Steven Kurutz | February 16, 2019
For Beth Terry, the epiphany came when she read an article about how albatross chicks are being killed by discarded plastics. It was time to banish plastic from her life.
First, she focused on her kitchen and got rid of the shopping bags, microwaveable Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, Clif energy bars and the prewashed salads in plastic tubs.
Then she turned to her bathroom, where she switched to shampoo bars instead of bottles and made her own hair conditioner from apple cider vinegar. Toothpaste without plastic packaging was exceptionally hard to find, so she started making her own with baking soda.
Sometimes her personal war on plastic created awkward moments. During a vacation to Disneyland in California to run a half-marathon, Ms. Terry and her husband left their reusable cloth bags in the hotel, soon discovering that the local supermarket only had plastic bags. How to carry a bunch of apples, oranges, avocados and melons?
“We just rolled it up in our T-shirts and carried it that way,” said Ms. Terry, 54, recalling how she crab-walked back to the hotel to stay true to her principles. “If I let myself off the hook this time, it would be easier for me to take plastic next time.”
Treating plastic like a drug habit that needs to be kicked is a lifestyle pledge being shared by more and more consumers, horrified by the tens of millions of metric tons of plastic created worldwide each year, much of it in the form of single-use items like straws, that end up in landfills or, worse, the oceans.
As a marketing term, “plastic free” is emerging as the new “no carbs.” Stores that pride themselves on zero plastics have opened in Brooklyn and London, selling items like silicone water bottles, cardboard poop scoopers, biodegradable vibrators and iPhone cases made of flax.
Designers have embraced “plastic free” as a new challenge, whether it’s building a supermarket aisle without plastics or making eco-friendly clothing that does not involve “virgin” plastics. Celebrities including Jeff Bridges and SZA have joined the anti-plastic crusade.
Some Fortune 500 companies, like Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, want a piece of the action. This summer, those companies will test selling products like Tropicana orange juice in glass bottles, Pantene shampoo in aluminum bottles and other items in refillable nonplastic containers, harking back to the days of the milkman.
“The awareness has exploded,” said Susan Freinkel, a journalist in the Bay Area and the author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.” “The movement to get rid of trivial plastic has taken off. There is a critical mass of consciousness.”
But to exist in the modern world without plastic, however noble a goal, may not actually be possible.
‘Grind Your Own’
If you gathered up all your plastic waste each week, as Ms. Terry once did, you would have a huge mound on the floor. Where to even begin?
“The one thing I try to emphasize to people is to go step by step,” said Ms. Terry, an accountant who lives in Greenbelt, Md., and who is the author of “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.” “Don’t try to do everything at once. It’s been a practice of mine to not get overwhelmed by it all.”
That’s easier said than done, because once you wake up to the plastic problem, you see it everywhere: in jars of peanut butter and bags of grapes, in tubes of toothpaste and Tupperware containers, in bottles of Dawn dish soap and Tide laundry detergent, in the wrappers of Doritos chips and the lining of milk cartons.
“I thought I’d be able to find a plastic-free version of all the convenient foods I was consuming,” Ms. Terry said. “I didn’t realize that plastic made those foods possible.”
At the grocery store, you find yourself staring at a 10-foot shelf of yogurt brands, with only one in a glass jar: Oui by Yoplait. But you don’t like Oui by Yoplait. Also, it costs much more. What do you do?
To navigate the consumer minefield, plastic purgers develop mental maps of places where they can shop. It may take months, but they learn where to get milk in a glass bottle, or which health-food store lets you grind your own peanut butter. And rather than see it as a huge inconvenience, they treat living plastic free as a fun game.
“I wake up and think, ‘How am I going to make it through the day without using any single-use plastic?’” said Dianna Cohen, 53, an artist in Santa Monica, Calif., and a founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition, an advocacy group. “Right away the challenge hits you in the bathroom with the toothbrush.”
For her, the answer is often the farmers’ markets, which exist year-round in Southern California. Needless to say, she brings her own bags. “I’m a big fan of baskets,” Ms. Cohen said. “I bring baskets and canvas bags to put vegetables in. I will bring my own glass jam jars.”
Like many who aim to live plastic free, Ms. Cohen never leaves home without her eco-survival kit, which includes a steel cup, a set of bamboo utensils or metal spork, two stainless-steel straws and a cloth bag. To her, it’s totally worth the extra minutes spent in interactions with shops and clerks, and the time it takes to ready herself before leaving the house. “I have to be very thoughtful in advance,” she said.
