DePaul TEDx Talk

Today, I’m honored to share my experience of trying to give up plastic at a TEDx event hosted by DePaul University. I’m so excited to have this opportunity (and also quite nervous!). Yet, in spite of my nerves, I’m hoping this talk will give me the chance to help raise even a small wave of awareness about plastic pollution and our human role in it. I hope my message will also give listeners a feeling of personal empowerment, that there is a little each of us can do to start addressing this world problem.

It was difficult for me to apply to speak. If you know me, you know that I’m not always the most outspoken person (unless I’m talking about dessert), so today will be a challenge in not only trying to share my message eloquently, but also in trying to conquer my internal fears of standing up in front of a large audience and performing.

I’m trying to remind myself that I’m doing this for my son, Charlie, and for all those magical whales out there.

Thanks to the very many of you who have supported me through this process, through the actual challenge of trying to give up plastic from April 2015 to April 2016, and through these past several months as I’ve prepared and stressed and wondered if I could get through today.

I’ve got my whale earrings on, and I’m ready to tell my story. Many, many thanks for all the care and support.

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My Inventory: A Year of Hoarded Plastic

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What Can We Recycle, and Where?

It has been over two months since my plastic adventure ended. It was the end of April when I stopped my hoarding, and it was the beginning of May when I piled up all of my accumulated plastic in the front of my apartment, marveling at all I’d used in a year. Here the plastic sat untouched for a month, a daily eyesore, until my husband hinted and hinted and then outright begged for me to clear it from our lives.

Like most of the projects I embark on, I initially had great plans for the “sorting” and “cataloging” of my plastic. Before I was actually faced with these tasks, I thought about all I would discover in the process of studying the plastic and gathering together like items to see what I consumed most. But when it came time to actually start, I felt utterly overwhelmed. I stood in the midst of the piles like a lost bird.

It was dreadful getting going.

sorting plastic

Sorting and counting plastic. Wow, what an exciting life I lead!

Somehow, I found the motivation. I spent a dedicated two weeks methodically picking through the piles, tossing similar items together, counting, photographing and tallying up the various plastics. I’m still not completely finished with the counting and clearing, but now, at the end of June, I’m almost there.

A week ago, I finished sifting through the biggest categories: food containers, beverage containers, and plastic bags. Here’s a sample of some of my plastic totals in these areas (In my next post, I plan to give a fuller report on my plastic inventory.):

In one year, I used 114 to-go containers. (This total does not include lids, plastic silverware, or random extras, such as the little “tables” that are put in the center of delivered pizzas to keep the cheese from sticking to the lid. And this figure is just for food I ordered from restaurants; it does not include grocery-related plastics.)

I used 22 disposable cups. 

I used 38 plastic shopping bags. (This does not count ziplock bags or dry cleaning bags or random sleeves for magazines or newspapers…)

This stuff took hours to count. I felt physically lightened—honestly, I felt like I could breathe more deeply—when I was finished counting food containers and plastic liners and when I gathered up these piles. Finally, they could be taken out of my apartment and to the recycling center.

bye bye plastic

Before my first visit to the recycling center…so happy

I stuffed the back of my car with large boxes and bags of plastic detritus, having a recycling center destination pre-programmed into my phone. But, when I reached this center, really a “drop-off” location with no staff on site, I hit a wall again, this time, one not made of my own inertia.

I heaved my bags and boxes towards the line of blue dumpsters, and when I reached them, I noticed a faded sign telling me the “Items NOT to be Included.” Some of the items on this list include plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam, and plastic wrap, some of my main plastic offenders.

I deposited what I could, and then I lugged the rest back to the car.

I realized when I drove back to my apartment, feeling  deflated, that I should have done more research on what could be recycled (and where) before I carted everything out to center. I started to feel some anxiety returning. Still, as I write this post, I have a tub of Styrofoam and a giant garbage bag filled with plastic bags sitting in the trunk of my car.

These are things the city of Chicago cannot recycle. Plastics with the Number 6 label are those made of polystyrene, or Styrofoam, and they cannot easily be recycled (or perhaps cannot be recycled at all). I don’t know why this is, but I plan to find out. I wasn’t greatly surprised that I couldn’t rid myself of my Styrofoam right away. However, I was surprised to learn how tricky it would be to recycle plastic bags. Chicago recycling centers won’t take them because they get caught in the giant sorting machines. There are locations, which I found by visiting a website called, that take plastic bags and plastic liners, but after visiting a few of these suggested locations, I found meager-sized receptacles that I didn’t feel comfortable stuffing my gobs of plastic into.

