What does a year’s worth of plastic look like?

Like this:

Condensed version

Condensed version

Expanded version

Expanded version

It has been 365 days of saving every bag and bottle, lid and wrapper, tube and straw.

What did we learn from a year’s worth of plastic?

1. Plastic is EVERYWHERE.  And it can be quite sneaky too.  Straws would sneak their way into water at restaurants.  Plastic stickers are all over the place (see below).  Safety seals are apparently necessary on everything from pills to honey and oil bottles.  Despite our best efforts, our pile unavoidably grew.

Plastic stickers from produce and clothes

Plastic stickers from produce and clothes

IMG_6789

22 Almond milks

22 Almond milks

2. We have a sweet tooth for salty snacks.  As two busy commuters and hummus enthusiasts, we went through about a bag of chips per week.  Pictured below are the oddly beautiful 56 chip bags we extricated from our annual accrual.

Hummus, cheese, and other bins

Hummus, cheese, and other bins

3. Our communities need more local bakers!  It looked like by far the bulk of the volume we created (when uncompressed) was bread bags.  We didn’t have the time to bake our own and we did not want to go bread-less.  Try as we might, we could not find a good, local bread source were we could pick up our bread plastic free.

4. There is SO much we can do to reduce our plastic footprint!  This year we invested in stainless steel ice trays, bamboo utensils, glass straws, soap nuts, Glasslock tupperware, and Cuppows.  I sewed homemade produce bags and napkins that we wash and reuse.  We now dilute our dish soap and prolong the life of one bottle for months longer than we formerly could.  We quit ‘pooing (resulting in by far our most popular post of the year, check it out here) and now use baking soda and vinegar to wash our hair.  We made our own household cleaners and soy milk, and grew vegetables in our garden.  This project was an inspirational catalyst for change, and we are excited to keep up these plastic-reducing habits and keep searching for ways to support local businesses that promote a zero-waste lifestyle.  This may be the end of our plastic hoarding, but it is just a part of our lifelong learning journey.  Cheers, may the adventure continue!

Happy New Years!

Kim, Brandon and Titan

November Total: There is no away

-7 Chip Bags
-5 Mesh Bags
-1 Organic Cane Sugar Bag
-12 oz Coffee Bag
-1 Padded Envelope
-1 Decrepit, Reusable Grocery Bag
-3 Almond Milks
-1 Orange Juice Container
-12 oz Sparkling Water
-2 Thin Plastic Packaging (bread, TP)
-3 Dog Biscuit Bags
-2 Noodle Bags
-Frozen Pea Bag
-5 Bread Bags
-2 Gallon Ziplocks
-Miscellaneous Film
-1 Pretzel Stick Bag
-1 Computer Mouse Packaging
-2 Cranberry Bags
-6 Cheese Bags
-1 Organic Condensed Milk Container
-1 Shredded Cheese Container
-1 Basil Container
-18 Lids
-2 Single Use Coffee Lids
-1 4oz. Saline Solution Bottle
-2 Styrofoam Plates
-1 Polypropylene Food Bowl
-1 Pill Container
-1 Toothpaste
-2 Condiment Cups
-1 Pen
-1 Fork
-4 Vegetable Ties
-1 Vitamin Package
-1 Bread Tab
-2 Bar Straws
…and a smorgasborg of other bits and pieces

This month I investigated where “away” is when I throw items in a local trash bin.  It turns out that they get trucked to the Southeastern Massachusetts Resource Recovery Facility SEMASS waste-to-energy facility in West Wareham run by Covanta Energy.

SEMASS Waste to Energy Facility

SEMASS Waste to Energy Facility

On November 22, 2013 I met Patti Howard to get a private tour of the SEMASS facility. Patti greeted me with a firm handshake and a big smile. She has been working at SEMASS for 20 years, first as an accountant and now, because she is a “people person”, as a MSP program coordinator giving tours and presentations about the benefits of incineration. As she gave me an introduction to the facility it was obvious that we were getting into controversial territory. A woman clearly accustomed to conflict, Patti started by admitting that waste to energy facilities are not popular with everyone, but she stressed that people need to “have all the facts” before making judgments about it. She consistently tended towards defensiveness and chose her words deliberately throughout the tour.  She spoke with a firm conviction that we need to reduce our waste coupled with a harsh realism about the amount of trash we currently produce. She said that they Covanta sees trash as a resource and that it is much better to incinerate it than put it in a landfill. When my trash arrives at SEMASS it is dumped onto the “tipping floor”, an expansive room that holds mountains of trash that are inspected for hazardous materials (like propane tanks) and where most ferrous metals are removed with magnets to be recycled. At this point Patti noted with pride that SEMASS is the “largest recycler of metal in Massachusetts”, recovering nearly 40,000 tons of ferrous and non ferrous metals every year

