Plastic Problems – Your Choices

Is it a bag or is it a jellyfish? Sea life eat it to find out.

Is it a bag or is it a jellyfish? Sea life eat it to find out.

Is the logical conclusion to outlaw plastic? Probably not. My quick answer is that a ban would be fine with me, but I understand that we have built areas of our material culture around plastic. We would need a transition period to (and back to) other materials.

It may be that we have finally entered that transition period. I wrote Wednesday about those already saying NO! to plastics. And, plastic news is moving quickly. Even since I wrote Wednesday, Australia has a deal with retailers to phase out BPA (bisphenol-A) from baby bottles and the California Assembly passed a bill also to ban BPA in baby bottles. If you are concerned about the issues and want to be informed of changes, be sure to follow the work of plastic pollution activists.

Quick! What Are the Problems with Plastic?

The basic idea: the processing and many of the products are toxic.

Toxins can be found in plastic byproducts, plastic softeners (phthalates), some ingredients (BPA), and some situational instabilities in the materials after production (meaning some plastics will break down in heat or when in contact with certain chemicals). Some of the harm is immediate, and some of the toxins build up over time. The result of “pre-polluted babies” (a phrase used in a report from the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel in May) has alarmed many into action.

The basic idea: any resource that isn’t replanted (tree, corn) or recycled (water) isn’t sustainable.

Oil and gas as global power isn’t in dispute. The news gives us evidence of this on so many levels. Any business that can’t sustain its supply of raw materials, though, has to evolve or die. This probably explains why so many oil execs have gone into the algae business lately.

We can certainly expect more algae plastic in the future. When I see biodegradable plastic spoons made from corn, I wonder if I’m seeing something that is closer to the structure of rayon (turn bamboo or tree into cellulose goo through chemical treatment then pack it together like a very tight papier mache) than to petro-plastic spoons. If a renewable material is used as feedstock to make plastic, it is still has to be made into the same toxic chemicals with the same issues at each stage in the distilling (fractioning) process. So, making plastic from renewable materials doesn’t make it all nice and greenwashy clean, it just makes it a renewable source of potential toxins.

Peak Oil
The basic idea: since oil is a non-renewable resource, it is finite. We will use it up. Peak oil is the point at which we probably have already passed peak production—think, now. The reality is probably that as there are fewer cheap ways to extract oil we will resort to the more expensive and environmentally damaging ways to squeeze out every drop.

The question of oil and plastic will solve itself over time as we deal with ever-diminishing oil. Eventually, we will deal with diminishing natural gas as well.

The basic idea: we put a lot of energy, time, and money into single-use products like straws, bags, and disposable diapers only to toss them away after an hour or so. It makes more sense to put that energy, time, and money into a product that can be reused—unless your profit depends on planned obsolescence.

The issue isn’t just the nonsensical action of throwing away a barely used item but the issue becomes one of economics with the cost of dealing with solid waste (an issue every local solid waste department struggles with), space (same local solid waste departments), and environment (for anyone who prefers beach made of sand rather than plastic bits).

The basic idea: does plastic make you more happy?

Bhutan decided to measure what really mattered, so they have a Gross National Happiness measurement rather than Gross National Product. Included in their efforts to boost Gross National Happiness is a ban on plastic bags, which has been in place since 1999 and they are still working to enforce effectively. Recognition is one step; enforcement (or perhaps education so the recognition spreads) is another. What a great measure of what counts, though.

The Answer to Plastic Problems

I don’t claim to have all of the answers or even very good answers, but I do have a sense that we can’t just make minor tweaks around the edges of our plastic-enhanced lifestyles. What is sneaking up on us while our lives are turned to plastic are toxins in pre-polluted babies, oceans of plastic, destruction of land and sea, landfills full of baby feces, and so on.

Small changes won’t save us. We need big changes. Big changes are completely intimidating and tend to shut us down into inaction (yes, I’m speaking for myself). So, we need to inventory our lives and ask where we can make changes. Then DO IT! Once you make a big change, it’s exciting and empowering. You can make more and join with others who are making their own changes. It’s important not to make holier-than-thou judgments if you support others making their own changes (instead of your changes). Each of us will have to figure out where and how to remove plastic from our lives.

Need a place to start? FOOD. Do not use soft plastics to store or cook food. There. Simple. What’s next?

Plastic: Get a plastic bag at the mall
Alternative: Take a reusable bag to the mall
Change: Skip the mall

Plastic: Use a plastic, disposable diaper
Alternative: Use reusable diapers that are “like disposables”
Change: Use a low-impact reusable diaper or elimination communication

Plastic: Buy a shelf-full of single-purpose, plastic games for baby
Alternative: Buy a shelf-full of single-purpose, wooden games for baby
Change: Just buy a few wooden, silk, natural rubber toys for baby that require only imagination to become another game

Plastic: Buy 3 strollers for different purposes
Alternative: Buy one stroller
Change: Skip the stroller and wear the baby

To find the changes that work for you, inventory your house. What are the

  • plastic choices,
  • the alternatives, and
  • the big changes?

Start with one.

Image © Alexey Poprugin |

Who Is Saying NO to Plastic?

See plastic bags around the world at Guardian UK.

See plastic bags around the world at Guardian UK.

