what’s good enough for me —

—isn’t always good enough for others. I think. I kind of failed as far as plastic and procuring food for The Boy’s 7th grade picnic tomorrow (the last day of school, at last!). They were desperate for anything for the kids, and there was low parent participation over this event — the only thing they had was tomatoes. There’s something like 150 7th graders. I looked at the food list and volunteered to take brownies, some beverages, hot dogs and buns, and potato salad. I had some potatoes, and figured I’d just grab a package of hot dogs. It’s $1 for eight, right?
Heh heh. Sure, for the plastic-wrapped hot dogs, it’s $1. Sure, about the same for a plastic bag of bakery buns. Sodas? Juice? Cups? What to do? I went to the regular grocery store, Lucky, again pushing my cart through the aisles with increasing desperation. Can I send glass to a school function? I’d better not — liabilities, middle-school roughhousing, someone will get cut and they won’t recycle the glass. Soda is bad for them. So is the fake fruit punch. Real orange juice comes in a gallon but has to be kept cold. Real juice costs a fortune. Water? They didn’t ask for water. Water in plastic is a differnt kind of scourge (did you know that 9 out of 10 plastic water bottles are not recycled?)

Round and round went the internal argument. They also need cups. Should I get the plastic cups made of recycled materials? Guaranteed, no one will recycle them afterward. Paper cups? But they come in a plastic bag. I will get aluminum pans for the brownies and potato salad — there are recycled options there. But — oh, no! The aluminum trays are wrapped together in plastic? What if I get this one without plastic? Well, it’s a turkey roasting pan. No plastic, but it’s way too huge to bake brownies.

What can I get in bulk, to feed a lot of kids, not break the bank, and still avoid plastic? What can I do to minimize the impact, staying true to my cause? Budget, time crunch, other obligations, driving around…

So I compromised. I bought more potatoes, loose from a bin instead of a plastic bag. (They cost about twice as much or more then the plastic 10-lb. bag.) I bought a pack of buns and a pack of hot dogs. I bought two reasonable sized aluminum pans strapped together with plastic. I bought a gallon jug of the least-worst fruit punch I could find (Hawaiian Punch, yuk) and a plastic-wrapped package of paper cups. I plan to mitigate the plastic by removing the plastic bags from the buns, pans and cups, and recycling those myself. I will package everything in foil or waxed paper, in a large paper grocery bag, and deliver it myself to the park, so it will stay cold and won’t get too squashed by 13-year-old kids forced to lug supplies. I will add stick-on labels that say PLEASE RECYCLE ME to the juice and aluminum pans. Maybe someone will.

I’m making potato salad and the brownies tonight. But I must confess to pretty grueling feelings of failure and frustration. I have to just stop and step away from the guilt, I guess, because most of this school outing is out of my control. Geez, I can’t prevent the world from using plastic! I could have gone to three different places to get exactly the right thing (whole wheat bakery buns, hot dog links, recyclable cardboard cups, or pretty baby unicorn horns). But reality strikes: Who has that kind of time? Who, even the least considerate gas-guzzling tree-hater, can afford to blow money on expensive fuel to go to a couple of different stores for the right thing?

The bottom line for today’s adventures is that some times you compromise, make the least-bad choices, and do what you can within your means. I hate — HATE — that my choices are so limited, however. I really hate that I have to choose between money and good food, or good food and perceived fears of hygiene (plastic = “cleaner food” to some people). I wish I could afford to feed a whole class of middle school kids a good meal that doesn’t harm the planet or their bodies. I wish, I wish…

Oh, the dreams of a bleeding-heart treehugger. How they flutter in the wind.

