Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New plastic invented

Announced today in the international journal Science, the new plastic membrane allows carbon dioxide and other small molecules to move through its hourglass-shaped pores while preventing the movement of larger molecules like methane. Separating carbon dioxide from methane is important in natural gas processing and gas recovery from landfill.

“This plastic will help solve problems of small molecule separation, whether related to clean coal technology, separating greenhouse gases, increasing the energy efficiency of water purification, or producing and delivering energy from hydrogen,” Dr Anita Hill of CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering said.

“The ability of the new plastic to separate small molecules surpasses the limits of any conventional plastics.

“It can separate carbon dioxide from natural gas a few hundred times faster than current plastic membranes and its performance is four times better in terms of purity of the separated gas.”

Full article here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day, which is what prompted this experiment. I want to list 5 things you can do to minimize the use of plastic in your everyday lives.

  1. Use your own grocery bag. There are many reusable bags entering the market every day. Keep one in your car, your purse, backpack, or by the front door. Make it a habit to grab it each time you go to the store. Many stores even give you a few pennies of a discount if you bring your own bag, plus you won't have to find a place at home to store all of the grocery bags.
  2. Recycle. This is one of the easiest things you can do.
  3. Compost. This step may be harder for some, but is pretty easy. Rachel Ray keeps a bowl on the counter while preparing delicious meals. Make that bowl into a container with a lid and you can easily store it under the sink when not in use. We use a Rubbermaid container and take it out probably twice a week, disposing of the waste into the yard waste container. Because we recycle and compost, our trash container actually stays in our kitchen for up to 2 weeks before we empty it. This cuts down on trash bags and smell.
  4. Buy in bulk. When you buy in bulk, you save not only money, but reduce packaging. Keep glass or plastic storage bins at home for bulk items such as flour, sugar, and spices.
  5. Be aware. Look at how much you use plastic and see if you can reduce it. Do you really need to place apples in a produce bag? Can you take the produce bags back to the store to reuse? Do you really need a plastic bag to place your deli sandwich and juice into after purchase? That plastic bag most likely ends up in a trash container at the office 5 minutes later, right?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What to do with plastic?

Ivylanedesigns has a great use for empty food cartons: notebook covers. This one is only $7.

Brown Cow is concerned about their plastic packaging. According to their website:

We use plastic containers for our yogurt, because glass containers, with their heavier weight, use more energy and produce more global warming gases than plastic. And the manufacturing of paper containers creates dioxins, which are some of the most toxic chemicals known to man and are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe level of exposure. Paper containers must also be plastic-lined, which makes them non-recyclable in a mixed-paper recycling stream.

We used to package our yogurt in high-density polyethylene (HDPE) #2 cups, because we thought this was the most recyclable material. But we learned that many recycling centers that generally accept HDPE #2 plastic for recycling, don’t recycle wide-mouthed #2 yogurt cups, because the wide-mouthed cups have a melting point that’s different from other #2 packaging. Our #2 yogurt cups were ending up in landfills.

The manufacturing of our polypropylene (PP) # 5 cups requires less resin than that of #2 cups. So less energy (electricity and gas) and fewer resources are used to produce our PP #5 cups. And because they have thinner walls, our #5 cups make less waste than #2 cups.

They also suggest mailing the cups to them directly for recyling if your local recycling facility is unable to handle them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

First response

Today marks 30 full days since we started the project. Coincidently, I received a response from Amtrak regarding their recycling policy.

Thank you for your e-mail.

Amtrak has implemented recycling programs on several of its train routes but it has been a challenge to implement successful and sustainable programs on all of our equipment. We do have a task group that is working on extending on-board recycling programs. We also plan to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on their recommendations for mobility based recycling. You can find more information about this program at: http://www.epa.gov/recycleonthego/.

Amtrak considers recycling one of the key elements of a successful pollution prevention program. In 2006, we did recycle the following materials:

  • 2,192 gross tons of scrap steel
  • 517 gross tons of metal turnings
  • 111,410 gallons of waste oil
  • 21,175 pounds of the ARRIVE magazine
  • 5, 350 pounds of batteries

We would appreciate any additional comments you could offer on recycling
programs. We are trying to do better.

