Monday, September 22, 2008

How I Gave Up Plastic

Here's something interesting. The Dallas Morning News asked me to write an opinion piece for their Sunday news magazine, and they actually published it!

The article I wrote is called "How I Gave Up Plastic," and it was paired with a piece by Stanley Fish called, "I Am, Therefore I Pollute." Fish writes the New York Times blog Think Again.

Here's the text of my article as it appeared:

How I Gave Up Plastic
by Jeanne Haegele

Bad habits are hard to break, but sometimes you just have to try. At least, that's what I've been telling myself for the past year as I've attempted to give up plastic.

Why on earth would anyone give up plastic? There are ample reasons.

Americans send huge amounts of plastic to landfills each year – almost 60 billion pounds in 2006 alone. Some plastic never biodegrades, and most of what does takes hundreds of years. It is difficult to recycle, and evidence of plastic's negative health effects is mounting. Then there's the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a vast, swirling soup in the Pacific Ocean where wildlife is threatened by plastic refuse trapped in the currents.

Last autumn, thinking over these worrisome facts on a bike ride through the streets of Chicago, I started to wonder whether it would be possible to live without plastic. It seemed unlikely, especially since everything in the supermarket is wrapped, if not double-wrapped, in the stuff. How could I avoid it?

But I decided to go for it. I would conduct an experiment and give up everyone's favorite polymer.

Looking back now at those first few months, I understand why people feel green fatigue. Learning to live without plastic wasn't easy. I had to throw out so many of my old routines and rethink fundamental aspects of my life.

Grocery shopping was my greatest challenge. I remember my initial trip to the the supermarket, when I first learned that so many of my normal standbys were off-limits. Crackers, chips, cookies, pasta and dozens of other favorites were out, and I had no idea what to buy. Only a few items came home with me that day – and even some of those, like the canned tuna and milk, had hidden plastic in their packaging (aluminum cans and paper milk cartons are lined with a thin layer of plastic). I spent those first few weeks a bit hungry.

But with some practice, grocery shopping became surprisingly easy. Fruits and veggies are a much bigger part of my diet now, and I've discovered that several stores in my area have bulk bins with enough products to keep me happy – cereal, oatmeal, granola, nuts, dried fruit, rice and chocolate candy are some of my favorites. And I still buy milk (in a glass container) and meat (wrapped in paper at the deli), and use my own cloth produce and grocery bags. Eating well has been not a problem – and the cost savings are significant.

Groceries haven't been my only dilemma, though. Most of my favorite toiletries are packaged in plastic. Searching for a shampoo replacement has been a constant struggle, and conditioning my hair with a vinegar solution, while effective, makes me worry about smelling like a salad. And do you know how hard it is to find plastic-free makeup? Difficult enough that I've basically given up. Still, even these have been changes for the better; I use very few toiletries now, and I am, once again, saving a lot of cash.

So, like kicking a nail-biting problem, I gave up plastic – a bad habit that was hurting the environment – and I'm stronger for it. I've tested my boundaries, forced myself to think critically about my actions and developed a simpler way of life. I'm happier and healthier than ever.

I know I have more bad habits, still unnoticed or unchecked. But with a little effort, I know I can get rid of them, too. It just takes a true dedication to change, little by little. A commitment to drive less, adjust my thermostat, even eat less meat.

At first, breaking these habits will seem difficult; it did when I gave up plastic. But this experiment has shown me that the hardest thing about making changes is breaking old patterns, patterns that comfort you or help you make mundane decisions but don't truly influence your quality of life. Getting greener seems difficult at first, but it only takes small steps to get you on your way.

As for me, the more steps I take, the less I miss the old bad habits. And the more I learn that it's not the minor hardships that matter in the end.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations for your publication ^_^ !!

Lisa Sharp said...

How cool! I bet a lot of people will read that and at least try and reduce the plastic they buy.

Anonymous said...

it's funny--I read the "I pollute, therefore I am" piece as well, and i just felt kind of bad for the guy. Admittedly, I'm not as plastic-free as you (I try to avoid it where I can and recycle it as much as possible) but I live what a lot of people would call an extremely environmentally conscientious lifestyle. For the most part, i feel a lot happier because of it...I don't feel like there's an albatross hanging around my neck. And sometimes the simple things that being environmental forces you to do--buying local food, using reusable items instead of disposable ones, hanging out laundry--bring me a weird kind of happiness that comes from being in touch with your everyday life.

By the way, thanks for pointing me to safety razors. I was wondering what I would do for a razor when my disposables ran out. Safety razors look great. (I get the cheap ones that don't tilt, anyway, so there won't be any adjustment issues...)

Anonymous said...

It's funny, I read the "I pollute, therefore I am" one as well, and I just felt kind of sorry for the guy. Since becoming more environmental, I'm actually a lot happier, rather than resenting all of the changes. A lot of the time, there's a kind of simple pleasure that comes from knowing where things come from, knowing what they're made out of, and knowing that they're a quality good. And doing things like hanging laundry and preserving food has it's own kind of simple pleasure as well. (I love the smell of air dried laundry...I was so skeptical that there was a "line dried smell" until I actually started line drying to save the environments.)

Living a life in line with your values just makes you feel better. And if you're smart about it, it doesn't necessarily mean living in a way that's unhappy or hopelessly inconvenient.

Lori Ann said...

Well written! I've also found your words "As for me, the more steps I take, the less I miss the old bad habits," to be true in my life.

Joanna Reichert said...

You are so inspiring! Thank you for blogging and explaining how easy (and sometimes not so easy) it is to not be a mindless sheep and to strive for the betterment of earth, people, and the truth. I hope you continue to get more exposure!

A Slice of the Pie said...

You made a lot of great points.

Marie said...

Great article. I'd like to list your blog on my site. Find A Green It's totally free for you to list, no hidden fees.
If you're interested please email me. and I will give you the information.
Thanks, Leah

Going Crunchy said...

Congrats on being featured, and hopefully inspiring a few more folks!

Breastfeeding baby bottle said...

Congratulations on your achievement on giving up on plastics. It's a tough job to do since basically everything we own and use contains plastic. It's like oil. We are depended on it. Keep up the good work.

Merriment said...

I have been reading tons of damaging health affects caused by plastics and want to reduce my plastic consumption as well. I found your article very helpful for putting that into motion. Thanks!