Purging Plastics

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Most of my life has been lived by an ocean—a vast expanse of sparkling blue where I’ve gazed into the unknown more times than I could ever count, marveled at the swirly sunsets, and walked in the uprush at dawn. No matter where I am in the world, a beach feels homey; the water, familiar. It’s only recently that I’ve realized I am not doing enough to protect our struggling oceans, or our world, from the imminent threat of climate change and plastic pollution. The future of plastic recyclability is uncertain or, at the very least, unpredictable and I found myself feeling confused, frustrated, and anxious, not knowing how, or even if, I could make the slightest difference.

Many of us, myself included, have a narrow view of plastic waste—just seeing what we are creating ourselves, in our own homes, and not zooming out to take in the bigger picture. Each time you consume something out of single-use plastic from now on, think about how many other people on the planet are doing the same thing at the same moment and imagine all those billions of water bottles or coffee cup lids or takeout containers being discarded. Where are they all going? 

The news is not good: most of our plastics—yes, even the plastics that we think we are recycling—are still ending up in landfills or oceans. According to a 2014 paper called "Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans" by oceanographer Marcus Eriksen, more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are already floating in our oceans. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste. Of that waste, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the environment.

It can be a hard pill to swallow for many consumers to learn that their recycling efforts have been for naught. And it can be even harder to learn that the most impactful thing we can do now is not to recycle and reuse but to reduce—or, in an ideal world, eliminate—our purchases of new plastics. Speaking with some friends about it ultimately led to an “I know, I know” eye roll, which I empathize with because I’ve been in that role too, but ignoring the problem won’t solve anything. It’s our responsibility to seek out the solutions and find out what we can do, at least on the most basic level—at home. It’s not just someone else’s responsibility to deal with since we’ve participated in the problem—so let’s participate in the positive change too. Believe it or not, there are organizations that want our old toothbrushes, wetsuits, and shampoo bottles. We can find a place to responsibly recycle the things that we’ve already accumulated, but to say that it won’t require effort would be a lie. It’s going to take work. 

STOP THE SINGLE-USE

I went entirely no-plastic for the purposes of this article, thinking it couldn’t really be that difficult. The biggest challenge I faced was certainly with single-use plastic. I couldn’t purchase most of the convenience foods I realized I relied on day-to-day like cottage cheese, yogurt, cereal, oat milk (or any dairy or alternative milk due to either a plastic top or spout), tortillas, cheese wrapped in plastic film, protein or greens powders, wellness shots, hummus, tofu, tempeh, pre-washed lettuces and herbs, berries, bags of nuts and seeds, cartons of vegetable stock, bags of grains and beans, and almost anything from the frozen aisle. The more annoying challenges were the completely unnecessarily plastic-wrapped vegetables like cucumbers, cauliflower, tomatoes, or mushrooms. And even more annoying, or totally obnoxious, were the plastic stickers that adorned every single lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, avocado, banana, and other produce—this is the point where I almost gave up. I stood there thinking, all I want is a damn lemon and I can’t get one damn lemon without there being plastic involved?! I thought we were doomed as a society. I snapped a photo and frustratingly texted my sister that there was no hope. At the time, my little outburst didn’t feel as dramatic as it now looks on paper. I also had to steer clear of the salad bar, deli case, and any prepackaged meals. At my favorite local grocer, the single-use containers at the deli are biodegradable but the lids are plastic—huge bummer. 

If you’re wondering what I actually walked out of the market with, here’s the list: local eggs (packaged in cartons made from recycled paper and pulp or cardboard), glass jars of nut butters, local fruit jam, olives and pickles, honey, maple syrup, olive oil, and fresh vegetables and fruits without stickers or packaging.

I found solace in going to the Santa Monica Farmers Market early on Wednesday mornings. Of course, I brought my own market tote and lots of small reusable cloth produce bags which I used for all sorts of things like green beans, dried beans and legumes, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and herbs, and only purchased that which had zero plastic involved. I walked away with sticker-free citrus fruits, stone fruits, and unwrapped cucumbers, mushrooms, lettuces, and herbs. The only time this didn’t work for me is when I had a last-minute need to cook dinner for a small group of friends and struggled—but succeeded!—in staying plastic-free at the grocery store closest to my house. As long as I planned appropriately, a trip to the farmers’ market once per week served to provide the majority of the food I needed. 

