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

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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

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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

3 Months To Go: September Total

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-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

May’s Monthly Plastic Total

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Tucked into our bin, this month’s total seems neat and manageable.  A closer look, aka dumping it all over my kitchen floor, revealed an expanding smorgasborg of films, bags, caps, containers, bottles, tubes, and tubs.  Included in this pile I found:

-2 Bags stuffed with plastic bags and films (I couldn’t bring myself to individually count them all, this made up the majority of the pile)
-4 Chip Bags
-2 Bubble Wrap Padded Envelopes
-5 Mesh Bags (from lemons, limes, and garlic)
-1 6-pack holder
-1 Toothpaste Tube
-1 Tetra Pak (coconut milk)
-4 plastic cups
-20 Lids
-5 Tubs (cheese, yogurt, pomagranate seeds)
-6 Utensils
-2 Straws
-1 Coffee Bag

Titan being a very good boy and resisting the urge to bury his face in this pile of trash

Titan being a very good boy and resisting the urge to bury his face in this pile of trash

This month I decided to cut back on my totaling posts.  Without weekly tallies I was disconnected from what was accumulating in our plastic bin.  Once covered and out of mind, these pieces now bring back memories of a good times, like our reusable cups from the bacon and beer festival or the wrappers from healthy snacks we snuck into the theater to see the new Star Trek movie.  Dumping it out on my floor felt like flipping through a scrapbook, and I relived my month, good and bad, as I made piles of lids and shoved a bread bag full of plastic films.  In our fast-paced, throw-away culture we never contemplate the life of our waste after we throw it away.  For us, away is still here, in our crawl space.  And week by week be build a scrapbook of memories that will will rediscover at the end of the year.  There is no way we can ignore our plastic footprint this year.

Week 15’s Plastic Free Recipe: Chocolate Hazelnut Milkshake!

Week 15:
-2 Kale Ties
-2 Bread Bags
-1 Tortilla Bag
-1 Bagel Bag
-1 Honey Container
-1 Ketchup Bottle
-1 Tempeh Wrap
-Bubble Wrap and Inflatable Bags from Shipment (bulk of this week’s stash)
-1 Old Ziplock
-3 Misc. Films
-1 Pill Casing
-1 HDPE Tub (goat cheese)
-3 Cheese Wraps
-1 Band Aid Wrapper
-4 Lids
-2 Safety Seals

This week’s pile is filmy and puffy, with about half of its volume coming from bubble wrap and shipping film.  When compressed, it looks quite small, but dumped out the films spread themselves out and take up quite a bit of space!  This week I tried a new nut milk recipe, and I wanted to share it with you all.

I can’t remember when I stopped drinking cow’s milk.  Was it because of my distaste for the industrial food system that treats these animals with no compassion or respect? Was it to avoid the large ecological footprint that comes from the waste produced by industrial dairy farms?  Was it because the idea of breast feeding from a cow freaked me out? I couldn’t tell you.  Whatever made me do it, I am glad I made the decision now, for my body and the environment.

Many people find they feel much better when they switch to nut and seed milks.  Dairy cows are exposed to high levels of antibiotics, GMOs and hormones.  These toxins can end up in your glass, and in your body.  Your body will also thank you for the lack of lactose.  Our bodies are designed to consume our mother’s milk when we are little, but not as adults.  Lactose disturbs the digestive tracks of most adults.  Want less farts? Try nut milks.

We love nut and seed milks.  Almond milk continues to be our favorite.  I have used it for smoothies, cooking, and baking.  Unfortunately, almonds are expensive, so we have been making soy milk.  For a recipe for homemade soy milk visit our previous post.  This week I decided to try something new: a recipe for hazelnut milk taken from Good Girl Gone Green.

What you need:

-1 cup hazelnuts, from the bulk isle of course!, soaked for 4-6 hours.
-3 cups water
-1/4 cup sweetener (we used maple syrup, honey or agave would work too)
-1 Tbs vanilla
-2 Tbs cocoa butter or coconut oil (we didn’t have any so I omitted this)

What to do:

-Dump it all in a blender and puree it until you have foamy, delicious milk!

-You have the option of straining the milk.  If you don’t it will be far more nutritious, but quite gritty.  If you do it will be silky smooth milk.

Now, if you paid attention to the title of this blog, I said Chocolate Hazelnut Milkshake!  What we did was add 2 Tbs of cocoa powder and some frozen banana to the mix. Yum!

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No More ‘Poo

I have a confession to make….

I haven’t ‘pooed in a week.  No, I am not constipated.  In fact, I feel quite wonderful.  Last week I decided to join a growing underground movement dubbed “no-pooing” that supports shampoo free living.  This sounds strange in a culture that gets squirmy just thinking about going 48 hours without a good shampoo.  But the more I read about it, the more it made sense.

Beautiful hair! (after being shampoo free for a week)

Beautiful hair! (after being shampoo free for a week)

Think about it: just like there used to be a world without plastic, there was once a world without liquid shampoo.  Therefore, it is totally possible to live without it.  Then comes the question: “Well, do I want to live without it.  There was a world without penicillin too, but you don’t see me writing that off”.  Point taken, I am not saying we should live like cavemen.  But I do want to decide for myself what is good for my hair and body, rather than listening to advertisements and commercials that pay millions to get me to buy their product.  A good advertisement does not mean I need to buy into it.

Brandon showing off his shampoo skillz

Brandon showing off his shampoo skillz

Modern shampoo emerged in the 1930s.  Back then, it was a weekly ordeal.  It was not until the 70s or so that shampooing became a daily norm.  So I went back and looked at old pictures of my grandmother, to guage whether she looked like a smelly grease ball in the 50s.  Quite contrarily, I thought her hair looked voluminous, shiny, and strong!