I have such a giant amount of bags and plastic liners, so I’m determined to find a way to dispose of them sustainably. It might boil down to me, slowly, over time, depositing small amounts in these shared receptacles. That’s not convenient, but might be my only option.

I really wish recycling was easier. For instance, before my attempts to clean up my apartment, I had just assumed that if a piece of plastic had a recycling symbol on it, it could be thrown into a recycling bin. Not so, it turns out. And many plastics beyond those with the Number 6, such as straws, plastic utensils, plastic food bags, and bubble wrap, can’t be recycled either. Here’s a list both of what the city of Chicago advises should be recycled and what should be thrown in the trash.

This list, while very helpful, is not exhaustive. What do I do with plastic wine corks, for example? Or what about empty mascara or deodorant containers? What about coffee bags or cheese containers or pieces of broken nylon dog chews?

It’s hard to fully understand the rules. And it takes time to discover what should be done with each item. In the coming weeks, I hope to speak with someone working in Chicago’s recycling program to learn more about what goes where and why, but many people will not do this and cannot do this. We are all pressed for time.

What if we could throw everything…cans, boxes, plastic jugs, plastic bags, straws, plastic forks…anything not made of organic waste (which could be composted) or not potentially toxic into those blue recycling dumpsters? Couldn’t that lead to greater employment at recycling facilities? Wouldn’t that encourage people to recycle more? Could that even encourage more recycling innovation?

This could be so, but it all would require more expensive equipment and more advanced recycling centers. It would mean more safeguards for recycling center employees,  more paychecks, and more vehicles to transport materials…essentially more money. And when I live in a city that has now been without a state budget for an entire fiscal year, that seems complete and utter fantasy.

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My Plastic Mountain

It’s strange to be throwing plastic away again. I’m still not used to unwrapping cellophane from new magazines and tossing it into the trash, or putting empty medicine bottles into the recycling bin. As I expected, it’s a huge relief. It is so nice to no longer be hoarding plastic. Yet there’s a twinge of guilt whenever I throw a bit of plastic away.

After a year of collecting every piece of plastic I’ve used, I have a clearer understanding of how much waste I produce. I’ve had a chance to see my life’s habits and choices on a macro level, and it has shifted my perspective seismically.

The weekend after Earth Day, on April 23rd, I gathered together all of the plastic I accumulated over the past year. I stacked the rubber bins and the cardboard boxes and the stuffed paper sacks in the front room of my apartment, and then I stood back and marveled.

Here’s a photo of the mountain of plastic I created in a single year of life:

What I have to remind myself is that, to some people, this may not look like a lot of plastic. Yes, it fills a full room, but it’s not a really astonishing amount. It doesn’t soar to the ceiling, and it’s surprisingly light. I carried this entire haul up from my apartment’s storage unit in three easy trips. But this mini mountain of plastic is what I accumulated in a year of trying hard not to use any at all.

This is what has really powerfully shifted my perspective. Over the past year, I actively told store clerks and grocery staff and waiters and waitresses that I was trying to make purchases or order meals without the use of plastic, so I greatly cut down what I normally would have been given. I’m curious now to see how much I would have collected had I not tried to steer clear of plastic. Double this amount? Triple?
It’s impossible to say, and my days of keeping, cleaning, and storing plastic for experimental value are over. When I stand back and stare at this load, it alarms me.

In the past few weeks, I’ve begun the process of sorting and cataloging my plastic, and this, too, has been eye-opening. The amount of plastic cups, straws, windowed envelopes, plastic sleeves, and especially to-go boxes, seem to multiply as I pour them out of various bins and bags like items pulled and pulled from Mary Poppins’s magic suitcase.

I will be sharing some of those final counts in coming posts. For now, when I look at this mountain of plastic, I think of all of the people in America. In the world. I think of my small year’s cache of plastic  floating in the ocean, and it isn’t hard to visualize the scale of what must be out there, and growing.
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My Greatest Plastic Offender

In less than two weeks, on April 22nd, 2016, the plastic challenge that I’ve committed to for the past year will come to an end. I will stop having to collect and store and stress over a growing hoard of plastic debris filling the nooks and crannies of my apartment.

I’m so relieved—I can’t wait to be liberated from it. I’m also strangely excited to lay all of my plastic out, inventory exactly what I’ve collected in 365 (well, 366 this leap year) days. I’m curious to see just how many plastic straws I’ve used, and how many plastic forks. I’m interested to know how many plastic cheese wrappers I’ve tucked away, and how many plastic-windowed envelopes.

