13 January 2011

How to break the plastic habit in 5 sensible steps

1) Think About What Plastic Is Doing To Our Environment.

No, really...before you quickly jump to the rest of the steps in this article, please allow this to statement to really sink in your brain for a moment. Plastic has migrated from our homes, stores and factories into several enormous ocean bound 'islands' of trash far far away from our normal stomping grounds. These tangled chunky piles of our non-biodegradable waste continually get churned and pulverized into a stew of toxic oblivion that marine life end up dining on before meeting a rather awful fate. Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t cut it anymore.

The idea of things being interconnected is entirely relevant here. Even if for some odd reason your heart doesn’t feel empathetic toward the plight of innocent creatures consuming our unwanted crap, the old adage “you are what you eat” definitely comes into play. If they’re eating plastic, we’re also ultimately eating plastic and the unsavory chemicals utilized in the manufacturing process.

Marine creatures supping on plastic and the connection to our health is bad enough, but there’s also the massive pollution to contend with. In recent years, scientists have determined that rigid polycarbonate plastics continually leach endocrine-disrupting Bisphenol A and other detrimental chemicals into the entire marine ecosystem. Of 200+ sample sites they tested, all were found to be contaminated with the dangerous compounds in the 50 parts per million range, which doesn't bode well for sea life. Who knows how such pervasive chemicals will affect current rates of ocean acidification or potentially alter our weather patterns/accelerate global warming, but why are we tempting fate?

2) Think About What Plastic Is Doing To Our Bodies.

Tumbling out of countless American cupboards are more plastic storage containers than any of us will probably ever be able to use at one time. Nevertheless, we still hang onto them in the event of a serious 'leftover' windfall…or…well, just because. They’ve always seemed so perfectly practical, but each time we microwave the food stored within, we’re unleashing the detrimental powers of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that disrupts the endocrine system, mimics estrogen and triggers changes in the human body at the cellular level. If you're skeptical about the potential harm, bear in mind that the FDA acknowledges that BPA can compromise the health of the brain and prostate gland among other vital organs.

In light of the widespread acceptance of plastic -- not just for personal food storage but also throughout the grocery, fast food and restaurant industries -- it's not surprising that the notorious chemical has been found lurking within the bodies of 93% Americans who submitted to testing by the Centers For Disease Control.

Even plastics that are marketed as being microwave safe have proven to release BPA into food, and while there are a whole new generation of versions that purport to be BPA-free, what about all of the other chemicals in them? Are you willing to take any more chances?

From cardiovascular system damage to reproductive system abnormalities, adult-onset diabetes and cancer, it behooves every single one of us to avoid plastic-derived BPA exposure on a consistent basis in order to protect our health. Kicking all other forms of plastic to the recycling curb might be precisely what the doctor ordered just to play it safe.

3) Steer Clear Of Processed Foods & Stop Purchasing Items Wrapped In Plastic.

While many of us find it challenging to prepare a home-cooked meal with our schedules as busy as they are, nothing about “instant gratification” is doing our society any good. Pre-made convenience foods enable us to eat almost instantly, but the major drawback is that most of them are packaged in some sort of plastic based container. Frozen items typically come in plastic trays or plastic bags, shelf-stable veggies/fruit/soup and other long-life goods are generally available in epoxy resin-lined (a.k.a. BPA leaching) aluminum or steel containers and various additional products are sold in rigid polycarbonate or #7 plastic containers.

Instead, try conducting a “no plastic” experiment the next time you go grocery shopping. You’ll begin to realize just how inundated our society is with plastic once you focus on trying to avoid it altogether. No, it’s not going to be easy, but it is possible. Shopping at natural grocery stores can be one step in the right direction as well as frequenting CSAs and farmer’s markets. Ask yourself if you really need tea bags wrapped with an outer layer of cellophane, or will the loose variety work just as well? Ditto for countless other products lining the shelves of our grocery stores. Frankly, buying the majority of your household necessities in bulk (from cereal and other grains to produce and nuts) will be far more cost-effective, planet-friendly and healthier, plus you won’t have extraneous packaging to contend with. Just remember to bring your own drawstring-topped reusable cloth bags with you to the market when you size up the produce and dry goods. If you don't want to spend beaucoup bucks on manufactured versions, they can be easily DIYed by repurposing old duds from your closet, mesh fabric or seen-better-days curtains.

4) Shift Over To Alternative Storage Materials.

What did our society do before we had access to the miraculous, lightweight convenience of plastic? Crazy as it sounds, we covered our leftovers with inverted dinner dishes, used tempered glass storage containers and even wrapped sandwiches in – gasp – pieces of old newspaper. These materials are still readily available…we just have to get back into the habit of using them again.

Just as we've all been getting accustomed to consistently toting reusable shopping bags, we can also break free of the cellophane and zip top bag habit with a little practice. First step: stop buying them. Second step: purchase or create homemade fabric alternatives using recycled household materials. Third step: never look back. The most obvious benefit is that your waste stream will be significantly reduced and you’ll be able to feel confident that you are no longer contributing to the growth of our global waste. The not-so-obvious benefit? Major budget savings.

5) When All Else Fails, As Yourself One Simple Question.

Before you bring any new item into your household, perhaps you should make a habit of asking yourself: “How long will this last in the environment once I throw it away?” Typical PET plastic bottles are believed to take as many as 500 - 1000 years to fully decompose once they’re landfill-bound, but what about other rigid plastic consumer items like discarded toothbrushes, and disposable razors as well as CDs, children’s toys, empty prescription bottles and beverage caps? These items degrade incredibly slowly, some scientists theorizing that they could persist for hundreds or even thousands of years without the necessary decompositional elements of sun, air and hungry microbes.

Why add to the billion tons of plastic already languishing in our nation’s landfills and global oceans when you can make a conscious effort to use an environmentally responsible version, instead? It's one small effort that can make a tremendously positive impact on one's personal health as well as on the big picture -- that of wildlife and planetary ecosystems. Yes...it matters. Do it for yourself. Do it for the planet. Whatever your personal motivation, just do it and never look back.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/ljb