Buy “Runway”



Plastics: My Love/Hate Relationship

As a writer, you probably own a computer. Maybe you have two, a laptop and a desktop. You may also have an e-reader, a Kindle or an iPad, and you most certainly have a cell phone, whether it be a smart one or a dumb one. You probably also own a car, a camera, and a TV—all of which we have plastics to thank for. Plastics are awesome substances. They infiltrate our lives in ways we don’t often think about. That fleece jacket? Plastic. Yoga mat? Plastic. Sports bra? Plastic. Tennis shoes? Plastic. If we removed plastics from our lives, our lives would change drastically, and not necessarily for the better.

However, plastics are also doing a lot of bad things both to our bodies and to the environment. Although plastics use a small percentage of our fossil fuels (70% of plastics in the U.S. are made from natural gas; 30% from oil), much of it from waste products from oil refineries, that rate is quickly rising as plastic consumption increases all over the world. Worse, our oceans are FULL of plastic. The North Pacific subtropical gyre is a huge loop in the Pacific Ocean nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because of how much plastic is circulating there, but it’s more like a soup than a patch—plastic soup. While plastic bags and bottles are harmful to the ocean (fish mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them), it’s the tiny fragments of plastic that are especially deleterious because they’re impossible to clean up and because small fish eat them. Then big fish like mahi mahi and tuna eat the small fish. And guess who eats the big fish? We do. Worse yet, plastics are a sponge for toxic chemicals in the ocean, so when you eat a big fish, you’re not only eating plastic, you’re eating plastic marinaded in DTT and PCBs.

Even if you don’t eat fish, the plastic in our homes gets into our bloodstream every day. It’s not enough to not microwave your food in plastic containers. It’s not enough that companies have banned phthalates and BPA (bisphenol A) from baby bottles, baby toys, and Nalgene bottles. Canned foods, soda cans, and beer cans are lined with plastic that contains BPA. Any product with fragrance in the ingredients (like all my hair products) probably has phthalates in it. The little rubber toys your kid sucks on is so full of phthalates that one researcher called it “a phthalate lollipop.” But what’s the big deal about these chemicals? They are endocrine disruptors. This means they fuck with your endocrine system. Results? Smaller penis size in baby boys whose moms have a high count in their bloodstream while pregnant—and the count doesn’t have to be that high. Lower sperm count. Possible miscarriages and infertility in women. Boys who are more feminine and girls who are more masculine (because they are synthetic estrogen). Learning disabilities, ADHD, diabetes, autism. The critical times for kids are during pregnancy, during the first year of life, and during puberty. My three-year-old son prefers playing with puzzles and games to trucks and guns. Is this a result of his being brought up in Berkeley? Of genetics? Or of the amount of plastics in my bloodstream while I was pregnant? I’ll never know. (It was found in a study done on 134 women pregnant with boys that the boys of the women with the highest phthalates in their bloodstream later preferred playing with gender-neutral toys like puzzles over more “boyish” toys like trucks.)

If you want to learn more about the dangers of plastics to both our health and our environment, I highly recommend reading Plastics: A Toxic Love Story and watching the film Bag It. You can’t rent Bag It, but you can buy the DVD or you can look on the website for public viewings in your area. There is also a plethora of information about plastics (recommended books, organizations, etc.) on the Bag It website.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering what you can do to reduce plastics in your life, start by eliminating single-use plastic products. There’s nothing more wasteful than using something once and then throwing it away. And if you think, “Oh, but I recycle my plastic bottles and plastic bags,” remember two things: It’s MUCH better to reduce (and reuse) than to recycle. Plastic bottles can only be recycled once, while aluminum cans can be recycled infinitely. And you know what happens to the plastic grocery bags we drop off at the grocery story to be recycled? They get shipped to Asia, where women working for sub-par wages sift through them to pick out the cleanest ones to recycle. The rest go in the trash. Of the one trillion+ plastic shopping bags manufactured globally each year, only 1% is recycled. What’s especially shocking is that many countries around the world have banned plastic grocery bags, but the U.S. has not. In fact, only a handful of cities have done so. (San Francisco was the first, and Berkeley is working on it.)

As for plastic bottles, only about 19% got recycled in 2003, down from 53% in 1994. 40 million a day go into the trash. And of those that do get recycled, only a small percentage (5-10%) is recyclable. In addition, recent research has found that PET bottles, what your bottled water and other drinks come in, leach chemicals as dangerous as BPA and phthalates. One researcher even found BPA in PET bottles.