Once again, thank you for writing. We hope to serve you in the near
This is fantastic. I wonder what other feedback I could prompt from other companies.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Sunsweet now offers individually wrapped prunes for your enjoyment. Each individual wrapper is made of plastic.

Honestly, do we need more plastic in the world? Is a little bit of convenience worth the impact on the Earth?

(I haven't been posting a lot lately. I've been wiped out with a cold.)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Bring your own bag

Safeway gave me $0.03 off my total because I brought my own grocery bag.

Sweden's IKEA will charge US customers five cents for disposable plastic shopping bags in what the international furniture giant said on Wednesday was a first step to ending their use altogether. IKEA said the decision to stop giving away free bags to customers aimed to reduce the estimated 100 billion bags thrown away by all US consumers each year.

From 2002: Shoppers in the Republic of Ireland are to be taxed on their use of plastic bags from Monday. A government order will force all outlets to charge their customers nine pence (15 cent) for each bag they use.

Paper or plastic? Not anymore in San Francisco. The city's Board of Supervisors approved groundbreaking legislation Tuesday to outlaw plastic checkout bags at large supermarkets in about six months and large chain pharmacies in about a year.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bulk items

I took our old dish soap bottle to Madison Market and filled it with bulk dish soap that only cost $0.12 per ounce.

Why haven't I done this before?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wish List

We have a few upcoming purchases on our "wish list" when this project comes to an end. As conscious as we are about plastic and the impact it has on the environment, we're trying to be a bit picky about our choices. The first three items that I will purchase first will all be for my bicycle.

  • REI has a collapsible water bottle that is apparently made with a plastic that does not leak chemicals into the water, even after repeated use. I like the idea of this water bottle also for the ability to roll the bottle up for storage in my backpack.
  • Red bicycle light.
  • Front bicycle light.
REI has a selection of rechargeable lights that would cut down on batteries ending up in the landfill. They are expensive and bulky, though I consider my life to be worth it. Sure, I am being a bit dramatic, but I ride on the road and need every available way to attract the attention of motorists. I am asking opinions on a cycling forum that I am a part of to see if anyone has an opinion on rechargeable lights.

We also are in the market for a new mattress. The majority of mattresses are not great for the environment, containing toxic chemicals and plastics that end up in the landfills. There are some options out there though.
They are definitely more expensive than conventional mattresses, but the cost can be reduced if we end up with a box frame that would support just the top mattress. This also raises the question about what we would do with our old mattress. Some stores will take your old mattress away as a service. Those mattresses just end up in landfills. Ecobedroom (linked earlier) states:

We recommend that you contact you local Salvation Army and ask them if they would pick up your old mattress for you. Some customers have found additional local charities that would also like you to donate your old mattress to them - missions, homeless shelters, abused families, foster care, etc.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Plastic Chart

Thanks to Apartment Therapy, I found this handy Plastic Chart from The Green Guide.

This chart shows some of the common plastic items in a home that are likely to leak phthalates into our food and thus, into our bodies.

Also from The Green Guide comes this tidbit about bottled water:

...the plastic used in both single-use and reusable bottles can pose more of a contamination threat than the water. A safe plastic if used only once, #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is the most common resin used in disposable bottles. However, as #1 bottles are reused, which they commonly are, they can leach chemicals such as DEHA, a known carcinogen, and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), a potential hormone disrupter. According to the January 2006 Journal of Environmental Monitoring, some PET bottled-water containers were found to leach antimony, an elemental metal that is an eye, skin, and lung irritant at high doses. Also, because the plastic is porous you'll likely get a swill of harmful bacteria with each gulp if you reuse #1 plastic bottles.

While single-use water bottles should never be used more than once, some reusable water bottles simply shouldn't be used. The debate continues over the safety of bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical known to leach out of the #7 polycarbonate plastic used to make a variety of products, including popular Nalgene Lexan water bottles. New studies keep cropping up that don't bode well for BPA, demonstrating that even extremely low doses of the chemical can be damaging. Recent research has linked the chemical to a variety of disorders, including obesity and breast cancer, and one chilling 2007 study, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, found that BPA exposure can cross generations. Pregnant mice exposed to low levels of BPA led to chromosomal abnormalities, which possibly cause birth defects and miscarriages, in grandchildren.
Scary stuff. I have an eye appointment, and will have to come back to this subject (and The Green Guide) later!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Brown-bagging it

Lunch On The Go Food Storage Container.