flea markets and thrift stores

I spent Sunday meandering around the ginormous antiques fair in Alameda and Monday I did research at several local thrift stores. In all of my travels, I looked at how much plastic is discarded and reused, as well as what alternatives there are for non-plastic use in the home. The items in the photo are some of my finds. I’ll name them, clockwise: ice tray, canisters, cheese grater, nut chopper with new red handle, soap-chip swisher, lawn sprinkler head, jar grabber and fireplace bread toaster. The item in the center is a wall-mounted bottle opener (obviously not mounted anywhere yet). As I start to weed out some of the plastics in our house that may actually be harming us (Teflon, for example), I have been looking out for non-plastic items that would work just as well.
The nut chopper has a plastic top that broke when someone dropped it, but instead of discarding it, I found a new handle, a wooden one for 10 cents, as I mentioned the other day. This way, I can keep using the nut chopper as long as no one else drops it. If they do, I’ll then see about replacing the plastic lid with a metal one, so I can keep chopping nuts the old fashioned way (no electricity).
I don’t expect to use the bread toaster so much, except when camping or cooking out, but it’s nice to have non-electric options. The sprinkler head is brass and will probably work for another 50 years. The canisters are enameled tin and will work as well as Tupperware for keeping my baking ingredients dry and tasty. My favorite item, however, is the soap-chip implement.

The other day LisaPie asked what I do about the impossible issue of plastic bottles of dishwashing soap. Well, here’s your answer, LisaPie! I’ve had the swisher on the right (with soap chips) for a year or so. They cost just a few dollars at thrift stores or flea markets, and if you see one, get it! You put your leftover soap chips and slivers inside the little cage and then swish it in water. This makes soap suds for washing dishes or fine washables. It also uses up those pesky little soap chips (unless you use them already to make homemade laundry detergent or liquid hand soap). There’s no plastic involved in this handy instrument; it’s a wooden handle and metal cage. I use it in a sinkful of water, then set it in the silverware drainer to drip dry.
If you can’t find one in your antique shop (I paid $4), try using the plastic netting that your onions come in. Put the soap chips into the netting and tie a knot. Voila — you have dish soap! That netting will last you quite some time. (Onion netting is also a great kitchen scrubber. I sew mine into squares but just tie it into knots and start scrubbing. They *never* wear out.) Yes, the onion netting is plastic, but since you’re reusing it (forever), you are not wasting the effort of making it, etc. It’s a reuse that also avoids further need for plastic-manufacturing, transport, packaging, etc.

That’s how it’s done…(dusts off hands).

What I noticed about plastics at the antiques fair is that there *aren’t* a lot of old plastic things that are useful. Most of what I saw seems to be kitschy stuff like toys or decor that people have saved but not worn out. In other words, not really useful but more fun or decorative items. Another way to consider this is that perhaps plastics don’t hold up under heavy daily wear. I notice that plastic food storage as well as bags get sticky-feeling after a few washes, and then the bags start feeling too gross to reuse. The sticky Tupperware takes a while to get really grody, but when it gets there, who wants to use it? At that point, it;s not going to become an antique. It’s going to get recycled — or very likely just thrown away.

In my thrift store travels, I was happy to find lots of cast iron and simple stainless steel kitchen items. I got a cookie sheet to replace my Teflon ones — the Teflon pans will go into the garden or garage for non-food use. They make great art trays, by the way, keeping beads and such from rolling off the table, if you’re replacing your cookie sheets. I also found several glass containers to use instead of Tuppers for storing food items like rice, nuts, raisins, and so on. I bought metal shower curtain hooks, a wooden Lazy Susan, a couple of baskets and wooden boxes for storage, heavy pressed paper placemats (British-style pub placemats), and a really ugly ceramic tape dispenser (it has a sailboat on it and is so ugly that I can’t bear to show it to you — but… no more Scotch tape dispensers). Since I was thrifting, I don’t think I spent more than a dollar or two on each item, and because they are used, that fits my Compact pledge (the buy-no-new stuff group to which I’ve belonged for four years now). On the other hand, there were lots of cheap plastic toys and tons of polyester clothing, all of which smells bad (polyester traps body odor and then releases it when warm, yuk).

It feels like all I’m doing is shopping and talking about shopping — my point is to show that it’s not expensive to replace harmful items in your home, and I will be able to donate or recycle the plastics I have now and wish to replace. Getting rid of plastics is not an elitist thing. I’m not trying to make people buy stuff — rather, the greenest option is almost always to buy nothing at all! Ordinarily I wouldn’t be out shopping anyway, since mass consumption is not good for my budget or the planet. But as part of the project, I think it’s important to show readers that there are other ways, and that you have choices, and those choices can avoid plastic if that’s what you choose to do.

Last item for the day: another scourge upon the earth…Mylar.

