Most every night after crawling into bed, we read before sleeping. Usually I read books about farming and Rog reads fiction, but currently we are both reading disturbing environmental books. Rog is reading The World Without Us
, by Alan Weisman, which describes how the earth would transform if all human beings were to just disappear suddenly.
Last night he interrupted my book to read aloud from Chapter 10, about plastic in the oceans
. You may have gathered that both us of us are pretty environmentally conscious. That is one reason we moved to a little farm - to grow our own food and learn about permaculture. We recycle, we invest in renewable energy and energy conservation, we compost, we reuse and repurpose as much as possible and acquire most of our stuff used. We knew something about the issues of plastics in the ocean, but these facts were astounding to us:
a. The raft of plastic refuse in the pacific Ocean where so much plastic ultimately ends up is 10 million square miles in size - almost the size of the continent of Africa! Well, that was in 2005 - it is certainly even bigger now.
b. Although some plastic (about 8 million pounds/year) is dumped as waste at sea, 80% of what ends up in the ocean originates from land-based disposal and litter. The wind blows and rivers sweep plastic bottles, bags, wrappers and other waste into the ocean.
c. The incredible raft of plastic garbage garbage containing plastic cups, sandwich bags, fishing line , etc, is just the surface of the problem. The wave action of the sea continually breaks the plastic down into smaller and smaller particles, but they don't degrade- they are still plastic. In 1998, water samples were taken for sampling krill, the microscopic food of baleen whales, and they found six times more plastic by weight than plankton. I can't help but imagine trying to subsist on bowls of oatmeal, where for every oat there were six flakes of plastic.
It is almost incomprehensible to think that in 50 years since plastic entered our culture, humans could have done this to the ocean. Compound that with the dead zone from agricultural runoff, ocean temperatures rising from climate change, loss of fisheries from overfishing, and the bleaching of coral reefs, and it is overwhelming and heartbreaking. Perhaps the actions of one individual can't make a significant difference, but it was all the unwitting actions of individuals that got us to this point. One you realize you are on the wrong path, you need to make a correction.
We have decided to try to eliminate plastic from our lives. We already do some things to avoid plastic: we frequently use reusable bags shopping (we will definitely improve on remembering now!) and request paper bags when we don't have one. We purchase most of our staples in bulk from the co-op and try to avoid plastic packaging and disposable items. We recycle all the plastic that we can.
So, this morning I took my camera around the house to find out where we are using plastic the most.
Unsurprisingly, it looks like our areas of greatest plastic use are the bathroom and kitchen. Cleaning products, shampoo and bath products, medications, and toothbrushes all create plastic waste. I must admit, I hesitate to give up plastic containers in the bathroom, where metal rusts and broken glass in the shower is hazardous. For a long time I have been intending to make my own safe cleaning products - perhaps now is the time and I can reuse these containers.
This is the embarrassing jumble of plastic containers in the bottom drawer of the kitchen cabinets. We do so much baking (esp. for Farmers Market) that we use a lot of plastic storage containers for grains, seeds, sourdough starter, as well as leftovers. We make our own yogurt when the cow is giving milk, but how can you purchase yogurt or cottage cheese other than in plastic? How did they supply it before plastic was invented? (Oh, I remember waxed paper cartons-- now they would be plastic-coated.) We do reuse such containers for many purposes around the farm (seed-starting, parts storage, chicken feeding, berry-collecting) and ultimately recycle the recyclable ones. Hmm, I guess this means no more bottling our honey in those cute little plastic bears.
With three cats, we have three of these. Plus a large number of buckets and tubs in all sizes for animal watering and feeding and washing stuff. Can't do without a litter box, but when I was a kid we cut down cardboard boxes for litter boxes, which were discarded when they got disgusting. However, our three plastic litter boxes will probably last us our entire lives, so we should use them rather than throw them out. Our 2.5- and 5-gallon buckets came from the co-op and grocery store and are all re-used and well-used.
I didn't find much plastic decor in our house - I am more susceptible to vintage ceramics and wood. But having recently reupholstered a sofa and chairs, it is apparent to me how much plastic goes into furniture upholstery (foam cushions, padding, textiles...) Even though I tried to do good for the environment by reupholstering old furniture, I used new polyester fiberfill to wrap the cushions.
Gardening can be fraught with plastic. This year I am investing in a soil blocker and will not need to use pots to start my seeds. I can reuse the trays collected from years past buying plant a starts.
Toys and tools. These are my bodywork tools (foam roller, Back Buddy and ball) that would be pretty hard to give up. But there are a myriad other tools, too - plastic-handled screwdrivers and paintbrushes, power tools with plastic casings. Some of these could probably be found with wood handles if we ever need to replace them. And then there is all that plastic in our most beloved tools: computers and camera. We are past the toy stage, other than a few games and a couple of Barbie dolls I still have from my childhood, but if you walk through the toy section of a discount store, yikes! So much plastic, from tiny Legos to huge outdoor play structures. And then just think of all the toys children have that never even get played with!
My 3-year-old warm, indestructible, impermeable, Muck boots made with neoprene and other mysterious synthetic compounds. What could ever replace them? Farmers wore leather work boots in the past, but surely they couldn't have lasted through what these boots survive gracefully and comfortably, could they?
My heart sort of skipped a beat when I realized that if we were going to give up plastics, that would mean giving up painting with acrylics. I am an artist who paints in acrylics. But I am not Picasso; my artwork is certainly not of the caliber that it should persist into eternity like acrylics will. Have to contemplate going to watercolors or some other medium...
This is one of the windows in my office, which like all the other windows on our house, is covered with plastic film for the winter to reduce heating costs. It makes a tremendous difference in comfort, allowing us to reduce the thermostat, and significant difference in fuel use. Until we can afford to replace the windows in this old house, is it worse to use plastic on the windows or burn more fossil fuel?
Our high tunnel greenhouse, covered in two layers of plastic, is a similar issue to the window film. We are still harvesting greens in January from it - but does growing locally year-round for ourselves and a few other families, avoiding the transportation and packaging our vegetables would otherwise require, balance out that expanse of plastic in terms of environmental impact?
It isn't going to be easy or always clear-cut, but we are going to make a serious effort to avoid plastics altogether, find good alternatives, make mindful decisions, and reuse and recycle any plastics that do come into our lives. I'll keep you posted.
P.S. if you haven't seen it, check out the movie No Impact Man