Plastic Challenge

Living the Plastic Challenge

Janice Cook Knight writes about the results of the Plastic Challenge.

Can we live without plastics? It wouldn’t be easy, as plastic is everywhere. Computers and keyboards, automobiles, telephones, printers, fans, light switches, video and audio equipment, clothing zippers—all of these things and much, much more contain plastics.

Our kitchens are full of plastic, too: storage boxes, like Tupperware and many other containers; the glides on our kitchen drawers; some dishes, measuring cups, picnic supplies, food wraps; plus the many containers we bring home from the grocery to hold our fresh food. Plastic is obviously very convenient, which is why we use so much of it.

During the month of October I decided to reduce my plastic usage by choosing dairy products that came in glass if possible, buying cheeses freshly cut and wrapped in what I hoped was biodegradable paper. I brought my own bags to the market, including cotton and nylon string bags for produce and bulk-bin items. I bought a few items that came in recyclable plastic containers. I had two concerns: to reduce my plastic use in general, and to be aware of and avoid, if possible, buying plastics that could not be recycled at all, because I know that these are just going to the landfill.

I was successful on some counts, and not so much on others. I do most of the shopping for our house, so other family members were forced to play along. The good news: We generated a lot less trash than usual and a lot less recycling, and most of what we recycled was glass and cardboard. Our “trash” container was hardly ever full.

Now, part of the reason the trash was so light was because I saved all the plastic and other containers we used that could not be recycled. I ended up with two big shopping bags full. These were mostly items that were already in the house before October—things like ice cream containers (cardboard but plastic coated), the wrappers around frozen sausages, and plasticized foil bags that crackers or chips come in.

I did buy a few things that I knew I couldn’t recycle. I buy local meats at the farmers market, and they come vacuum-sealed in thick plastic that is not recyclable. It was either that or buy meat that wasn’t local and had traveled a great distance. I also forgot a couple of times and bought things in plasticized foil—chips and cheese puffs! Thank goodness dark chocolate is still wrapped in recyclable paper and foil.

Here are five easy things you can do to reduce plastic waste:

  1. Bring your own bags to the grocery store: Cloth, paper, even used plastic and paper bags you have around the house. Buy some of those nylon net bags (many grocery stores have them). They work very well for produce and many bulk-bin items, and are easy to clean and durable. Or reuse the free plastic bags from the produce department. I have some cotton net bags too—they’re good for storing firm things like apples, but they absorb moisture and become moldy so aren’t great for lettuce or softer produce. When your plastic shopping and produce bags are too old and torn to reuse, take them (clean) back to the grocery store, where they will be recycled into plastic decking and other products. Only 5% of these bags get recycled, so just doing this would be a great way of reducing waste and keeping our oceans and landscapes free of plastic.

  2. Bring your own containers: One day, knowing I would be stopping at the harbor to buy fish, I brought my own container and a small ice chest with me. The Santa Barbara Fish Market put my salmon into my own reusable plastic container and shoveled a little ice into the chest to keep it cold. Easy. I also bring plastic containers to the farmers market and transfer berries into them immediately at purchase. The farmers get to reuse their own baskets, and my berries arrive home unscathed (those that I don’t eat immediately, that is!)

  3. Buy less packaged food, especially junk food. We don’t really need to eat as much junk food as we do, and junk food is almost always packaged in nonrecyclable containers.

  4. Don’t buy zipper-lock bags. They’re convenient, but they are not recyclable or compostable. We tend to use them for a single time only. Grandma didn’t have them and somehow she made it through the day. Instead store foods (like sandwiches or leftovers) in glass or steel or plastic containers that can be reused many, many times.

  5. Don’t buy water in plastic bottles. Filter your drinking water at home and fill up stainless steel containers when you need to take water to go. Yes, plastic bottles are recyclable, but again, it’s a waste of energy to keep manufacturing and transporting something we don’t really need.