I honestly don’t know what to do with these. They are not even plastic. I can’t recycle them. I was thinking that I;d save and reuse them for gift wrap, but at some point they will be too torn to reuse. Eventually, these will go to landfill. I don’t buy these anymore. My kids sometimes do, and I can’t stop them from every bringing a Mylar bag to the house again. When I start to think about how many billions of bags of chips are eaten in a day, a week, a year, I start to feel like Carl Sagan talking about the universe…”Billions and billions….” It makes me feel sick to think of how much trash is generated by the 5-minute eating of grease and fat and salt that constitutes these snacks.

I can say “no more plastics.” I can refuse to buy these things. But lots of people do, and that’s not likely to stop soon. I know there’s a plan by Terracycle to recycle these, if your school or company chooses to participate. None of my kids’ schools are participating. Terracycle doesn’t accept individual bags. I really don’t want to make a purse or a bracelet out of this stuff. So I’m just offering these if anyone wants them. You want my garbage? I’ll pay the postage.

In 14 days, I’ve grown the point where these really make me feel ill and depressed, knowing how long they’ll sit in landfill. Sigh.

Your thoughts?

what I’ve learned (so far)

1. Plastic bags are easy to wash and reuse. Fill the sink with hot sudsy water. Slip one hand into the bag and then act as if you are washing your hands. Turn bag inside out and repeat. wring the water out (gently so it doesn’t rip) and then find a good place for it to hang dry. A tall spoon in the dish drainer is a good place if you don’t have an outdoor or bathtub clothesline.

2. Bacon and other meat may leak through one sheet of butcher paper. Next time I’ll ask for a double wrap of paper. Otherwise, the paper is just fine. No plastics needed.

3. Very soon I’m going to have to make the hard decision about keeping our non-stick pots and pans. I know Teflon is plastic. I know it gets into the food. I even killed our pet bird a few years back by cooking with Teflon. Yes. I killed it with Teflon fumes. I’m very sorry about that. So Teflon will have to go. This feels hard, though — like getting rid of the TV or the Internet. So I’ll get back to this one. But I already know what I have to do. (I told you the family would hate me.)

4. We’re gonna have to get rid of cable anyway since I have to cut the budget to make room for more expensive foods without plastic. This is actually a win, obviously — less crappy TV and mo’ betta food. It’s a win, really. But, stubborn child that I am, I don’t wanna hafta. So…we’ll come back to this one, too. (ITYTFWHM)

5. Just because it’s plastic and it breaks doesn’t mean it’s dead and gone. A plastic item in my house broke this week and I was able to replace the broken part (the handle of the nut chopper I use when baking). I found a simple wooden handle (kind of like a drawer pull) for 10 cents at the Alameda Antiques Faire, removed the broken plastic one and replaced it. Now I have a nut chopper again. Yay! I put the broken plastic pieces in the recycling bin.

6. There are many metal, glass and wooden items out there that still do the job of a plastic version, without the toxic effects of making, shipping or discarding plastics. So if a plastic something breaks at hour house, or you need something new, see if there’s an alternative to the cheapest thing. Chances are, if it’s plastic and cheap, it’s gonna break soon anyway. More later on reintroducing old/antique items back to our lives, but today at the Alameda Antiques and Collectibles Faire I found a brass sprinkler, a metal ice tray, some canisters, a jar grabber (for canning) a bottle opener and a cheese grater — no plastic to be seen.

7. Water tastes better out of a reusable metal bottle than a plastic bottle. Maybe it shouldn’t make a difference, but I can taste it. Actually, the best water vessel I ever had was a Mexican olla, made of clay. The taste of water from the olla was awesome. Your lips would stick to the clay edge of the cup just the tiniest bit. What a sensory experience. Loved it — now to keep my eyes open for an olla.

8. Avoiding plastic is exhausting, requiring full vigilance. I can’t believe how hard this has been so far, and also how wonderful the non-plastic alternatives have been.