But already, before I take an official inventory and count the like items in my stash, I know what the single biggest plastic offender will be. I know this because I’m constantly cleaning and nesting them together to fit them in my growing collection.

That great offender is plastic food containers.

These include Styrofoam boxes for restaurant leftovers, and plastic containers for take-out food. This includes the giant plastic platter and lid from Evan’s Dairy Queen birthday cake, and the tiny plastic ramekins that transport salsas and chutneys and salad dressings from restaurants to my home. It includes containers from Whole Foods’ sushi and cellophane from deli sandwiches. The list goes on. And on.

During the first few months of my challenge, I was very aware of the plastic bomb of take-out or delivery food orders, and I worked hard to cull my addiction to restaurant eating. But recently, especially with the addition of our dog, I’ve grown lazy. The second week we had our puppy, I think my husband and I ordered food every single night—we didn’t have the energy or the time to cook dinner.

That embarrassment of a week, (when we actually started to get a little sick of our favorite restaurants), I watched a mountain of washed plastic containers grow in my drying rack, stacked so high that they showered down like a card castle when even barely disturbed. I was astonished with just how much plastic I accrued in a single week.

Ordering food is not only a financial drain, but also a massive waste of plastic. I knew this already of course, but it hadn’t registered as potently for me as it has in recent weeks when my ordering of food reached an apex.

Yet, while it’s genuinely astonishing to see how much plastic comes with a single food order, there’s also so much plastic attached to food from grocery stores. In previous posts, I’ve talked about my struggle to buy cheese and meat without plastic, but it’s even challenging to buy pasta, spices, beverages, condiments, and breads that come plastic-free. Sliced bread is sold exclusively in plastic bags, and there’s good reason: it stays soft.

Whether from a restaurant or grocery, buying food means an accumulation of plastic. And what is additionally problematic is how much food we waste every day in America—a problem as equally gargantuan as the environmental concern.

I read a really fascinating study conducted in 2012 by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) about the food that Americans throw out. The author, Dana Gunders, found that each year we throw away about 40% of our food. And into the garbage with that 40% goes not only food (which could feed many, many hungry people) but also wasted time, water, energy, and packaging—much of it plastic.

Have you noticed the growing trend of wrapping cucumbers in saran wrap at supermarkets? What about the pre-cut fruits in plastic cubes, or the plastic bags of grapes or apples or carrots? I think this plastic-wrapping is a technique by food sellers to encourage shoppers to buy more produce (perhaps making them look more sanitary or ready-to-eat?), and thus it might decrease some food waste. But even wrapped in plastic, fruits and veggies still spoil quickly, meaning we throw out not only produce in devastating quantities, but also the packaging that goes with it. The NRDC study found that, at a loss of 52%, fruits and vegetables are the overall largest wasted food group.


I’m a great offender of food waste, especially with my addiction to take-out.

With the rate we throw away food, it’s not a wonder that our landfills and beaches and bodies of water are clogged with plastic. And this article made me really appreciate the additional losses—fresh water, labor, all those fruits and veggies that aren’t attractive enough to sell.

Many years ago, when I was going through a rough period of life, my mom gave me a self-help book called “When Am I Going To Be Happy?” I still remember a piece of advice that I read in that book about how to cope when you feel like you’re facing so many coexisting personal problems—stress, sadness, anger, dissatisfaction—that these problems seem insurmountable. How can you address them all? How could you ever get better?

The author, Penelope Russianoff, tells readers to imagine all of their problems as a can of worms—squiggling, unattractive, gross worms. She says to focus mentally on one worm, just one, and to visualize extracting that particular worm from the overstuffed can. Deal with that one worm first, she advises. One at a time. Strangely, in dealing with that single issue, other problems also seem to lessen. You gain confidence in the possibility of change.

I can’t help but think of this book as I consider the seemingly insurmountable environmental issues we face in our world—pollution, water shortages, methane-exhaling landfills, plastic in our oceans—which are also interconnected to problems of animal cruelty and labor inequality and yearly dumps of uneaten food.

If we could focus on one “worm”—genuinely take steps to end the harm we’re inflicting in one area, collectively acknowledge the need for change—it seems our attention would naturally turn to other problems, and we might gain confidence.