Not being able to rely on convenience foods, like the 6-ounce containers of my favorite cottage cheese or pre-sliced and bagged sprouted bread, forced me into being more thoughtful about my routine and completely changed the way I eat and drink. I buy bulk coffee and tea and either add nothing or a splash of homemade plant-based milk (it’s so easy, I promise). I started eating local eggs for breakfast with a bit of local butter and chopped herbs from my own garden. I’d keep a few big salads ready to go in plastic-free containers, which consisted only of locally-grown lettuces and other vegetables, dried nuts and seeds from bulk bins, and homemade dressing that I kept in a mini glass jar, in my refrigerator—and that’s lunch. Snacks—like pickles, olives, or granola—are all kept in reusable silicone storage bags or glass jars. 

To stay prepared, the trunk of my car contains all the essentials: grocery totes, cloth produce bags, bamboo utensils, one or two glass food containers for leftovers from restaurants, and a reusable plastic-free water bottle and coffee cup. Once I got into a routine, it became easy to stick to a zero-plastic lifestyle, but there are definitely times when it’s very challenging.

I’m a proponent of plant-based eating but I have a weak spot for cheese. Going to the cheese counter at any local grocer left me despondent, however, because every single variety used plastic in some manner. I did some homework and was pleasantly surprised that every cheese store I called, including Andrew’s Cheese Shop in Santa Monica and The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, allow customers to bring in their own containers for taking their cheeses home. I also found that local, independently owned markets and shops are more likely to accept foreign containers since they may not have corporate guidelines to contend with. 

Other stores, like Sustain LA in Highland Park, make shopping a breeze. Founder Leslie VanKeuren Campbell has done all the hard work and customers get to reap the rewards. The store offers refill stations to fill your reusable containers with household cleaners, body care products, and bulk goods from sustainable sources. Their refill stations also pop up at farmers’ markets around Los Angeles, so keep up with them to plan a visit.

THE PROBLEM WITH TAKEOUT

I almost never get food delivered, but I do occasionally pick up takeout from a few nearby restaurants. I now know that there are really very few restaurants which actually provide sustainable takeout containers—many that we believe to be eco-friendly are actually a mixture of paper and plastic, making them very difficult to recycle. Same goes for single-use coffee cups and butcher paper. Restaurants often refuse to pack takeout orders in a customer’s own container for fear of cross-contamination, so I decided that going to a restaurant would now only involve sitting down and eating a meal on a real plate. I kept a clean glass food container in my handbag to take leftovers home with me, which was never a problem.

In July, California passed a new law that allows restaurants the option of following some new guidelines to accept a customer’s containers for this purpose, but it’s still up to the restaurant to determine whether or not it’s a practice they want to adopt. As Monica Heffron, executive project manager at the Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants, tells me, it’s not as simple as we might believe it to be. “We…are definitely analyzing the best way to incorporate this more into our operations to cut down on single-use packaging, but it’s not something that can be done overnight and requires a good amount of thought and planning on our end to ensure our process is as safe and effective as possible. The new regulations are an exciting change to see, though, if they represent a larger shift in the mindset of how people look at takeout and packaging in general,” she says.

As someone who was a caterer, I know how much single-use plastic can go into both sourcing and preparing food. I cringe when I think about the amount of plastic wrap I’d go through in one day—now I use beeswax wraps (see below for a DIY version) and reuseable containers only. The Rustic Canyon restaurant group is located in Santa Monica, a city that has set their own admirable sustainability goals, so I asked Monica if the restaurants have set goals beyond what the city mandates. She shares, “We put a huge amount of thought and consideration into our vendors to make sure we’re sourcing seasonal, local, organic ingredients whenever we can. Quality of ingredient is a top priority on every level, especially regarding sustainability. A lot of people only think about what happens in the restaurant, but a lot of it happens before products even reach the kitchen, so being mindful of where one’s ingredients come from is very important to us. We also work closely with the Surfrider Foundation to stay certified as part of their Ocean Friendly Restaurants program – their feedback is a huge help to us in improving our operations to make sure we’re as environmentally-friendly as possible.”

