In 2011, my daughter MK and I decided we would try to live without plastic. Because I’ve been at this for a while, I take for granted many of the early changes we made back then to wean ourselves off of the stuff. But with all the welcome press lately on the plastic pollution crisis (thank you David Attenborough), the hoards of new recruits ready to cut their plastic footprint need simple steps to get started. So I’ve come up with a list of things I’ve banned from my kitchen and have easily replaced.
I tried to put these nine items into what-I-despise-most order but I found that kind of ranking simply too difficult. Bottled water or coffee pods? That’s a tough call, especially since Nestlé peddles both.
However, I’m leaning toward coffee pods. Not only do they create obscene amounts of waste—Keurig alone sold nearly 10 billion packs of pods in 2014—they also represent the Wall·E-fication of our society. Have we become so helpless that we can no longer measure out the coffee grounds and boil the water? Will we soon need every foodstuff pre-measured and pre-packaged for the specially designed machines that prepare it for us? Personally, I enjoy the ritual of brewing coffee in the morning—or tea. But you can now buy tea pods as well, surely a sign of the end-times (can we no longer brew tea?).
Convenience has helped create our current garbage crisis. Beginning in the 50s and 60s, consumer products companies marketed their wares—disposable dishes, disposable cutlery, disposable plastic wrap and eventually disposable everything—as time-saving lifesavers. As these companies and their products seduced and hooked us, we began to abandon basic life skills and grew more dependent on so-called disposable materials. It’s a bit of a Chaff-22.
Yes, some coffee pods can be recycled. Nespresso appears to make its pods out of aluminum. Others pods consist of plastic and aluminum. Theoretically, just about everything can be recycled. That doesn’t mean it will be recycled. And besides, recycling is a last resort. Above all else, refuse trash at its source.
Disposal Comparison: Nespresso Pods Versus My French Press
|Nespresso Pods||My French Press|
|(Some) customers drop off pods at a local store, using a plastic bag provided by Nespresso||Dump coffee grounds on plants outside|
|Bags of spent pods hauled to a far-flung warehouse on fossil-fuel guzzling trucks||Rinse glass beaker with water|
|Workers separate pods from the plastic bags they arrive in, plastic gets recycled (downcycled in reality because plastic degrades with every incarnation and ends up in landfill after a few lives)|
|A giant machine beats open the aluminum capsules, separating the grounds from the metal|
|The scrap aluminum is hauled to a scrap metal facility|
|Aluminum is bound into 20-ton bales and shipped to yet another facility to be made into new products|
|Coffee grounds composted in gigantic outdoor piles and maintained and turned by large tractors and other fossil-fuel guzzling machines|
When I took my teenager to the Stanford Mall this past weekend, I noticed a Nespresso café under construction. AN ENTIRE STORE! I had never heard of these. I lead a sheltered life and sometimes go into shock in the “real world” of unbridled consumerism—a completely artificial world and rant for another day.
1. Plastic wrap
Well before I went plastic-free and then zero-waste, I rarely bought plastic wrap. Garbage aside, do you want your food to touch this stuff?
Unfortunately, most [plastic wraps] are now made with low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC). (The exceptions are wraps used in catering and professional kitchens.) LDPE and PVDC don’t adhere as well as plastic wraps made with PVC, but more worrying is the fact that LDPE may contain diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA), another potential endocrine disruptor that has been linked to breast cancer in women and low sperm counts in men. — Dr. Weil
Alternatives: Place a plate over a bowl of food to cover it. Buy or make some beeswax wraps. Store food and leftovers glass jars. Glass food storage offers the additional benefit of a clear view of the food you have on hand.
2. Plastic baggies
Again, do you want plastic coming into contact with your food? Yes, plastic baggies make packing lunches convenient but you can find many alternatives. And these baggies aren’t inexpensive. On Amazon, with its rock-bottom prices, 90 Ziploc sandwich bags cost around $9. Ten cents a bag may not sound like much but if you pack lunches for a couple of kids and use a couple of baggies per kid, you’ll go through these in a couple of months. Isn’t Jeff Bezos wealthy enough?!
