The headaches of moving plastic

Unexpectedly, last weekend, my husband and I found a new apartment. The lease on our current place isn’t up until April of 2016, but on a walk through our neighborhood last Sunday morning, we saw a “For Rent” sign on a building a few blocks away. On a whim, because the sign said the apartment was two-bedroom and dog-friendly, with a garage parking spot and shared backyard, we called the landlord.

Two days later, we signed the lease. We’ll move into this new place on November 21st.

This happened so quickly and so surprisingly that I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety about it: What if we can’t find a subletter for our current place? What if this new apartment doesn’t feel as comfortable as where we now live? What if it snows the day we move?

It's going to be hard to leave our apartment of five years, especially with all the plastic tucked away in it.

It will be hard to leave our apartment of five years, especially with all the plastic tucked away in it.

And—what do I do with all of my plastic? First, I’ll have to deal with the hoard I’ve chosen to collect this year, both the moving and new storage set up of that hoard. But second, I also know I’m going to find plastic hidden in the backs of cupboards and tucked into hard-to-reach parts of our refrigerator that I’ll now have to decide what to do with. Do I keep all of it? Add it all to my collection? Transport that, too, to our new home?

Moving, in my experience, comes with lots of dumping. It’s a time both of stress, trying to carefully box precious items while fearing their total destruction, yet also liberty, letting go of unwanted belongings to start fresh in a new space. There is a wonderful lightness in getting to escape the clutter of a previous home.

I love this promise of a clean start in a new apartment, but when I started my plastic challenge, I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to move in the midst of it. I thought, at the end of April 2016, I could take an inventory of all of my used plastic, figure out how to estimate its weight, find some “results” of how much I’d accumulated in a year, and then set it free—all before May and the end of our lease.

Now that isn’t going to happen. I’m going to have to cart my plastic garbage across my neighborhood to my new, yet-unspoiled apartment. And my collection still creeps higher. It has now outgrown its green bin. I’ve used a large paper grocery bag for collecting plastic food containers, and that is now full. What kind of lunatic am I to actually move this crap?


My plastic collection grows. Reorganizing my green bin to fill every crevice.

This move is really going to test my commitment to this experiment.

With this move, I’m not going to have the typical dumping luxury. I’m going to have to decide what plastic containers get added to my collection, items like nearly empty lotion bottles, unwanted chapsticks, or half-consumed salad dressings that I wouldn’t otherwise have tossed.

I’ve decided that whatever items I originally purchased, or ones that I exclusively used, I’m going to keep and add to my green bin. Otherwise, if I dump them, it feels like cheating. This move will force me to assess and deal with the junk that’s been sitting undisturbed in my overstuffed apartment, which, I guess, I should deal with even if I wasn’t moving.

This is a normal part of an American life—having to throw out the old to make room for the new, and having to deal with the constant reality of too much stuff. Yet, though we can move to new homes, purge what has become unwanted, the world cannot. My moving dilemma has made me reflect more on the state of our oceans, our landfills. There is really no such thing as “getting rid of” plastic. There is actually only moving it.

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Exciting Advancements in the Fight Against Plastic

Human ingenuity is really a remarkable thing. Lately I’ve been watching episodes of the new “Cosmos” series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I’ve marveled at the human discoveries described on the show that have led us to where we are today.

Discoveries of sound waves and planetary movements and radioactivity—it makes me feel a quiet murmuring of pride. Humans are equipped with such magnificent curiosity, and we’re hard-wired towards progress. We love to build, to advance, to design and then to redesign. An example—my wallet can’t keep up with the evolutions of the iPhone.

Our strong will is a juggernaut that has shaped this world so profoundly that our presence is seen everywhere—from space, our cities glitter with beads of light; in the ocean, our unwanted plastics swirl in the wake of fish. As long as we are on this planet, as long as this planet can sustain us, we will keep studying it and we will keep altering it.

Right now, our footprint on Earth is mainly a negative one. But we have just as much power and imagination to wipe our own footprint clean. We have just as much determination and intelligence to positively impact this planet as to do it harm.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve come across several exciting articles that are talking about advancements in fighting plastic. In particular, my husband shared two with me that have really given me hope about our environment’s future.

One, an article from, takes a look at a new kind of water bottle. Instead of the typical cylinder with a screw-off plastic top, this portable pouch of water comes in a plastic-free bag. It’s a sort of water “pod” that looks a little like an amniotic sac of drinkable H20. Not only does this pod eliminate the necessity of bottle caps (which are proliferating at disturbing rates in the bellies of sea birds), but this bag is edible.

The product is called Ooho!, and it is advertised as fully biodegradable (so it will leave no trace in the earth or in your gut). The bag surrounding the water is made of a combination of organic materials, a “seaweed and calcium chloride-based membrane.” Say the reviewers, “It’s essentially an edible water balloon. All you have to do is pierce the membrane and gulp it down.”

How cool (and weird) is that?

The scientists who developed this water pod say that nature was their inspiration. They observed the way membranes naturally form to harness liquids, and they mimicked that in creating this design.

See—amazing human ingenuity.

My husband shared with me another exciting article from the Inquisitr. The article talks about scientists who are hard at work trying to clean up the plastic already clogging our planet. Specifically, these researchers found that mealworms, those icky, Beetlejuice-like worms of nightmares, can eat certain types of plastic and actually thrive.

When given a helping of Styrofoam to eat, not only do the mealworms happily devour it, they also produce biodegradable waste. Something in the mealworm’s gut transforms plastic particles into organic material, and follow up studies show that this waste is safe enough to be used in soil for growing crops.