So, why do we feel so greasy and gross after a day without shampoo?  Turns out, those powerful bubbles strip our scalp and hair of its natural oils.  Wait a minute, isn’t de-oiling the goal here? What’s the problem?  Our hair needs oil to keep that healthy strength and shine, so our scalp compensates after a good ‘poo, overproducing oil to make up for what it lost.  So the shampoo makes us dependent on it to keep the grease at bay.  Can I break this vicious cycle?

It’s worth a try.

So here are my 5 reasons to stop ‘pooing:

1. It is WAY less expensive.  A bottle of shampoo can cost you anywhere from $5 to over $20. You can buy a pound of baking soda for a couple dollars.  Our 32oz bottle of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar was about $5.  Strapped for cash?? Stop ‘pooing so much!

2. It is better for your body.  My last post talked about chemicals in liquid soap.  Shampoo often contains the same suspects.  Using some shampoos can expose your scalp and eyes to irritants, carcinogens, and allergens.  Why do we need to wash our hair with a concoction of chemicals cooked up in a lab?

3. It is better for the environment.  All those chemicals wash down the drain…. where do they do?  Our bodies aren’t the only thing dealing with the onslaught of plastic-era chemicals, the environment around us is too.

4. You gain power by not giving in to powerful advertisements.  Consumer power is one of our greatest weapons against corporate greed, yet many of us don’t realize it!  If we refuse to buy these chemical/petroleum laden products, powerful companies like Dupont will realize they need to provide healthier products.  Also, by opening our minds to personal care product alternatives, we have the opportunity to support small businesses rather than giant corporations, and help those businesses gain traction in today’s tough economy.

5. You can inspire your family and friends to ask questions about the ingredients in their personal care products.  Sure, you could keep your no-pooing a secret.  It’s weird, I know.  But by letting your friends and family in on your ‘poolessness you can start great conversations about everything from plastic waste to chemical toxins.  You can inspire people to think for themselves, rather than letting companies like Coka Cola and Dupont do the thinking for us.

How to No-poo

There are many ideas out there, so I encourage you to research your options!  The more hard-core no-pooers use nothing but water.  Not quite ready to take that plunge I use baking soda and apple cider vinegar.

1. Mix 1 T baking soda in 1-1.5 cups of water.  You can play with the amount to see what works best for you.  In the shower simply lather the mixture into your scalp and hair then rinse out.  Don’t expect it to lather, but never fear, its cleaning!

2. Also have a mix of 1 tsp apple cider vinegar and 1-1.5 cups of water (again, play with the concentration if you like).  I also add a couple drops of lavender essential oil so I smell all pretty.  Once the baking soda is rinsed out pour the ACV mix over your wet hair.  I try to avoid getting too much on my scalp.  Rise aaaand, voila!  Clean hair!

3. Once a week I plan on using a conditioner to make sure my hair doesn’t get too dry.  Because of the money I am saving on shampoo, I decided to get the best conditioner for my hair.  I landed on this one from Nurture my Body.  My standards for “best” are high: No parabens, no phthalates, do DEAs, MEAs, or TEAs, no colorants or dyes, no petroleum products, no 1-4 dioxane, no SLS, and what really sold me on this stuff was no plastic bottle!!!

Many no-pooers warn of an awkward adjustment period that can last for weeks or even months!  I honestly noticed an immediate improvement, and have felt less greasy since day one.  Perhaps I can owe my lack of adjustment period to the fact that I was using a super natural shampoo before the switch.  A switch from Herbal Essences to baking soda would probably prove more difficult.  My hair is not curly or dyed, so I cannot say how well this would work for other hair types.  For me, it’s been a week and at this point, I can honestly say I have no desire to ‘poo again.

Feeling Great!

Feeling Great!

Two Months Down

Week 8:

-1 Frozen Fruit Bag
-1 64 oz Almond Milk Tetra Pak
-1 Tempeh Wrapper
-1 Hummus Container
-1 Dish Soap Container
-1 Potato Bag
-1 Totrilla Bag
-1 Bottle Draino
-1 Chocolate Chip Bag
-1 Pizza Dough Bag
-1 Travel Lock Package
-1 Electronic Screen Wipes Package
-1 Johnny’s Selected Seeds Bumper Sticker
-1 Pill Container
-1 Pasta Bag
-3 Cheese Wrappers
-6 Safety Seals
-2 Lids
-2 Bread Ties
-1 Train Ticket

By the looks of it, this is our smallest pile to date!  Here are a couple key points about this week:

1. You are going to be seeing a lot less Tetra Paks in March.  I was clinging to store-bought soy milk’s delightful ability to remain suspended in coffee.  This week I decided that it is not enough of a reason to keep store bought, plastic contained milk when I can easily make it at home!  Sure, my home-made milks sink, but just what is it that makes store bought milk so creamy and long lasting? Is Carrageenen  that amazing? Why the Potassium citrate? Or even more mysterious, “natural flavors”?? Well homemade soy milk is cheaper and easy to make anyway (Click here to check out my previous post on how to make it at home!).  No more excuses!  In fact, I find I quite enjoy my coffee black.

2. We went bread free this week, just to see what it would do to our plastic stash.  There is no fresh bread source near our home (unless you count Panera…), nor do we have the time to make our own every week.  One thing we surely learned this week is this: we love bread. So bread bags will inevitably work their way into our lives.

And now, here comes the mothership: The monthly total for February!

Confronting our plastic waste in this way makes me so much more aware of the consequences of my actions.  I feel like I have more control over my decisions.  More power as a consumer.  And more respect as a cognizant habitant of this Mother Earth.