Alternatives: I usually take my lunches to work in glass jars. For small children, I don’t suggest packing lunches this way. Use metal lunch containers such as LunchBots instead. Wrap up sandwiches in large beeswax wraps.
3. Bottled water
Americans buy half a billion bottles of water every week. Making tap water your drink of choice greatly simplifies your life. You buy nothing. You dispose of nothing. You no longer support corporations like Nestlé, which pumps California dry even during a drought.
The plastic-free store in Amsterdam that has made such a splash in the media since it opened last month offers, in addition to plastic-free packaged food, plastic-free water dispensed from a water purifier that filters out “micro-plastics and other contaminants ranging from lead to pesticides and gender-bending hormones.” Those gender bending hormones are found in BPA, a chemical used to make many plastic water bottles. It turns out that making every single thing on the planet out of plastic wasn’t such a great idea.
Alternative: Tap water. If you choose to filter your water, opt for naked charcoal. Mine came from Miyabi. Life Without Plastic also sells charcoal water filters.
4. Other bottled beverages
In addition to all the plastic waste that bottled drinks generate, most of them are unhealthy, filled with sugar and like bottled water, have travelled many miles to reach the store.
5. Coffee pods
See opening rant.
Alternatives: Coffee bought in bulk and brewed in a French press or coffee maker.
6. Tea bags
Tea bags just about send me over the edge. Food manufacturers can charge only so much for a commodity like a tea bag. So they have “improved” paper tea bags by creating silky ones in order to justify charging a premium for them. Many of these are made of silky synthetics—in other words, plastic, not silk. Even paper tea bags contain “polypropylene, a sealant used across the [tea] industry to ensure bags hold their shape.” You want tea leaves infusing your piping hot water, not the chemicals found in plastic.
Alternatives: Loose leaf tea and a tea infuser or a tea pot with an infuser insert.
7. Paper towels
My mother—who at 85 grew up without paper towels—wonders how I live without them. Let me preface the following rant with the admission that my research into paper towel manufacture comes from the saw mill and paper mill passages of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? However, I think I can safely claim that just some of the steps in the life-cycle of a paper towel include:
- Chop down trees
- Transport logs to the saw mill
- Harvest scrap lumber from logs cut into rough boards
- Transport scrap lumber to the paper mill
- Run scrap lumber through the chipper
- Add a bunch of water and chemicals to the wood chips to make wood pulp
- Run the pulp across a bunch of screens to form paper towels
- Bundle the long sheets into rolls of paper towels
- Shrink wrap the rolls of paper towels in plastic
- Transport the paper towels to the warehouse
- Transport the paper towels to the store
- Drive to the store to buy paper towels
- Unwrap the plastic and throw it out or into the recycling bin because you’re in denial that that kind of flimsy plastic can actually be recycled
- Use the paper towel once
- Toss the soiled paper towel into the garbage
- Argue with your partner or kids about who should take out the garbage
- Lug your garbage to the curb because you lost
- Repeat until the last tree falls
Alternatives: I have a lifetime supply of cotton rags I cut out of my kids’ old t-shirts. Yes some nasty manufacturing processes went into the production of said t-shirts but I will use these rags for years. If you are crafty, you can sew super cute reusable cloth towels that snap together like a roll of paper towels.
8. Paper napkins
I imagine people buy more paper towels than paper napkins—or use paper towels as napkins—but these too have easy replacements, unlike bathroom tissue. Don’t worry, I didn’t include it on the list. A woman who wished to remain anonymous recently told Buzzfeed about her experience with “the family cloth” and apparently horrified the Internet.
Alternative: Cloth napkins. These make eating more gracious and civilized. They will also save you money over time, as will all of the suggestions on this list.
9. Processed food
Of everything on the list, processed food will require the most effort to replace. The Western diet—which the majority of us eat—consists of highly processed foods, almost always packaged in shiny plastic. It’s convenient but not healthy for us or the planet.
Alternative: Cook real food. Yes, home-cooked meals take time to prepare but they taste better than processed food, will improve your health and save you money. You’ll usually find unpackaged fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market. Use your jars and cloth bags for whole grains at the bulk bins. Buy real bread in a cloth bag at a bakery. Opt for milk in returnable glass bottles and take your containers to the meat, fish and cheese counters (if you partake).