This idea brings me hope—that once we’re ready to more sincerely tackle our wasteful practices, ready to surmount political, religious, and social differences and ideologies, we could slowly begin to change this planet for the better, we could gently start to upend our sinking ship.

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Plastic and Pets


Our newest family member

Last week, my husband and I adopted a puppy. She is fuzzy and black with a little white spot on her nose and is so adorable when she gets tired and her long pink tongue hangs out of her mouth.

She is also peeing and pooping everywhere in our house.

I knew that housebreaking would be a process, taking patience and midnight willpower and constant trips to the backyard to teach her where she’s supposed to “go,” but I didn’t fully appreciate how plastic would factor in to this teaching process, nor to pet ownership in general.

There are of course the plastic poop bags—I realized I’d have to buy these when getting our dog, but I didn’t consider just how often our little precious pup would actually need to poop, sometimes nearing seven or eight times a day. Then there’s the deodorizing spray, “Nature’s Miracle,” for masking the scent of her urine, and also the plastic puppy pads for her to use when my husband and I are at work and she needs to go potty. At her age, approximately 10 weeks, her bladder is the size of a ping-pong ball. So, she has to pee…a lot. This equals constant sprays of “Nature’s Miracle,” so many that we’ve already gone through half of a bottle, and this also means lots of puppy pads that quickly get soaked and thrown into the trash.

And then there’s the wipes for her dirty paws, and the treats to reward her good behavior—items that come in plastic packaging—and the safe-for-puppy shampoo that won’t hurt her eyes when we suds her up after she digs and rolls in the muddy leaves. It’s sold in a plastic bottle, too, naturally.

The list goes on and on. Plastic chew balls, her plastic flea medicine, plastic tags on her new toys.

I’ve been trying to think of plastic-free alternatives to use for our pup, but I don’t want to extend my weird experiment on to her too much. It’s one thing for me to experiment on myself with different shampoos and deodorants that don’t come in plastic, but it seems unfair to hold my pup up to the same no-plastic standards. For example, my husband and I thought about trying some canned dog food for our pouch, but when we picked her up from the shelter, the vet told us to keep her on the same food she’d been eating as this would help with her adjustment to her new home. This food, which she loves, is called “Blue Buffalo,” sold of course in a big old plastic bag.


The dog food our pup loves, sold of course, in a giant plastic sack.

My plastic restrictions have become very relaxed when it comes to my dog. It’s just so hard to avoid, and I want her to be a healthy, happy dog. Most of the products that will keep her this way are sold in plastic. This is the same dilemma I’ve faced in trying to buy plastic-free products for myself—often, the best stuff is sold only in plastic.

Even though my plastic challenge has slipped with the addition of our furry family member, there are a few great products I’ve found. For example, a very helpful man at Petco recommended some poop-pick-up bags from a company called Earth Rated. We got some of the green bags that, while not totally biodegradable, do have an additive that helps them break down unlike normal plastic bags. The company also makes a plastic-free white bag that’s sourced from vegetable starches and is 100% biodegradable.

I’ve also been following my husband’s lead in using a dog-do-designated shovel to pick up our pup’s poo in our backyard. Our landlord, who lives upstairs and also owns a dog, uses this shovel for his dog’s poop. Directly taking the poop to an outdoor trashcan has helped save us many green plastic bags.

We were also able to find a metal dog crate instead of a plastic one, and we found some great dog bowls that are ceramic. And, shortly before getting our dog, a friend invited me to join a neighborhood swap-group on Facebook where people “re-box” items they no longer use and offer them up to others for free. I was able to get some puppy items—a brush, a collar, and a leash, in this way. Trying to go “plastic free” has made me appreciate how powerful second-hand sharing and reusing can be in eliminating waste and halting the constant accumulation of packaging.

Perhaps the most powerful pet-ownership lesson I’ve learned, though, has been this: the more effort I put in to caring for my dog and listening to her needs—for instance, the more quickly I take her outside when she’s starting to circle and sniff the floor, and the more willpower I can muster in the wee hours of the morning to take her outside before an accident—leads immediately to less plastic. I save the puppy pads I’d have to replenish and the sprays of deodorizer. Plus, I save her the physical discomfort of an accident inside.

This is the same when applied to my own efforts for my self-care. The more effort I put in on a daily basis—from carrying around my reusable bag and hauling my purple coffee mug with me on the train, to making my own food instead of ordering the plastic-bomb of take out—will lead, almost always, to less plastic.

So much improvement in our society, I feel, could come from just a little more daily effort.


