Recently, my family gave me a wonderful birthday gift of a zero waste meal. At least it was zero waste for us. There was certainly some waste from the processing of the food before it got to us. But, we deposited nothing into the trash from the meal, which was a great feeling.
There was a time when I thought the world would be saved because we could send plastic, metal, glass and paper off to be recycled. It felt good to take these items to a recycling center as opposed to the landfill. But it turns out that there is an enormous cost to recycling. Let’s consider plastic. So much of our products come packaged in plastic, which varies greatly in its chemical makeup. For that reason, recycling it is complicated. It must be sorted, packed into big cubes and shipped to a country that wants it. It then must be melted, a process that produces noxious fumes, and formed into pellets for resale to manufacturers. Oil companies, which produce the chemicals for making plastic, make it difficult to recycle plastic. They don’t make money if we recycle plastic, they make money selling us the raw material to make new plastic. So only a small proportion of the plastic produced can be recycled. And it can only be recycled once. Sadly, plastic production has skyrocketed and ends up in our oceans, rivers, streams and even our drinking water. It never breaks down entirely, it just gets smaller. But is it possible to live without plastic? The answer brings me back to the topic of this blog post.
One day I announced to my family that I was planning to try to live plastic free for a month. The first step was to define what this meant. Did I just put off purchasing items in plastic for a month? Would I forfeit the use of all plastic, including my plastic glasses? After much discussion, I decided that I would attempt to produce no new plastic waste for the month. I would try to throw no plastic in the garbage or recycling container. I made my own produce bags and always had reusable bags when I went into any store. I thought I’d be scoffed at, but department store clerks actually admired my homemade garment bags. In the end though I was unsuccessful. Too much of what I needed came in plastic. For example, I used up a tube of toothpaste and had to purchase a new one. Although I was able to reduce my plastic use, I could not eliminate it.
Some months later, my ever sympathetic family took my effort to heart decided to honor me with a zero waste birthday dinner. They brought their own container to the fish counter at the local grocery store and the clerk gladly placed the fish in it instead of a plastic bag. They used our homemade produce bags to buy vegetables and fruit. The peels and cores went into our compost. They made a chocolate cake from scratch, so no waste there. It was one of my best birthday gifts. I was very proud of my family. And relieved to discover that it is possible to eat a meal with zero waste. Since then, we’ve discovered that restaurants don’t mind if you bring your own refrigerator dishes for leftovers. You don’t end up with a bunch of unwanted plastic containers, and they save money. The trick is remembering to bring them.
Our world is plagued with too much plastic. Much of the blame for this lies with the oil companies that make plastic. Proposed legislation puts the burden of cost of plastic pollution onto the producers of the plastic, but that’s probably a long way off. Some of the blame is on us, the consumers of all that plastic. While I don’t relish the idea of going back to glass shampoo bottles, I’m happy to bring my own containers to the grocery store and restaurants. And if anyone needs a reusable bag, let me know. They seem to have multiplied in my house.
by Vicky Kelly