What have you learned about plastics so far?

just one word

Sorry I missed yesterday — family comes before work (otherwise, what’s the point of work?)
Friday I spent most of my day at home, working on various projects, and did not come across much plastic just drifting across my path. I was sewing, and reached for a new spool of thread. That’s when I saw that it was sheathed in plastic, I guess to keep it clean or from unspooling. Funny, the more expensive brands of thread don’t use plastic; just the cheap thread, those that I grabbed 5 for $1. And guess what? Made in China.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that it’s difficult or impossible to find made-in-America thread anymore. Most of our textiles have been shipped from elsewhere. It’s possible to find clothing that’s made in America (American Apparel is one such brand), but the sources or the products to make that clothing seems to come from elsewhere. “Elsewhere” usually means China. China is, unfortunately, not exactly synonymous with high quality or concern for the planet. (Hey, with lead in their baby formula, candy and toys, doesn’t seem like China is all that concerned about her own people.) The “made in China” issue is a huge one that affects everyone in the USA — you can’t get a light bulb or a battery or a kajillion other things anymore unless it’s been shipped from afar. To read more on this, visit some of the blogs of folks who are trying to live without “made in China” — they are living with a lot less than I am without plastic. (I’d post a link here, but there are too many — do a little surfing and see what you find.)

So: plastic. The three plastics that crossed my path yesterday were: the spool of thread, the plastic film on a pack of cigarettes (not mine; I’ve never smoked), and the ubiquitous plastic milk jug. It’s not my smoking habit and I don’t buy them, but I notice that almost all packs have the plastic film (not sure about American Spirits or the roll-your-own kind). This is one of the ambient plastics that I see all the time in gutters, blowing around at parks and beaches. The little plastic rip cord, the rest of the wrap — it doesn’t go away when you finish your cigarette. It’s here for a thousand years. Please find a place to recycle it.

Then the milk jug. This was where I paused to consider my commitment to purging plastic. We’re running out of milk. I didn’t want to make a special trip out to get milk today, Saturday. I was at Walgreen’s. I went to the refrigerator aisle and there was all this milk, Berkeley Farms, local to our area. All in jugs. Not a single carton to be had. And I almost bought it. The pain-in-the-ass quotient was that high. How important is this? my little naughty voice said. (The problem with the little naughty voice is that it often sounds so reasonable. You have to really listen to hear the wickedness.) What’s the big deal? The jug is recyclable. You won’t have to drive in the evil car, spewing terrible fumes and carbon monoxide, wheedled the voice.

Well, I didn’t do it. I walked away. I was annoyed, and rightly so, because why should we have to make such ethical choices? Why aren’t plastic-free options more readily available? Why should we have to choose between feeding our families at the expense of the planet, or doing without? It’s a small suicide some days, when you have to choose to wait or do without because the best or better option isn’t there.

Is plastic such a big deal? It is, actually. It’s tied up in the production of cheap food and goods, which is tied to farm subsidies for the big growers and tax breaks for large corporations like Chevron and Dow and Monsanto and Procter & Gamble, corporations that don’t pay taxes and don’t give a flying hoot about our health, much less Planet Earth. They push their products on us, preying on our insecurities (do I smell? am I fat? am I old?) and our primal weaknesses (mmm, fat and sugar! easy calories! me sleep now, no make fire!). They cost us millions and billions in health dollars, as we deal with the effects of fat bodies, high blood sugar, cancer and heart disease. National economics and politics are at play: Who’s lining whose pocket, who has the dough, where can we get more and still not be held accountable?

Do you really think we’re at war in Iraq and elsewhere because of democracy? How about petroleum –the nipple for our driving fetish, our addiction to electricity, and the source of plastics? If I’ve hit a nerve, good. Think about the ripple-effect of your plastics consumption: one plastic bottle, one plastic sandwich bag, one ambient rip cord or shrink wrap. Particularly think about it when you’re filling up you gas tank and whining about the cost.

Here’s a link to an article about how some manufacturers are actually reducing their plastic packaging, especially the ubiquitous and hateful “clamshell” packaging — why? Because the cost of oil to make the plastic is so high that it’s cutting into their profits. We who share the planet are the lucky beneficiaries of such a move, but don’t be fooled. It’s not just cuz they’re nice people. And that’s why I didn’t take the plastic milk jug and am going to ride my bike to buy a wax carton of milk today.


