It’s Not Just the Plastic

You may have heard the argument that concerns over plastic pollution distract from the fact that we have only 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius if we have any hope of avoiding climate breakdown. Yes, climate change poses the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.

To the critics of the plastic-free movement, I just have to ask:

Do you think this is all just about the plastic?

Okay, so some of it is about the plastic itself

  • Since the 1950s, approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide and only 9% of that has been recycled. Guardian UK
  • Every minute, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters our oceans. Greenpeace
  • If we do not drastically reduce our plastic consumption, by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. Ellen MacArthur Foundation
  • Because China will no longer accept our plastic waste (and rightly so), by 2030, the world will need to bury or recycle an estimated 111 million metric tons of the stuff. Bloomberg
  • Micro-plastics are in our water, our air, our fish and even human stool. Guardian UK

But the zero-waste, low-impact, whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement is about so much more

It’s about what is in the plastic

Last year, the American Society of Pediatrics warned that “some chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives, and packaging materials may harm children’s health.” These chemicals include BPA (which hardens plastic), phthalates (which soften plastic), perfluoroalkyl chemicals (found in non-stick packaging) and perchlorate (to reduce static in food packaging).

What about supposedly safe alternatives to some of these chemicals, like BPS? An article in National Geographic, also last year, reported on mounting research which suggests that alternatives to BPA affect humans in the same negative ways as BPA.

Do you really want your food coming into contact with plastic?

It’s about what is packaged in the plastic

Would the Western diet—now sadly, the global diet—of highly processed, food-like substances have come to dominate the world were it not for plastic packaging? Almost all of the food that makes us sick—highly processed junk food packed with sugar, stripped of fiber and lacking in nutrition—requires plastic packaging. Indestructible plastic makes it possible for multinational companies like Nestlé to ship their food-like products around the globe and infiltrate developing nations with their junk.

This New York Times article explains that as the growth of food manufacturers “slows in the wealthiest countries, multinational food companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo and General Mills have been aggressively expanding their presence in developing nations, unleashing a marketing juggernaut that is upending traditional diets from Brazil to Ghana to India.” And because developing countries lack the necessary infrastructure, they have no way to deal with the ensuing plastic waste.

It’s about throwaway culture

Our throwaway culture deems many crimes against the planet as socially acceptable, such as fast fashion—shoddy clothes manufactured out of synthetics (i.e. plastic)—electronic gadgets that essentially self destruct within a couple of years, cheap toys that break almost as quickly as junior loses interest in them and consumer products that no one needs, such as self-lacing, rechargeable, data-collecting Nikes starting at $350 a pair. I’ll go barefoot.

It’s about our addiction to convenience

This afternoon, my daughter Charlotte showed me a video of someone making a smoothie with a bit of peanut butter in it—and by a bit, I mean 1.15 ounces squeezed from a plastic package. I had no idea these little packets existed. Has dipping a knife into a jar of peanut butter—peanut butter that, might I add, has been ground up for us—become too much of a burden?

Some silly Silicon Valley startup has probably received millions of dollars in funding for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich meal kit that contains these little packets of peanut butter—and jelly, a couple of slices of pasty white bread, a plastic knife and a plastic baggie to transport the sandwich to school.

It’s about embracing self-reliance

If all the Trader Joe’s and Safeways and other grocery stores in the US suddenly closed up—in other words, if we could no longer buy food—people would die. When else in human history have we been unable to feed ourselves? It’s insane. We rely on corporations to fulfill our every need and desire to the point of helplessness. Rely less on corporations—learn a skill like how to plant tomatoes—and we become more self-reliant.

It’s about rejecting consumerism

Reducing waste and rejecting consumerism go together like peanut butter and jelly (without the meal kit). Try as we may to buy our way to happiness and fill the spiritual void with more stuff, over-consumption makes us miserable. We can never have enough, we must continue to buy to get that short-lived, post-shopping high and we will never keep up with the lifestyles that we see on Instagram.

When you reduce your waste, you simplify your life. You live intentionally and closely examine your needs and your wants. You realize you need far less stuff than the marketers tell you you need. You reduce your consumption.

It’s about changing how we live

Yes, corporations must to stop polluting. They will not do this without consumer pressure and government regulation. Grassroots movements—like the zero-waste movement—begin with people demanding change, after which the movement works its way up to those with the power to make big changes. And changes have begun to trickle in. 

Last month, the city of Berkeley approved a 25-cent fee on to-go cups in restaurants. The fees will kick in next year. “The ordinance, called Disposable-Free Dining, also requires restaurants to provide takeout containers by mid-2020 that are compostable and to provide only reusable plates and utensils for those eating in. It also says other disposable items, such as lids and stirrers, can be offered only when requested.”

