Author shares her tips to reduce plastic use
or five years, Beth Terry has been obsessed with living a plastic-free life. The popular blogger and author of “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too,” said during a phone interview from her home in Oakland that her unusual new lifestyle is fun and creative.
For instance, when she needed foam pads for her headphones, she didn’t buy new ones. She couldn’t. They’re made from synthetic materials.
“I crocheted replacement ear pads. Now, you could call that fanatical, or just a crafty project. People do all sorts of things for enjoyment. I thought it was fun,” Terry said with a laugh.
Refusing to buy deodorant in plastic packaging, she applies baking soda to her armpits after she showers.
“For me, baking soda with a few drops of tea tree oil in it works better than any deodorant I’ve ever tried,” she said.
She used to be like most of us, buying whatever she wanted and needed, without thinking about plastic.
Maybe you’ve been cutting down on plastic by taking reusable bags to the store, and carrying a refillable bottle instead of buying bottles of water.
Terry wants to help you reduce your plastic footprint even more. Her goal is to cut down on environmental problems caused by plastics, especially ocean pollution and potential human health issues.
For Terry, that involves getting rid of as much plastic as possible and not buying more, even if it means depriving herself of favorite things, like frozen, microwaveable meals.
“That was the hardest thing to give up in the beginning, because that was what I was used to living on, and I really, really, really searched for frozen meals that didn’t come with plastic packaging, and there aren’t any,” Terry said.
The upside of a no-plastic life for Terry and her husband, Michael, is more home cooking and new discoveries, like homemade yogurt, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, pesto, and her favorite, chocolate syrup. She makes them all to avoid buying the brands packaged in plastic bottles.
“Homemade chocolate syrup tastes so good and is so easy to make. It lasts a long time in the refrigerator, too,” she said.
Terry used to generate about 100 pounds of plastic waste per year from her purchases, like the average American.
That stopped abruptly in 2007 when she was homebound, recovering from surgery. Terry saw a disturbing photo that changed her life.
It showed the body of a Laysan albatross in a magazine article titled, “Our Oceans Are Turning to Plastic … Are We?”
The dead bird she saw in the photo had nested on Midway Island in a remote area in the Pacific Ocean.
“The flesh of this particular bird — a chick! — had fallen away to reveal a rib cage filled with plastic bottle caps, disposable cigarette lighters, even a toothbrush — small pieces of plastic that had no business out there in the middle of nowhere,” Terry writes in “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012).
Albatross mothers think small pieces of plastic floating in the ocean are food, and feed it to their chicks.
“Huge numbers of baby albatrosses die of starvation each year, their bellies full of the dross of civilization — the stuff that you and I throw away casually every day. And while the body of the bird will finally disintegrate and return to the earth, the plastic that killed it will linger on in the environment, never biodegrading, available once again to be eaten by future birds, so that the deadly cycle would continue,” Terry writes.
She changed her life immediately, using up what she had that was in plastic — food, personal care and cleaning products — and resolved to not buy more, if possible. She felt recycling was problematic. Just because a plastic item has a triangle or number on it doesn’t mean it will be recycled. “Plastic packaging is usually down-cycled into secondary products (like fleece or carpet) that are rarely recycled themselves,” and there are economic limitations and environmental problems associated with recycling, Terry explains in her book.
She learned how to fix broken appliances and furniture instead of automatically buying new ones.
Her dad helped her repair a broken hair dryer, and she found someone on Craigslist to help fix a burned-out rice cooker.
“He tested circuits and figured out what needed to be replaced. Amazing. Things like that make me feel self-sufficient and self-confident,” she said.
Terry, 47, is a part-time accountant, so she likes to count things and create spreadsheets. She now collects and weighs her plastic trash each year. In 2010 and 2011, she generated only 2.11 pounds of plastic annually.
Terry knows that she’s eccentric. She knows that most people will take a few of her ideas and run with them, but not go on the anti-plastic marathon that she has committed to, and that’s OK with her.
