news and notes, Day 27 (with a video!)

It’s been 26 days of living without plastic, or trying, and it’s all good. Here’s some of what’s going on. I wrote to the Bear River Valley cereal people, who make delicious natural cereals and have a lot of info about green energy and how they purchase credits to offset their manufacturing. That’s awesome news, and I want to support the company. Here’s the gist of their response about plastic packaging on their cereals:
   “…When it comes to the packaging of our products, our first priority is to provide consumers with safe and fresh products. The polyethylene bags we use provide our customers with wholesome, quality products without the high cost of packaging materials. We currently use the lowest density poly material proven to keep our cereals safe and fresh. Unfortunately, this poly material is not recyclable and therefore, does not have a recycling symbol. We continue to review any new packaging materials that become available to us.
   “You may also be interested to know that we take environmental issues very seriously. We are committed to the use of renewable energy. We have active programs in place to reduce energy consumption and minimize water use. We also work with our suppliers, the government and the community to continuously search for ways to improve our own recycling efforts.
   “We certainly appreciate and share your concern for the environment. Your comments regarding the packaging were shared with our Marketing and Packaging Departments…”

So there you have it. If my rubric is to use no plastic, then I can’t purchase this cereal. The bags they come in, while less than the packaging you’d find on most other cereals, are here for eternity in landfill. Would you buy this cereal? I *love* their ethics. I *love* what they are trying to do. But isn’t there something they can do about the plastic? I very, very reluctantly have to say no to them, based on the plastic issue. And I’m sad to say so, because their cereals are also delicious. Poo.

In other no-plastics excitement, I painted a chair and did some decoupage over the past week, and instead of my usual (and much used) plastic drop sheet, I used an old bedsheet instead. It absorbed the paint and the glue and the projects did not stick to it. I believe the bedsheet can be used many, many times over again, and eventually will still decompose in landfill, though that begs the question about using paint that is unnatural in composition. Perhaps my next project will be to investigate natural pigments and milk paints. In the meantime, I’m using paint from my stash from Freecycle and redecorating on the fly.

I’ve been accompanying my daughter who is outfitting herself for a new apartment later this summer. We’ve been trolling the thrift stores looking for housewares. Along the way I’ve found a few items that further my no-plastics venture. Those include a fabric shower curtain that can be washed and reused many times over. If you’ve ever had a plastic/vinyl, shower curtain, you know that they are a mildew magnet, unless you spray them with a toxic anti-mildew spray every single day. If you try to wash them, they tend to tear. The ring-holes also tend to tear, especially if you have A Boy who thinks it’s a gymnastics event to get into and out of the tub. The kids never leave the curtain open to drip-dry so mildew creeps in even faster. You end up with a grody plastic shower curtain that you throw in the garbage because how could it be reused? Then you buy a new one that is so stinky with VOCs (that’s poisonous fumes, in the vernacular) for several days, and then the cycle starts again. I switched to fabric shower curtains a couple of years ago and have never looked back. They can be rewashed, and repaired on the sewing machine if necessary. We needed a shower curtain for our new Green House that I mentioned recently, so I was glad to find one for the same price as a cheap vinyl one ($3.99).

I also found a tall glass canister to store spaghetti, which means I can buy my pasta in bulk and have the right kind of jar to store it. I was also tickled to find a cheese dome, with a wooden base for slicing the cheese. The dome is glass and holds a nice seal against the air, so the cheese won’t harden up. This completely eliminates the need for plastic wrap or Tupperware for cheese. I almost bought more than one of these but restrained myself. One is plenty.
It sounds like I’ve been shopping like a 5th Avenue diva but honestly, not at all — these three items cost me less than $10 in total and I didn’t buy even one Prada bag or pair of $500 shoes. (Although my daughter did find a designer purse at ThriftTown and was very happy about it.)

