GreenSpace: So much plastic - and so hard to avoid using it


Emily Main was trying so hard to stay off plastic, and she thought it might not be so difficult.

But after the second day of her plastic-free challenge, she came home and unlocked her apartment door with a plastic electronic key. She switched on her plastic TV with its plastic remote. She put a plastic-coated dishwasher tablet in the mostly plastic dishwasher, ate dinner with a plastic-handled knife, and wound up writing about it all by typing on a plastic keyboard.

Looking on the bright side, she noted, "At least now I have a good framework for cutting back."

Main, of Bethlehem, was one of four editors at Rodale, the Web and print publisher, who were an anti-plastic tag team for the month of February, each spending a week trying to avoid/substitute/deal with the stuff.

Their beefs with plastic boiled down to this: "It's made from either petroleum or natural gas, two nonrenewable resources extracted in ways that pollute our air and water. Plastic manufacturers add chemicals to certain types of plastics that can be highly toxic, like bisphenol A and phthalates. And very few types of plastic are widely recycled."

Even if plastics are recycled, that takes energy, too. The trick is to reduce.

The ground rules were simple: No acquiring new plastic. No cooking with plastic or storing food in it. Minimize all other plastic use.

Easy? Not quite.

Like Main, others who want to get off plastic often have rude awakenings, discovering plastic they never quite noticed before.

As part of her three years of intensive research for her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, due out in April, Susan Freinkel decided to not touch anything plastic for just one day.

But first thing in the morning, when she walked into the bathroom and saw the toilet seat, she knew she'd been defeated. It was, of course, plastic.

She decided instead to keep a list of everything she touched that was plastic. It got very, very long.

"We sort of have this cultural perspective of disliking plastic. We think of it as this cheap, bad material," she said.

But she's far from being in the plastic-is-evil camp.

"It also has made our lives much safer, much cleaner. Modern medicine depends on it." Modern cars depend on it to get better mileage. And who wants to go back to glass shampoo bottles?

It's just that things have gotten out of hand. "We've taken these great and valuable materials and used them in stupid, shortsighted and wasteful ways," she said.

In 1960, the average American consumed roughly 30 pounds of plastic a year. Now it's up to 300, Freinkel found.

"These plastic objects, all of them have the same story line," she said. "Innovations came along, and within a couple years, there were a bazillion of them. . . . Now we're looking at the downside of that headlong rush to plasticize."

She loved the Rodale project because exercises like that induce people to think and to make conscious choices. "There's all this stuff you just don't notice. And even when you're alert to it, it's still easy not to notice." Well into the book, she realized with surprise one day that her coffee pot was plastic.

Often, giving up plastics means giving up convenience.

And there are trade-offs.

Main's trade-off happened in the vegetable aisle. She buys only organic produce. But she found that while most other produce was sold package-free, the organic veggies often came swathed in plastic.

By the end of the week, Main had accepted some plastic as inevitable, like bottles for contact-lens solution.

But she'd ditched one-use plastics and plastic bags with nary a backward glance. She was making her own deodorant and shampoo so she could avoid the plastic containers the manufacturered versions come in.

In contemplating plastics, she began to rethink social patterns. Instead of getting a to-go cup of coffee in plastic, "why can't we sit down like the Europeans do and have a nice cup of coffee out of a glass?"

Along the same lines, she and the others noticed that processed food often comes in plastic. It's healthier, and less plastic-intensive, to make meals yourself.

All in all, it was life-altering. Main and the other editors found out just how much plastic had snuck into their lives.

And they decided it was worth trying to do something to curtail it.


GreenSpace: How to Begin Weaning Yourself Off Plastic

Rodale's editors blogged, and got many outside comments and tips, at

Their muse was Beth Terry, a Californian who since 2007 has been lessening her plastic use. She blogs and offers numerous insights at

Emily Main's advice is to start by amassing all the plastic you use in a week. Analyze it. There's probably a lot of packaging you could eliminate.

More specific tips from the group:

  • Carry your own cutlery. Skip single-use items.
  • Use metal or glass food storage containers.
  • Wrap lunch sandwiches in waxed paper.
  • Try laundry detergent powders that come in a box.
  • Carry reusable shopping bags.
  • Carry a reusable bottle, or buy drinks in glass or aluminum.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or

Visit her blog at