The Tipping Floor

The Tipping Floor

SEMASS currently combusts over a million tons of waste a year, providing 25% of the “renewable energy” in Massachusetts. The facility qualifies as a Class II renewable energy source, giving 50% of its renewable energy credit value to boost local recycling programs. They are able to produce just under 600,000 megawats a year, or enough to power 75,000 homes. But is this the “clean, renewable energy” that Covanta claims it to be?
One of the challenges of incineration is pollution. Even the fanciest modern incinerators send CO2 and supertoxins like dioxins and furans into the air. They liberate toxins bound up in our industrial and municipal waste and release them into the air and water. This inevitably includes chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and developmental, endocrinological, neurological, circularoty and reproductive problems. Combustion can even create new toxins that were not in the original waste, like dioxins that are created when items containing chlorine are burned. Globally, incinerators are the leading source of dioxins.
Incinerating does not make waste disappear, it produces ash. “In general, for every 3 tons of waste one shoves into an incinerator we get one ton of ash that requires landfilling” (Annie Leonard The Story of Stuff, 2010, p. 424). The ash is more toxic than the original waste, containing concentrated heavy metals and pollutants. About 1/3 of the SEAMASS facility is devoted to processing the ash, and their emissions of heavy metals and other pollutants consistently measure 60-90% below EPA limits. To avoid groundwater contamination SEMASS collects rainwater in three onsite ponds and has a water treatment plant on site. They also utilize local landfill leachate to meet almost 30% of its water needs and conserve roughly 40 million gallons per year of groundwater resources.

Boiler Aggregate Ash

Boiler Aggregate Ash

Covanta boasts that this ash can be used as landfill cover and does not emit methane like decomposing landfill waste. It has potential to be used as a building material but has not been approved by the state of Massachusetts. It sounded like regulations on incinerators in Massachusetts are stringent and that Covanta was making a sizable effort to “green” their business, but as my nostrils protested the nauseating decomposition and chemical smells throughout the facility I thought it was a stretch to call this energy “clean”. When I asked Patti if the workers at SEAMASS showed physical effects from working at SEAMASS she assured me that HEPA masks were used when appropriate and that high risk workers were tested multiple times a year for negative health effects. If our communities were to shift our focus away from toxin releasing incinerators and towards zero waste programs we could create more jobs. “For every dollar invested in recycling ad zero waste programs, we get ten times as many jobs as in incineration” (Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, 2010, p. 429). Not only are there more jobs, these jobs are also cleaner and safer jobs that help conserve resources and create a more long-term solution.
I also think that it is a stretch to call this energy renewable. Ultimately, they depend on fossil fuels and trees for much of their fuel. Recoverable energy could be a more appropriate term. At least 15% of what they combust is food waste that could instead be composted and reused as fertilizer. They burn valuable resources and I can’t help but think that we could produce more energy by conserving rather than combusting. It is like choosing between pulling the plug or turning off the faucet to lower the water level in a bath tub. Turning off the faucet has a less immediate effect, but the tub will never really be empty if you leave it on.  I would much rather see comprehensive composting and reduction initiatives in my town than an incinerator. Until we change our minds over to a reusable mindset, this incinerator will keep on burning. Visiting this incinerator made me more proud than ever of the efforts we have taken this year to reduce our waste!