This is fantastic. 

But what is so horrible about making coffee at home? I’m not trying to take away anyone’s Starbucks, but how about we consume less of it?

If we have any hope of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, we must fundamentally change how we live. A merely greener version of our current consumer lifestyle won’t save us. A simple lifestyle might.

15 Replies to “It’s Not Just the Plastic”

  1. I’m sending this to my whole family. Thank you for the work you do!

  2. This is my inspiration for the day! Thankful I read it first thing! Thank you thank you thank you for your time efforts and words in our desire to be a part of this change for better. These posts give me more desire to help others understand and learn WE have to change in order to survive. ❤️ From Oklahoma

  3. I appreciate all this, I will share. You are amazing and I applaude your commitment. There is a lot more also with health regulations when it comes to food and packaging to keep food safe. I am afraid we have gotten so deep into convenience foods and the packaging I am not sure if people can do a 180. When we go to Costco or Sam’s the huge bulk things often come in plastics and with plastic on the outside holding two or more things together. Very difficult. I wish to see more bulk grocery stores where we could bring our own containers. I would love to see more glass options. I frequently when shopping will reach for a brand in a glass than in plastic.

  4. Thank for another wonderful posts. Not only do I appreciate your how-to posts, but I have really enjoyed reading posts similar to this one. Maybe enjoy isn’t the right word… but “inspired by” might be more accurate. Thank you again! mb

  5. Great post, I am so happy to have found your blog! We’ve been easing into the zero-waste lifestyle, filling glass jars in bulk shops, making most of our food from scratch…One thing I’ve noticed though is that it is extremely difficult to find alternatives to some products that come in plastic packaging – it’s everywhere!

  6. Well said! Self-reliance, non-consumerism, and zero waste all go hand-in-hand. I’ve recently been inspired by Rob Greenfield’s latest project where he is growing and foraging all of his food this calendar year. It’s inspired me to take an urban foraging course and to make 100% of my container garden edible plants this year (hopefully bees will still enjoy the flowering veggies).

    1. Heather Sutherlin says: Reply

      You nailed it again, Anne Marie. Thank you for continuing to provide thought-provoking posts. The momentum is building thanks to people like you.

      1. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Thank you, Heather 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  7. I have been thinking along exactly these lines; that, instead of waiting for corporations to change (which they need, of course, to do) I need to change my consumption habits. We’re trying to do a ‘plastic-packaging-free Lent’ this year—not buying anything packed in plastic and not using plastic to wrap up leftovers, bag up sandwiches, etc. I am researching and preparing, and finding it’s difficult to find some things in non-plastic containers. I’m planning to make my own dish detergent, and I have permission from the bulk food department at my grocer’s to bring my own brown bags… But it is going to be a very interesting voyage of discovery…

  8. All true. Thanks.

  9. As someone who has reduced plastic and now is coming to terms with the climate change crisis I have been wondering if I am causing a distraction? Recently I have been coming to the conclusion that this is not the case. Individuals caring and making changes to their lifestyle can only be a good thing. It does start with grassroots, as you say. I started off wanting to reduce rubbish and recycle more, then I started to understand the problems with recycling, particularly plastic and cut down my use of plastic. Now I continue to do this but also to start considering climate change and the part I can play in addressing this. Awareness needs to happen somewhere and being aware of your individual impact is, probably, the best way to start.

  10. I read a great interview with Wendell berry in the last ‘Dumbo Feather ‘ magazine … He mentions his distrust of movements and says ” One of the things that’s wrong with these great movements is that they are not telling people to go home and go to work in good ways to improve things. They’re movements to bring pressure on political leaders. And to that extent it’s something of a distraction from the real problems, which are all local.” And that my friend is what is great about you and this blog – encouraging people to take their power and change their world thereby changing our world.. good on you anne marie

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Wow! You just made my day! Thank you Sandra. I have never heard this before and from Wendell Berry no less. I am going to look this up now. Maybe make a meme out of it 😀
      ~ Anne Marie

  11. Danielle Epifani says: Reply

    All of this absolutely. Recently I came across a comment that said as zero wasters we’re living in a bubble, self satisfied with our organic food for the privileged etc. And that this detracts from the bigger issue which is efforts where organic food should be made available to all. Or plastic-free, or what not. I like what Beth Terry said, once you commit to this lifestyle you’re invested. (Ideally) you go beyond your own personal choices and want to see systemic change. You write a blog, you sew bags and outreach to your community, you start a Meet Up. I want to continue to live a zero waste lifestyle AND believe it’s a gateway. And I want to share that with others too.

  12. Can you do a post on the debate about the ethics of eating foods like avocados and almonds, which are labeled as extremely environmentally harmful?

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