I’ll leave you with this today:  A dear friend (thanks, Katje!!) posted this on my Facebook wall — watch it at your leisure — but it’s lots of fun about canvas bags, by Brit comedian-songster Tim Minchin… so how many words rhyme with plastic?

trash talk

I warned you we’d have to talk about the bathroom trash can. Put on your gloves and gas mask, because this one is a stinky topic.
What’s in your bathroom trash can? Compostables? Recyclables? Toxic waste? Biohazards? Betcha there’s some plastic in there, too. I was going to photograph what came out of our bathroom trash, but I got a little shy and a little grossed out, so never mind. Just use your imagination, and follow along as we parse what’s plastic and what’s actually garbage.

  1. Cotton swabs, aka Q-tips. Buy the kind with a paper/cardboard stick. Those can be composted or will disintegrate in landfill, while the ones with the pretty pink, yellow, blue or white plastic stems will not. Ever. (Not in our lifetime, anyway.)
  2. Cotton balls, hair from your hair brush, and wads of tissue are compostable — unless you used something toxic like nail polish remover on the cotton ball (garbage) or if you have a cold or communicable disease (garbage). Compost piles don’t get hot enough to destroy the virus from the common cold, and we don’t want your germs in the municipal compost piles, either. Don’t flush these items, as they get stuck in the water waste system, and no one wants your germs there, either (there are plenty of germs already).
  3. Toothpaste tubes, mouthwash bottles, cardboard toilet paper tubes, shampoo bottles, makeup containers, Kleenex boxes — if it’s plastic, paper or metal, chances are that it’s recyclable. Use all that you can, and then don’t be lazy — carry the packaging down the stairs and out the back door (or wherever) to the recycling bins.
  4. The plastic strip that comes around the neck of the mouthwash, the ambient plastic wrap around makeup, plastic film-wrap that comes around various other goods you use in the bathroom: This wrap may be recyclable in your area or maybe not. I take all plastic film-type wrapping (shrink-wrap) and bag-type plastic back to the grocery stores inside a plastic bag for recycling.
  5. Feminine hygiene products: Ladies, STOP buying one-use products encased in hard plastic. The Tampax Glide products are a one-use product that then sticks around in landfill for 1,000 years. Buy tampons in the cardboard tube if you must , but plastic tampon tubes are floating in our oceans, caught in fences and waterways around the world, and languishing in landfills (if you’ve ever done a beach clean-up, you’ll change your ways, guaranteed.). There’s no need to buy these. Same goes for the uber-wrapped maxi-pads, which are wrapped, then wrapped again, and also have a plastic strip on the bottom and are made from plastic/paper. Better yet, switch to reusable cloth pads (visit Glad Rags, check around on or check out the Hillbilly Housewife for a discussion of how easy and natural — and money-saving! — these are to use, and how to avoid the scam that tampon producers are perpetrating on supposedly smart Western women.) What do you think Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jane Austen and women in the Bible used in their day? A more modern take is the Diva Cup, available at health food stores or online, or if you have a diaphragm, use that every month as a menstrual cup. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — if you’re too squeamish to talk about or handle your own menses, go back to 7th grade and start over, or get a little therapy — it’s your own body and it’s perfectly healthy and natural. Don’t be a big baby.
  6. Hair coloring products: Every one of these boxes is full of plastic. They include a pair of gloves, a new bottle to hold the colorant, etc. If you want to color your hair, buy yourself a set of supplies (for about $10) at the beauty supply store, then just get the colorant every month or so. You’ll save a ton, and you won’t need to buy a new plastic bottle and gloves every time. Those gloves are good for more than one use, anyway. If you use it only once, it’s not a Good Plastic. Really!
  7. Toilet paper and soap packaging: These come singly or in a package of several, and the large packages are coated in plastic. Consider buying individual rolls of toilet paper, which come in paper wrap, and individual soaps in paper or boxes instead of multi-packs. You can finally use those gift and travel soaps!