So here’s what you can do: use cloth bags when you to the grocery store. Buy five or six (or more) and store them in your car. If you forget to take them in, tell the checker, “Oh wait, I’ll be right back!” and run out to your car to get them. Seriously, I do this all the time. If you can’t be bothered, ask for paper, but try to remember your cloth bags next time. Eventually, it will become second nature. Not sure where to buy cloth bags? Hate the cheap $1 bags that fall apart or are too flimsy to hold heavy groceries? Buy this Planet Bag set of six or buy some plain ones at Eco Bags. Next, get yourself a bunch of net bags to buy produce in, and stick those right in your canvas bags, so you’ll always have them at the grocery store. You can buy Eco Bags produce bags, or you can do what I did, which is to buy these bags at Bed Bath and Beyond with some of those 20% off coupons and get three for $5-20% (They’re cheaper at BBB). I bought three sets and use them every day. Next, you can get yourself a Klean Kanteen for your water and stop buying bottled water. (Sigg bottles, btw, are now BPA-free, but if you bought one before Aug. 2008, you should get rid of it because it had BPA in the liner.) If you hate your tap water, filter it or, if you live in Santa Barbara where the tap water tastes like doo-doo, think about getting those big tanks delivered. Whatever you do, stop using throwaway plastic bottles. They’re bad for your health and they’re bad for the environment.

I’m not even halfway through reading Plastics, so I’ll have to do a follow-up post at some point, and I have a LONG way to go to eliminate single-use plastics from my life (like yoghurt containers, carry-out containers, tortellini from Trader Joe’s, etc.) but here are a few other things we can all do:

1. Tupperware is better than baggies, but non-plastic food storage containers are even better. Check out sites like Life Without Plastic and buy some nonplastic portable food storage containers. You can also use waxed paper (which is compostable) or aluminum foil to transport sandwiches.

2. To store food in your fridge, buy glass Pyrex containers (They have plastic lids but at least they won’t leach into your food) at a store like Target, glass containers with stainless steel lids at Life Without Plastic, or do what we do: reuse glass peanut butter jars, pickle jars, jam jars, etc. to store your food.

3. Buy glass bottles instead of plastic when you can. We buy glass milk bottles (I know that’s a bit extreme) because you can’t recycle the paper ones. They have plastic spouts and a plastic coating inside. Peanut butter jars are sold in glass jars, and so is olive oil and a variety of other foodstuffs.

4. Stop using plastic cutlery. If you’re having a picnic, you can get biodegradable cutlery online or at Whole Foods. If you need it for personal use—eating at Panda Express for example (yes, I love Panda Express), you can buy these awesome To-Go Ware bamboo sets. I have two and keep them in my car.

Okay, that’s enough from me tonight. I know there are many more things we can do to help both for our bodies and for the environment—eating organic foods, buying local, cutting down on water and energy use. It’s overwhelming, and I totally understand if your reaction to this post is “I don’t have the time/money to worry about the stupid fish out in some gyre in the middle of the Pacific. I’m vegetarian anyway.” But watch Bag It, and soon you’ll be washing and reusing your Zip-Locs like I do. Making changes starts with one small step—purchase some cloth grocery bags and put them in the car. Don’t let the initial investment deter you. Just do it. You’ll be glad you did.

And now you tell me—what do you think about all this stuff? Have you already eliminated plastics from your life, or do you have bags full of plastic bags stashed beneath your kitchen sink? Would you like to see a plastic bag ban in your town? Are you worried about BPA and phthalates, or do you think it’s a good thing that our boys are less aggressive and our girls more macho (I do kind of like that part of it)?

22 comments to Plastics: My Love/Hate Relationship

  • sierragodfrey


    I love, love, love this — thank you for taking the time to research this and write it.

    YES to glass milk bottles (Strauss is a great brand). YES to reusable grocery bags and I swear to you I'm digging out one of my 20% BBB coupons right now and getting those reusable produce bags because if there is one thing I hate, it's those. For the record, El Cerrito Natural Grocery has switched from plastic produce bags to compostable ones, and I love that.

    Also switching over to Pyrex from plastic storage food containers. That is huge.

    Thanks Meghan!

    • meghancward

      We do buy Strauss milk, although i haven't figured out what to do with the cream yet. Yay for El Cerrito Natural Grocery! Whole Foods doesn't use plastic anymore either (but I shop at Monterey Market). I'm very anxious for Berkeley and Albany to ban plastic bags. Thanks for caring about this issue and tweeting about it. I know it's not as popular as TV 🙂

      • sierragodfrey

        Eat the cream! My whippersnapper loves it — I put a dollop of it on his cereal, and the rest sinks into the milk and dissolves.

        This is way more interesting to me than TV (sorry)!

        • meghancward

          Sierra – great idea to put it in cereal. I usually save it in a little cup and then end up throwing it out later.

  • aditi raychoudhury

    Great Post – I agree with all of the above.. i have wondered if grocery stores would reuse the plastic takeout/tupperware we use to buy salads and olives from the deli – i keep some of those in my shopping bag, too… for reuse..