One of plastic’s greatest evils is its inability to biodegrade. But if mealworms can serve as a filter to transform those stubborn polymers into organic materials, it seems we have a chance to turn our plastic disaster around.

The downside is that mealworms are tiny. Even if we employed every mealworm on the planet to chow down night and day in our landfills, they could only consume an infinitesimal portion of the world’s plastic. So, my initial vision of mealworms taking a journey to the Pacific Garbage Patch to feast it out of existence was a little unrealistic. Yet, just knowing that there’s a kind of bacteria inside of the mealworm that can produce this transformation is inspiring. Certainly some brilliant scientist will find a way to replicate that bacteria’s effect. We have the brainpower and enthusiasm to do so.

In the meantime, though, we need to keep thinking and dreaming up creative ways to attack the mess we’ve made. And I truly believe that we can.

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Plastic Clothing Tags

One of the most interesting discoveries I’ve made this year as I’ve pursued ridding my life of plastic is this: I’m paying more attention.

When I make a purchase, when I walk down a city block, when I see an ad pop up on my Yahoo sidebar, I look a little more narrowly at the places where plastic might exist.

This has been both eye-opening for me (sorry, bad pun), yet also depressing. I’ve realized that plastic is a foundation of our society. As I type this, my fingers pulse against plastic keys, my coffee sits at my side in its purple plastic container. From where I sit in a coffee shop, I can see four plastic knobs fitted to the bottom of the legs of a wooden chair, keeping it from scuffing the plastic linoleum floor underneath.

In this detective mode, I’ve started to focus almost obsessively on the small pieces of plastic that surround us, and one item I’ve started to notice repeatedly is the plastic clothing tag.

Nearly every time I purchase a piece of clothing, I have to snip or pull off a tag, releasing the plastic stem from where it has threaded through the cloth. A bundle of these little beheaded tags have started to fill my giant plastic-collection bin at home.


Plastic tags from just two pieces of clothing

What surprises me about this accumulation is that I actually don’t shop much for clothes (some might say not enough since I sometimes wear shirts from high school), yet I’ve still collected several of these plastic clothing tags over the course of five months.

I can understand how these tags are handy. They reduce confusion for shoppers by immediately giving information on size and price. And they make for a very quick and easy checkout at the register. On the weekends, I work at a small shop in my neighborhood, and when a customer tries to buy an item that’s missing its price tag, there can be a mini catastrophe. If we can’t find the price on a matching item in the store, the manager has to run to the back and search our files for the original order. When the store is in a busy swell, this can be stressful.

Beyond making it easy to know information about an item and creating buying efficiency, plastic tags are also used as security devices in clothing, reducing theft. In mega-stores like Macy’s or H&M, I see how these plastic devices are essential.

String ties seem to make clothing appear more artistic

String ties seem to make clothing appear more artistic

But what I’ve started to wonder is why we can’t at least replace the plastic tags with something biodegradable. On some high-end lines that we carry at my neighborhood store, the retailers use string or a colored piece of twine to attach a paper label. Avoiding plastic in the tags seems to make these clothes more “hand-made” or artistic somehow. They seem more desirable, and seem to me to subtly communicate that they weren’t mass-produced.

A high-end clothing line using a string tie (albeit with a plastic clasp)

A high-end clothing line using a string tie (albeit with a plastic clasp)

String tags don’t seem much more expensive to make to me, but perhaps they take a lot more time to tie onto a piece of clothing. Perhaps this is why we so constantly see the plastic tag fixing prices to clothes. With the plastic tags, there’s a handy gun (also made of plastic) that swiftly pierces the cloth, fixing a tag to it. Likely, in the giant production factory, there’s a machine that can do it. It’s speedy, and I imagine that a bundle of those plastic tags are less expensive than a role of twine. Also, the plastic tags are just common practice. It’s hard to make global changes to a system that’s making big money, one that appears to be running flawlessly.

I tried to research the amount of these plastic tags that are produced annually, and I couldn’t find any reliable figures, but I’m sure it’s massive. Frequently, I’ll find more than one of these tags in a single shirt or pair of pants, and after being in H&M last weekend, standing in a flood of people buying heaps of clothes, I’m sure the number would shock me. It bums me out to think of how many of these tags are floating in our oceans, becoming unintentional food for the life out there.

Of course, there are many other things to worry about when it comes to the fashion industry, more problems than just the small plastic tags attached to pieces of clothing. This Vogue article shares interesting points about the environmental impacts of the garment-production machine—the making of clothes, deforesting the rainforests and dying rivers electric blue, the chemical treatment of fabric, releasing toxins into our atmosphere and lungs, and the environmental harm of shipping, using plastic bags to package items and airplanes to transport clothes from places like India and Bangladesh to the United States.

This all without going into the human rights violations.

So perhaps my small focus on the plastic tags isn’t the most pressing point to consider here. But I do feel like the small details reveal the larger realities. Seeing these plastic tags in clothes more potently symbolizes for me the giant system that turned its wheels to churn out my one pair of jeans or one new affordable cardigan. These small details are actually helping me conceptualize just how big our problems are when it comes to environmental care and human justice. So many clues reveal these truths.

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Trying to Replace Dish Soap

When it comes to washing the dishes, I’m a bit of a fiend. I can say with genuine sincerity that I actually feel a swell of happiness when I perfectly clean a dish—I feel deeply satisfied by the way it gleams, by the smooth reflective surface after it’s rinsed and dried.