  8. Toothbrushes: Our dentist gives us freebies every time — and we are encouraged to replace every three months. Do any of you recycle your toothbrush? Do you find a reuse for them? They are good for cleaning grout, scrubbing jewelry or small items, and also as a paintbrush for spatter paint. They make a good doll hairbrush or brush for your pet’s delicate face. However, there are only so many extra uses for used toothbrushes, so make sure you recycle them. Then, buy a wooden one from Bass (about $6 at the Alameda Natural Grocery store, or available online) or try the ones at this online shop. The one I bought is wooden with boar bristles, made in Italy, and can be tossed into the fire (if you need kindling) or composted when done. All natural, it’s biodegradable and harmless to the planet (except for the shipping from Italy). Don’t chew on the bristles (a bad habit of mine — I will fold laundry while brushing teeth and find myself chewing the bejeebers out of my toothbrush). Make sure to let it air dry, perhaps out of the bathroom, so it lasts longer.
  9. Razors: People, stop using one-use disposable razors. Spend a little more and get a razor handle with changeable blades. Then take care of your razor. Don’t leave it in a puddle in the shower. Dry it after use. Set it on the windowsill or on your dresser in the next room to dry. You can store them head down in a jar of isopropyl alcohol and they will remain rust-free virtually forever. Water ruins razors, so keep yours dry, and then you will use fewer blades and throw away less plastic. If you are a real Eco Hero, you’ll switch to a straight razor (the Dervaes family of Pasadena recommends these) or be a real hippy and stop shaving. As for the need to buy an aerosol can of shaving cream — stop (plastic!). I bought Mr. Husband a ceramic shaving cup and natural boar bristle brush 18 months ago and he *loves* them. He will never go back to a can of foam again. And you can buy some deliciously scented shaving soap on or at a local bath and body shop like sumbody.
  10. Plastic packaging from medications: Try to switch to a different size or ask if you can get a less-packaging option. Kaiser will work with you to reduce the plastic, but my insurance, Cigna, uses a mail-order system that does not allow for less packaging. Try, then, to recycle what you can: the plastic wrappings go in my plastic-bag-return to grocery stores, and the plastic bottles get recycled. In my over-the-counter meds, I make sure to buy a large-enough bottle of Claritin so I don’t get individually wrapped tablets, but rather a bottle of loose tablets.
  11. Cough drop wrappers: Try to purchase a brand that still wraps in waxed paper (compostable), such as Ricola or some of the Luden’s varieties. I also bought vitamin C drops from CVS in a square tube-like package that are wrapped in foil, then in waxed paper within, so there’s no plastic in the package. I find the vitamin C drops work as well for cough drops or hard candy, as the need arises.
  12. Magazines and newspapers: These need to get recycled in the regular recycling bin, not just stuffed in the bathroom trash.
  13. Plastic water bottle: Yikes! How did this get through my doors? You know that 9 out of 10 of these are not ever recycled, but trashed instead? Make sure you recycle all beverage containers, in whatever way possible. I think of them as money — 5 cents in California for every can or bottle, plastic or glass, that I pick up and return. We’ve probably earned $50 this year so far in collecting cans and bottles on our walks and from various parties. Again, do a beach cleanup some day and see how many of these you retrieve (especially the caps). You’ll never buy one again.
  14. Chewed gum. Yuck. There’s nothing you can do with chewed gum but put it in the garbage. I guess the thing to do is — not chew gum.
  15. Subscription cards, mail: Yikes, random paper in the bathroom garbage cans: pull it out and recycle it in appropriate place.
  16. Dry-cleaning bag: I thought we had dealt with these earlier in the month. Pull it out, put in the bag-recycling and return to grocery store. Your dry cleaner may also accept these to recycle, and you can ask for no bag next time.
  17. Button: Pull it out and put it with the sewing stuff.
  18. Fingernail clippings: See hair, #2, above. Also — yuck. Because these are down in the bottom of the can and loose, the best thing to do next time is to catch the clippings into a tissue and then put that into the compost bin.
  19. Hairpins: Set aside for daughter to ask for when she can’t find any in her bathroom.
  20. Apple core: Compost. Who eats in the bathroom, anyway? Yeesh.
That’s what was in our bathroom can. What’s in yours, and is there a way to recycle or make less of an impact with your bathroom trash? (I’m thinking of disposable diapers and wipes, daily facial cloths, false eyelashes, toxins, old broken jewelry, a single sock?)

