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Ways to kick plastic to the curb

photo by Jessica Sipe

It’s A Wrap

By Ruthanne Johnson

Plastics take forever to break down, if they ever do. They’ve been linked to cancer, reproductive issues and hormone dysfunction in humans. They kill all sorts of animals through ingestion. And they’re made from petroleum and natural gas—two environmentally destructive industries.

Aim for plastic-free picnics with glass and stainless-steel containers, bamboo sporks and straws, cloth napkins and tablecloths, and reusable food wrapping. (photo courtesy ecolunchbox)

But plastic isn’t going anywhere. Look around your house and try to find something not made with plastic—computers, food containers, shampoo bottles, televisions, toothbrushes, phones, dental floss, razors—the list goes on and on. In 2014 alone, worldwide plastic production topped 311 million metric tons, and Americans threw away some 10.5 million tons of that plastic.

Yet, simple lifestyle changes can reduce your plastic footprint. Just ask Beth Terry, who went from throwing out 3.5 pounds of plastic trash in a single month to less than 2 pounds a year. She began “de-plastifying” her life in 2007 after reading about baby albatrosses starving to death because their mothers were feeding them plastics that visually resembled their natural food. “It struck me that the personal choices I make have a physical impact on other creatures,” she recalls. “I didn’t think it was fair.”

Terry did some research and started blogging about her personal journey to rid her life of plastics. She has since become somewhat of an expert on the subject. Her website, www.myplasticfreelife.com, offers detailed advice, as does her book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. Even though she can’t directly relate her good health to less plastic, Terry says she’s happy just knowing she’s doing her part for the environment.

To help you get started, Terry and another plastics-free blogger, Meghan Blanc, give their advice on alternatives to replace commonly disposed-of plastic items.

Start with the Obvious

To kick the ziplock and Saran-wrap habits, try stylish food pouches and bowl covers instead. (photo by Ami Maes)

Plastic bags and bottles are two of the worst environmental offenders, just because of their sheer numbers. Fortunately, they’re also easy to eliminate. Carry reusable shopping bags and a few smaller ones for fresh produce, instead of using the market’s plastic vegetable bags. Repurpose any bags you have on hand, like bread bags, chip bags, cereal bags, bagel and tortilla bags, frozen food bags and newspaper wrappers. These can be used for wet trash and pet waste, which will allow you to go liner free in your larger trash cans and use even less plastic.

A Colorado company, Two Plus Two, makes reusable bowl covers and food pouches with stylish designs to help you kick the ziplock habit. The food pouches’ liners are free of lead, BPA (bisphenol A, a chemical that can leach into food and beverages) and phthalates. They festively store vegetables in the bin until you’re ready to use them.  For your kids’ favorite smoothies and blended fruit and vegetable snacks, try Yummi drink pouches. The pouches are reusable, freezable and washable, and free of BPA, PVC and phthalates.

When it comes to plastic bottles, there are many alternatives. Terry uses a stainless-steel travel mug because it holds both hot and cold beverages, or a glass Mason jar with a metal screw-top. She suggests sticking with glass bottles when buying premade drinks such as tea, soda and juice. Cans and plastic bottles can have a plastic lining that contains BPA. Terry uses a BPA-free, reusable soda bottle for her home soda-water machine. An extra bonus: Her soda machine makes salt-free carbonated water. “I just add a twist of lemon, lime or cucumber to the soda and everyone loves it,”  she says.

Contain These

To freeze broths, soups, pestos and smaller food items, Terry uses inexpensive Mason jars. “The key to freezing in glass jars,” she says,  “is to only fill them to just below where the neck starts to narrow, and then let the jar defrost slowly in the refrigerator when you’re ready to use its contents.” Larger glass storage containers usually come with plastic lids, but many stainless-steel options are available online that come with securable stainless-steel lids. Terry stores frozen kale for her morning smoothies in a rectangular stainless-steel container. For the microwave, she uses a microwave-safe glass container and simply covers it with a paper towel to prevent splatter.

Plastic wrap, begone! Reusable, washable cloths made with beeswax-coated cotton hold their shape when molded around food items. (photo by Kelly Brown)

Reusable silicone lids come in all sorts of shapes to accommodate different pots and bowls, and their airtight fit keeps food fresh. Rather than covering food in plastic Saran wrap or storing it in produce bags, wrap it in a product called Abeego, a food-safe, reusable, breathable cotton cloth coated with beeswax that molds around anything. Bee’s Wrap is another sustainable food-wrap product. Both are biodegradable and compostable, and can be hand-washed and reused dozens of times. Visit www.abeego.com and www.beeswrap.com for info.