I wish my same enthusiasm for cleaning dishes extended to cleaning up other areas of the house (namely the bathroom and living room, or especially my loads of excess papers everywhere—sorry Evan), but at least I find joy in cleaning something.

My eccentric love for cleaning a sink full of dishes caused me to develop a strong partiality to the kind of dish soap that I use. For several years now, I’ve used Dawn. I started using it religiously after I bought it to clean an oil stain from a favorite dress. Putting a drop of Dawn in a bowl of water absolutely did the trick to erase the oil stain and save me from a trip to the drycleaners.

Beyond its power to clean dishes and clothes, Dawn has also legitimately been used to help clean up after oil spills (NPR can back me up here: Why Dawn Is The Bird Cleanser Of Choice For Oil Spills), and there’s a really cute and sympathetic picture of a baby seal on its label.

Joking aside, I think there’s actually a lot to love about Dawn. Like most products on the drug store shelf, though, it only comes in a plastic container.

Goodnight, sweet Dawn. There's literally no replacing you.

Goodnight, sweet Dawn. There’s literally no replacing you.

Back in April, when I started this adventure, I actually felt panic considering what I would do when my then-still-half-full Dawn container finally ran out. As I neared the end of the bottle, I rationed each drop, carefully squeezing just two or three beads onto a sponge to clean a sink full of dishes. But after three weeks of this rationing, as the blue soap decreased further and further, I couldn’t pretend that there was anything actually left. I unscrewed the lid and dug my finger inside to pull out the remaining sudsy film, and then I admitted it was empty. It was time to buy dish soap.

I looked first for Dawn made in a powdered form, thinking that might be in a cardboard container. I was easily able to switch to boxed and powdered dishwashing detergent that’s sans plastic—I have been using the pictured Cascade brand with no complaints—so I hoped there might be a similar alternative for Dawn. But I struck out: Dawn only comes in the liquid form in a plastic container.

Cascade Dishwasher Detergent - it's plastic free!

Cascade Dishwasher Detergent – it’s plastic free!

Next, I went to the Internet. Google searches led me to dish soaps such as Mrs. Meyer’s, which are environmentally conscious and come in plastic that is 25% post-consumer recycled, but I couldn’t find any dish soap in glass or metal containers. I also kept coming up with references to Dr. Bronner’s castile soap. Dr. Bronner’s sells various kinds of bar castile soap, from eucalyptus to almond-scented varieties, but the company recommends using these for cleaning the hair or body. None of the bars soaps mention cleaning dishes or home surfaces, and I want to make sure the soap I use actually disinfects.

A friend recommended that I check out some other earth-friendly brands, such as the Honest Company. They are a company with a thoughtful commitment to all things environmental, and I love their mission statement, which includes mention of their packaging. They say that “One day (in the not-so-distant future) we strive to be 100% plant-based and sustainably-sourced, inside and out.”

This statement is hopeful and self-aware, but the company doesn’t discuss the plastic containers they currently use. And even this company, selling many great, good-for-the-earth products, doesn’t have any plastic-free dish soaps.

I continued scouring high and low to unearth alternatives, and I realized that maybe what I needed to do was make my own dish soap. I found a blog called Mommypotamus (that’s a hard name to forget) with do-it-yourself dish-soap-cooking instructions, and this seemed promising at first. But when I searched for the ingredients, I discovered that a few of them, such as the liquid castile soap and glycerin, come in plastic containers. Thus, I would have to buy plastic to avoid plastic.

My last-ditch effort was to go to Merz Apothecary store on Lincoln. I crossed my fingers that they might have what I was looking for. I entered the store and was immediately welcomed by a friendly staff person. She showed me to the section of dish soaps, and she sighed when I told her my dilemma. “I wish we sold what you’re looking for,” she told me. “I would buy it, too.” For a moment, we stared at the shelves. I willed a plastic-free dish soap to appear that could end my searching. “I’m sorry,” she told me, and shook her head.

On my walk back to my apartment, I bought a bottle of the “ology” brand dish soap from Walgreens succumbing to the need to just get something. Like most of the dish soaps at Merz, this is sold in a recyclable plastic container—the plastic with the number two symbol inside of the triangle—and I like to believe that it is better for the planet because it’s purportedly made with natural ingredients. photo-6

There’s certainly more I could try and more searching I need to do. I found another recipe online from Kirk’s Natural for making dish soap, and the ingredients all appear to come in non-plastic packaging. I should try making this. But even though I care deeply for the environment, I still enjoy convenience. I think most people feel the same. I selfishly don’t feel like cooking up my own dish soap whenever I’m in need. I wish I could just buy some ready-made. Yet even I wonder what that alternative dish soap could be easily and cheaply packaged in, if not plastic.

Hey, Readers!

After my epic failure, I’m reaching out to you all. Any ideas on what I should try? Have you ever made your own dish soap with great results? I’d love to know some recipes, especially easy ones!

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These Are A Few of My Favorite Non-Plastic Things

I have to admit that I’ve been feeling a little bummed out lately with my dedication to this blog and to my commitment to giving up plastic.

Most of the posts I’ve written this summer, I realized last week, have been about really depressing stuff: sea turtles eating plastic bags and whales dying from obstructed stomachs. I want to know these things, and I want to have a big picture view of the way not only the environment is suffering, but also how the creatures on it are suffering, all in relation to plastic. But it’s still not so terribly fun to write about these things or contemplate them for long hours. I feel, lately, really hopeless about our ability to make changes to have a healthier world.

