Beyond Recycling: plastic waste
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
Living a Plastic-Free and Zero Waste Lifestyle By Logan Paiste
What are you doing?
You got it! I’m living a plastic-free and zero waste lifestyle. What this means is that I am on a lifelong mission to cut out as much plastic (especially single-use) and trash out of my life as absolutely possible.
What inspired you to get started on this journey?
Before 2016, I had always thought of myself as an environmentally-minded recycling guru. I always sorted my recycling apart from my trash, including separating glass bottles from the plastic bottles, and always hauled my miscellaneous plastic (e.g. yogurt tubs, plastic wide-mouth containers, etc.) to the local drop-off site. I thought that I was doing the right thing by recycling… after all, weren’t my efforts boosting the local economy by creating jobs at the recycling facility? And, wasn’t I doing my part to make America beautiful by not being a litterbug? I’ll respond to this point later.
Interestingly enough, my journey towards a plastic-free and zero waste lifestyle did not begin with anyone inspiring me via their own environmentally-conscious lifestyle. Rather, it started through having a paradigm shift, primarily rethinking the journey which food, goods and merchandise take in order to make it from their source and eventually to my home.
I started to become curious about the manufacturing processes, shipping, and handling of goods through watching videos on YouTube. What grabbed my attention in particular was the amount of plastic and shipping/manufacturing waste which results before the goods are even packaged for sale. Furthermore, I was mesmerized by the chemistry behind plastics created in the plastic industry, and became horrified by how little we actually know about the effects which plastic has when it comes in direct contact with food. When I did some additional research, I learned about the high amount of carbon emissions and water waste which result from making these products.
The final straw was when I learned that only a fraction of what we put into our recycling bins actually gets recycled. This is due to a variety of factors, including: the market value of the plastic, glass, or metal container which is placed in the bin; the machinery and staffing at the local recycling facility. I found out that much of my miscellaneous plastic was not being recycled in the United States, and was instead being shipped to Asia or to other parts of the world. I realized that my “recycling” (especially of single-use plastics) was instead negatively contributing to the quality of life of people in other parts of the world. That’s when, in 2016, I came to the conclusion that I needed to completely transition to a plastic-free and zero waste lifestyle.
What were the first steps that you took to begin this transition?
When I first started, I remember feeling overwhelmed and overpowered by all of the plastic which permeated my life. I tallied up my plastic usage, and determined that the areas where I created the greatest amount of single-use plastic included: plastic grocery bags, plastic water bottles, and plastic drinking straws & to-go cutlery.
For a couple months, I took small steps to change my lifestyle. Instead of putting my groceries in plastic bags, I would ask the cashier to place my goods in my own shopping bag which I brought from home. I found an old metal water bottle which used to collect dust in my closet, and I started filling it up at water refill stations everywhere I went. I always kept silverware and a reusable to-go cup on hand in my backpack whenever I would go out, and if I knew that I was ordering take-out, I would instead walk to the establishment and ask that my food be placed in my own container. (More often than not, the employees are willing to accommodate this request. However, on a few occasions, I have had to part ways with some stores and eateries that I used to enjoy, simply because they did not have any dine-in options and/or were unwilling to accommodate.) After these first few months, I realized that I knocked out the majority of my plastic consumption!
Where are you now in your transition?
Fast-forward to 2018, I have since made some additional major changes to my recycling and trash habits! First, my trash bin has been replaced with a compost bin. Any food waste that is perishable, or could rot, goes in my freezer in order to minimize odors; I compost that bag at the end of each month. I switched bleached paper towels and napkins with reusable, washable hand towels, and I have rolls of unbleached paper towels on reserve in an emergency.
I buy food in bulk whenever possible, and either bring my own containers (and have the cashier tare the weight) or bring a small 3-gallon BioBag and fill it up with my food if I am unable to bring my own container. I buy all of my spices and teas in bulk at a local herb shop, and I buy all of my coffee at a local Colombian coffee shop. Regarding personal hygiene products, I switched my nylon dental floss with silk, and I am now the proud owner of a bamboo toothbrush! Whenever possible, I buy soap package-free.