Our cute little monster

We got our puppy from a shelter, and I’ve wondered since snuggling her adorable tiny muzzle with that precious white spot on her nose why we have a problem with unwanted pets in our society. How can we simultaneously churn out animals at an unsustainable rate at the same time that we send so many animals to die? How can puppy mills continue to exist when so, so many darling pets sit waiting in shelters to be taken to a home instead of being put to sleep?

It’s such a strange and awful phenomenon, such a terrible dichotomy, symptomatic of our overarching societal problem of producing too much and not being thoughtful enough about what we do with the excess.

We are a society of waste, reflected not only in the products we use and throw in the trash and the plastic floating and sinking into the ocean, but also, quite literally, in the fact that we throw away lives. Surely, with a little more work, a little less inertia, a little more awareness, we could be better.

I’m trying to remind myself of this at five in the morning when my puppy whines to be taken out to pee.

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Small Victories With Lotion

As my mountain of plastic grows higher and higher, as I feel defeated on a daily basis by the challenge I set forth for myself this year, I have to say that I’ve realized some true plastic-free success when it comes to lotion.

At the start of my foray into living without plastic, I bought a product from LUSH called the Organic Therapy Massage Bar. This is essentially lotion in a solid form sold free of any plastic packaging.

At first, I had trouble adjusting to this bar. It was difficult to spread it over my skin, especially if my skin was really dry. And I smelled a little like Play-doh (according to my husband) after using it. What was especially difficult for me was the amount of time it took to apply this “lotion.” Those of you who know me are quite aware that I’m not the most punctual person. I’m always scrambling to get out the door in a timely fashion, and especially when it comes to getting ready for work each day, every blessed second counts. After showering, I’m off like a horse in the races, trying to brush my hair, teeth, eyelashes with mascara in record-setting time. I don’t allow myself the time needed to have a slow, leisurely morning. Thus, the extra two or three minutes it took to spread the lotion bar across my arms and legs quickly became a daily frustration. After a couple of months, I abandoned it. It sat ignored in its oval tin.

Koelzer Farms Lotion Bar I really loved!

Koelzer Farms Lotion Bar I really loved!

Then Christmas came, and I received a second lotion bar as a gift from my mother-in-law. She got me one from Koelzer’s Bee Farm, so I gave lotion bars a second chance (thank you, Betsy!). Immediately, I liked this product. It was a little softer than my first bar, and I loved the smell—the faintest hint of honey. The tin containing the bar also claimed that this lotion could be applied just once a day and wouldn’t fade away with frequent hand washing. I found this, surprisingly, to be true. My skin remained soft for hours, and the consistency made this bar a breeze to apply in the morning.

Already, the Koelzer lotion bar is gone. I used it remarkably quickly.

I’m thankful that this product not only worked but also encouraged me to give my LUSH lotion bar a second chance. Once the Koelzer bar ran out, I reopened the forgotten LUSH tin and unexpectedly had much more success with it on the second go-round. Perhaps I have accepted the added minute it takes to apply this lotion (still longer than creamy, liquid lotions, but not by much), or perhaps my new apartment is slightly warmer than my old apartment, making the bar softer and easier to spread. Or, maybe I’ve just improved my technique: I have found that if I actually use the edge of the lotion bar instead of the flat surface, I can quickly swipe it across my skin, leaving a trail of moisturizer that I can then rub in with my greased-up hands. Probably, it’s a combination of all of these things. Whatever the main factor, I’m glad that I’ve turned a corner with adopting a plastic-free lotion.


My Lush lotion bar that has been given a second chance. Turns out it spreads easily on its side!

Still, lotion bars aren’t quite as convenient as “normal” lotions. I don’t have nearly the same number of choices when it comes to smell or variety. For example, for a while, I was using a really excellent lotion from Gold Bond that works wonders on my dry skin. Frequently, especially in dry months, I get small red bumps on the back of my arms, related, maybe to eczema or allergies. When I’ve used this tub of lotion, the red bumps magically vanish. My lotion bars don’t quite add up to the caliber of the Gold Bond lotion, so spreadable and skin-soothing. But that’s the case with most plastic-free alternatives—limited choices.

Amazing Gold Bond lotion. Sigh. Plastic, plastic, plastic.

Amazing Gold Bond lotion. Sigh. Plastic, plastic, plastic.