It’s also getting more and more tiresome trying to avoid plastic. When I was in Iceland, I didn’t even attempt to follow my same strict no-plastic regimen. My first day there, I noticed that even fruit—apples and grapes and strawberries—is often packaged in Styrofoam and saran wrap, no doubt because the country is an island, and getting produce is expensive, and so stores go to greater measures to keep fruits and vegetables fresh. It does make sense.

In Iceland, I didn’t want to try and bridge the cultural and language gap to request plastic-free items and be a weird, demanding American, and I also felt a greater sense of “what’s the point anyway?” Seeing how even a conservation-forward country like Iceland, which keeps tidy recycling bins next to regular trash disposal bins on nearly every street corner, is tied inextricably to plastic, I had a greater understanding of just how minimal my efforts really are—how small and insignificant.

A recycling bin in Iceland--they are everywhere!

A recycling bin in Iceland–they are everywhere!

So, coming home to my growing bin of used plastic, feeling the same nagging feeling that I should just give this up, I’ve been trying to think positively and focus on some of the personal good that’s come out of this experience. I’m trying to channel my inner Pollyanna and see some of those positives. And now, after that melancholy introduction, let me share some of those…

One of those “goods” is that I’ve started to carry my trusty purple beverage container with me everywhere I go. I’ve taken it with my across the country, across the world. It goes with me to work each day. I realized, especially having my container on the plane, filled with water, on my way to Europe, that I’ve been staying more hydrated. It’s a pain sometime to lug around, but all in all, I like this new habit. My container feels like my quiet, helpful little coffee/water side-kick, and it hasn’t been hard to adopt this new daily ritual of carrying it with me wherever I go.

There are also several food positives that have come out of this no-plastic experiment, many being products I never would have tried if I wasn’t seeking plastic alternatives. I thought I’d give a shout out to a few of those particular edibles that have made my mealtimes a little happier.

First, Rick Bayless salsa. I’ve been eating a ton of it. In particular, I love making omelets, but I’m not a fan of a naked omelet. I really like to have a sauce on top. My go-to omelet-topper used to be a very delicious sun-dried tomato and red pepper spread (that I do miss) but that was packaged in tons of plastic.

photo 5I forced myself to abandon the sun-dried tomato spread, trying many alternatives in jars, and salsa became an easy replacement. The Bayless tomatillo salsa particularly thrills me (I know this sounds hyperbolic, but this salsa literally makes my morning better). I honestly don’t miss the way I used to eat my eggs with the sun-dried tomato spread.

Another happy find has been McCann’s oatmeal. The steel-cut variety pictured here comes in an aluminum tin (that at $9 per tin, is expensive, but lasts me a good month or two) and it is so tasty. When it’s cooked, each bead of oat expands into a quinoa-like grain that is chewy and hearty and satisfying. I feel like I’m having breakfast on a farm in the country when I eat this oatmeal. It lights up my imagination. I feel like I’m writing a commercial here, but I am a little in love with this oatmeal.

photo 1To sweeten it, I’ve started using a ginger honey—a brand called “Sarah’s”—that comes in a glass jar with a metal top. This honey is rad. I’ve also tried the lemon version, and liked that, too.

photo 4One more food item that I’ve come across in my hunt for all that is plastic free is this cheese, Stella’s Fontinella, that comes in a wax wheel. This is literally the only cheese I’ve been able to find that has no plastic packaging. I bought it without knowing anything about what it would taste like, and luckily, it tastes delicious. It does have its downsides: the wheel-sealing causes some of the outside of the cheese to be more subject to mold, and I have to buy the whole darn wheel to get the no plastic benefit (which is 16 ounces), but the cheese is also really cheap. I’ve found it tastes like a mixture between sharp cheddar and parmesan, which I’ve substituted in recipes calling for mozzarella. You’ve gotta give this is try…it’s so tasty!

photo 2 photo 3

Yes, there are many sad things to contemplate about plastic and about committing to hoard it for a year. It’s really, really hard to avoid, and I feel like a chump often trying to insist on no plastic at the deli counter or preemptively asking servers for “no straw, please.” I don’t like how it seems to make people around me feel guilty, and I feel really sad some days after hours considering how little I can actually do to change our society’s standard of using something once and then tossing it away.

But for this week, I’m trying to keep my focus on the positive: the foods I’ve tried because of my new restriction, and habits I’ve picked up that have been natural and, I hope, will stick even after this year is through. Turns out, I do have some reasons to be glad.

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The Plastic Perils of Airplane Travel

Flying over Greenland

Flying over Greenland

On the Flight home from Iceland

On the flight home from Iceland

One of my life’s greatest joys is travel. I love road trips, getting in the car and leaving familiar paths and buildings behind, suddenly finding myself on that open road that quiets miles beyond each city. What I really love, though, is travel that takes me further—to other states and countries and time zones.

Most of this travel involves airplanes.

Since adopting my plastic restriction, air travel has sharpened in my focus. I’ve long heard that flying in an airplane is really environmentally unfriendly, but until this year, I really only considered the CO2 emission problem of it. I didn’t consider the plastic factor.

In the past two months, I traveled by plane to both San Francisco for a friend’s Bachelorette party, and to Iceland for a long-dreamed-of vacation in the land of fire and ice. Truly, if you want to see some of nature’s most strange and awesome natural beauties (like glaciers sitting atop volcanos), you should go to Iceland. But that’s for another blog.