green guilt, green quilt

The book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, has been recommended to me a couple of times and I wanted to offer it in case anyone else wants to read it. It’s on my request list at the library; I’ll post a review when I have read it.

Yesterday was a hot one — hot and smoggy, so they declared it a Spare the Air Day: don’t drive, don’t BBQ, don’t have wood fires, and try to keep energy use low. But I was in my car, driving up the highway to meet the roofer at our soon-to-be house, and man, it was really and truly hot on the road and smoggy in the air. I felt “green guilt” about the driving and have realized once again that my eco-lifestyle has become my new religion. As a recovering Catholic, I’ve noticed this before, and I won’t say a lot about it, just that I notice similarities in “doing the right thing,” “green guilt,” knowing “the litany” and “the sins.” Purging plastic is akin to a Lenten purge, isn’t it? Or maybe, since it’s supposed to be for life — a vow of celibacy from plastics? Something to think about as I ponder (pray?) over my choices and light candles instead of flick on a light switch.

On my journey through Sonoma County yesterday, I visited my parents, and my mom gave me some of her childhood toys to sell at an antiques dealer here in town. Apropos to our current conversation here about toys and plastic, it was interesting to see what her toys were made of:  paperboard puppets and doll furniture; Halloween masks made from starched and painted cheesecloth/muslin layers; aluminum and wooden pots and pans and rolling pins; cloth doll clothes and bedding; wooden beads to string. And the toys are still in good shape. Although there were choking hazards and perhaps lead paint in these older toys, at least they have held up over the years (70+). And they’ll eventually go back to the earth, since they’re all made of organic materials (the aluminum may take a little longer).

Chatting with my parents, who are children of the Great Depression, reminds me again of how many ways there are to do things: to save, to reuse, to resuscitate and revive. My father is an inveterate straightener of nails. My mother makes award-winning quilts (look for hers at the upcoming Sonoma County Fair) for the family, and as part of the Santa Rosa Quilt Guild’s ongoing mission to make baby quilts for the homeless or less fortunate. My parents use what they have, either in the barn or in the fabric stash, to make their creations. If you’re looking for inspiration on how to live with less plastic, look back a generation or two in your own family or neighborhood, and see what you can learn from our elders. (Feel free to post what you’ve learned in the comments section.)

For the past 18 or so years, I’ve slowly been working on what is perhaps the world’s ugliest quilt. I chose some rather bold purple, green, and hot pink fabrics back then, and set to work on it when Ana was a baby. Ana is 19 now, and I finally finished what I could with this ugly thing. I took it to my mother’s and we looked through her stash of fabrics, found some calmer green for the sides and back, and a friend of Mom’s is going to quilt it and finish the binding for me. There were several leftover squares from this Ugly Quilt (it’s so vivid that it will scare the beard off my husband when he sees it). My clever mother took the “orphan” squares and made a couple of baby quilts, using her fabric stash and some very calm lavender and dark green. The result of my mad fabric purchase from two decades back is that two babies will have handmade, warm, soft quilts to sleep in, besides the finished cover for our bed in our new (old) house.

There’s no plastic in this story, but there’s also no waste. There’s no trip to the dump, there’s no plastic bag, there’s no shipment from China, there’s no toxic side effects, and there’s no mountain of refuse. There’s fellowship, years of quiet handiwork; there’s the creative act and the act of sharing and giving. There’s the handing down of tradition, and the act of generosity toward others with less in their lives. I can’t think of a single negative in this story. And that’s a success, in a month of purging plastic or any time.

