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

August Total: What a heap!

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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

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.

The Giant Pacific Garbage Patch

You have probably heard of the “Giant Pacific Garbage Patch”.  Google it, and you see images like this one:

Disgusting, right?! Well, I hate to break it to you but… that is not the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch.  Like with so many things, what you see in the media is not always factually accurate.  And the persistent myth that there is a floating island of trash swirling in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean is not an accurate description of what we find out there.  Last fall I had the opportunity to travel to the North Pacific Gyre and see it with my own eyes.

What is true is that there is a LOT of plastic in the ocean.  Our research expedition to the North Pacific Gyre found plastic in every single tow!  Plastic was found not only floating at the surface, but in our MOCNESS net, mixed by wind and wave down to depths of 30 feet.  95% of this plastic is smaller than your pinky nail.  SMALLER THAN YOUR PINKY NAIL!

So rather than finding a giant trash island, you find a plastic soup, seasoned liberally with tiny floating plastic bits and the occational larger dumpling, like a buoy or a capped bottle.

On our 37 day voyage we counted 66,077 pieces of plastic in our neuston, manta, and MOCNESS tows, and 2796 from visual surveys.  In total that is 68,873 plastic pieces! Remember, 95% of these pieces were smaller than your pinky nail.

Why is most this plastic so small? Just like we get a sunburn if we stay in the sun too long with no sunscreen, plastic gets sun damage, causing it to photodegrade, or break into smaller pieces. It is not biodegrading — these small pieces are just as persistent as a disposable bottle or utensil.  There is no huge floating island out there.  This microplastic problem presents different challenges than a trash island.

As plastic gets smaller, it becomes ingestible on every level of the food web, from zooplankton to albatross to whales and yes, even to us.  These plastic bits are known to leach and concentrate toxins. If these toxins accumulate in our food, they accumulate in us. Medical professionals are beginning to question whether the abundance of chemicals in the environment could be linked to rising occurances of diabetes, obeisity, autism and ADHD. Even though these plastic pieces are in one of the most remote places on the planet, they could be affecting our health.

The Giant Pacific Garbage Patch is not than a trash island.  It is a threat to marine life.  It is a threat to our health.  And as the creators of all this waste, we are the ones who can reduce our consumption, responsibly manage our waste stream, and innovate ways to create a better future.  Because of this, I write.

How do we study ocean plastic?

Since my voyage to the North Pacific to study plastic, I think the most frequent question I get is: “How big is the garbage patch?”.  What a simple question, with such a complex answer! First, I explain our voyage like drawing a line across a sheet of paper… how much can you learn about the paper by just looking at just that line?? The Pacific Ocean is HUGE, and so is its plastic problem.  It is going to take decades of research to get a better idea of how much plastic is out there.  Secondly, the amount of plastic is always fluctuating, with new plastic being added, and old plastic sinking or leaving the gyre and finding it’s way back to land.  Thirdly, it is hard to study plastic at sea.  Some floats, some sinks, some is ingested by marine life… how do you come up with a size of the problem?

Scientists are often limited by the technology that is available to them.  Perhaps someone will come along with a brilliant new innovation to determine the scope of the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch.  For now, the data set grows, giving us a bigger, but still incomplete image.  This is how we studied plastic as sea:

neusty

Neuston Net: This net is traditionally used to study plankton, the microscopic community of animals and algae adrift in the ocean currents.  The fine mesh of this net lets water pass through, but traps the copepods, pteropods, salps, and other alien-like creatures that call the surface currents their home within its folds.  Nowadays, this net is also frequently used to study ocean plastic.  We typically did neuston tows 4 times a day in the gyre, always towing at 2 anutical miles per hour for 30 minutes so all of your samples could be compared.

neuston

Manta Net: This is a neiston net with 2 fiberglass wings on the sides to stabilize it in rough weather.  Similarly to the neuston net, it collects samples from the surface only.

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MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Net with Environmental Sensing System)

This beast carries up to 9 nets on its heavy frame (we used 5).  These nets are programmed to openand close at different depths, allowing us to collect discrete samples not only at the surface, but at various depths as well! We towed the MOCNESS down to 10 meters (~30ft) and found plastic in every net!  Looking just at the surface does not give you a complete picture of how much plastic is out there!

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Stay tuned, next time I’ll write more about what we found :O)

Week 16: Introducing… Soap Nuts!