    Lately, as my pots started leaking – i started using the lids for those tupperware at the bottom of my pots and figured, they could make unattractive coasters.. since all the unfinished woodtops around my house are always getting water stains…

    Oakland says that they recycle plastics #1 through #7 – but i am not sure how much of it actually gets recycled…

    So, the key, is to not use them at all – or phase them out over time – like with the suggestions you have made – they are all practical suggestions as none of them need extra time or effort – it is a question of habit –

    i grew up in india and my parents never used plastic bags – because the shops didn't have plastic bags! they didn't have packaged goods either! everything was sold as bulk produce/products and bagged in paper bags made out of recycled newspapers… there were no plastic cups – but single use clay glasses (biodegradable) made in cottage industries – none of this was more time consuming, inferior or inconvenient – it was just habit.

    of course, all that has changed and during my last visit to the lower Himalayas – the hillside was covered with plastic bags!!!

    ps: I have to say I really dislike Strauss yogurt – i have tried to love love love it – but I HATE it – i don't drink milk – so can't say anything about it – time to make my own yogurt (like all the moms in India used to do every night – its ridiculously simple and take less than 5 minutes to assemble – again, its a question of habit) .

    • meghancward

      So sad about the Himalayas. The plastics industry actually had to work HARD during the 50s and 60s to get people to switch to using plastic, and now we have to undo that thinking. A very small percentage of plastics above #1 and #2 get recycled – maybe 3%. The stats are all in Bag It, but I'll have to rewatch it and write them down.

    • sierragodfrey

      Yes to bulk foods!

      • meghancward

        I've also started buying my strawberries and blueberries at the Kensington Farmers' Market and leaving the plastic containers with them because I know they will reuse them. Slowly cutting down on clamshell containers!

  • aditi raychoudhury

    ps: I have been switching to Pyrex for storing food – overtime – and re-use jam/pasta jars to store spices/lentils/ pasta etc

    • sierragodfrey

      Me too!

    • meghancward

      I got rid of all my Tupperware the other day and bought Pyrex. I did it three years ago, too, but then the plastic carry out (Indian food) containers piled up and we started using them again. (and I lost the lids of the Pyrex or left the entire blow at someone's house. Anyway, starting again.) I did take a bunch of plastic carry out containers back to an Indian restaurant, and they said they'd wash and reuse them, but don't know if they really will. I also save mine and take it with me when I get lunch in the city, but really nothing is better than not using them at all. Clamshell containers are particularly evil.

  • Aah- creamtop – my mom used to make ghee out of the cream – it’s pretty easy – but not sure u want to get into it – we made ghee every w/end – but since we don’t drink milk anymore – don’t have to worry abt the cream – or u can add it to toast w honey – delish- my mom used to always give me that after my dance practice

  • Kristan

    I have to admit, I'm not ready to eliminate all plastics from my life, but thanks for outlining some steps that we could take. I make some effort already, but I'm going to push a little harder. (Gonna push Andy too.)

    I was talking to my friend about your post (it's had me thinking all day, seriously!) and he told me about another related post he just read:

    • meghancward

      Thanks for this link, Kristan. I really want to do a challenge like that at some point – because it will open my eyes to new ways I can survive without plastic (like making my own hummus, etc.) I would have a hard time not using any products packaged in plastic, though – like shampoo, body lotion, etc. I wonder if I could cheat and put it in jars before I began 🙂

      As for eliminating plastics, I totally understand that it's crazy overwhelming. But buy those cloth grocery bags! It will make a huge difference. And the produce ones, too. Totally worth the investment.

      • – i think the best solution is to buy the largest bottle available or refill from the bulk aisle at Whole foods or Berkeley bowl – but the choice is v limited – –

        I did the former a while ago, but am thinking of refilling from bulk aisle next time I need to refill – but those large bottles last a while!

        – as for lotions etc, I started using a tub of pure shea butter a while ago – works great, lasts forever…you could buy shea butter in bulk at the Ashby flea market, but i haven't looked into it- I am not sure how pure it is – as Ashby flea market can be a bit dubious sometime…

    • aditi raychoudhury

      Grist has three articles on that challenge – including where to buy plastic free doggy treats

  • mainecharacter

    Thanks for this. The more people respond in these ways, the more businesses will get behind it, and in fact, that's the only thing that will get them behind it.

    • meghancward

      I agree. This really has to come from consumers. We can't wait for government regulations. I have hope for change!

  • Hello all!
    We are excited to introduce you to our awesome start-up that explores an alternative way to elimintate plastic waste! We are PUSHunderground, an American-made, woman-owned startup based in Santa Cruz, California. Buying American and saving our environment is our passion. Our mission is to create the world’s most cutting-edge, comfortable and functional sportswear using recycled water bottles. Not only do we create clothing out of plastic, we donate a portion of every sale to building wells in water-scarce communities around the world. Check out our indiegogo campaign and help us make a difference!

  • Thank you!
    Anything else you can do to spread the word would be great! We saw your Tweet and we truly appreciate it! We want to help as many people as we can and improve the world! The more people that find out about our company, the better!

  • If we removed plastics from our lives, our lives would change drastically, and not necessarily for the better.