Two small containers can be used for vegetables, pasta or fruit. They sit on top of the ice pack keeping them cool and fresh.

Made with non-leaching #5 polypropylene plastic and no phthalates, this is a safe alternative when glass just won't do.

I broke my plastic water bottle today. It dropped from about 5 feet and hit the tile floor pretty hard, causing a break in the plastic. I can't replace it until mid-October though.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Laundry soap

I picked up one box of washing soda and 2 bars of Fels Naptha at one of the three QFC's near my apartment. Using the recipe posted previously, I made a double batch and stored it in a glass jar with a spoon for easy use. I'm currently testing the effectiveness by washing our sheets.
The process took maybe 5 minutes and I have enough laundry soap to last us quite a while.
If you don't want to make your own detergent, you can reuse the plastic container.

Toxic products

This information is from the Guide to Less Toxic Products:

Dioxins - You won't find dioxin listed on any label. It's formed as an accidental by-product of some manufacturing processes using chlorine, especially paper bleaching and the creation of plastic. Dioxin is one of the most powerful carcinogens known and accumulates in body fat. Mainstream deodorants and anti-bacterial soaps are suspect. Chlorine bleached tissues, toilet paper and cotton balls can contain dioxin. Plastic bottles may leach dioxin into creams, shampoos and other products we use daily.

Nonylphenols - This estrogen-mimicking chemical is a surfactant used for its detergent properties. It can be found in some plastics, as well as shaving creams, shampoos and hair colours. It can be created when certain chemicals commonly found in personal care products break down. Nonylphenols can be a component in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a compound often found in acrylic nails. They are persistent in the environment and of such concern that many European countries are phasing them out. Some manufacturers have voluntarily discontinued their use.

Phthalates - Everyone in the general population is exposed to phthalates from one source or another. They are found in many products from plastics to shampoo. These hormone-disrupting chemicals are suspected of contaminating breast milk and causing damage to the kidneys, liver, lungs and reproductive organs. One type of phthalate, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is commonly found in fragrances and other personal care products. Phthalates are used to enhance fragrances, as solvents, and to denature alcohol. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (December 2002) found that DEP is damaging to the DNA of sperm in adult men at current levels of exposure. DNA damage to sperm can lead to infertility and may also be linked to miscarriages, birth defects, infertility and cancer in offspring. DEP is the phthalate found in the highest levels in humans. Recent product tests found the chemical in every fragrance tested in the United States. Manufacturers are not required to list phthalates on product labels, so they are difficult to avoid.

Harmful materials: latex rubber, plastic, nitrosamines

Nipples for bottles are usually made of latex rubber or silicone. Latex rubber nipples can release nitrosamines, potent carcinogens, when babies suckle the nipple. They also tend to break down faster than silicone nipples, which can cause cracks where bacteria can hide.

A common plastic used in baby bottles is polycarbonate. In separate studies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Consumers Union and researchers at Nagasaki University in Japan found that baby bottles made of polycarbonate plastic release a hormone-disrupting chemical, bisphenol-A, into infant formula during sterilization and heating on the stove-top. The Japanese scientists also found that used bottles leached up to nearly twice as much as new bottles. Other plastic bottles and plastic disposable bags for bottles may leach phthalates, another hormone disrupting chemical. Some plastic bottles have coloured designs on the inside of the bottle which can come off during heating.

Running low on household items

I ran out of dishwasher soap last night, and we're almost out of laundry soap.

Dishwasher soap
Mix and use per dishwasher load:
1 Tablespoon Borax
1 Tablespoon Baking soda

Powdered Laundry Detergent
1 Cup Grated Fels Naptha Soap
1/2 Cup Washing Soda
1/2 Cup Borax

For light load, use 1 tablespoon.
For heavy or heavily soiled load, use 2 tablespoons.
Ivory Soap, Deodorant Soap, and Beauty Bars can be substituted for the Fels Naptha Soap. Essential Oils can be added to soap for fragrance.