I’ve also continued to hear about the power of coconut oils, but I haven’t found any that come without plastic packaging marketed purely as skin moisturizers. Those of you in the know about coconut oil, can I buy just a regular old tin can of the stuff and spread it like lotion? Have you done this with success? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Overall, despite the slight drawbacks of lotion bars, I really do feel I’ve turned a corner with them. With April 22nd on the horizon, the day my challenge will officially end, I’ve begun thinking about plastic-free products and habits that will remain with me after this experiment, about the specific ways I’ll continue to live my life without a dependency on plastic. I think lotion bars might be one of those forever products.

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So Many Failures…

Usually the start of a new year brings me such inspiration. I feel renewed possibility in my ability to meet my goals, I feel more alert and aware of what I want to change in my life, and I feel the strong motivation to actually make those changes.

This new year, I didn’t feel that way. I felt a heaviness, a sluggishness, a sense of distinct failure.

Before moving in late November, I had a sort of comical feeling about my choice to keep all of my plastic for one year. I’d look at my growing pile of bottle caps and straws and plastic baggies and feel slightly intrigued, even amused, by how much I had accumulated after trying so hard not to. But once we carted our lives and belongings over to our new apartment, plastic and all, I stopped feeling that amusement.

All over my apartment, on top of dressers, tucked behind the bathroom soap dispenser, sitting on the kitchen counter, are bits of plastic that I’ve promised to keep. After an exhausting move, after weeks of living in disorder and surrounded by plastic trash, I’m getting really tired of this endeavor and, honestly, a little depressed by it.

At the end of December, I thought seriously about quitting, telling myself it was incredibly stupid to begin this project in the first place. It’s so tiresome to still be tucking straws into my purse after being given them in restaurants. It’s draining to go to the grocery store—to any store, really—and attempt to avoid buying what I really want because it is sealed in plastic. Then, it’s extra discouraging when I later have to keep the plastic I didn’t have the will to resist.

My days of feeling like a champion as I proudly carted around my red reusable bag are over. I’m tired. I want to throw all this plastic away. I’m overwhelmed by what I’ve already accrued.


My overflowing plastic…there’s a depressingly large amount of it now.

But I think, beyond the exhaustion, what’s really difficult for me is this feeling that I’ve failed—on a gargantuan scale. A few friends shared with me this video about a woman who has found a way to live without trash. For the past two years, she’s kept what she couldn’t compost, donate, or recycle, and it all, every piece of it, fits into a modest mason jar. She’s done what I’m trying to do, but she’s actually succeeding.

Her trash pile would be greater if she were holding onto all of her recyclable plastic like I am—I know this—but still, I can see that her efforts are more fierce and dedicated than my own. For example, she makes her own toothpaste. I haven’t taken a single day out of my averagely busy life to make my own soap or toothpaste or deodorant. I have no excuse other than I have trouble finding the time.

This leads me, I guess, to a deeper truth about trying to live a life without plastic: it takes Herculean devotion, extreme creativity, and lots and lots of time to do something as amazing as what this woman has done. It’s possible, but for the average person like me, it seems a superhuman effort. I don’t want it to be this hard to reduce or eliminate plastic because that means that most of us won’t be able to that drastically change our lives, thus, we won’t drastically alter our planet.


My experiment has taught me that consumers really want to see pasta before buying it. Why is it so hard to find pasta sans the plastic window?

On my days off, I want to work on my novel, I want to take long walks with my husband, I want to make lasagna. These diversions seem to mean that I won’t ever totally overhaul my life and truly fight my war on plastic because I just won’t have the time. If I wanted to make lasagna, for example, and use no plastic, it might take me several days: I’d have to make my own noodles, I’d have to make my own ricotta, and I’d have to forgo the sausage (or slaughter my own pigs—uh—nope). All of these items come in plastic—I’ve not been able to purchase them without. Try to find noodles that don’t have a plastic “window” in the box. If you do, please tell me where to buy them.

I know that I still need to seek out stores that that offer plastic-free alternatives. I know those alternatives must be out there. And I know that I need to try making my own products or otherwise step up my plastic-fighting game. But again, my energy is waning. My devotion is slipping.

Yet. In spite of this blueness, in spite of my self-pity about the ways I’ve failed this year to truly and completely give up plastic, I have to admit that this video filled me with a quiet spark of re-dedication. It made me feel a sequin of hope about our planet’s future, knowing that there are people in our world like this woman. People who have this amount of commitment and positivity and force of will and time to make substantial changes. This video reminded me that I can do better, and that there are always people out there who can give me the inspiration.

