Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Drastic Plastic Project

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


Allison at Novice Life said...

Wow Kudos to you! I try to repurpose plastic conatiners whenever I can and just recently switched over to all homemade cleaning products.

Joanna said...

Good for you for going the distance to really look at use of plastic. It's just awful to think of that island of plastic floating in the ocean. We can all do a little bit to make a difference. What else is there to do but our own little part?

Jocelyn said...

That is just completely disturbing-the plastic in the ocean, I mean, not the plastic in your house. We've got plastic here, too, and I don't know how to get away from it. I just finished "The Story of Stuff", the book, not the movie. It was disturbing to hear about how many resources go into the things we throw away (or recycle). Also very disturbing.

Jane @ Hard Work Homestead said...

Ugh. I try to avoid plastic when ever I can and do not bring new into the house. Any plastic I already have I try to keep re-using for something else. But it is such a losing global battle. I just found out that they are trying to open up a factory in my area to use the dangerous chemicals they use in fracking for natural gas, to make some kind of plastic. Doesn't that sound great. Ugh.

katiegirl said...

It's so eye opening when you really start looking around the house to see how much plastic we use!

And thank you for the lip balm!! I love it, and I love the label on it!!

gz said...

and look at what our computers are made of too

Susan said...

It hasn't even been a week and we are already having some challenges avoiding plastic. Cracker boxes have an inner plastic bag. Unless you buy cheese in a huge waxed wheel it is in plastic.

Regarding that continent-sized raft of plastic in the Pacific? Rog wanted me to clarify that it is just one of 6 such plastic depositories in the ocean.

Jane, I heard about that fracking story on NPR last week. So alarming.

Katiegirl - glad you are enjoying my lip balm. Now I have to find a non-plastic lip tube!!

Susan said...

My daughter sent this pertinent link with images of the plastic in the ocean and the impact on birds and other wildlife.
I cannot believe how we humans treat our home.