Sources:
Annie Leonard: The Story of Stuff
Susan Freinkel: Plastic a Toxic Love Story
Charles Moore: Plastic Ocean
SEMASS website and personal communication with P. Howard

October Total: Ice Ice Baby

IMG_0139

-11 Bread Bags
-9 Chip Bags
-7 Almond Milk Jugs
-1 Orange Milk Jug
-1 Toilet Paper Bag
-Packaging from online orders and clothes
-Styrofoam from TV screen
-2 Dog Treat Bags
-4 Shipping Envelopes/bags
-1 Beyond Meat Package
-1 Liquid Dish Soap Bottle
-2 Old Ice Cube Trays
-1 Cranberry Bag
-1 Brown Sugar Bag
-1 Bag Coarse Wheat Bran
-1 Lotion Tube Container
-1 Q Tip Package
-1 Listerine Bottle
-1 Apple Picking Bag
-1 Almond Meal Package
-3 Rice Noodle Package
-1 Celery Bag
-1 Broken Dog Leash
-1 Bottle Keratin Therapy
-2 Raspberry containers
-1 Apple Cider Donut Container
-1 Pistacio Container
-1 Currants Container
-1 Bottle Kefir
-5 Fromm Dogfood Sample Bags
-1 Basil Bag
-1 Produce Bag
-1 Dog Leash Container
-1 Tooth Brush Container
-10 Cheese Wraps
-1 Sponge Wrapper
-1 Motzarella Container
-1 Hummus Container
-2 Beer Sample Cup
-19 Lids
-3 Mesh Garlic Bags
-1 Mint Container
-3 Spoons
-3 Pill Containers
-2 Pens
-1 Toothpaste Tube
-2 Acai Packages
-3 Straws

A big pile this month.  I can’t believe we only have two months to go!  It is going to be hard to break the habit of hoarding straws home in my wallet!

This month I want to feature a fun new plastic-free item: Ice Cube Trays!  We had these old trays that I inherited from my parents, I remember them from when I was a kid.  There are no markings on them, no labels.  I was never confident that they were BPA free or safe for our bodies.

IMG_0206

 

Then I heard about Onyx Stainless Steel Ice Cube Trays.  We ordered two online and immediately put them to use. IMG_0195IMG_0202They are so easy to use, just pop up the handle and the ice separates.  Now we finally have a plastic free way to make ice-cubes.  Just one more small step towards a healthier and more sustainable future :O)

 

3 Months To Go: September Total

IMG_0087

-4 Almond Milk Bottles
-1 Uncle Matt’s Orange Juice Bottle
-2 25 Pound Dogfood Bags
-8 Chip Bags
-11 Bread Bags
-1 Toilet Paper Wrapper
-4 Bunched Basil Bags
-1 Carrot Bag
-Packaging for L L Bean sheets, pillowcases and towels
-1 Coffee Bag
-2 Avocado Bag
-1 Lime Bag
-6 Produce Bags
-2 Dog Treat Bags
-2 Toothpaste Tubes
-1 Raspberry Container
-1 Chocolate Covered Graham Crackers Container
-1 Tofu Container
-20 Lids
-3 Cheese Films
-1 Ziplock Bag
-3 1 oz. Spice Containers
-2 Airbourne Tubes
-1 Vegan Marshmellow Bag
-1 Sundried Tomato Packaging
-1 Earthbalance Bin
-4 Contact Cases
-8 Lobster Bands
-1 Plastic Cup
-1 Pill Container
-2 Pens
-Miscellaneous Bits
-Miscellaneous Films and Bags

There you have it, the plastic footprint of 2 people and a big fluffy dog for the past month.  It’s not pretty, and it reminds me of the places where I have been slacking (bread).  There are too many bags this month, definitely something to be more aware of.

If you have been following us, you may know this already, but its been on my mind this week as I restocked out cleaning supplies… toxicity.  Most people out there are aware of BPA, or Bisphenol A.  BPA mimics estrogen, a hormone linked to everything from fetal development to metabolism.  Guys, this is not just a female thing, you have estrogen too!  It is a key player in the maturation of your sperm and may even be necessary to have a healthy libido.  It makes sense that we do not want BPA in our bodies messing with our development and a couple years ago there was a big push to get it out of our waterbottles.  But did you know that BPA is still in the lining of most cans? (This is why I do not drink beer out of cans)  You can find guides (like this one) online to help you identify companies that took the CPA out of their canned goods.

It’s not just BPA we need to think about.  There are thousands of ill-studied chemicals in the products we use such as detergents, soaps, household cleaners, toothpaste, shampoos, and other toiletries and cosmetics.  This became increasingly apparent to me when my allergist told me that I was severely reactive to Thimerosal.  Thimerosal is a mercury based preservative that was routinely used in childhood vaccines in the past but has fallen out of favor in recent years.  It is 49% ethyl ethyl mercury, which is recognized as a potent neurotoxin.  The FDA banned the sale of topically applied antibiotics containing thimerosal in the 1980s.  Nevertheless, Brandon and I were able to identify it under different names in multiple products in our own bathroom!