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I’m cheating on my deodorant


The T’eo deodorant bar I was religiously using (and liking) for several months. Little did I know there was trouble ahead for us.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my joyful success of finding a plastic-free deodorant. I had visited a Lush store and purchased a powdered deodorant called the T’eo bar that came packaged only in a wax seal, no plastic included. For a few months, I was loving this deodorant.

However, this past September, during a trip to New York for my cousin’s wedding, I was forced to reevaluate my choice. While in the Big Apple, my husband and I stayed in a tiny shoebox of a hotel with a bathroom the size of a toilet stall. The miniature size of the bathroom meant that Evan and I had to do all of our post-shower lotioning and deodorizing in the not-so-much-larger bedroom, and during this bedroom hygiene session, my husband saw something he hadn’t before: he watched me cringe as I scraped the T’eo deodorant bar against my left armpit. When I lifted my right arm, he saw the more-or-less constant rash of bumps and red dry patches that had formed in both of my pits. My skin stung terribly.

“You have to stop using that deodorant,” he told me, concerned. “Seriously, Mer, that looks really bad.” I didn’t want to agree with him. After all, I love the smell of the T’eo deodorant, and I love the idea of it. It seemed, at first, to be the perfect replacement deodorant. Buying it meant no plastic, and it had worked successfully for me for a few months. Still, I couldn’t ignore the rash, and I couldn’t help but remember the words of the Lush sales woman when she first saw me considering the T’eo bar: Do you have sensitive skin? You might want to go with the Patchouli instead. 

I should have listened to her, and I should have stopped using the bar after a week of red bumps. But I stubbornly persisted. In New York, Evan’s worried face made me realize there was real trouble, but I wasn’t ready to relent. I used his Old Spice deodorant on our trip, thinking it would just be a two or three-day diversion from my normal deodorizing, and oh my goodness, it was seriously weird how good it felt to smooth the cool blue bar against my armpits. I think I might have let out an audible “Ah!” as I applied it.


My love affair begins with Evan’s Old Spice deodorant.

When we returned to Chicago, things just weren’t the same. After showering, I began to stare at the two deodorant options on our bathroom shelf: the porous T’eo bar and the red, plastic Old Spice containing that soothing cerulean gel. I wasn’t ready to admit the feelings of love that had developed for the Old Spice. Quickly, I started swiping the soothing bar under my arms, shoving it back on the shelf to hide this behavior from both Evan and from myself.

After a few weeks of sneakily stealing swipes of Old Spice, Evan caught me. “Mer! Why don’t you just buy some new deodorant?” he asked me. “You have to get something else.”

“No!” I cried back. I didn’t have any other defense. I knew the T’eo bar wasn’t working, I just really didn’t want to admit it.

Finally, three weeks ago, defeated and in desperation, I went back to the Lush store. I bought the patchouli deodorant bar.  I’ve been using it ever since, but the results have been lukewarm. I resisted this deodorant originally because of the smell. It’s so potent, so recognizable. When I paid for it at the store, a honey-colored cube wrapped only in paper, I already detected its familiar fragrance. The smell reminds me of college—summers in Boulder, Colorado, parks filled with guitar music and billows of then-still-illegal smoke, street-fairs featuring stacks of hemp-pressed chapstick. The patchouli smell is distracting to me not just because of its actual smell, but because of what the smell means to me.


Lush’s Patchouli bar that I’m trying really hard to love.

I thought, after days and days of applying it, that I’d get used to the fragrance. I’m still not there, though it is becoming more familiar. The more difficult aspect for me is that the patchouli still doesn’t spread as easily as typical gel deodorants. The bar is a lot like a dry bar of soap. I have to wet it or hold it in my hands to warm it before rubbing it under my arms, and still, it’s slightly irritating to my skin. The red bumps have slightly returned with the patchouli.

One of plastic’s great benefits is that it can harness and transport matter in different states—gels, liquids, soft powders—so effectively. In my struggle to find a plastic-free deodorant, I’ve come to even more powerfully appreciate what plastic does. It is a material that has no perfect replacement.

For now, as keep trying to use the patchouli, I find myself staring longingly at the Old Spice container each day after I shower. Some mornings, I cheat.  I love what is contained within that plastic—that incredibly refreshing and cooling deodorant stick. Is there any hope that I’ll find something, anything similar to the pleasing Old Spice bar that isn’t housed in plastic? With my armpits raw and my skin smelling strangely unfamiliar, I desperately hope so.

Hey readers!

If you have any suggestions or tips for me about plastic-free deodorants, I’d love to hear them! Seriously—I need your ideas!