A THOUGHTFUL PURGE 

One major concern I have about the plastic-free movement is the idea that we need to immediately toss all the plastic in our homes right into the dumpster. I’ve seen more than a few seemingly well-meaning people on social media go on plastic purges, where they’ll rummage through their refrigerator, pantry, and the rest of the house only to toss full bottles of condiments, unopened yogurts, food storage containers, shampoos, and other items right into the trash, exclaiming that they want a plastic-free home. On the contrary, we should be finding creative ways to reuse or properly recycle all the existing plastic in our homes in an effort to reduce what ends up in landfills and oceans. 

I reached out to Brigit Binns, an accomplished cookbook author and owner of the unique culinary retreat Refugio in Paso Robles, to chat about our mutual frustrations and see what she’s doing to reduce her footprint. For starters, she’s made a point to entertain more thoughtfully—no single-use anything. Yes, cleaning up requires more effort, but what’s an extra 5 minutes when it makes such a huge impact? We agree that companies and manufacturers need to be taking more responsibility and communicate more with consumers about how to recycle or send back their products. She says, “without the motivation of money or profit, corporations have less incentive to put in the effort and want to recycle.” Brigit goes on to tell me how many times she’s reached out to companies to ask if they’ll accept containers back for recycling or even just get advice on how to recycle a particular type of plastic. “These companies need to be more responsive—there’s no personal touch or conversation and customers are just left in the dark,” she says. Companies should hear from their customers in droves and start to feel the pressure of us all wanting to see change and greater involvement from the folks who created these items in the first place. At the end of the day, it seems that we can only control our own purchases, our own waste, and our own impact.

Not all manufacturers are on the wrong side of things, of course. A growing number are finding ways to be innovative while also profiting from recycling plastics—turning water bottles into shoes, abandoned fishing nets into sunglasses, and yogurt cups into toothbrushes. I’ve seen examples of plastics being recycled into bike paths, roads, and even housing—I’m hopeful we’ll see many more positive examples like this in the coming years. 

TerraCycle.com is a fantastic resource for finding free recycling programs in your area—we’re talking everything from contact lenses and toothpaste tubes to cigarette filters and dog food bags. Again, it just takes effort on our part to figure it all out and make it happen. Yes, it’ll mean saving all of these little items we are so accustomed to tossing into the trash and transporting them to the proper location. I urge local business owners and homeowners associations to offer to be drop-off points for any number of recyclable items. Visit TerraCycle’s website to learn more and get involved.

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JUST TAKE A FIRST STEP

For anyone wondering how they can start to make a change: we all need to take stock of how, when, and why we use plastic. Start with the worst offenders. For you, that may mean rethinking a daily takeout or salad bar habit, or maybe it means giving up plastic water bottles and only using a reusable bottle. Just start somewhere. Accept that the plastic in our homes is now part of this planet—let’s just all do our part to make the best of this. The answer is not to purge all the plastic from our homes and go about the day, rather it is to simply be aware and do our best to implement positive change from this moment forward. So finish the plastic bottle of ketchup in the refrigerator, but next time search for a homemade ketchup recipe and store it in a glass jar or only purchase ketchup sold in glass bottles and make sure it’s properly cleaned and recycled. Start small, get friends and family involved, and the movement will grow exponentially.

Don’t forget to speak out and let companies know that you want to see them participating in efforts to find alternative and sustainable packaging. If they don’t hear from their customers, there’s little pressure to make a big change. Take it upon yourself to be part of the conversation and help instill change in how we all prepare, purchase, and consume food. 

I’ve noticed that much of the resistance to ditching plastic is simply fear of the unknown. Many of us are so locked into our routines that we just don’t know where to start. Our modern lifestyles beg for convenient, single-use, time-saving, stress-free packaging so we can focus on other things—things that we deem more important. But I ask you, what is more important than this? ◆

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Shauna BurkeComment