Takeouts to Try

Stainless-steel food containers with silicone lids are a healthier, more sustainable choice than plastic. (Photo by Ecolunchbox)

To-go containers are another easily replaceable item. Just remember to take a glass container or jar for leftovers when you eat out, or stow some in your car so you always have them on hand. Lightweight stainless-steel containers come in airtight, insulated, portable and nestable versions, with or without handles and compartments. When you visit a salad bar, use a bowl if possible instead of filling up a to-go container.

For picknicking, zeo-waste blogger Meghan Blanc uses metal camping cookware for transporting food and leftovers. “I just toss it in my bag,” she says. Non-plastic sporks are now available, as well as straws made of stainless steel, glass and paper, so no need to pack plastic utensils or straws. Just wash and reuse.

Revamping Packaging

Plastics are in most packaging, including those for bread, ice cream, cheese, coffee, coffee filters, chips, frozen foods and all sorts of other nonfood items. Even paper boxes for ice cream and frozen pizza are typically coated with plastic.

Reusable, washable cloths made with beeswax-coated cotton. (photo by Kelly Brown)

Terry suggests alternatives, like bringing your own reusable bag for fresh bread at the farmers’ market. Reusable hemp coffee filters can be purchased online, and rather than buying ice cream, make it a special occasion and visit the ice cream parlor instead. Most frozen foods have tons of plastic in their packaging, “even the organic ones,” Terry says. So if you’re serious about reducing your plastic footprint, those will have to go.

Bulk buying also helps. A lot of grocers now offer bulk items like grains, nuts, coffee, chocolate, peanut butter, shampoo, lotion, spices and more. Blanc brings her own glass jars and non-plastic reusable bags for bulk products. “I reuse glass jars that I got when buying another product,” she says. “I just clean and sterilize them and take off the labels so the scanner doesn’t get confused.” But have the store weigh your containers first before filling them so their weight doesn’t factor into the price. Some local stores that sell bulk items include Sprouts, Whole Foods, King Soopers and Lucky’s. Rebecca’s Herbal Apothecary sells bulk herbs and ingredients for homemade lotions, detergents, bath products and teas. And Simply Bulk in Longmont sells everything in bulk, including pet food, spices, personal-care products, herbs, birdseed and much more.

Breaking with Bath Products

Household items, like shampoos, conditioners, lotions, laundry detergents, cleansers, toothpastes and deodorants, typically come in plastic packaging. But there are all sorts of wonderful alternatives. Terry uses a rich shampoo bar (a soap bar made for hair) from Aquarian Bath. Apple cider vinegar mixed with water and rosemary essential oil can substitute for conditioner. It restores the hair’s natural pH and can be stored in a glass bottle.

For lotion, Terry places a glass container filled with coconut oil in a pan of water and slowly heats it until the oil liquefies, then adds a few drops of her favorite essential oils and lets the mixture cool and re-solidify in the jar. For deodorant, she uses a mixture of baking soda and tea tree oil, and her toothpaste is a refreshing blend of baking soda, salt and stevia mixed with a tiny bit each of ground peppermint, clove and cinnamon. “It’s in a tiny glass jar and I just sprinkle a little on my hand and then rub my brush through it.” There are also premade tooth powders for purchase packed in glass or tin, and some stores sell tooth powder in bulk.

Stainless-steel safety shavers are making a comeback and can replace disposable plastic razors. Find them in big-box stores and online, along with the refill blades.

Nontoxic soap nuts are a good alternative to laundry detergent packaged in plastic containers. Just put eight or so nuts in a washable bag and toss it in with the laundry. The nuts can be used up to a dozen times before they begin to disintegrate, at which point you can compost them. (Photo by Mangione)

Both Blanc and Terry use biodegradable, hypoallergenic, nontoxic soap nuts (actually, soap berries) for laundry detergent. They come in a box or muslin bag, and Terry boils about eight nuts in a gallon of water, steeps it overnight and then mixes in several drops of peppermint essential oil before storing it in a glass container in the refrigerator. She uses about a cup of the natural detergent per load, and adds white vinegar for the rinse cycle where the fabric softener would normally go. The vinegar “helps keep the tub clean and rinses soap residue from the clothes,” Terry says.

Alternately, place six to eight nuts in a reusable washable bag and put the bag in with your laundry. Remove the bag at the end of the wash and set it aside to dry. The bag can be used up to a dozen times before the nuts start to disintegrate. Toss used nuts in the compost.

When it comes to alternative non-­plastic products, it’s just a matter of buying or making them, Terry says. There are plenty of alternatives on the market, and lots of homemade recipes online. You may even find you like them better than their plasticized counterparts.

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