Both of these trips involved flights that were each more than four hours in duration. I realized, when I started to get really hungry on these long hauls, that I’m used to short flights back home to Colorado, flights that don’t offer snacks and sometimes don’t even offer free beverages (I’m looking at you, Frontier). I usually skip the $10 snack and even the complimentary drink because I’m trying to sleep or obsessively playing Candy Crush. Hence, I haven’t paid much attention to the amount of plastic lurking in the beverage cart.

On my longer flights this summer, though, I broke down and got both food and beverage, even though I knew they would probably come in a wealth of packaging, and I was stunned at the amount I encountered.

On the flight to San Fran, I ordered a steak sandwich, thinking it might come wrapped in paper or foil. It did come in a bag that was half paper, but it was also half plastic. The sandwich was actually surprisingly delicious—well done, United!—but I wondered as I chewed and stared at the plastic I’d just purchased why the airline couldn’t use foil. Foil would still keep the sandwich sealed for heating, and foil can be 100% recycled, something airlines could promote to show customers their efforts to be sustainable.

photo 2But this small accumulation of plastic was miniscule compared to what I encountered on my flights to and from Iceland.

I do appreciate that airlines have to make an effort to make passengers comfortable, especially on overnight flights. It’s very nice to have a pillow, a blanket, and as a nice added touch, Delta provided Iceland-bound passengers with a “Sleep Kit” that included earplugs and an eye-mask to block out the fierce neon light of the cabin. I used all of these items to help me (try) to sleep, but all of them, except for the pillow, were enclosed in plastic.

What I find strange is that passengers don’t balk at using a pillow that may have been used by someone before them, one that is “unprotected” and unsealed, but we might feel uncomfortable if we were handed an unwrapped blanket. Or would we? I watched row after row of people on my flight hungrily tear open the plastic around their blankets, and I did the same. With the great demand for a blanket, I couldn’t help but wonder if the plastic was in any way necessary. Surely we could make a collective move to end the saran-sealing of blankets? Surely we’d use the blankets anyway, just as we do the pillows?

The area where I saw the most extreme plastic escalation, though, was at mealtime. On the flight back to Chicago from Reykjavik, passengers were given an over-flowing breakfast tray with a feast that might satisfy a blue whale. Included in this bounty was a huge baguette egg sandwich, a salad with vinagrette dressing on the side, two dinner rolls, butter, cheese and crackers, and cookies. Halfway through the sandwich, I was full.

IMG_1605 IMG_1609

Every single piece of food (including the dinner rolls) and every condiment but the butter, came in a separate plastic container. I actually laughed out loud when I stacked the plastic bounty up on Evan’s tray table to take a picture. Is this really necessary? Can’t we do better? Again, I wondered why the sandwich couldn’t just be handed out in foil or paper—it was just a cold egg sandwich. And the quantity of food—do we need those epic meals on planes? Are any of us expecting that much mediocre food?

Arriving back at O’Hare, I continued contemplating the airline-plastic relationship. Even airports consume plastic alarmingly. I thought about the hundreds of half-drunk bottles of water thrown out before security, the stacks of plastic baggies distributed for compiling three-ounce liquids. The toilets at O’Hare, too, have seats with a rotating plastic sleeve. There’s so much plastic at the airport that is, literally, flushed.

photo 1It’s true that our first environmental concern with aviation is trying to dream up ways to slash carbon emissions. A senior reporter from Ecologist magazine says it powerfully, that airlines “[provide] the biggest easily avoidable source of greenhouse gas emissions in most Western lives” (Anslow 31).

I don’t want to gloss over the importance of this fact, the dire need for energy efficiency with flying. I have to ask myself, though, if airlines continue to seek ways to cut costs and fill every available seat, doesn’t it make sense for them to try to promote sustainability in a variety of areas? Aside from the benefit to our planet, it seems like a good move for their bottom lines.


Anslow, Mark. “CAN FLYING EVER BE GREEN? (Cover Story).” Ecologist 38.6 (2008): 30-36. Environment Complete. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

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How Plastic Is Hurting Whales


In doing some research on how plastic harms marine life, I came across the following quote:

“The ultimate challenge lies in detecting the loss of biodiversity in coastal and marine systems. The last fallen mahogany would lie perceptibly on the landscape, and the last black rhino would be obvious in its loneliness, but a marine species may disappear beneath the waves unobserved and the sea would seem to roll on same as always” (Wilson 45).

These words capture the general conclusion that I’ve seen a lot of scientists make when trying to quantify what plastic is doing to our world’s waters—that is, “we don’t really know the extent of the problem.” I find the words haunting. Our oceans are so vast, so deep, covering the majority of our planet, that exploration of them is extremely tricky; it’s a colossal challenge to study how plastic might be killing those rarer species, such as whales, that are already a mystery to us. How do we ever find out what’s really happening out there?

Many researchers are trying, and in 2013, one team did some intense study of three dead sperm whales found in the waters of Northern California and the Mediterranean. These scientists admit that their sample size is small, and start their paper by saying that while scientists now know a lot about how plastic is affecting birds, sea turtles, fish, and sea otters, “little is known about the impacts of the ingestion of debris in large marine mammals” (de Stephanis et al. 206).

Most of the knowledge we have now shows how plastic is harming larger marine mammals by entangling them and causing outward physical injury. Still precious little research tells us what ingesting debris is doing to whales and other large ocean mammals.

Even though this study admits to being but a glimpse, it is still an important and interesting glimpse.