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How do we responsibly give stuff away?

As expected, moving has been hard. We are still in the midst of unpacking our new apartment, and while this move hasn’t been quite the nightmare I originally feared it would be, it’s still been a massive undertaking—hours and hours of retrieving and boxing the artifacts of our life collected over these past five, almost six, years.

Also, it snowed on November 21st—our scheduled moving day. All month long, Chicagoans were remarking on the unseasonably warm (and surprisingly precipitation-free) weather, and then, on the eve of our move, it came raining and then billowing down. We are cursed with bad weather when we move.

But most of all, as I mentioned in my last post, this move has been complicated because of my decision to keep all of my plastic this year. I actually transported my bins of plastic—and kept all of the bits I acquired throughout—to our new apartment.  I’m dreading (and avoiding) the impending decision of where to set up my hoard in our new place.

In some ways, though, this weird plastic experiment made the move easier, rather than harder. I think this is because I started the process earlier. Knowing that I would have the added burden of carting my plastic to our new apartment, I actually packed boxes in increments, dedicating a few hours each day to moving rather than waiting until the very last second to stuff things in boxes in a fever of anxiety (as I typically do).

Also, this move was easier because I factored in donation runs. I gave almost equal consideration to what I wanted to keep (and pack up) as I did to what I wanted to give away. Evan and I made three trips to Goodwill and one to Open Books prior to our move, and we will make at least one more run after uncovering more unwanted items in our unpacking process.

I’m a bonafide pack rat, and I’ve actually never made donating a part of my moving agenda before. Typically, I pack up everything I own, literally everything, including dried flower arrangements and decades old theater programs, and take it all with me. I’ll digress for a moment to give a plug for an awesome book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” This book has been amazing in its ability to help me overcome my hoarder tendencies, and it motivated me further to do lots of donating.


Wowza-plastic! We saved all this from our wedding deliveries to reuse for our move.

My give-away trips not only helped reduce my volume of stuff, they also reduced the amount of packing material we needed. We took clothes and books and trinkets to Goodwill in boxes, and then we reused those boxes. And we managed to use only the boxes and bubble wrap we’d saved from our wedding gift deliveries (we had saved it ALL…for over a year).

Giving things to Goodwill helped me feel like I wasn’t thoughtlessly chucking tons of plastic into the garbage. Instead of throwing away cups and cords and random chotchkies, we donated them. At first, this made me feel environmentally responsible. I was not only avoiding sending plastic to landfills and waterways, but also (in theory) giving someone else joy—aka my “trash” would become their “treasure.”


Sorry dudes! Off to Goodwill with you. Hope you like your new home!

But I’ve thought a lot more about this. This move really has forced me to think. In retrospect, I’ve realized a couple of depressing things. One: some of my “trash” is just going to become trash. Some of the things I gave away are not treasures. In a way, I cheated a little. I don’t know which of these plastic items will go to a new home. Perhaps the majority of them will end up in the garbage, which I had hoped so much to avoid.

In researching where to donate my stuff, I made an unsettling discovery. I learned that much of what we donate, even to places like Goodwill and Salvation Army, either gets dumped because it’s not resellable, or it gets shipped in enormous crates to poorer continents. Even donating caused me to unwittingly contribute to environmental harm.

I feel better that I tried to give stuff away rather than immediately dumping it. Yet there’s still a conundrum of how to avoid dumping plastic altogether, and donating doesn’t exactly solve that.

There’s also the conundrum of hiring movers. While I absolutely adored having a team of people at the ready to move my heavy furniture, because it was a wet, soggy mess outside, they had to wrap most of our belongings in a giant sheet of plastic wrap. Their industrial-sized plastic roll could have saran-wrapped a house. We’ve never had movers before, so I didn’t realize how much plastic would be involved, but I didn’t say a thing to stop them. The plastic protected our stuff from getting demolished during the move. But there was a heck of a lot of plastic remaining.

Ultimately, although moving was and is a giant stressor, this move really has made me consider disposal more critically. I realized that my hoarding of plastic has made me feel “safe” because, if I save all my plastic, I know it won’t end up in the ocean or in the belly of a turtle. This has lessened my guilt. But I can’t hoard all of the world’s plastic. I can’t even, long-term, hoard all of the stash I’ve accumulated—I’m itching already to get rid of it, get it out of my new, still pristine home, yet I still have five months of this challenge left to go.

So how do we give stuff away…really? How do we do it without causing harm to our world?

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