I find it alarming that so many containers we use still can’t be recycled. What I’m dreaming of is a city-sponsored residential “food scrap” bin alongside my recycling can, like those used at many Santa Barbara restaurants. These compost bins will take a lot of things that can’t be recycled, like pizza boxes, waxed cardboard, tissues and paper towels, compostable “plastic” bags or bio bags. The way they compost the stuff gets it really hot, and so it is much faster than the composting I can do at home. This program may be several years away, but I wish it would come sooner.

Nature finds a way to reuse everything. The more we can design like nature, the better off we will be. Until then, shopping and eating more thoughtfully can really help to reduce plastic waste.


Pardon Me While I RegressLet’s Put Plastic in Its Place

Janice Cook Knight introduces the Plastic Challenge.

First I learned to eat “health food.” Next I learned to eat “organic” health food. After that I learned to eat healthy organic food that was also “locally grown.” 
It might sound like progress, but actually, if we turned back the clock about 70 years, we’d find that only a couple of generations ago nearly all of our food was “healthy,” “organically grown” and “local.” And, let me add, not wrapped in a whole lot of plastic! 

Which brings me to the next new idea-that’s really an old idea: How about taking the Plastic Challenge? 
What if we (you and I) used as little plastic as possible for one whole month?
It’ll be like going on a diet, only we won’t be the only ones to benefit. The ocean, the air, the soil, the burgeoning landfills, the birds, the fish, will thank us for not contributing to the waste and plastic pollution problem. 
Why target plastic? Because most of the 100 billion plastic bottles produced in a year don’t end up recycled, though they could be, and 95% of the plastic grocery bags produced each year don’t get recycled either. Both are made from petroleum, which is costly in ways that can barely be measured in dollars, and both end up in landfills or in the ocean. 
I think it’s time to make some new old-fashioned habits, and a month of paying attention to the plastic in my life is going to be really interesting. If Grandma did without it, so can I.

Janice Cook Knight is the author of Follow Your Heart’s Vegetarian Soup Cookbook and The Follow Your Heart Cookbook: Recipes from the Vegetarian Restaurant. She has taught cooking for over 25 years, and currently teaches a cookbook-writing workshop. She lives in Santa Barbara with her family.


The Plastic Challenge
No New Plastic Products!

During the month of October I will…
  • Bring my own bags to the store. (If I forget, I could wheel the un-bagged groceries, after paying, to the trunk of my car and unload them there. Bet I’ll remember next time.) Bring reusable cotton or nylon net bags to the grocery or farmers market for bagging produce and some bulk bin items, or re-use plastic or paper bags I already have.
  • Carry a non-plastic to-go cup in the car in case I need to stop for coffee or tea.
  • Carry a reusable, non-plastic water bottle. Avoid buying water and all other beverages in plastic bottles.
  • Refuse all polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers, which are not recyclable in our community.
  • Buy dairy products in returnable glass bottles if possible. 
  • If I must buy in cartons, compost the cartons in my yard. Buy and use products that are compostable-and then compost them. All sorts of paper products, even wax paper and deli paper, can be composted. Avoid products packaged in plastic that is not recyclable in our community. In Santa Barbara this includes those heavy plastic bags, Ziploc or not, that nuts, seeds, dried fruits, granola, cookies, meat, cheese, etc. are often wrapped in. Buy from bulk bins instead and bring my own bags to use at the bins. Avoid using plastic wrap at home, such as Saran, or buying food in plastic wrap. (Don’t buy products such as cheese that come in plastic wrap. Ask the deli to cut you a piece of cheese and put it in a recyclable container or wrap it in deli paper that you can then compost).
  • Use non-plastic food storage containers: glass, stainless steel, ceramic, silicone. 
  • Buy things in non-plastic packaging whenever possible. If I need something that only comes in plastic, then I will choose reusable or recyclable containers. I will reuse the containers and recycle them when I can no longer reuse them. 
  • Take back any plastic bread bags, produce bags, grocery bags or newspaper bags that I end up with to a grocery store for recycling. 

The month-long challenge is designed to build awareness. Please visit The Plastic Challenge Google Group for more information about how you can eliminate or decrease the amount of plastic in your life for the month of October and beyond.

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