the least of my worries. All I can say is good thing I like omelettes.

When was the last time you saw a toothbrush without a plastic handle?

One of the biggest struggles I’m facing as part of my pledge off plastic is my morning routine. Virtually every toiletry is made of plastic. The first step in trying to reduce my plastic footprint was to take an account of what plastic products I use every day in order to  figure out what I could live without, and what alternatives I already had.

The products included:

  • Reusable razor with disposable blades.
  • Aftershave.
  • Shaving cream.
  • Hair product.
  • Contacts & contact solution.
  • Deodorant.
  • Shampoo.
  • Toothbrush.
  • Toothpaste.

I suppose it could be worse. Looking at my hoard of toiletries got me to thinking about how much of the plastic waste humanity produces must come from our hygiene habits alone. What you see in the picture above constitutes probably a 3-month supply. Now, let’s figure about 5 billion people are living at or above the poverty line, and so they can afford at least basic hygiene products. Then, with some fuzzy math, let’s say this is about 1 pound of plastic, or four pounds of plastic per year, per person. Multiplied by the world population living above the poverty line, means about 20 billion pounds of plastic produced per year off hygiene products alone.

Obviously the amount of plastic per person would fluctuate a depending on each person’s habits, but even if my estimate is a worst case scenario, half my estimate is still pretty horrible to think about.

So I looked at my supply and figured what I could cut out.

  • Reusable razor.
  • Aftershave.
  • Shaving cream.
  • Hair product.
  • Contacts & contact solution.
  • Deodorant.
  • Shampoo.
  • Toothbrush.
  • Toothpaste.

I was able to replace the shaving supplies with my electric rechargeable beard trimmer, and my contacts and contact solution with glasses. Unfortunately, unless I want to drive away my girlfriend and coworkers, I’m going to need a better solution for body cleaning products.

Going back to my original question about the toothbrush—it turns out there is a toothbrush without a wooden handle, as well as a lot of other non-plastic hygiene products. I discovered this great website called Life Without Plastic, which has a whole host of non-plastic products, including wooden toothbrushes.

The toothpaste was still an issue, especially since Tom’s switched from aluminum to plastic casing. I went searching for solutions, and found a great blog post at My Plastic Free Life presenting an array of options. So, when I run out of toothpaste in my current tube, I think I’ll try making my own toothpaste using one of the recipes presented, or else purchasing the Tooth Tabs from Lush. It turns out that Lush has a shop just down the street, so I’ll be checking them out for shampoo and deodorant as well, per the suggestions on My Plastic Free Life.

Plastic is everywhere; it wraps our food, it packages our products; it touches us every day. Lately, I’ve been wondering whether it’s enough to just recycle. No matter how much we recycle, plastic ends up in our streams, along our roads, and in our oceans. It kills wildlife, and I’d wager it hurts us. That’s why I’m taking a pledge off plastic: ninety days without buying or receiving plastic products, or as near as I can manage. In this blog, I will document my struggles to avoid using plastic. My pledge off plastic starts on October 20 and ends on January 17.

The rules of the plastic pledge are:

  • Do not purchase any product containing plastic (food containers, DVDs, etc.)
  • Do not use any disposable plastic products (e.g. straws, lids, packaging, etc).

If I use a disposable plastic product I have from before starting the pledge, I’ll document the use and sum up everything at the end of each week. Through this project, I hope to highlight:

  • Consequences of plastic.
  • Alternatives to plastic.
  • Resources to help accomplish the pledge.
  • What items contain plastic that you never think about.
  • How this pledge changes my habits and the way I think myself as a consumer.

I first heard about the Pacific Garbage Heap through TED Talks. I’m a vociferous TED Talk listener. I play them while I work on home projects, sometimes listening to several dozen in sequence. One day in 2010 when I was installing new bamboo flooring, I started noticing a lot of TED Talks discussing the oceans, marine life, and this thing called the Pacific Garbage Heap. The event where the talks had been recorded was called Mission Blue, and it was an independently organized TED event in the Galapagos Islands. From TED’s website:

“On April 6-10, 2010, inspired by Sylvia Earle’s TED Prize wish, a group of 100 scientists, activists and philanthropists set sail on an epic adventure into the blue. During five days of cruising the Galapagos Islands, we developed a new model of radical collaboration that could significantly impact the way we protect our oceans. (For details, read the blog post “Ocean Hope at Mission Blue.”)

Talks in this theme come from the scientists and ocean lovers onboard Mission Blue Voyage. And start by watching Sylvia Earle’s TED Prize wish from TED2009: “I wish you would use all means at your disposal — films! expeditions! the web! more! — to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.”

I was moved by what the speakers said during the event, yet the problem seemed very big and very distant. I rarely visited the coast, so I rarely saw the plastic detritus along the rocky shores of the Pacific Northwest.

Two events crystalized my feelings about plastic use: a visit to the Galapagos Islands in 2011 and a TEDx Rainier talk I attended here in Seattle at the University of Washington. In the Galapagos, I found my favorite place in the world—and one threatened by the ocean trash. Here in Seattle, I witnessed a video by Chris Jordan about his journey to the Midway Islands, a small island chain in the middle of the Pacific. In the short documentary, Edit: In the trailer for his feature-length documentary, he presents the tragic story of the albatrosses that roost on the island. They are dying in droves, choking on the colorful plastic that washes ashore daily.

His five-minute documentary moved me and two hundred other people to tears.

.

I might not have the ability to bring people to tears in documenting my own struggles with plastic consumption, but I can do a small part to raise awareness about the crisis that’s under way in our oceans. This blog is part of that effort.