Plastics Primer, Part 2: Solutions (Sort of...)

>> Thursday, January 22, 2009

I overanalyze everything, so the plastics problem is a difficult one for me because my brain works like this: "If I have a choice between plastic and something else, is the something else really better? Paper production is incredibly destructive, especially to water, which they say is our most precious resource. Glass is good because it's reusable and readily recyclable, but it's also heavier than plastic, so transportation of glass is a global warming issue. Metal is pretty good, but cans are lined with an epoxy resin (plastic), so I'm back where I started. Aaargh!"

When my brain runs in this circle, the conclusion I always come to is that we just need to buy less in general. Perhaps plastic is the worst material, but if I'm not buying at all, I won't be faced with the dilemma of what to buy in its place.

Of course, there will always be situations where you'll still have to make the choice to buy plastic or buy something else, so here are a few suggestions to help you out:

  • Stop buying disposables. Disposable is a pretend word anyway. It refers to products that are inexpensive, so you're not supposed to feel bad about throwing them out. But from a frugal standpoint, anything thrown in the trash is money lost. And from an environmental standpoint, trash is trash, even if you call it "disposable."
  • Bring your own bag, water bottle, mug, take home container, etc, etc, etc.
  • Buy products that last, and fix them when they break. You can't avoid buying a plastic TV, computer, or cell phone, so take care of the things you buy and make them last a long time.
  • Avoid excess packaging. If something is overpackaged, don't buy it. If you can find a product with less packaging, choose that product over the other. When mailing things, choose packaging that can be easily recycled, and don't use styrofoam peanuts.
  • Look for products with no packaging like fresh fruit and vegetables and many soaps.
  • Buy used. Not only does used mean no packaging, but it can give many plastic products one more life before they head to the landfill.
  • Buy in bulk. Shop the bulk bins at health and natural food stores (bringing your own container of course), and buy bulk containers of other products.
  • Buy concentrates. The main ingredient in many products is water. Choose concentrated products and add your own water. You'll save packaging and money.
  • Choose plastics that can be recycled. In my area, that's only plastic bottles and plastic bags.
  • Buy recycled products such as recycled trash bags, bottles with recycled content, and recycled toothbrushes.
  • Find ways to reuse plastics, especially those that can't be recycled. Use old egg cartons as planters for starting seeds. Take berry baskets back to the farmers market. Wash out and reuse plastic baggies.
  • PET bottles are not meant to be reused for drinking. Because the plastic is very thin, PET bottles become a breeding ground for bacteria. It's best just to use these bottles once and recycle them, or stop buying them at all.
  • Avoid storing liquids and fatty foods in plastic, and avoid heating foods in plastic. Both conditions increase the likelihood of chemical leaching.
  • #2 LDPE, #4 HDPE, and #5 PP are your best bets. They are the most recyclable and the least likely to leach toxins into your food.


Joyce January 23, 2009 at 8:33 AM  

Another great post. Have you had any luck finding things that are made with recylced plastic? Other than plastic decking and polarfleece, I can't really think of anything I've seen that is made from recycled plastic.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper January 23, 2009 at 8:06 PM  

Joyce, we use Preserve recycled toothbrushes made by Recycline. They make several other products as well, but I've never seen them in stores. Some products we use come in bottles with some recycled content, and we get trash bags with 100% recycled content from a grocery store here (not Whole Foods, I haven't seen them there). Terracycle makes a number of products in reused plastic containers, which is even better than recycling. I haven't seen their products in stores, but I haven't been looking for them either.

You're right that there aren't too many things made with recycled plastic, and that's part of the problem. I don't know what's happening to all those bottles we're putting in the recycling bin. Guess there's a big demand somewhere for plastic decking!

ChicChick January 24, 2009 at 10:42 AM  

Wow--very informative. That poor turtle! Ugh, that makes me sad and frustrated. I have a dumb question about the plastics which are taking over part of the Pacific--how do they get there? I mean, did they fall off a freighter or what? If garbage and recycling goes into the dump/landfill/transfer station, how does it end up in the ocean? I have always wondered this and have assumed it's a load that fell in off of a freighter or something similar. Do you know?

Erin aka Conscious Shopper January 24, 2009 at 8:46 PM  


That's not a dumb question at all, and the only reason I know the answer is because I saw a video clip from Martha Stewart of a guy who was studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and she asked him the same question. Very little of the garbage in the ocean comes from ships. Most of it (80%) comes from litter that has ended up in the waterways.

Here's a brochure from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation that may answer your question better:

ChicChick January 25, 2009 at 7:25 PM  

Cool--thanks for the info and link. I'll check it out. I don't feel so bad, if even the Great Martha Stewart didn't know the answer to that question! :)

Karla January 29, 2009 at 1:29 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karla January 29, 2009 at 1:48 AM  

Heartbreaking photo.... great post. I JUST listened to a podcast on this topic from "Stuff You Should Know" called Recycling and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We consumers have the power to fix this!

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