Guilt or quilt? I think I’ll take the latter.

the Ayatollah of plastic

Do you think I’m judging you? By the looks on people’s faces these days, they do. Since I started the Plastic Purge, just about everyone who talks to me says, “Well, it was plastic, but…” or, “You would have hated it, there was so much plastic…” and, “I know it’s plastic, but…”.  There are the more aggressive folks who kind of snarl at me, “Is that plastic? Are you drinking out of a plastic cup? Is your Bandaid plastic?”
It’s kind of funny. I suppose I’m making them think about their own choices, and that might make them a little uncomfortable. I’m not really the Ayatollah of plastic, though. I’m just a poor slob dragging along and trying to make plastic-free choices. If I were the Ayatollah of plastic, I’d start chopping off fingers for every infraction. You’d have 10 chances to mend your ways, and then you’d pretty much be hosed and have to live in my Plastic-Free World, under my rules. On your knees, heathens!

I’d much rather be the Green Queen (as opposed to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland). I wouldn’t say “Off with her head.” (Much.) I’ll say, “Off with your plastic!” and trade you a real silver fork for your plastic one, offer you a waxed paper bag for your sandwich, a ceramic mug for your beverage, a reusable canvas bag for your vegetables, and perhaps some wooden chopsticks or hair ornaments instead of plastic ones. Then we’d scamper naked with whales and butterflies and eat homemade tofu together happily under Mother Redwood Tree while fairies sang.

So back to reality. I spent some time Friday shopping for some necessary household items, and took a turn around the local mall just to see what kind of plastics were for sale, and what alternatives. In the clothing department store (Kohl’s), all that clothing has the stupid little piece of plastic with price tag, and their bags are plastic. I recommend that you take your own large bags when clothes shopping, and try to recycle those little plastic scraps in your weekly bin. The cosmetics counter is redolent with perfume and with plastic — hard to escape the cases and compacts. I was able to purchase a pretty, vintage compact the other day at Thrift Town for about $3, and that is refillable with powder. I notice that if you spend more, you can often avoid plastic — true in cosmetics as well as in food. Glass bottles of perfume and boxes of talcum powder are two pricey examples.

Bed, Bath & Beyond had many plastic and silicone choices for use in the kitchen. I don’t own any silicone products, and frankly am skeptical as to its safety with food use. We thought plastics and non-stick pans were fine until recently, when their toxicity was reported. So I plan to continue avoiding silicone bakeware for the foreseeable future. Call me suspicious, but I just don’t trust manmade materials, based on past performance (silicone breast implants, anyone?) However, there were many bamboo implements, cutting boards and practical items like towel bars. Bamboo is very sustainable since it regrows so quickly. Lots of glass and plain metal pots and pans, tools and gadgets, too. I also saw the eco-non-stick pans, but I think I’ll just leave these be for now.

Alameda Beauty Center has a very nice selection of sustainable and vegan hairbrushes and combs (vegan means no boar bristles). There is also a nice variety of Burt’s Bees cosmetics and soaps. Surprise! Burt’s Bees makes a spray deodorant in an aluminum bottle. It has a recyclable plastic cap and inner tube, but this is the first packaging I’ve seen that is not entirely plastic. I (heart) Burt’s Bees. We have often purchased large bottles of shampoo from the beauty supply store, because we figure that one large bottle is the same as three individual bottles, and less packaging is better than more. I don’t have a way to actually measure this belief — it would be a complicated algebraic formula.

“If gasoline costs X and the shampoo is shipped from State Y to State Z, and if the plastic is made in State F and shipped to State G for packaging, and if the shampoo is made from baby squirrels which are not endangered but the exhaust from the shipping kills X many squirrels on the road, then buying one large bottle of shampoo at Store Q is/is not a better eco choice.” (falls down in mathematical coma…)

If anyone can actually work out a formula like this so that we all have a simple rubric at hand, with a tap on the screen of our favorite pocket devices, please let me know. Is there an app for that? Until then, I’m going to continue to try and avoid plastic, excessive driving, imported items in general, and toxic substances.

