By Laura Porter
Plastic Free Seems Impossible
A few years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story about a woman who was living an essentially Zero Waste life. She fit all of her garbage for a year into a mason jar – a far cry from our weekly trips to haul the garbage cans to the curb for pickup. While it seemed impossible for our family of 4 to ever get close to that, it was clear that there was a lot of room in between where we were and where we could be.
In looking through our garbage that week, I realized that plastic was the biggest offender of our black bin, so I set out to minimize anything that went into our black bin. At the weekly trip to the grocery store, I did an experiment… what could I buy with NO plastic?
Well, it was disappointing. I ended up with a baguette, a dozen eggs, and some fresh produce. Maybe a jar of jam or something in there, but there wasn’t much else we could buy! That was the day it dawned on me that we don’t have a choice about avoiding plastic, and then I wanted to see if it would even be possible.
The short answer was… not really.
Is plastic really that bad?
If they are so ubiquitous, are they really THAT bad? It’s easy to forget that YES, plastics really are terrible for us.
- 99% are made from fossil fuels
- Only about 4% of plastics can actually be recycled. (All those cool new bioplastics are 100% unrecyclable)
- Plastics leach toxins into our food, our bodies, and our environment.
- Plastics never biodegrade, they only photodegrade into smaller particles that continue polluting for years and years.
- Plastics have been discovered within plant cells, in animals that make up our diet, in human blood, human lungs, and human stool. 90% of table salt samples include microplastics that are too small to see with the naked eye.
- Our local landfill will be full within a decade. Waste hauling costs are going to rise dramatically when that happens.
Zero Waste is an Ideal
After visiting what felt like every grocery store in the San Mateo area, I finally got the hang of which stores had bulk products, and which ones carried what I wanted. The problem was that even with that knowledge, I had to go to three different stores to pick up the package-free items that our family wanted. THREE GROCERY STORES? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
As with everything, it’s about balance. Yes, we need to reduce plastics to make sure we aren’t leaving a huge mess for our children, but we also need to make it to the weekend with our sanity. So we find a balance, and give ourselves grace for the slip-ups when they happen.
We’ll never get to the Zero in Zero Waste, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Strive for Zero, and be ok with the knowledge that you’ve taken meaningful action even if it’s not perfect.
Tips to Reduce Plastic Use
So how does one go about finding more sustainable products?
Here are some considerations that I go through as I try to shop for products for our family, which have helped us minimize our garbage.
REUSE. This is the best way to save costs, reduce plastic, and spend less time shopping. You’ve got dozens of containers in your cupboard and refrigerator right now. Probably plenty of shopping bags, too. If they’re in good shape, find ways to reuse what you have.
- Reusable options also exist to replace tissues, paper towels, menstrual care products, paper bags, razors, and more. Invest upfront, and you’ll save lots of time and money over the years!
Buy the item without plastic. This one is easier said than done, but for many products, it simply comes down to looking for the alternative without plastic. You’ll find them – just take a little longer look. Good packaging alternatives include:
- Glass: Inert, meaning it won’t leach toxins into the products. Also very reusable for bulk bins, decorations, food storage, etc. It’s also able to recycled infinitely without losing its great properties.
- Aluminum: Great for shower items like shampoo or shower gel, as you don’t want to risk shattered glass under bare, wet feet! (Not suitable for acidic or other foods). Also infinitely recyclable
- Stainless Steel: Also inert, infinitely recyclable, and likely that you’re buying steel that has already been recycled. It can be expensive, but it’ll last for years to come… and many refills.
- Paper: Not suitable for all products, but recyclable or compostable. Look for sustainably sourced paper or post-consumer recycled whenever possible.
- Package Free: Because sometimes you don’t even need a package at all, or you can put it in a bag or container you already own.
Shop small. Smaller businesses can often get away from the mass produced plastics where larger retailers cannot or will not.
- Shop at refill stores. These stores are becoming more and more popular in the US, and even some small businesses will offer refill sections in their stores!
- Farmers Markets offer seasonal produce – just be prepared with your own bags.
- Lobby local government for more ways to access recycling compost waste containers. (I still don’t understand why downtown San Mateo has garbage but no recycling or compost bins. Same for our parks!)
- Ask businesses to use your containers. One secret to dining – take your own carryout container. Many restaurants will be happy to use your clean container, you just have to ask. If you can’t use your container, let them know that you’d prefer a compostable or reusable option.
- Model this behavior for your kids. This may be the biggest one. Our kids are sponges – sopping up everything they see and hear. If we demonstrate that we have options, they’ll get it and feel empowered, too!
Laura Porter is a mom of two and the founder and owner of Byrd's Filling Station, a zero waste grocery store which opened in downtown San Mateo in early June. The store holds a wide variety of products and encourages reuse of containers (bags, jars, bottles, etc) that you already own to replenish your household and personal care needs.