Borax and washing soda come in cardboard containers. The soap is probably packaged in plastic, but compared to the containers that most laundry detergent comes in, it's minimal. I'm going to test these out in the next few days.

We're also running low on liquid hand soap and regular dish soap. I can refill our bottle at Madison Market in their bulk section. I can also use bar soap for our hands (I still have quite a few bars leftover from my L'Occitane days). I've looked up homemade dish soap online, but most seem to require glycerin, which I believe comes in plastic bottles. Any ideas?

Friday, September 21, 2007


A few other households have started "satellite" projects echoing our own. This is fantastic! Some are trying to eliminate all plastic, while others are cutting back on the excess.

I wanted to take a moment to write about awareness. Plastic isn't "bad". It's not "The Devil", not by a long shot. I, for one, embrace our evil plastic overlords. Plastic has been a major attribute to the successes in our scientific community and is one of the top contributors to the advancement of society.

I believe that there's an overuse of plastic in the United States. Americans want everything sterilized, and thus everything is wrapped in at least one layer of plastic. The point of this project is to become aware of how much plastic has seeped into our everyday lives.

It's working. I can't help but notice plastic everywhere. Today, I tried to buy a jar of mustard. I'm making a potato salad for a party tomorrow, and it's just not right without a little stone ground mustard. I looked at the options available, instantly dismissing the plastic squeeze bottles. Looking at the jars with metal lids, I realized that even with a metal lid, 9/10 jars had a plastic shrink-wrapped seal "for freshness". The jar that I purchased (seen in the photo to the right) only has a strip of paper attached from the label to the lid. It was almost the only option. I've noticed this same use of a plastic seal on almost every product that is sold in a grocery store. Some I can understand, but others confuse me. Sure, a plastic seal on a bottle of medication is great. A plastic tray with two bell peppers and a bunch of shrink wrap? Unnecessary. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, check out their produce section. You'll be enlightened.

Today marks the 11th day since we officially started this project. We've saved almost all of the plastic that we've bought, minus a plastic bag from a box of cereal and a juice bottle from my train ride. Pictured on the right: 2 boxes of wine (via Carl who very sneakily brought them home while I was visiting relatives), a plastic wrapper from the canning pot, a plastic cover for a candle (Carl turns 30 this weekend), two bags that held streamers (a frivolous purchase), a plastic seal for something, a pizza box insert (which our friend Mike actually paid for), a plastic tag for cilantro, and two plastic tags for green onions.

I listed this out to show how easily one can eliminate a lot of excess plastic from their daily lives. I scan the groceries of the people ahead of me in line at the grocery store and some have plastic wrappers on everything they are buying!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Back from vacation

I had a great time in Oregon. I managed to avoid buying plastic until I was on the train home. I really needed something to drink and the water on the train tasted
funky. I opted to buy an orange juice, which conveniently comes in a plastic bottle! After I finished the juice, I could find no place on the train to recycle the bottle. I had to either throw it in the trash or find room in my overly-packed bags (thanks to a visit to the used bookstore in Eugene). I checked Amtrak's website and found a form to leave a comment.

I recently traveled with Amtrak from Seattle, WA to Eugene, OR. On my return trip, I noticed that Amtrak does not provide recycling receptacles for cans, bottles, and/or plastic. Has Amtrak considered providing recycling receptacles and if so, when will this service be available? Thank you.

We'll see if they respond. Honestly I doubt that they have given much thought to providing recycle bins onboard, as the trains are pretty cramped as it is.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


I'm heading down to Eugene, Oregon tomorrow on the train and just realized that I have nothing suitable at home to take for food. If I had planned ahead, I could have picked up some bread, made a sandwich, then packed it with carrots and celery to eat. The likelihood of finding food not packaged in plastic is pretty low, especially on the train. Also, the likelihood of finding non-junk food is pretty low as well. I think this means I'll have to walk to the store before going to bed in order to pick up some bread.