Why are companies allowed to put harmful chemicals in our products?  Shouldn’t we be able to trust them to do what is best for their customer’s health? The short answer to this question is no.  Producers do not have to prove that a chemical is safe before putting it in their products.  It is up to us to prove harm (which is very hard to do!).  Every day we are exposed to harmful chemicals in our household cleaners, toiletries, and many other products.

The best thing to do is to be as informed as possible and make the best choices for you and your family.  So here are some resources to get you started!

-Watch Chemerical!.  This documentary follows a family as they challenge themselves to rid their home of harmful chemicals.  This ends up being a lot more challenging than they expect, but rewarding in the end.  You can stream it on Netflix, check it out!

-Look up the products you use and find out more about what is in them.  http://www.goodguide.com/  and http://www.ewg.org/ (Environmental Working Group) both offer easy online guide that allow you to search for and compare products as well as learn about ingredients and find healthier options.

Lastly, I will share with you my recipe for our household all-purpose cleaner.  Last week Brandon was using it to clean our kitchen and couldn’t believe it was homemade!  Not only is it way cheaper to make it yourself, it is also free from the harsh chemicals in factory made cleaners :O)

-Combine 1 tsp. Borax, 1/2 tsp washing soda, 1 tsp of Dr. Bronners liquid castile soap, 2 cups of water, and essential oil as preferred (I used about a 20 drop combo of lavender and eucalyptus).  Mix it up and you are done!

Simple DIY cleaners

Simple DIY cleaners

August Total: What a heap!

IMG_6418

Total:

1 25 lb Dog Food Bag
8 Chip Bags
17 16oz Single-use Water bottles with caps
2 48oz Almond Milk Bottles
1 Gallon Distilled Water
2 Amazon Shipping Package
1 Sugar Bag
5 Dog Treat Bags
2 Toilet Paper Bag
9 Bread Bags
6 Produce Bags
1 Miscellaneous Plastic cover
1 Miscellaneous Wraps and Films
1 Stapler Package
1 Headphones Package
1 Soy Milk Container
1 Ziplock Bag
3 Cheese Film
2 Frozen Fruit Bags
4 Toiletries Bottles
1 Avocado Bag
15 Lids
1 Fire Wood Mesh
6 Plastic Containers
2 Plastic Cups
1 Small Plastic Plate
5 Pill Containers
2 Glue Sticks
1 Parking Ticket
1 Toothpaste Container
4 Contact Container
1 Fork
Ipad Mini Case

Titan, always down to get his face in our trash, has proven himself a great model, giving scope and scale to our monthly plastic piles.  This one, as you can see, is huge compared to many previous months.  It left us shaking out heads and vowing to do better next month.  This is the point right?  To see the damage we have done?  To know that there is no “away”?  To feel the repercussions of our daily choices as they add up over the year?  I am already dreading the annual total, but I am also excited.  This year has taught us so much, and we have made some meaningful changes to reduce our plastic footprint.  Here are some highlights:

1.  Still no ‘poo.  That’s right, I have not ‘pooed since March, and Brandon hasn’t ‘pooed since 2 months ago.  (I mean shampoo of course!) And to be honest, we don’t see ourselves ever going back to our old ways.  My hair feels healthier and my reason for showering is never “my hair feels greasy” anymore.  But the best part about it is that by using baking soda and apple cider vinegar on our hair the only plastic we produce is the plastic cap to the vinegar bottle, and we are not using any nasty chemicals on our bodies or putting them into our wastewater.  It feels good to no-poo!

2. Never again will we wash chemicals through our laundry again either because, quite frankly, soap nuts rule!  We started using soap nuts in April and have been impressed by their natural ability to clean.   In addition, we are thrilled at how long they last!  I feel like our bag of soap nuts is just as full as when we got it in April.  If you want to give them a try I highly recommend The Laundry Tree because of their commitment to plastic-free, recycled packaging.

Never going back :O)

Mother Earth, I apologize for our pile this month.  We have had victories and failures, and learn more about ourselves and our relationship to you every day!

