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Plastic-Free Pioneer Beth Terry Explains How Living Without Plastic Protects the Oceans and Consumer Health

In 2012, 32 million tons of plastic were generated by the United States alone. A paltry 9% of this plastic made it to the recycling bin; the rest will spend the next few thousand years in landfills or floating around in our oceans as a deadly plastic plague. Many of us don’t even pay attention. “Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the unspoken motto of the average American. This carelessness is costing us dearly, not just in terms of the terrible pollution of our environment, but also for our health.

Beth Terry has made the commitment to lead a plastic-free life.
Image courtesy of Michael Stoler.

One woman has taken notice and has made tremendously positive changes in her own lifestyle. Beth Terry has succeeded in living a life without new plastic. Her blog, My Plastic-Free Life, outlines her journey to kick the plastic habit and provides inspiration for others to do the same. Beth has shared her thoughts with us on the plastic pollution problem that harms the environment and our health and what we can do about it.

Can you explain how and why you started your blog “My Plastic-Free Life”?

One night back in 2007, I stumbled across an article about ocean plastic pollution. At the time I had no idea that plastic was even a problem in the ocean. The article showed pictures of baby albatrosses on Midway Island that had died, stuffed full of pieces of plastic garbage. At the time I was living like the average America, using plastic bottles every day, eating microwaveable dinner entrees every night, and just using huge amounts of single-use plastic out of convenience.

When I saw the photo of that baby albatross filled with plastic bottle caps and other human-made debris, I realized that this plastic probably came from thousands of miles away. I thought to myself, “That could be my plastic.” I actually cried a little that day.

Bits of plastic line the shores of San Francisco Bay.
Image courtesy of Beth Terry.

I started the blog as an experiment, a way to record my plastic usage. I wanted to see if I could even live without plastic. Then I started getting emails and messages from other people who were also trying to “quit” plastic. I was inspired by Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man, on an interview with NPR (it was through his website that I found the plastic pollution article). I asked him to link to my blog from his site and my audience really took off from there.

My mission is to bring awareness to the problem of plastic and let people know what alternatives there are – it’s all part of my personal goal to eliminate the usage of new plastic. I still use things that are made with plastic like phones, computers, and other items, but I tried very hard to buy items that are used or recycled, rather than new. It’s actually been a fun process learning how to adapt to a plastic-free life!

What have you learned by not buying new plastic?

I had a HUGE learning curve in the beginning; I really resisted buying fresh, whole foods at first. I wanted the process of using less plastic to be easy and it wasn’t, not at first. I bought nearly frozen dinner entrée at the market to try and find items that (hopefully) didn’t use much plastic. Unfortunately, they were all packaged, wrapped, and bound in layers of plastic! I had to learn how to feed myself all over again.

I began ordering produce from CSAs, but then stressed over the vegetables wilting before I could use them. Then I began learning much better ways to make my meals. I buy lots of veggies at the beginning of the week. Then I freeze them, sometimes cooking them first, and sealing them in a big metal container from the Canadian company Life Without Plastic. I take them out during the week and mix them with nuts and fruit for smoothies. It makes for a delicious breakfast that is really easy and fun to make.

It’s not as convenient as going to the store and buying a box or bag that is pre-frozen. It requires some prep-time on the weekends, but once that part is done I can eat throughout the week. Now, my diet is so much better than before! I’m eating whole foods, fresh veggies, fruits, and grains, whereas before I was always eating pre-frozen microwavable meals.

Beth Terry covered in plastic.
Image courtesy of Stephen Loewinsohn.

Why is it so important that people understand how they use plastic?

It’s important to know how plastic is a problem and what it does to the environment. However, once you start examining your usage of plastic you begin to understand more about yourself. You realize how much you are actually using just for the sake of convenience. You start to think about toxins in plastic that transfer to your food and you begin making choices that to protect your body, not just the environment.

It leads you to care about a lot of other things. You have to make tough decisions about everyday products that other people don’t usually worry about at all. The toothbrush for example – if you’re committed to a plastic-free life then the normal toothbrushes have to go. There is a completely compostable toothbrush that is made from wood and pig hair offered by Life Without Plastic. However, mine is made from bamboo and nylon because I don’t want to support the animal product industry. You learn to find what works for you.

I wouldn’t even have thought about sustainable seafood if not for my plastic free life mission. If something was not convenient, then I wouldn’t think about it. Now, I’m really careful about everything I buy because I don’t want to make choices that harm animals or the environment.

How do you inspire other people to care about their plastic usage?

Mostly by my enthusiasm and my examples. One of the most important things is not to nag people, or make them feel guilty about their choices, or try to push them into something they don’t want to do. Rather, I try to show them the positive side of making eco-conscious decisions and how it makes me feel good.

For a long time I thought plastic bag bans were not as effective as plastic bag fees, because bans are taking away their ability to make a choice. I don’t necessarily think that is the case now, since the plastic bag ban in the Bay Area has made such positive advances. But I very much believe that people need to make their own choices and be responsible for them if change is to happen.

Plastic and other trash lies on a beach in Hawaii.
Image courtesy of Beth Terry.