This situation is one that I suspected would happen at some point during the experiment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Via Wikipedia

Over three quarters of the global consumption of polyurethane products is in the form of foams, with flexible and rigid types being roughly equal in market size. In both cases, the foam is usually behind other materials: flexible foams are behind upholstery fabrics in commercial and domestic furniture; rigid foams are inside the metal and plastic walls of most refrigerators and freezers, or behind paper, metals and other surface materials in the case of thermal insulation panels in the construction sector. Its use in garments is growing: for example, in lining the cups of brassieres. Polyurethane is also used for moldings which include door frames, columns, balusters, window headers, pediments, medallions and rosettes.
  • Polyurethane materials are commonly formulated as paints and varnishes for finishing coats to protect or seal wood.
  • Polyurethane is also used in making solid tires. Modern roller blading and skateboarding became economical only with the introduction of tough, abrasion-resistant polyurethane parts.
  • Polyurethane is also used in furniture manufacture for casting soft edges around table tops and panel that are stylish, very durable and prevent injury. These are used in school tables, hospital and bank furniture as well as shop counters and displays.
  • Much of the foam used in chairs, couches, Comfy Sacks and mattresses is polyurethane foam.
  • Flexible and semi-flexible polyurethane foams are used extensively for interior components of automobiles, in seats, headrests, armrests, roof liners and instrument panels.
  • Polyurethane has been used to make several Tennis Overgrips such as Yonex Supergrap, Wilson Pro Overgrip and many other grips.
  • Often electronic components are protected from environmental influence and mechanical shock by enclosing them in polyurethane.
  • Polyurethane is used as an adhesive, especially as a woodworking glue.
  • Polyurethane is used as a black wrapping for timepiece bracelets over the main material which is generally stainless steel. It is used for comfort, style, and durability.
  • Gorilla Glue
What happens to Polyerethane Foam in a landfill?
After a period of 700 days, no aromatic amines were detected using gas chromatography mass spectroscopy, according to William E. Brown, who headed the study. Nor was any physical breakdown of the polyurethane foam cubes evident from visual inspection after the buckets were taken apart following the experiment.

Today's summary: I bought two kinds of tea at Vital Tea Leaf: one came in foil, the other in plastic (which mimicked the foil packaging). I bought a pound of chicken and a pound of bacon, both of which were wrapped only in paper.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The history of plastic

The early years:

  • The first man-made plastic was unveiled by Alexander Parkes at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Created to replace rubber at a lower cost.
  • John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid in 1869. Created to replace ivory in billiard balls.
  • The first completely synthetic man-made substance was discovered in 1907, when Leo Baekeland, a New York chemist, developed a liquid resin that he named Bakelite. Various uses include: weaponry, lightweight war machinery, and is currently a still produced.
  • 1872 - Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC - first created by Eugen Baumann.
  • 1894, British inventors, Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle, patented a safe a practical method of making viscose rayon. Created specifically to be artificial silk.
  • Cellophane was created in 1908 by Dr. Jacques Edwin Brandenberger. Created to make waterproof tablecloths.
Rush of innovation:

  • 1926 - Vinyl or PVC - Walter Semon invented a plasticized PVC. Semon accidentally created this when attempting to bind rubber to metal.
  • 1933 - Polyvinylidene chloride or Saran also called PVDC - accidentally discovered by Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker. First created to protect military equipment.
  • Also produced in 1933 by Imperial Chemical Industries: Low Density Polyethylene. Used in six-pack soda can rings, extrusion coating on paperboard and aluminum laminated for beverage cartons, computer components, such as hard drives, screen cards and disk-drives. (I guess this means that I'm buying plastic whenever I pick up a carton of milk, right? More on this another day.)
  • Otto Bayer and co-workers discovered and patented the chemistry of polyurethanes in 1937. Today, polyethylene is used to make such common items as soda bottles, milk jugs and grocery and dry-cleaning bags in addition to plastic food storage containers.
  • A DuPont chemist named Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon®, in 1938. Current studies show Teflon can cause cancer and other ailments in humans.
  • Two of the 20th century's most widely used synthetic polymers—neoprene and nylon—originated in 1939 in the research laboratory of Wallace Hume Carothers (1896–1937) at the DuPont Company. Nylon is also used in parachutes and ropes.
  • Unsaturated Polyester also called PET patented by John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson in 1942. No, this isn't responsible for the awful clothes of the 70's. PET is used for engine parts, covers, electrical terminal boxes, swimming pools, and boats.
Space age:
I probably missed a few, but I learned a lot.