“I work three days a week, so I have more time than most people to look into this, and I use myself as an example to show what’s possible. I love doing the research so that other people with less time don’t have to,” Terry told us.
Even Terry’s husband isn’t fully on board with his wife’s plastic-free life.
“Michael does his own thing. He’s reduced his plastics significantly, but I don’t nag him, and I don’t boss him around.
“He’s taken charge of the recycling program at the law firm where he works, and has been instrumental in encouraging them to stop buying bottled water. Instead, they installed a filtration system, and bought everyone Kleen Kanteens (BPA-free metal bottles). They give their clients glasses and pitchers of water, which is nicer anyway,” Terry said.
Terry’s website (www.myplasticfreelife.com) and book are guides to greener living that include resources for plastic-free household items like glass straws, stainless steel and glass food storage containers, as well as school and office supplies. Terry also emphasizes how small, personal changes can make a difference.
“A lot of this is about examining your values, figuring out what’s important to you and what isn’t. It’s really empowering. A woman told me she went to a food court in a mall and brought her own plate and silverware. They served her food on her own plate. She said she felt so good, eating on a real plate,” Terry said.
Terry has moved beyond personal change to involvement in larger projects.
She spearheaded a campaign to pressure Brita water filters to offer filter cartridge recycling like it does in Europe. It was a success, and consumers no longer have to throw Brita filters in the trash. (See
Plastic is everywhere, but Terry is showing the way to live with less of it, and exploring why that may be a much healthier choice for people, animals and the planet.
In the meantime, she said she’s not spending every minute of her life obsessing about plastic.
“I seem to have this ability to compartmentalize, so I’m still able to have fun. If I were constantly seeing plastic everywhere and stressing about it, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy life. For instance, I love amusement parks. There’s tons of plastic everywhere, and I see it and think about what I can do about it, but I bring my own mug and containers, and I still have fun,” Terry said.
Ways to reduce plastic waste
• Carry reusable shopping bags.
• Give up bottled water. Get a reusable stainless steel bottle or travel mug.
• Don’t use plastic produce bags since you’ll wash the fruits and veggies at home.
• Buy from bulk bins. Bring your own reusable bags and containers.
• Carry your own containers for take-out food and leftovers.
• Carry reusable utensils and glass drinking straws so you’ll be ready if the restaurant you eat in only has plastic.
• Bring a plate, bowl, glass and utensils to keep at the office.
• For food storage at home, choose glass or stainless steel containers, and reuse glass jars. Store leftovers in bowls with a saucer on top instead of plastic wrap.
• Use natural cleaning cloths and scrubbers instead of plastic scrubbers and synthetic sponges.
• Use bar soap instead of liquid hand soap.
— Source: “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too,” Skyhorse Publishing, 2012, and www.plasticfreeguide.com for 85-plus more ideas from Beth Terry for reducing plastic use and waste.
Homemade Chocolate Syrup
1 C unsweetened cocoa powder (bulk bin)
1 C brown sugar (bulk bin)
1 C raw sugar (bulk bin)
¼ tsp salt (bulk bin or cardboard container)
1 C cold water (tap)
1 TBS vanilla (glass bottle)
Combine cocoa and sugar in a saucepan and blend until all lumps of cocoa are gone. Add water and salt and mix well. Cook over medium heat, bringing to a boil, stirring constantly. Make sure there are no lumps. Continue stirring on the stove for a couple more minutes, being careful not to let the sauce burn on the bottom of the pan. The sauce should still be fairly runny. Remove from heat and let cool. The sauce will thicken as it cools. Add the vanilla. We store our chocolate syrup in a small ceramic pitcher in the refrigerator.
Note: This is syrup, not fudge sauce, and it will not be as thick as fudge sauce. It’s great for chocolate milk, hot cocoa, and topping ice cream and cake.
— From “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too,” by Beth Terry, Skyhorse Publishing, 2012