Plastic purgers need to rearrange their lives to avoid the offending material. If a restaurant serves food only on plastic plates, they won’t eat there. Fast food? Most wrappers contain plastic. Smoothies from a juice bar? Unless they put the smoothie in a stainless-steel to-go cup, move on, or make your own at home. Bread? Buy it from a local bakery to avoid fresh-seal bags.
But there are certain situations where plastics are unavoidable. Try having a medical procedure without using a plastic syringe or an intravenous drip bag. Plastic water bottles can be indispensable after natural disasters.
Despite their best efforts, the purgers all say they can’t totally banish plastic from their lives. For Ms. Cohen, it’s a favorite hairbrush she has had for decades. And Ms. Terry confronts the limits of her plastic ban each time she visits the pharmacy, where no pharmacist would put medicine in a Mason jar.
“It’s a daily challenge,” Ms. Cohen said. “But I think it’s becoming easier. It’s really just learning new behavior.”
Going plastic free is also easier these days because there’s more awareness and alternatives. Stores now sell dental floss made of silk, wooden toothbrushes with pig-hair bristles, stainless-steel ice cube trays, food wrappers made with beeswax coated cotton, and other nonplastic versions of household items.
Jay Sinha and Chantal Plamondon, who live in Wakefield, Quebec, started the store Life Without Plastic in 2006, a few years after their son was born. They wanted to avoid exposing him to bisphenol A, found in many baby bottles, but they had trouble finding a safer alternative. When Ms. Plamondon tracked down a glass bottle, it was one of the first items they sold.
Since then, the site and its customers base have evolved. “It was more the mother crowd before, but in the past few years, it’s about plastic pollution, the oceans,” Ms. Plamondon said. “Recently we noticed more millennials shopping the site.”
One of those younger converts is Tessa Carleton, 24, who makes and sells handmade goods like macramé in rural Quebec. After a conversation with an environmentalist friend four years ago, Ms. Carleton donated or gave away the shampoo bottles, nail polish remover and Ziploc bags. And she is still purging.
“It was a long process,” Ms. Carleton said. “I still don’t think it’s over.”
The farmhouse she shares with her husband, Jacob, feels like a 75-year-old time capsule. In addition to raising pigs and chickens for food, they make their own deodorant, lip balm and body moisturizer. And almost everything, like the hemp shower curtain she bought from Life Without Plastic, is made of natural materials in subdued colors with no branding. It’s domestic life before the Plastic Age.
Still, some wonder whether buying metal ice-cube trays is just another example of conscious consumerism. Buying a four-pack of metal straws at Urban Outfitters can be a kind of trendy virtue signaling. It offers a way to feel good without examining one’s larger environmental impact (like the energy required to ship glass or metal, both heavier than plastic).
But those committed to living plastic free say that the small steps add up and make an impact.
“Given that single-use disposable plastics are at the heart of the plastic pollution problem, if you do these simple things, you could potentially reduce your plastic consumption by 80 percent or maybe even more,” said Mr. Sinha, who wrote a guide to avoiding plastics with Ms. Plamondon.
Nevertheless, it is usually more expensive to buy stainless-steel or wood items instead of plastic ones, or fresh foods instead of packaged ones. And it can be difficult to avoid plastic in poorer communities. Not everyone has access to year-round farmers’ markets, or the means to shop at them. (According to U.S.D.A. data, as of early February, 2019, more than 3200 farmer’s markets in the U.S. are authorized to accept food stamps.)
Kristal Ambrose, 29, an environmental scientist who founded the Bahamas Plastic Movement, an advocacy group, faces that challenge daily. Much of what is sold on the island nation is imported and shipped in plastic.
“I avoid plastic in areas where I can control,” said Ms. Ambrose, who carries bamboo cutlery and a reusable bottle with her at all times. “For me, not using a plastic bag means so much more. But the mother who’s juggling work, kids, other things — their priorities are different."
Part of her mission is to show that you don’t need to be rich to avoid plastic. “Sometimes people can’t afford a bamboo kit, but you can take a fork from home,” Ms. Ambrose said. “Even an old pasta sauce jar can be made into a reusable item.”
Steven Kurutz joined The Times in 2011 and wrote for the City and Home sections before joining Style. He was previously a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Details. @skurutz