First official day

We chose today to be our first official day without plastic. For 30 days, we will avoid buying plastic in any form. The "rules" are as follows:

  • Avoid purchasing plastic as much as possible
  • We can use plastic that we already have, such as produce bags
  • Any plastic we bring home will be added to a pile, which we will document at the end of the project
  • This project should not impact our normal lives much
Pretty simple, right?

The first impression so far is that we really need to plan ahead before we can buy groceries. While shopping, I need to examine packaging. I'm going to buy fresh meat tomorrow at Pike Place Market (we missed going there on Sunday), so I have to plan ahead for that specifically and be prepared to visit more than one meat stand in order to avoid plastic.

Somehow I get the feeling that we're cheating a bit. We currently live on one-income while I attend school full time, so we had cut out most of the unnecessary consumer-activities that we Americans seem so keen on. Looking ahead, I am going to buy textbooks in the next two weeks. They come shrink-wrapped in plastic for new, so I'll need to pick up used (which is better for the wallet anyway). I need new contacts, which come in individual plastic compartments.

Summary for today: I bought fresh bread in a paper bag (without a plastic window), peanut butter in a jar with a metal lid, milk and cream in paper cartons, and oregano in a personal Ziploc bag. I was at the last stage of a batch of homemade tomato sauce and found that our pot was not deep enough to properly seal the quart-size jars. Carl brought home a canning pot that was wrapped in plastic (which is the start of our "pile"). So far, decent but not 100%.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Shopping at the farmers market

First, a quick story about product packaging. Normally we purchase Tidy Cat litter in the large plastic bucket. Trying to avoid the plastic, we checked for the same brand in a bag. Safeway had a 20lb bucket for $8.99 on sale vs. 20lbs in a bag for $4.99. The exact same product, just priced differently for different packages. Ridiculous. We grabbed the bag, only to see that the bag material is woven plastic. *sighs* We just can't win.

We also purchased a dozen quart-size jars for canning which came wrapped in plastic, and a tube of toothpaste. The jars are for our own spaghetti sauce, and will be reused for years to come. The toothpaste comes in a foil tube but the cap is definitely plastic. Is there any toothpaste that comes without plastic? Can we actually make our own toothpaste?

Carl and I drove out to the Redmond Saturday Market. We used our own bags to pick up 10lbs of apples, 4 huge onions, carrots, peppers, and basil. One stand loaned us two large boxes to carry the 23lbs of tomatoes we purchased, as long as we promised to bring them back next weekend.

Each stand we stopped at had plastic produce bags for consumers to use. I found it odd that many did not have paper bags as an option. I found it even stranger that many consumers used their own shopping bags, but placed a single apple or cucumber in a plastic produce bag first before placing it into their Trader Joe's canvas bag. Doesn't that defeat the purpose somewhat?

I also wanted to pick up a bouquet of flowers, but each bunch comes with a plastic bag strapped to the stems to hold water. While we would reuse the bag, I don't need flowers that much. Our cat will also just knock the vase over when we aren't looking, which is annoying to clean up. We do have 3 small vases that hang on the wall. I could possibly pick out a few individual stems of flowers sans plastic bag and arrange them myself.

Tomorrow, we plan on busing down to Pike Place Market. (Normally, we would walk the 2 miles down the hill, but my knee is still swollen.) We need to pick up some ginseng tea, a glass jar of honey, and I want to check with the butchers about either bringing my own plastic or if they will just wrap their product in paper.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Small ways to change

I have a million ideas for post topics, including the history of plastic, the types of plastic that common products use, and the epic battle between paper and plastic. I have a draft with the history of plastic started, but had to set aside the majority of the day to filling out college applications. Look for that post tomorrow.

There are a few things you can do to cut back on the use of plastic. Order your latte in a ceramic mug instead of a to-go cup that uses a plastic lid. If you don't have time to sit with your coffee, bring a travel mug. Almost every coffee shop/stand will pour your beverage into your own container.

