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Monday, May 24, 2010

War on Garbage: Fake Plastic Fish Challenge

Miscellaneous discarded plastic items lined up on forest green cloth
Household plastic waste--Week 1
© L. Kathryn Grace
Last Monday, in my ongoing war on garbage, I was spittin' plastic after watching the video, Our Today is Forever. It was time to commit to the Fake Plastic Fish Challenge.

What you see in this image is just one week's worth of plastic throw-aways for our household, twenty-nine items in total, only nine of which are recyclable. The remaining twenty had to be pitched.

Fake Plastic Fish asked for some data, and I'll share with you what I told them. (It's mostly verbatim, but I edited slightly in a few spots for clarity here. The questions are theirs.)

Personal description

Who: A cat and two humans, one full-time employed, the other semi-retired; frequently graced with the presence of grandchildren.

Where: San Francisco.

Biggest plastic challenges: 1) Keeping the cat well fed, healthy and her litter box clean without plastic--not happening, yet; 2) Resisting the urge to buy shiny, plastic-wrapped, plastic toys for the grandkids.

Biggest plastic boon: Monster city-wide curbside recycling program with few restrictions. Most of our plastics are trucked to the front door of the city's multi-million dollar recycling center, where they are sorted on a giant Rube Goldberg conveyor belt system, then baled and funneled out the back door onto ships that head for China and the Pacific Rim. We can only hope that mountains of plastics are not sitting in someone's back yard, as we saw in The Story of Bottled Water (video). For more on that, see Would you pay $10,000 for a sandwich?

Total weight of plastic stash

Approximately 13.5 ounces (I had to estimate the weight of the kitty litter bag as it is filled with clean litter. For sanitary reasons, I discarded the empty one early last week as I had used it for dirty kitty litter when I changed the box.)

List of Recyclable Items
Include the recycling # at the bottom and how it gets recycled in your community, as far as you know.

1. Strawberry clamshell - #1
2. Medjool date clamshell - #1
3. Shampoo bottle - #2
4. Pill bottle - #2
5. Medicine bottle (for grandbaby) - #2
6, 7, 8 & 9: Individual apple sauce containers - #5

San Francisco accepts all firm plastics--the ones with the recycle symbol on the bottom--that are clean of metal, fabric and rubber. They do not accept plastic bags, shrink-wrap, bubble wrap, or filmy plastics like Saran Wrap. Most of the recyclable plastics are loaded on ships for China or countries in the Pacific Rim where they are made into new products and likely shipped back to us, all glossy and encased in--you got it--more plastic.

List of non-recyclable items

1 & 2. Toilet tissue packages
3. Frozen blueberry bag
4. Kitty litter bag
5. Trash bag (Partially filled with household non-plastic, non-recyclables, non-compostables and the day's kitty litter gleanings)
6 & 7. Intimate product liners
8. Toy package bubble
9. Brown sugar sack
10. Godiva shipping cold pack bag
11 & 12. Cheese packages
13. Tortilla package
14. Toy package bubble
15 & 16. Cat medicine tablet holders
17. Toy package
18 & 19. Cut corners from kitty litter bag & tortilla bag
20. Toothbrush package

Tally analysis
(Answers to the following questions)

What items could I easily replace with plastic-free or less plastic alternatives?

 1. The strawberry container and the blueberry sack are easy to eliminate by buying fruits only in season at the farmer's market and carrying them home in our own reusable containers.
2. The individual apple sauce containers are an aberration at our house and unlikely to be in our recyclables again. Typically, we buy applesauce in glass jars, but now that I am semi-retired, I hope to make homemade.
3. The plastic trash bags are being phased out in favor of compostable bags. While they will not break down in the landfill, they will biodegrade quickly should they be released into the environment.


1. Shampoo bottle: One of us still uses commercial shampoo. The other (me) switched to no-poo awhile back, which means I'm bringing no new shampoo/conditioner bottles into the house. My sweetie is undecided, but strongly considering trying no-poo.

2. Intimate product liner: I am searching for intimate products without plastic liners and have purchased a few organic cotton ones for trial.

3. Medjool date container: We are looking for a bulk source of organic dates where we can fill our own reusable container. These are an important part of our diet, so an alternative absolutely must be found.

4. Toy packaging: We're grandparents. Sometimes we can't resist buying cutesy toys on a whim. Wherever possible, we plan and choose sustainable wooden and handcrafted toys for our grandchildren, but they are usually encased in shrink-wrap or nearly impenetrable plastic bubbles. Plastic seems inevitable in toyland. We can do more to reduce, however, and will continue to work on it.

What items would I be willing to give up if a plastic-free alternative doesn’t exist?

1.  Brown sugar sack: While we can buy organic raw sugar in bulk, we have not yet sourced brown sugar in bulk, but we keep looking. I am researching ways to add molasses to recipes in lieu of brown sugar.