First, the scientists described what they saw when they dissected two sperm whales recovered from the shores of California. One of the whales had died from ingested plastic that had caused intestinal rupture, but what further surprised and concerned them was what they observed with the second whale. Unlike the first, the second whale looked starved. These scientists found a reservoir of plastic debris inside of the gut of this whale that had blocked its gastric passages. Rather than impaling or exploding its internal passages, the plastic had plugged up those channels, leaving no room for nutritional food to pass through.

The scientists next turned their attention to a second whale they found off the coasts of Spain. This whale also showed no outward signs of being killed by entanglement or impalement, so they suspected its death was related to eating plastic. The whale was also extremely emaciated. When they opened up its stomach, they found a compacted mass of plastics, most being items from greenhouses. In this region of the Mediterranean, greenhouses are widely used to grow vegetables year round, helping keep them affordable even in the winter months. In the case of this whale, most of the plastic he had ingested was from greenhouse materials, which had caused both gastric rupture as well as gastric blockage that had starved him.

Here are some of the plastic items they recovered from this whale’s stomach: two plastic flowerpots, some hose, plastic covering for greenhouses, and plastic mulch. Additional plastic items that didn’t originate from greenhouses were parts of plastic bags, a plastic ice cream tub, and pieces of a mattress. In total, 26 plastic items were recovered from this whale’s stomach (de Stephanis et al. 209-210).

It made me particularly sad to think that one of the things the whale had eaten was a plastic flowerpot. Why this particularly struck me, I’m not quite sure. Something about it seems so mundane, such a simple object to cause demise—an item we use to bring beauty into our homes and nurture small plants ended up being deadly.

What other kinds of simple, seemingly harmless objects do we use every day and not think much about that end up floating in our oceans? I guess the flowerpot makes me more perceptive of just how many such items are out there, silently doing harm to creatures we find reverent and sacred.

Many other articles written by other researchers confirm what these scientists found in 2013: that while it’s hard to perform large-scale studies, isolated findings show that large marine mammals are all eating plastic. An article from this year reported the following about how wide-spread the problem is: “At least 26 species of cetaceans have been documented to ingest plastic debris (Baird and Hooker, 2000). A young male pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) stranded alive in Texas, USA, died in a holding tank 11 days later (Tarpley and Marwitz, 1993). The necropsy showed that the first two stomach compartments were completely occluded by plastic debris (garbage can liner, a bread wrapper, a corn chip bag and two other pieces of plastic sheeting)” (Derraik 845).

It’s so scary to me to think that we can look out at our sparkling, blue waters and be blind to the realities hidden underneath. We continue to seek the full story, but in the vast and mysterious waves, it continues to elude us.


de Stephanis, Renaud, et al. “As Main Meal For Sperm Whales: Plastics Debris.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 69.1/2 (2013): 206-214. Environment Complete. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.

Derraik, José G.B. “The Pollution Of The Marine Environment By Plastic Debris: A Review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44.9 (2002): 842. Environment Complete. Web. 15 Aug. 2015.

Wilson, Edward O., and Frances M. Peter. Biodiversity. Washington, D.C.: National Academy, 1988. Print.

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How plastic bags are hurting turtles

This week, starting on August 1st, Chicago put into effect a citywide ban on plastic bags.

This ordinance affects every chain store in the city that sells “perishable or non-perishable” goods—food, clothes, knick-knacks, etc.—meaning that stores like Jewel-Osco, Target, and Walgreens can no longer give out plastic bags for free. If a customer comes to the store and has forgotten to bring his or her own bag, he or she can buy a reusable bag from the retailer.

Say to goodbye to THESE, Chicago!

Say to goodbye to THESE, Chicago!

Of course, I’m really excited about this ban. It will mean a huge reduction in the number of plastic bags that are produced and constantly given away, and I hope it will mean that people get more used to always carrying a reusable bag with them (this goes for me, too…even in the midst of trying to live plastic-free, I constantly forget to carry along my red re-usable bag!).

Although it seems like this ban is a positive thing, and could make a really large positive environmental impact, there’s already been a lot of negative press about it. I’ve seen headlines from the Chicago Tribune that read “Chicago plastic bag ban will do more harm than good” and “Plastic bag ban causes confusion.” Another reads “Unintended Consequences of a Plastic Bag Ban” and discusses how reusing the same bag might make consumers more at risk for E. coli or salmonella (since many people don’t clean out their reusable bags after transporting meat). Yet another reads “Chicago’s Plastic Bag Ban Could Backfire, Environmentalists Warn” and discusses how retailers are now selling or giving away even thicker plastic bags to customers (marketing them as “reusable”) who forgot to bring their own.

There are downsides to this ban, of course. I do agree with the rationale that banning free plastic bags only to give out thicker ones to those who forgot theirs really isn’t solving the larger problem. On this point, I wish Chicago could follow San Francisco’s lead and actually just give up distributing plastic bags entirely. But overall, even considering the downsides, this seems like a really, really good thing to me. I feel it’s an exciting first step in a more sustainable direction.

But it doesn’t feel like the majority of Chicagoans feel the same way as me. Of course, I can’t expect others to be as gung-ho as I am, after all, I am committing my free time to writing a blog about plastic-free life. But these negative headlines and the general lackluster response from the Chicago populace about this ban made me consider that perhaps we don’t know what the harm of plastic really is. Maybe this subdued, slightly grumpy response is due not so much to apathy as it is to a lack of exposure to environmental information. How often do we hear about the specific ways plastic is causing a problem? Honestly, for me, I think I’ve only learned details of plastic’s harm in doing my own independent investigating. It doesn’t feel like an issue that takes priority in our media. Really, how often are we seeing those headlines?