Use your own grocery bags. Many large-chain grocery stores now sell these bags in cotton, canvas, or recycled materials near the checkout stand. It's a one-time price to pay for a larger benefit.

Instead of buying individual water bottles daily, try using a more permanent container. Even if you reuse a disposable water bottle 3 times before throwing it away, that amounts to an average of 10 water bottles a month if you drink one bottle daily. Personally, I've been using the same neon green water bottle from Tully's for a year now and avoid disposable bottles entirely. This bottle holds 20oz of water, fits perfectly on my bicycle, and does not leak at all if I toss it in my backpack with my laptop and textbooks. I'll toss it through the dishwasher (or hand wash it) once a week for sanitation purposes. I used to keep a large coffee mug at the desk of my last office job. When it didn't contain tea, I refilled it with water a few times a day.

Reuse produce or Ziploc bags. Currently I have a box full of produce bags that I will use for the next month for produce and bulk items. I've also started rinsing out and reusing Ziploc bags. If they were only used to hold half a bell pepper for 10 hours in the refrigerator, throwing it away is a waste. If I stored a piece of leftover lasagna in a bag instead of a Tupperware container it will probably be another story entirely, but that's what Tupperware is for, right?

Lastly, buy dry goods in bulk if your local store offers it. I can pick up a dozen varieties of beans, dried fruit, granola, seeds, nuts, flour, sugar, and many others. I started reusing produce bags for this purpose, transferring the bulk items to glass jars once I got home. I also take advantage of lower prices by refilling my herb and spice containers instead of wasting money on new bottles at twice the price.

Get rid of it

Unclutterer linked a Martha Stewart post titled 100 Reasons to Get Rid of it. In relation to last night's post:

48. Gaiam.com
Plastic soda bottles become durable hammocks.
49. Recycline.com
Yogurt containers become colorful plates, flatware, toothbrushes, and razors.
Gaiam also has a doormat made from recycled flip-flops and reversible all-weather rugs made from recycled plastic soda bottles.

Recycline razors and toothbrushes are made with recycled plastic handles made from 65% Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups. I have seen this line of products at Madison Market and the website lists them for sale at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, both within walking distance of my apartment.

A quick Google search lists thousands of products made from recycled plastic products.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

What happens to plastic when we throw it away?

Ideally, there are two ways to dispose of plastic: landfills or recycle centers. (Burning and dumping in the environment will be discussed in a later post.)

My preferred method to dispose of plastics is by recycling them. Seattle currently recycles about 44% of it's solid waste, with an official goal of 60% by 2010. With new proposed legislation, Seattle hopes to reach 72% by 2025. (Seattle PI article)

I found a great slideshow link on Seattle.gov demonstrating what happens to recyclables after you toss them in your blue bins. The short version: recycling trucks from Rabanco sort recyclables into two bins; glass and "commingled". The truck dumps the "commingled" recycling inside the 80,000 square foot facility. Glass is unloaded outside in a separate area. For the next 24-48 hours, the "commingled" recycling is sorted into cardboard, mixed paper, newspaper, plastic bags, metal, aluminum, and finally, plastic. The different materials are then baled and sent onto additional facilities for processing.

Recycled plastic can be converted into new materials. Plastic bags are remade into plastic lumber, and siding for houses. Plastic containers are made into fleece clothing, carpet, and new containers. Seattlites love their fleece.

Some of the downsides to recycling can be avoided by an informed public. Different cities have different recycling capabilities and can't handle all the materials that other facilities can. For example, Rabanco asks customers to remove all caps/lids from plastic and glass containers. "Contamination" of non-recyclable or improper materials can also cause delays, injuries to workers, and/or add delays to the recycling process. These materials are then diverted to the Roosevelt Regional Landfill.

Americans generate trash at an astonishing rate of four pounds per day per person, which translates to 600,000 tons per day or 210 million tons per year. (source) According to How Stuff Works, a landfill is a "carefully designed structure built into or on top of the ground in which trash is isolated from the surrounding environment (groundwater, air, rain). This isolation is accomplished with a bottom liner and daily covering of soil."