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-5 BandAid Wrappers
-1 Pasta Bag
-1 Produce Bag
-1 LAZ Parking Ticket
-5 Kale/Arugula Ties
-2 Toothpaste Tubes
-1 Bread Bag
-1 Mint Package
-2 Lids
-2 Field Roast Packages
-3 Safety Seals
-Misc. Bits and Films

It is hard to tell from the photo, but this week’s plastic stash is tiny! Definitely the smallest pile to date!  Perhaps Earth Day inspired us to have a particularly plastic-free week :O)

The rest of this week’s post is about how we got plastic out of our laundry routine:

Why give up traditional detergent? When it comes to laundry detergent it isn’t the plastic that concerns me the most, it is the nasty chemicals lurking inside.  A study in 2002 linked phalates, BPA, and triclosan to laundry waste water. Acting as hormones, the dosage of these chemicals doesn’t matter much.  Research indicates that levels as low as one part per trillion can cause adverse health effects.   Not worried? Consider the following:

“Adult men with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies are more likely to show signs of hormonal disturbance, including reduced sperm concentration and motility, increased damage to sperm DNA, and altered hormone levels (Duty 2003, 2004, 2005; Hauser 2007). Baby boys exposed to higher levels of phthalates in the womb or in breast milk are more likely to display reproductive system abnormalities (Swan 2005). And women with polycystic ovarian disorder, a leading cause of female infertility, or those who suffer recurrent miscarriages, are more likely to have higher levels of bisphenol A [BPA] in their blood (Sugiura-Ogasawara 2005; Takeuchi 2006). Though no epidemiological studies of triclosan are available, a recent animal study suggests that this substance may be a potent disruptor of the thyroid system (Veldhoen 2006).” (http://www.ewg.org/research/down-drain)

The damages of chemicals like these are not confined just to our own bodies, they also pose an ecological threat.  Once we are done with them, they go down the drain, and many times end up in wastewater treatment plants that effectively remove food and human waste, but were never designed to remove the broad spectrum of unregulated chemical pollution in our household products.  These hormone disrupters have developmental and reproductive effects on animal populations, and some chemicals bioaccumulate in animal tissues and come back to haunt us again in the food we eat.

Isn’t it important to know what chemicals are sneaking into our homes? I think it is, and after a bit of searching I found a hopeful alternative to keep the chemicals out of my clothes, body, and environment: soap nuts.

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Soap nuts are no more a nut than a jellyfish is a fish.  They are the fruit of the tree Sapindus Mukorossi, found primarily in the India, Nepal, and Indonesia.  This is no new thing.  The indiginous people of the Himalayas have been using these bad boys for centuries.  These dried fruits contain saponin, a natural substance known for its ability to cleanse and wash.  It is gentle and residue free, no sulfates, toxins, or harsh chemicals.  Soapnuts contain one ingredient: Soap nuts.  This makes them particularly great for people with sensitive skin, allergies or those of us just looking for a greener way to live.  Put in your laundry they are a 100% natural, 100% biodegradable, excellent alternative to traditional laundry detergents.  We decided to give them a try.

I bought my soap nuts from Laundry Tree.  I guess there are some sketchy soap nut distributors out there, so I went with a company that had great reviews.  There are so many things I love about this company.  They don’t hide the details from you.  They talk about where their soap nuts come from, and how they were harvested.  You can buy in bulk quantities, meaning less packaging.  They tell you exactly what you will get when you order, including how it will be packaged (which I am delighted to inform you is all plastic free, thanks to Beth Terry).  And they offer a 100% money back guarantee, so why not try them out!

When these morsels first arrived in our home, I was giddy about the packaging.

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Glass safely shipped without plastic!

Glass safely shipped without plastic!

Even the glass bottles of essential oil fragrance were cushioned with shredded, reused paper.  No Styrofoam.  No unnecessary bags or wrapping.  It was simple and minimal, just enough to transport my package safely.  So we opened the recycled paper bag and grabbed a big handful of our new soap nuts, curiously sniffing these exotic nuggets.  I will be honest, they smell weird.  A bit like vinegar.  We puzzled over these mysterious, smelly nuts for a bit, then excitedly gave them a try.

The soap nuts come with a small cloth drawstring bag.  You have 2 options for your wash.

1. Throw 4-5 nuts in the bag and throw it in with your laundry.  The cycle must be on warm for this method to work.  The nuts can be reused for 5-8 loads!

2. If you like to wash with cold water, prepare an easy soap nut soak.  It is as easy as boiling water.

The results were… clean! The finished laundry did not smell like the soap nuts at all.  Just clean, fresh clothes.