Homegrown :O)

Homegrown :O)

~Kim

Potato Chips and Ear Plugs: July’s Plastic

July’s Plastic

-2 Califa Farms Almond Milk Bottles
-1 If You Care Dish Soap Bottle
-14 Small Chip Bags
-2 Big Chip Bags
-2 Quorn package
-1 Frozen Corn Package
-3 Dog Treat Bags
-4 Bread Bags
-1 Pizza Dough Bag
-1 Tortilla Bag
-5 Produce Bags
-2 Polystyrene Containers
-22 Daily Contact Cases
-1 Disposable Razor Head
-2 Disposable Water Bottles
-2 Cereal Bag
-10 Lids
-1 Container for Chocolate Covers Graham Crackers
-2 Ear Plugs
-1 Trail Mix Bag
-1 Pretzel Bag
-5 Electircal Tape Cases
-5 Cheese Films
-3 Food Containers (Veggie Cream Cheese, pesto, and unknown)
-1 Frozen Dog Treat Container
-2 Pill Containers
-1 Nature Valley Granola Bar Bag

Titan always gets excited for the end-of-the-month plastic count.  As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and this month Titan scored my used earplug, seasoned by my inner ear as I spent 3 weeks sleeping in a tent in down east Maine.  Those little foamy nuggets helped me sleep through rainy nights and thunder.  They were then going to provide Titan an indigestible snack, but I managed to chase him down and steal it back before that happened.

July was an unusual month.  I (Kim) was away in Maine starting my grad school program.  Eating in a cafeteria, I couldn’t help but feel like a liar when I brought my plastic home.  My portion of this pile is small, but most of the plastic I used this month was indirect, behind the scenes.  I was also issued an extraordinary number of potato chip bags, which my beast of a stomach gladly accepted, and I wore contacts a lot more than usual.  Brandon is working hard at his school’s summer session/camp.  A portion of our plastic came from the projects he did with his students (bottles), or from his lack of time to cook (aka cereal).  We didn’t realize just how much we balanced each other’s time with cooking and taking care of Titan until I left!  It is so lovely to be reunited after 3 weeks apart :O)

Some plastic-free victories of the month:

-Seeing everyone show up in Maine with Tuperware containers!  Not a single ziplock baggie was used for sandwiches and snack, huzzah!

-Per my request, a bar brought our group’s beers in glass, even though they were serving other’s in plastic.  And all of our waters came in glass AND straw free! Bravo!

-Meeting Bill Coperthwaite, who has the rare propensity for making everything with his own hands.  His yurt (put together without powertools in the 70’s and still holding beautiful and strong) was equipped with hand carved wooden spoons, bowls, even a tape dispenser!

Bill's Yurt!

Bill’s Yurt!

What plastic victories did you have this month?

Life in Bloom: June Plastic Total

June passed by in a rainy blur, ushering in summer so fast it feels like winter never happened. The plastic pile in our crawl space grows, and it turns out a month of plastic for the two of us and Titan (dog) fits quite perfect inside a 25 lb dogfood bag.  Per usual, mostly film… bread bags, food wraps… a couple Tetrapaks, a couple bags of chips, some old toothbrushes, lids, inevitably a couple sneaky straws.  As the year goes on, we seem to have hit a plateau.  The pile is not alarming or troublesome by American standards.  No water or soda bottles.  No produce bags.  No processed food.  Yet, we cannot seem to reduce in the past couple months.  Partially it is a symptom of where we live.  Bulk isles are hard to come by.  So is a fresh bread source (there are a couple, but they are 30 min away!)  Local businesses are taken over by larger corporations.  Without local businesses, we sometimes have to buy online, and end up with bulky plastic packaging as a result.  Out culture does not support a life with reduced plastic.

One thing that we LOVE about summer is the supply of fresh produce.  This year we are receiving weekly drop offs from an organic CSA, supplemented with a bounty from our own home garden.  This year we grew our whole garden from seed; here is a snapshot of how it is coming along!

IMG_6036IMG_6038

Beautiful Eggplant :O)

IMG_6037

You can see scallions on the left, kale on the right, and tomatoes in the back, yum!

IMG_5968

Scallion :O)

IMG_6046

Broccoli on the patioIMG_6048

This might be my proudest sproutling, I cannot believe this was just a seed a few short months ago!IMG_6045

Patio carrots = genius!!!IMG_6052