  • Sanitary landfill - landfill that uses a clay liner to isolate the trash from the environment.
  • Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill - uses a synthetic (plastic) liner to isolate the trash from the environment.
"The purpose of a landfill is to bury the trash in such a way that it will be isolated from groundwater, will be kept dry and will not be in contact with air. Under these conditions, trash will not decompose much. A landfill is not like a compost pile, where the purpose is to bury trash in such a way that it will decompose quickly." (source)

How long does it take garbage to break down in a landfill? A quick Google search with the terms "landfill garbage break down" does not produce many positive results. Without microorganisms and oxygen to break down garbage, even the most biodegradable items, such as an apple core, will remain for years longer than it would in an ordinary compost bin. Add in the additional problems of toxic waste leaking into the surrounding environment (Roosevelt Regional Landfill is located close to the Columbia River) and landfill fires.

With the millions of plastic items manufactured each year all over the world, how many end up in landfills? How many end up littering the environment, never fully breaking down into non-toxic substances? In the environment, the evidence from plastics linger years after disappearing from view. An article from Sustainability Institute reports:

Degradable plastics come in two forms: biodegradable and photodegradable. The biodegradable kind mixes the long plastic molecules, which nothing in nature can digest, with starch, which micro-organisms will happily munch away. Depending on the material strength required and the rate of degradation, the starch percentage varies, but it's usually something like six percent starch to 94 percent plastic.

On the side of the road a bottle or bag made of biodegradable plastic slowly falls apart -- into tiny shards of undegradable plastic. The bottle or bag disintegrates, but the plastic is still there. Presumably it is inert and harmless, but no one really knows the implications of a world filled with plastic sand.

We can cut back on the amount of plastics we manufacture and purchase, reduce the amount of packaging on consumer goods, and work to recycle almost all of the plastics that we use.

Test run

I recently read an article titled Our oceans are turning into plastic...are we? which prompted this experiment. In the article, the impact of decades of plastic production is shockingly clear. Hundreds of miles of the ocean surface is littered with plastic. Plastic is found inside wildlife and inside human bodies. Plastic is poisoning the environment. And worst of all, it's not going away anytime soon.

So what can we do? On an individual basis, perhaps more than one would think. Becoming aware of how much plastic is in our possession, how much is wasted each year, and how much is unnecessary to our survival is just the beginning. Just looking around my apartment, I can find nowhere to rest my eyes that does not have a piece of plastic in view. The window blinds, stereo equipment, toiletries, kitchen gadgets, hangers, lamps, phones...we are dependent on it.

Or are we?

Today was just a test run grocery trip. Carl and I have reusable grocery bags and a box full of used produce bags. I needed to pick up some dried beans, cereal, coffee, half and half, and vegetables for minestrone soup, so I thought it would be easy to avoid plastic.

In the end, I was close. I had a bundle of organic carrots with a plastic tag (printed with information about the farm it came from) and a bag for coffee beans lined with plastic. Since it was a generic bag, I just wrote the date and bin number, which I will cross off and reuse next time we need coffee. To avoid the plastic tag on the bundle of carrots, I will buy bulk carrots individually.

I've been giving it a lot of thought. How can we avoid plastic but still eat healthy? Here is a sample of the types of packaging with plastic: milk, meat, yogurt, juice, pasta, bread, cheese, cereal, salad dressing, tofu, snacks such as chips and cookies.

We are fortunate to live in a densely populated area of the city. 3 blocks from our apartment is Madison Market, a co-op with
a large selection of local and organically grown produce and bulk foods. Utilizing the used plastic produce bags, I was able to bring home three types of dried beans, granola, and fresh produce. They also stock bulk pasta, flour, sugar, and other dried goods. I've seen fresh pasta at Pike Place Market. We are going to check into a place that sells fresh tofu, using either used produce bags or another container that we already own. The same idea could apply to fresh meat at the market. If I talk to the butchers and request that the meat is only packaged in paper, we could potentially avoid plastic.

We plan on also contacting the companies that use plastic in their packaging and asking about the types of plastic they use and alternative ideas that they may have. There are types of plastics that are made from corn, for example, that have been proven to be biodegradable though not without another set of problems entirely.