By the way, Alameda Beauty Center has a nice punch card and takes off $5 when your card is full. I take my own bag because they offer plastic bags. As far as the mall, it’s also nice to note that See’s Candy is almost next door (at our mall), offers delicious free samples, packages mostly in paper and foil, and adds sunshine to my day. Plastic-free chocolate…mmm.

My last stop was at Beverly’s, where I fondled the yarns and stroked the fabrics and flipped through crafty books. Lots of plastic here, for sure — but also many paper-wrapped or unwrapped items, if you want to get your craft on. The bead aisle, scrapbooking and the fake floral departments scare me, with whatever mountains of plastic-making fumes spewed into whatever Third World country in order for us to make necklaces, memory books and floral centerpieces for our hapless friends and families. (This is as good a time as any to mention “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute short film by Berkeley gal Annie Leonard, which shows you the consequences of our cheap stuff and where it comes from and where it goes after we’re done. It’s online and it’s free. Be brave and watch it, and then tell me if it doesn’t affect what you plan to buy next.)

I didn’t go into Radio Shack, Anna’s Linens, Old Navy or Big 5 Sporting Goods — I was already exhausted from touching and looking and the smell of all that new stuff was actually beginning to nauseate me (really). But I imagine those stores, as in any store in any mall in America and beyond, that there is plastic aplenty, and that you can easily take your own bag, and that if you choose to avoid buying plastic, you probably can.

Caveat emptor, as always.


Here are a couple of wins for the record.
1) The Sunday newspaper came with no plastic wrap, per my instructions. (I forgot to mention it earlier in the week.)

2) I cooked a lot today — all of it without Teflon or the plastic utensils you need to use to avoid scratching the finish. In fact, I took all the plastic spoons, spatulas and sporks out of the drawer and all of the Teflon-coated pans, pots, cookie sheets and muffin tins out of the cabinet, and they are all ready to donate. My family is going to hate me.

3) The 7th-grade picnic went off without a hitch. I wrote a cheerful injunction to recycle everything, delivered the goods and then — let go of the angst. It was out of my hands, and out of my control. No guilt, no worries.

4) I went to check on the level in the garbage can — and was shocked to find it half-full — of mixed trash. Mr. Husband had cleaned his car and didn’t sort anything. There was no actual recycling in there, but stuff I would have considered green waste — cigarette butts, fast food wraps. More instruction needed in this area. I did not, however, dive in and sort it. It was too cigarette-ashy and yucky to touch. This isn’t really a win, I guess. Hmm. But…

5) Daughter Ana is talking up the Plastic Purge at work. My mom bought a reusable coffee filter. My friend Deanna bought clothespins. The world is a better place for these changes.

6) The last few items I ordered through Amazon have come in cardboard and paper only, no plastic. Yay!

7) We’re eating like kings here. Tonight: freshly made tortilla chips from the Mexican taqueria down the way, purchased in a paper bag and kept crisp in a sealed container. We’re having nachos, or open-face tacos, whatever you like to call them. Cheddar cheese from a local dairy, wrapped in paper. Lettuce from the farmers’ market. My own homemade hot peppers in a Mason jar (from last summer). Farmers’ market onion. Small dairy yogurt in place of sour cream — from a glass jar. Salsa in a jar. Ground turkey — yes, in styrofoam and plastic, from my freezer. But it’s the last package of styrofoamed meat in there, so from here on, it’s clear sailing.

8) School is finally out, and therefore, no more packing school lunches for 10 weeks. Yay!

9) Tomorrow is Friday and date night with Mr. Husband. We’ll make it plastic-free, somehow.