For the most part, I have been able to survive without the need to shop at chain supermarkets, and instead buy locally. There are some exceptions, like pasta sauce, some vegetables which cannot grow in the Mid-Atlantic climate, and certain condiments. One unique thing that I do is that I never put my (glass) pasta jars in the recycling bin after I am done; instead, I repurpose the jar, or bring it back to the store clean and dry so that I can fill up on bulk foods!
Are there any instances where you have been forced to use, or switch back to, plastic?
Absolutely! In the past, I used to make some unusual (and sometimes unhealthy) dietary and hygienic choices in order to avoid plastic. For 8 months, I was not wearing deodorant at all, and clearly that wasn’t working for me! I tried making my own deodorant for a while, and purchasing locally-made deodorant which came in a glass jar and a metal lid, but none of these alternatives worked. So, I eventually had to give in and buy deodorant in plastic.
Recently, I switched from homemade coconut oil toothpaste back to store-bought toothpaste. I tried for six months to brush using only coconut oil, baking soda, and peppermint essential oil. When I went back in for my dental check-up, I received a bad report from the hygienist. I realized that I needed to return to toothpaste in plastic tubes.
Also, I’ve lately become more forgiving towards plastic bottle caps, Rather than throwing them away, I simply repurpose them.
What is the biggest hurdle or challenge?
The biggest challenge for me has been to rethink the ways I advocate whenever I want to influence others to also live a plastic-free and zero waste life. I have had to continually remind myself that our culture’s plastic waste is a systemic issue, and is not due to bad intentions of members of our society. Not everyone is in a position financially to live plastic-free and zero waste. For instance, it’s hard to convince someone to buy in bulk when a packaged alternative costs just a third of the price! I realize that I need to be encouraging to my peers, and need to follow the principles of No Shame – No Drama – No Judgment. If a friend gives me a gift which has plastic, or even packaging, I need to see the heart behind the gift instead of getting worked up over the packaging waste.
What do you wish you knew before beginning your transition?
I wish I knew the full extent of our society’s food and plastic waste issues before beginning this transition. Earlier, I wrote that I used to make some unhealthy choices in order to live plastic-free. For instance, I ate a lot of carbohydrates, cut out most fruits (e.g. blueberries, raspberries, strawberries) due to the plastic packaging, and rarely ate any vegetables. I negatively affected the quality of my own life simply because I believed that the weight of the plastic waste issues rested on my own shoulders. I failed to recognize that, as Rob Greenfield* puts it, this waste that I was trying to avoid was simply the tip of the trash iceberg.
I also wish I knew that living plastic-free does not mean giving away your perfectly good plastic kitchen tools and spending money upgrading them for metal alternatives! After all, the point of zero waste is… zero waste! Why spend a fortune on getting the “best” when you already have a perfectly-functioning item, even if it’s made with plastic? Why buy matching mason jars and stainless steel jar lids when you already have pasta sauce jars that you can repurpose? I wish I knew that living zero waste is intended to be liberating, and not taxing.
Are your friends and family on board with your plastic-free and zero waste lifestyle?
Absolutely! My parents are very supportive, and due to my switch, they’ve even started making a few changes in their own lives. Over the holidays, my cousins had surprised me with a gift of socks made of upcycled fibers and manufactured without any water waste! My aunt and uncle on my mother’s side had given me bamboo toilet paper from Who Gives A Crap. And, I also received some bamboo reusable to-go cutlery from my aunt and uncle on my father’s side. I would say that I have some very supportive family members!
Living plastic-free and zero waste has actually helped to foster some new friendships in my life! Whether I am speaking about environmental justice, sustainable agriculture, effective composting practices, or buying locally grown/made goods (including ethically-sourced coffee and chocolate), I find that I have planted seeds within many people whom I have come across and conversed with. Most of my friends do not live a plastic-free or zero waste lifestyle, but I would say that almost all of them feel inspired by what I am doing, and encourage me in my advocacy!
*learn more about Rob Greenfield at: http://robgreenfield.tv/