And yet, there are so many reasons why plastic bags are awful. They are rapidly filling up landfills, they cause pollution as they are produced, they make our oceans and beaches ugly, but most of all, they hurt our animals. This is the sticking point for me. Whether or not we care about how our planet looks, we should give a damn about the creatures who share it with us. And I think we should be told about how these animals are affected.


In a study that was published in March of this year, a team of researchers shared their findings after spending four years combing the coastlines of Brazil, collecting the bodies of hundreds of dead “juvenile” turtles. The researchers were looking for evidence that plastic had played a role in causing the deaths of these young turtles.

The researchers found that not only did the ingestion of plastic contribute to turtle death as they’d expected—and that ingestion rates were rising, which also didn’t surprise them—they also found that a very small amount of plastic was capable of causing mortality.

Here’s what they had to say: “we showed that the ingestion of only a small amount of debris was sufficient to lead a juvenile green turtle to death through the blockage of the digestive tract…An amount as small as 0.5 g blocked the digestive tract of two juvenile turtles… Put in perspective, this amount is approximately one-tenth of a typical plastic bag (4–5 g)” (Santos et al. 39).

Even a miniscule portion of a single plastic bag, less than one gram, had caused the death of a few of the observed turtles. The researchers also found that, while many different types of plastic were lodged in the bellies of the deceased turtles, plastic bag debris appeared to be one of the most prevalent: “plastic bags may represent a large amount of the ingested debris, primarily because most of the non-identifiable flexible plastic, which accounted for 41% of all items, were similar to plastic bags” (Santos et al. 39).

Although perhaps we don’t see the impact of this plastic bag ban directly, and while it probably causes us a little extra headache to have to remember our own reusable bag or clean that bag out so we don’t get salmonella, I count it as a victory for our world’s turtles that we passed it. I wish more headlines would reflect this.

Maybe if a turtle’s image was printed on each plastic bag, we might more effectively spread the word about where many of those bags end up after we toss them away.


Santos, Robson Guimarães, et al. “Debris Ingestion By Juvenile Marine Turtles: An Underestimated Problem.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 93.1/2 (2015): 37-43. Environment Complete. Web. 6 Aug. 2015.

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Experimenting with Deodorant

I am a brand loyalist. I use many of the same products from week to week, year to year, with very little experimentation. If I develop a strong love for a product, I have a very hard time branching out and trying something new when said product is unavailable. More than a decade after Bath and Bodyworks stopped selling them, I’m still mourning the loss of their sparkly brown eye-shadow sticks. I really don’t like change.

So, I was very much not looking forward to having to give up my deodorant for my plastic challenge. My old standby is Mitchum, both a deodorant and anti-perspirant. For at least the past eight years, this has been my deodorant of choice. However, it comes in plastic.

Goodbye, trusty Mitchum

Goodbye, trusty Mitchum

When I took a visit to Lush a month or so back to find some lotion and hair products, I saw a shelf featuring deodorants in bar form. I wasn’t quite ready that day to take the plunge and buy one (and, thankfully, still had at least a couple of weeks worth of Mitchum left in my cupboard at home), but eventually the morning finally came when there was no fooling myself into thinking I could get any more gel out of the empty Mitchum container. So I went back to Lush.

There were two plastic-free varieties available: a patchouli bar, amber in color and sort of like a frozen cube of jelly, and an oval powder bar with a wax seal on the bottom to keep the bar from crumbling. The sales’ lady strongly recommended that I get the patchouli bar and also a dusting powder to apply over it to help keep moisture down, but the dusting powder was of course in plastic, and I didn’t love the smell of the patchouli right off the bat; so I went with option two, the powder bar, officially called T’eo deodorant, which has a citrusy and lavendar-ish smell. The sales’ woman politely asked if I have sensitive skin. I said yes without hesitation, so she looked a little afraid for me when I declared I was buying this powder bar anyway. The T’eo bar, she tried to persuade me, can sometimes irritate underarms, especially for people prone to dry skin. She must have thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to try it anyway.

T'eo Deodorant Bar from Lush

T’eo Deodorant Bar from Lush

The first week of using my new deodorant was very unnerving. As the wise Lush woman had said, after using the T’eo bar two days in a row, I noticed some red bumps under my right arm, and it stung viciously when I grated the powdery, pummus-like bar across my skin. The first five or so days, this continued to be a problem, but after that, my skin seemed to adjust. I realized I was pressing the bar quite aggressively against my armpits at first, believing lots more powder might mean lots less smelliness. But once I learned that I didn’t need to scrape the bar so hard and repetitively on my underarms, the bumps cleared, and I started to consider problem number two—the feeling of sweat.

Because I’ve always used an anti-perspirant, I’m not at all use to a feeling of slickness under my arms. The first day that it reached 90 degrees in Chicago and I was trying this new under-arm regimen, I felt extremely concerned about the sweat building up there. I had to work all afternoon at the store Hazel where I’m a part-time employee, and I tried hard (initially) to resist asking my co-workers to smell me and be honest about their findings. Finally, I couldn’t handle it anymore—the not knowing—and my kind co-worker agreed to give me a scent test. Surprisingly, she said I smelled fine.