2. Tortilla and other wrap packages: Again, because I am semi-retired and have more time, I am looking into recipes for homemade tortillas and other wraps so we can avoid those packages. This would not be possible if I were still working 50-60 hour weeks.

What items are essential and seem to have no plastic-free alternative?

1. Toilet tissue packages: I'm constantly trying to think of ways to minimize and ultimately replace. Write your suppliers and ask them to package in recycled paper!

2. Pill bottles: Alas, necessary, and again, write the suppliers! The more who write requesting glass bottles, the more chance we'll have of achieving change.

3. Medicine bottle for granddaughter: We have to keep a supply of this doctor-prescribed over-the-counter brand on hand for her overnight visits, and no other packaging is available.

4. Godiva ice-pack shipping bag: Not essential, but it came in a gift package, and I am unlikely to dictate to friends and family what they may or may not choose as gifts. I will, however, continue to show my preferences by example, through my writing, which some of them read, and through topical discussion. We keep such items in the freezer and reuse, but I have four of them now, and this one had to go to make room for fresh-frozen foods from the farmer's market. Just realized I could have advertised it on Freecycle. Duh!

5. Cat medicine tabs: We cannot source any other method for the cat's life-saving medicine.

6. Kitty litter bag: We buy the most ecological we know of, but I must write the manufacture regarding packaging.

7. Toothbrush packaging: So far, I have found no toothbrush packages that do not involve plastic.

8. Frozen berry (and vegetable) packaging: While I will source fresh farmer's market fruits and vegetables  wherever possible, it is likely we will continue to use frozen berries and some vegetables in winter months. Eliminating these from our freezer is a long-term goal and will require changing our expectations of what we should have available to eat on a moment's notice. This will take gradual, habit-changing practices.

What lifestyle change(s) might be necessary to reduce my plastic consumption?

I already made one that has made a huge difference: Partial retirement. Had I not semi-retired in the last year, we would have a much larger plastic problem. Like many people, I worked 50-60 hour weeks and all too often opted for quicker, easier solutions. With more time available, I can assure I get to the farmer's market every week, where I can purchase the freshest whole foods and carry them home in my own reusable containers.

I also have time to relearn old skills, such as breadmaking, and to experiment making foods that I previously bought in packages during the years I worked outside the home. These included bread, tortillas, wraps, jams and jellies, frozen fruits and vegetables, sometimes soups and beans.

The biggest lifestyle change would require a move to an apartment or home large enough to accommodate a deep freeze capable of preserving large quantities for up to a year without significant loss of flavor or nutrients. Such a change is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

My dream lifestyle change is to live and work in an ecologically conscious community with communal kitchens and gardens where we could share some, but not all, food growing, gathering, preserving, preparing and eating. I vision and write about such a community in the fictional Village of Ordinary and here.

Until this or something better is possible in our lives, we will continue on our current path of gradually reducing plastic consumption, one awareness, one problem-solving moment after another.

What one plastic item am I willing to give up or replace this week?

We have purchased compostable trash bags, which we will use for non-compostables/non-recyclables, including kitty litter. We won't start using them this week though, because we still have a stash of the regular plastic bags. I know of no ecological benefit to throwing the unused bags still on our shelf in the trash.

What other conclusions, if any, can I draw?

We need to re-grow our society from the ground up. Ours is a tear-on-the-dotted-line, disposable, throw-away, consumption-addicted culture. We as individuals are the only ones who can change that, by voting with our dollars, asking manufacturers to change, and spreading the word about the need for systemic change until the movement for making conscious, life-enhancing, Earth-preserving choices has reached critical mass.


Much gratitude to Beth Terry, who writes Fake Plastic Fish and issued the challenge. She is doing a grand service to us all by founding and maintaining her blog, keeping the message out there on numerous social networks, and running the challenge.

Much gratitude to you, as well, my few (so far) and faithful readers, whom I treasure, because I am aware that several of you are way ahead of me on this journey to conscious, mindful living. How do you manage the plastics in your life? Are you interested in taking the challenge? Have you already?


We make peace in a million small ways every day.

All text and images, unless otherwise noted, copyright L. Kathryn Grace.
All rights reserved.


Hayden said...

I was looking forward to seeing this. May I suggest that many kinds of dates - including both pitted and unpitted medjools, are available at the Saturday Alameny farmers' market. The white-haired gent who brings them is usually on the side nearest the larger parking lot. (He's really a sweetheart, but a bit difficult to understand). Brown sugar is available in bulk at Rainbow Grocery - including organic. They're a great source of local and non-local bulk goods. Not so hot on produce... expensive....