What plastic thing will you say no to today?

fresh fruit & veg

One of my favorite weekly outings is to the Alameda Farmers’ Market — we’re lucky enough to have a twice-weekly market about a mile or so from my house. Yes, it’s a bike ride away. I take my own bags, fill up the panniers and pedal home again. Easy peasy. Even better, none of the produce that I buy at the farmers’ market has even one of those stupid fruit labels on it. Plastic! ptooey!

There was a funny Rhymes with Orange comic printed a few years ago that cracked me up: The lady is sitting in front of an x-ray machine and the doctor sees all these fruit labels in the woman’s belly. “I think I know what’s bothering you,” he says, or some such. (Wish I could find that link!) The point is that those little stickers are inedible, indestructible, impossible. Awful. Criminal! I have seen them floating around my yard after they’ve decomposed off the fruit rind or skin in the compost, then blow away. I’ve read that these fruit stickers gum up the works in plumbing and sewage treatment plants. Can’t the grocery stores teach their checkers a few numbers or have a master list without poisoning our produce with these egregious little fiends?

The farmers’ market doesn’t use the fruit-label stickers. There’s no middle (wo)man. You get your veggies directly from the farmer (more likely his employees or family). They will happily put your fruit and veggies in a plastic bag, yes — but they’re also delighted to let you use your own bags. Yay for no plastic!

I also find that the produce prices are drop-dead affordable at our farmers’ market, though I’ve been to some markets where this isn’t the case. There is ongoing debate about affordable organic produce — how it’s an elitist luxury because it’s so expensive. But I do very well with my budget at the farmers’ market, getting heads of lettuce for $1, pounds of fruit for just a dollar or two per pound, and the vendors are generous with the lagniappe — the baker’s dozen of plums or tomatoes. One extra, no charge. They’re great about cleaning house at the end of the market, willing to bargain for crates of bruised fruit for jam or less than perfect veggies for a song. Our market accepts food stamps (EBT) as well, and in my opinion, there’s no better place to get the freshest produce. Knowing that I can avoid plastic is just one more reason to love the farmers’ market.

Another option for some people is the CSA (community supported agriculture) box which is delivered weekly, semi-weekly or monthly to your door or a central pick-up location. We get a CSA box in winter months; in summer, we don’t need it because of our own prolific vegetable garden. Here’s the link to our vendor, but there are many in the Bay Area and elsewhere. One thing I like about CSAs, or at least this one, is that you can tell them what you like and dislike (please, no garlic or mustard in my box!).

I forgot I was expecting a delivery of veggies last week and opened the door one morning to see my box of fresh produce — woo hoo! There were a couple of items wrapped in plastic in the box — endive was shrink-wrapped in Styrofoam, plus there were one or two large plastic bags surrounding the other veggies. It’s much less plastic than I would have faced at a regular grocery store or at the egregious produce-wrapper, Trader Joe’s (infamous for its clamshell packaging of four sterile apples or tomatoes and anything else that once grew on a tree). However, I plan to write an e-note to the CSA main office and request no more plastic or Styrofoam in future boxes. If that means I miss out on endive, oh well, too bad for me. I’ll also miss out on the Styrofoam and plastic.

Garbage can tally as of today, Day 9, on the night before trash pickup: just three items in the can, including the chewed gum, plus a granola bar wrapper (Mylar) and a weird piece of plasticky stuff that came on a food package. I went through our adult daughter’s trash can and it was pretty gnarly, but I wore gloves and stood next to the recycling and green waste cans to do it. I rescued 2 glass jars (gonna wash), a perfectly good orange (gonna eat it), a couple of bruised leftover lunch fruits (gave to the chickens), a bag full of fabric and doll parts (gonna give to an artsy friend), a ton of cigarette butts/ashes (argh! green waste), a bunch of plastic (moved to the plastic recycling bag that I return to the grocery store), a couple of items of clothing (washed and will give to Goodwill), a handful of new unwrapped Bandaids (put them in my pocket for later use) and a whole bunch of paper and foil from various sources (recycled). This was a disgusting job, but part of the routine now, if I plan to keep our actual waste output low. But do it in gloves. Seriously — ick.

With three small items in our new 20-gallon gray can, I have no reason to put this on the curb, thereby saving everyone a little energy. I’d call this a win over plastics for the week, wouldn’t you?