In the weeks since, I’ve realized that this new deodorant seems to be working. Yes, I do feel the unpleasantness of wetness sometimes, and the bar is starting to crack a little down the center—it isn’t totally easy to apply and is a little crumbly—but overall, I feel like this experiment has been a successful one.

T'eo bar, a little worn from wear, but still chugging along

T’eo bar, a little worn from wear, but still chugging along

I really like the smell of the bar. I like that this deodorant doesn’t stain my clothes. I like that I’ve broken my addiction to anti-perspirant in using this new product. And particularly, I like that I have found a replacement deodorant that not only avoids plastic, but one that also forced me to go outside of my comfort zone and try something new. Heck, I might even try the patchouli next.

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What Is Plastic?

I always used to think of plastic as a singular material, a transparent cup, for example, or a clear, lightweight bottle. Still, when I hear the word “plastic,” I think of these images rather than picturing the myriad forms that constitute what plastic really is.

photo 1

Styrofoam is plastic. Telephones are plastic. Computer keyboards and insulation, shatterproof glass and garden hoses—they’re also plastic. I read a passage from the Encyclopedia Americana that really surprised me. It said that, in every car, there is more than 100 pounds of plastic (Rosen 216). It’s in the dashboard, the taillights, it encases the battery. Without it, cars would be a lot heavier and a lot more expensive to run.

My challenge to get rid of plastic is really futile, as so much of our modern society is literally built and transported on the back of plastic, but how did it get here?

What is it really?

In a word, plastic is a “polymer,” otherwise known as a long chain of molecules that repeat and repeat, sometimes a million or more times. You might think of a polymer as a necklace with a string of identical beads, stretching far out of sight. That necklace, with the beads all in a line, would be akin to a linear polymer. There are many polymers, such as silk or rubber or even the hair on our heads, that occur naturally on our planet, and then there are the polymers that industry has created, synthetic polymers, and those are the building blocks of plastic.

Polymers each have their own unique structure. If you’ve ever noticed the numbers on the bottom of recyclable plastic containers, the ones with a triangle and a #1-7 on it, you are actually looking at the type of polymer that makes up the material you are holding.

For example, the recyclable plastic with the symbol #1 on it is the polymer called polyethylene terephthalate, otherwise known as PET. Here’s a chart from the Encyclopedia Britannica showing the main recyclable plastics (starting with number 1 and going through number six, though it’s a little hard to read) with their respective polymer type listed. You’ll notice that most of these plastics (the ones that can be recycled) consist of a polymer made with ethylene.

photo 2

In a future post, I plan to delve a little deeper into each of these different types of recyclable plastic to find out which is the most environmentally friendly. But for now, back to the actual making of plastic…

So, polymers are the basic components of plastic, and to make these various synthetic polymers, we need petroleum. Almost every plastic in existence is a byproduct of crude oil.

The process starts with oil refining. Petroleum is super-heated in a conductor until the various gases in the petroleum start to separate into layers. Those that are lighter float to the top and are collected for plastic production. These lighter gases, which consist of carbon molecules, also known as monomers, are then chemically manipulated to link up and form different kinds of polymers.

The following photo, also from the Encyclopedia Britannica, shows how ethylene gas is processed to create a dry polymer:

photo 3

Once we have these polymers, sometimes in the form of a pellet, powder, or flake, we are able to melt or shape them to become the various kinds of plastic we use and recognize. But before they are molded into a finished product, polymers are almost always mixed with other materials. Additives make plastic more flexible, or more fire resistant, or even longer lasting.

After the various additives have been combined with the base polymers, then the plastic is finally shaped: it’s blown into bottles or flattened into sheets, it’s even puffed up into foam, hence, Styrofoam.

This is the process in a nutshell.

What really stayed with me after learning the step-by-step process of plastic manufacturing was thinking about those additives. Often, the additives in plastic are the reason plastic is so hard to destroy. Certain flame retardants or other “stabilizers,” for example, work to do exactly what, in the long term, becomes plastic’s major problem: they try to keep plastics from breaking down naturally. They intentionally try to make plastic live forever.

Plastic already resists environmental degradation. Polymers are unique in their inherent strength. But we don’t manufacture plastic that could be more susceptible to breaking down. Here’s a passage from the Encyclopedia Americana illuminating plastic’s resilience and why we actually like it that way:

“Plastics present a potential environmental problem because…plastics are not normally degraded by environmental processes…It is possible to build certain linkages into the chains of most common plastics and to make these linkages break on exposure to sunlight. The material then degrades to a powder that becomes part of the soil or is more readily broken down by microbes. So far the problems with this approach have been the cost and keeping plastics from degrading on supermarket shelves” (Rosen 218).

If we started to reduce additives that extend the life of plastics, or if we developed plastic that was purposefully subject to environmental decay, then plastic would start to lose some of its inherent appeal—it would leak or disintegrate. Our car might fall apart.

It’s an interesting conundrum that we’ve become so dependent on a material that we intentionally manipulate so that it lasts for a lifetime, but then don’t think about what that means for the health of our planet after our finite time here expires.

At the time that this Encyclopedia Americana article was published, the United States alone produced about 23 billion pounds of plastic on an annual basis (Rosen 216). This from a volume published in 2006. I can only imagine how, in ten years’ time, that figure has grown.


“Industrial Polymers.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia. 15th ed. Vol. 21. N.p.: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007. Print.

Rosen, Stephen L. “Plastic.” Encyclopedia Americana. International ed. Vol. 22. Danbury, CT: Scholastic Library Pub., 2006. 216-19. Print.

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