While I didn't collect and record, I was mindful this week and monitoring. Seems that one of my *ehrm* un-avoidables is the shrink wrap Amazon uses to pack their books. I am a book junky and they come in with appalling frequency. Amazon has used it's muscle to cut a lot of plastic out of children's packaging - wish they'd more consistently use the small paper boxes that 'just fit' instead of tossing shrink-wrapped small books in large boxes.

NOTHING is collected for recycling here, so cutting it at the source is critical. And hard. I'm saving clam shells (mushrooms, fruits, some veggies) for starting seedlings. At least they'll get another use or two before they are discarded. Found frozen fruit in a paper bag - but it has a plastic liner. *sigh*

Haven't been able to find ecologically sound high-efficiency washing detergent dry in paper boxes here. I can find Tide in boxes, but the few available 'green' alternatives seem to be liquid and in those awful plastic containers. (Didn't throw one away this week, but did buy one, alas.)

Finally, am still buying drinking/cooking water in gallon bottles. Am researching filters, but it's complicated - looks like I need a fairly expensive one. (I have well water that the county says is safe: based on the results - I disagree.) Have tried using the 2 1/2 gallon bottles, but end by spilling too much! Still working through this problem. Have saved them, however, and will be poking pinholes in them and using them to water plants that are not close to each other. There is recycling available at the dump for the plastic bottles at $1.00 per plastic (!!!) bag full. I'll turn mine in at the end of the growing season.

Wanda said...

I like the idea of asking manufacturers to go back to glass bottles/jars. Plastics leach into the contents and for medicines, it makes absolutely no sense essentially to put toxins in with the meds. I used to be able to get my mayo in a glass jar. No longer an option so I may have to switch.

Do we have The Graduate to thank for this?

Hayden said...

An unexpected source of good food here, in the lonely midwest, turns out to be a small country store run as a non-profit by 7th Day Adventists. Lots of bulk, lots of no-preservative stuff, lots of glass packaging. Amazing pricing on some items - shows that it's not that it's "organic" that's running up the price, but that the store selling it figures they can get an outrageous markup. Case in point is organic unsulfured blackstrap molasses: standard store - $8.65. Non-profit store $3.50.

Once again - it isn't the farmers getting your money. The stores are hiding behind the lie of "higher costs" to grab margin.

Kathryn Grace said...

Hayden, thank you for the tips on Farmer's Market dates and Rainbow as a source for bulk brown sugar. We get a car for errands now and then, so buying the occasional bag of brown sugar at Rainbow should be no problem--I don't bake that often! So far, my attempts at juggling a wire cart through three bus changes have been so troublesome that I opt for a vehicle for those time-consuming and shin-bruising trips.

Wow on the Alemany Farmer's Market. I did an online search, and found many good comments about it, including one blogger's guide to the best organics and the best prices. Unfortunately, that would be another series of buses, or require a vehicle each week, so I will continue to check for options closer to home, but it is on my list for a Saturday visit next time we schedule a car.

Your persistence in finding solutions to the plastics problems in the face of such difficulties is inspiring. Love your idea of using plastic clam shells for seed starters--no drilling drainage holes! I've read of people using large plastic containers, in ground, with the bottom cut out, for containing plants that tend to sucker or spread. Of course, there's the possibility of adding pcb's and bpa to your soil. I've also seen them used as bird feeders and, conversely, hung in fruit trees with pebbles or whatnot to scare the birds away from the crop. Some bloggers are writing of using them as planters for upside down hanging vegetable gardens.

Lucky, lucky you living within an active Seventh Day Adventist community! I was fortunate to live in an area with a large and active Seventh Day community for many years. Did you know they live longer than almost anyone in the US? Apparently their attention to eating whole, unadulterated foods and little or no meat has a lot to do with that. They had a bakery that packaged and sold frozen bread and roll dough, including whole wheat. It was better than any homemade bread I ever made, and my children got to grow up with the aroma of fresh made bread several times a week.

Wanda, yes, I do hope we can encourage more manufacturers to return to recyclable glass containers. The benefits to the consumer will be many. Of course, the trade-off is higher shipping costs and increased fossil fuel consumption. But I can't help wondering, should we displace all those plastic containers with glass, if we wouldn't more than make up for any increased fossil fuel consumption on the shipping side. I'm just starting a research project to learn how much of our "oil addiction" has to do with plastic manufacture vs. fuel.

You made me laugh with your reference to The Graduate, but it's been forty years ago or so, and I can't for the life of me recall a connection to glass vs plastic. Enlighten me, please!

Connie said...

My pet store has a plastic container that you refill with loose kitty litter. Pet supplies and medicines are problematic as you other source. For our business we purchase our toilet paper in bulk from a janitorial supply is paper wrapped and comes in a large cardboard box...perhaps you can do this on a personal level? I try very diligently to stop a lot of plastic before it comes into the house however there seems to be some plastic on just about everything! Thanks for all the information...some days I am better than others...I still work full time and we take care of parents and grandchildren...but still every little bit helps.

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