What pro-plastic arguments have you encountered? Has anyone ever simply refused the idea that using less plastic is a good thing?

Oh yes. Usually the arguments are about one single use material vs another. I get around that by saying there are many other options! For example:

Plastic bags – People say that paper bags and reusable bags can be just as bad for the environment and reusable bags can get dirty. I’m not saying that people should use paper bags or low quality reusable bags. I’m advocating that we use organic cotton and hemp, or high quality nylon bags, not reusable bags that are going to start falling apart after a few trips to the store. People also need to use common sense and wash their bags, so there are no contaminants like E. coli from meat.

The heavy glass dilemma – Plastic advocates point out the disadvantage of shipping heavier glass containers as opposed to light plaster materials. Heavy materials burn more fuel, thus they have a greater carbon footprint. I’m saying that there is much more to take into consideration. Plastic can contain harmful chemicals and endocrine disruptors that can leach into your food. Plus, plastic takes a very long time to break down. Glass does too, but at least it doesn’t release the same harmful chemicals. Bringing your own container to the store is even better!

When you’re looking at any of these products, the picture is so much bigger than many people realize. There is a system of benefits versus cost and we need to learn how to recognize them.

What do you believe will happen if people don’t change their plastic-using habits?

I don’t really think about it in that way, because the future is here already. People involved in climate change can look at these scientifically based scenarios of the future, but with plastic it’s different. We are already doing really terrible things. We’re already polluting our oceans, polluting the planet, exposing ourselves to harmful chemicals. I just want us to stop.

Even if we try to recycle plastic items, they will sometimes end up in the environment anyways.
Image courtesy of Beth Terry.

What are some other reasons that we should avoid plastic?
Plastic contains a lot of chemicals that consumers just are not aware of, nor does the plastics industry want us to be aware of them. Just because something says “BPA free” does not mean it is safe for us to use. There are hundreds of chemicals that can be added to these products that are not regulated or disclosed to people buying them. Some of these products release synthetic estrogens that are even worse than BPA. A lot of evidence has been surfacing lately about these harmful toxins and how the plastics industry has been trying to cover it up. Consumers should read this exposé on BPA-free plastics.

What are some simple everyday things that one average person/family can do to reduce their plastic usage?

There are so many things that every person can do, and it’s exceptionally easy if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are just a few examples:

• Bring your own bag to the grocery store! I always take those little Chico bags that fold up small. I keep them in my purse, that way I always have at least one bag with me. I make it a habit, just like taking my keys or wallet.

• Always have your own containers – mugs are good for water, coffee, tea, anything! I always carry a set of bamboo utensils and a stainless steel container.

• Shop at farmers markets – Buy fresh produce that is not packed in plastic. For little things like berries and tomatoes, the ones that come in the plastic baskets, empty them into your own container then hand the basket back to the cashier. They love having these returned to them because it means they can buy fewer!

• Buy your produce naked – Don’t put your veggies in the little individual bags. They came from the ground and I plan on washing them anyways, so if they touch the conveyor belt or any other surface it’s not really a big deal.

• Buy in bulk – But don’t try to buy everything in bulk. Just check out the bulk bins and pick one or two things that you can substitute for an item that you usually buy packaged.

• Baking soda is amazing – Really, it is the best deodorant ever! I keep it in a little tin and add a couple drops of tea-tree oil as an antibacterial and use it on myself. Plus, it comes in a cardboard box rather than plastic.

Beth buying baking soda from a bulk bin using a reusable cotton bag.
Image courtesy of Manuel Maqueda.

• Switch to a bamboo toothbrush – And look around at other items you use everyday, and make the switch from plastic to a renewable, biodegradable product. You can also find bars for shampoos, conditioners, and deodorants, eliminating the need for a plastic container.

• Refill your own containers – Stores like Rainbow in San Francisco and Green 11 offer consumers the ability to bring their own bottles and containers to fill up on personal care and household cleaning products from larger bulk containers.

• Don’t try to do it all at once! Start with one thing at a time.

This is the amount of plastic that Beth used during the entire year of 2011 – awesome!
Image courtesy of Beth Terry.

What would you say to seafood consumers about the importance of using less plastic? Why should this audience care about plastics in the environment?

Chemicals in plastics are entering our bodies through the food chain – little fish eat plastics, bigger fish eat those fish and it accumulates until it reaches us. It’s not a problem of avoiding physical pieces of plastic. Plastics in the ocean absorb pollutants such as DDT and PCB – the longer they are in water, the more they absorb. When they are eaten and digested by fish, these chemicals enter the system of the fish, and then end up in the food that we eat. By using less plastic, you are not only protecting animals in the environment, but you are helping keep toxic chemicals out of your food.

Plastic-free and loving it!

Beth Terry’s journey and enthusiasm serves as a beacon of hope, guiding us towards a better future. If you are inspired by Beth’s journey, her book, Plastic-Free, provides a more in-depth look into ways that consumers can give up their plastic addiction and lead eco-conscious and healthy lives. Join us in protecting the environment while ensuring our bodies stay healthy. Choose your sustainable seafood from Pucci Foods.

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