Shifting Costs Back and Forth

Externalizing costs is a clever strategy. When business off-loads cost of dumping waste or cleaning up the environment or treating medical conditions caused by their toxic stew, they have successfully externalized costs in order to realize greater profit. Nice strategy, eh?

Efforts to encourage lower impact products or just a reduction in stuff altogether are often a recognition that those costs belong with the producers and users rather than with those poor or unfortunate enough to be incidentally dumped on in the process of making and distributing stuff.

Once the costs of stuff like plastic become more clear, we’re more willing to change. Once we find out that babies are born toxic, for example, and we freak out saying, “How could this have happened?” and we find that we are better able to hear our options. We become more willing to consider changes in our collective lifestyles that will either internalize costs (choose a more expensive but less toxic alternative, like buying a hybrid car) or remove the costs altogether (stop doing the thing that requires the stuff choice, like walking, biking, or taking the bus or train instead).

Actually, I think the big changes, the regulated and legislated changes, come when we can show the costs very clearly. That’s when those to whom the costs have been externalized start lobbying for change. The people paying medical bills, the cities paying for waste pick up, the cancer centers tracing clear lines from product to patient, the clean-up crews combing beaches for plastics and the dead birds and sea creatures who eat plastics—these are the effective voices in making changes. When the shock of the costs becomes too much, we push for change justified in terms of measurements and costs. We change in order to save money now and later.

If that’s what it takes, that’s fine by me.

Who is saying NO to plastics?

My lists aren’t meant to be comprehensive. This is a sample to show that the tide is turning against plastics.

Plastic Bottles
Local rejection of plastic bags and plastic bottles is one of the big stories recently. There are a lot of reasons to ban plastic bottles. For some, the issue is molecular migration of BPA and other toxins from container to contents. For others, the issue is single-use bottles in landfill. Still others are more concerned with water privatization and the bottled water dependence that follows.

More from Inside the Bottle, Ban the Bottle, and the Polaris Institute.

Bisphenol-A (BPA)
Both Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have declared BPA a chemical of concern. As concern about this toxic plastic ingredient spreads, more cautions and bans follow. A group of 60 scientists urge a worldwide ban on BPA.

Plastic Bags
Plastic bags blow around. They blow into trees, and they blow into the sea, where they look like jellyfish and are eaten by sea creatures. Images of plastic bags are easy to find and difficult to forget.

This should be the easiest of these changes, since the costs are clear both to the consumer and to the environment, and the solution is simple. Plastic bags are so easy to replace, since a cloth bag will do. (Yes, remember to wash your reusable bag, since a study showed that bags can get dirty. Hello! Then WASH it, dear Liza.)

These are steps in helping us move beyond waste. Friday I’ll write more about that big change.

Great organizations doing good work on anti-plastic activism

Reduce First

Reduce Reuse Recycle

Recycling Bins

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and most municipal waste agencies focus on recycling. Understandable, since they deal with the waste when it leaves us, the consumers. Before you arrive at the recycling phase, consider whether you can avoid getting there at all. If your goal is to reduce the impact of your lifestyle, you would do better to take each of the Rs in order.


How conscious are we about the garbage and other stuff that comes into our houses daily? Before you arrive at recycling, ask if you need to buy that item that is going to be recycled. Can you do without it? Can you choose an option with less packaging, such as buying in bulk? How can you plan ahead for less waste by reducing what you buy?

We buy flour in a 25-lb bag made of heavy paper, but small bags of flour also come in paper bags. We buy rice in burlap bags, so we avoid the small plastic bags. Bulk food is an easy first step.

When you are looking at reducing waste that will need to be recycled, look for items that come in less packaging that is more easily recycled. For example, if you buy batteries two at a time in the grocery aisle, they come in heavy plastic clam-shell packaging that requires heavy kitchen shears to open then must be recycled. If you buy batteries by the dozen or more, they come in a cardboard half-box with light, shrink-wrapped plastic. Of course, if you use rechargeable batteries, you go through this step only once.

To take another example that seems to come up every couple of months, I look at my children’s worn out shoes and wonder how to reduce the need to throw away raggedy sneakers so often. Our answer is to buy the most durable shoes we can afford. This is less expensive in the long run, and we end up with fewer holey soled shoes in the garbage.


Before I buy, is there something else I can reuse first? When making a choice, is there something that I can use for multiple purposes?

Flat or prefold cloth diapers can be reused as rags. They make great cleaning cloths. A fitted diaper or a polyester cover can’t really be re-purposed in that way.

To take another example from recent family reality, when I can convince my daughter (older) to wear a gender-neutral winter coat, I know I can then hand it down to my son in a few years. If you have just one child or you can’t convince them to wear the same clothes, send the clothes to a consignment store so another child can wear them.


If you have already been through the first two stages, once you arrive at the recycling stage you have less to consider. Recycling costs more financially and environmentally. Recycling isn’t simply about buying a plastic water bottle that has the correct recycling symbol then putting it in a bin when finished. If that is all we do, we haven’t quite connected with the whole concept of Reduce Reuse Recycle.

Reduce and Reuse first. Then be sure to recycle everything that can be recycled.

And, when you have a choice, buy goods that are made from recycled materials to close the loop.

This post is for the Green Moms Carnival on Recycling Day hosted this month by Recycle Your Day.

Image © Zhong Wei Wan |