Living without the ubiquitous material is a challenge for locals
It was Day 5 of plastic-free February, and Betsy Cushman, executive director of Methow Recycles, already had a cardboard box containing plastic packaging from office supplies, a sponge, and a bag of chips; duct tape and reinforced packing strips; and a candy wrapper.
“This is from a very intentional person, in five days,” she said.
Plastic can be virtually impossible to avoid. You refill a prescription or replace your toothbrush. You buy meat or cheese. Apples and oranges have little plastic stickers on them. Even rugged tools and hardware come in plastic.
But a dozen locals who signed on to Methow Recycles’ plastic-free February challenge devised successful alternatives and formed new habits that stick.
Some participants tried to eliminate plastic entirely — or at least to come close. Others avoided single-use items like plastic forks and produce bags. Methow Recycles encouraged people to save the plastic they did use as a self-audit, as Cushman did, and as a way of coming up with other options.
“Plastic is the poster-child for our throwaway culture. It’s cheap and easy to make, and we use it in a nonchalant, devil-may-care way, and don’t even think about the consequences,” Methow Recycles’ Education and Outreach Program Manager Aspen Kvicala said.
But being conscientious about reducing plastic use can be hard, particularly for people on a budget and for families with young children and busy schedules, Kvicala said. “Avoiding plastic requires planning. Plastic allows you to lead this perceived convenient life. A roast chicken can be a lifesaver,” she said.
“I’m in a place in my life where I’m willing to be inconvenienced, but not everyone can,” Cushman said.
When Jonathan Baker took on the challenge, he cut back where possible, but took a pragmatic approach. “It’s about understanding what the problem is and setting reasonable goals,” he said.
Some changes were straightforward. Baker now fills glass jars with loose tea. He and his wife started making their own salad dressing. “Salad dressing was easy to figure out, and now we’re better cooks,” he said.
Still, Baker struggled with his grocery list. “It’s hard — I want to get bacon, but it comes in a shrink-wrapped thing. How do you buy chicken breasts?” he said.
As Baker shopped for produce at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp, he marveled at some of the packaging. “This never goes away,” he said, inspecting shrink-wrapped organic zucchini that came on a Styrofoam tray. Although the store carries lots of loose garlic, organic garlic was in plastic mesh bags stitched with nylon thread.
Many taking the challenge found that awareness about plastic changed their decisions about what to buy — and that sometimes meant compromising. Baker opts for loose fruits and vegetables to avoid packaging, even if it means he won’t be buying organic. He concedes that even that’s not perfect. “All of this probably came in a box or a bag in the back,” Baker said.
As the founder of eqpd at TwispWorks, Baker has a particular interest in plastic and reusable products. Eqpd uses vinyl and nylon thread to make tote bags they promise will last forever, keeping plastic bags out of the landfill and, ideally, helping reduce the number of bags manufactured.
“Plastic isn’t necessarily the enemy,” Baker said. “It’s just that plastic is being misused.” He pointed to undeniable advantages of plastic for making food safer, hospitals healthier, and cars lighter and more fuel-efficient. “Plastic offers a lot of environmental benefits, but it’s counterintuitive, because it never goes away,” he said.
As vegans, Vittoria Palazzi and her husband have an easier time lessening the plastic in their grocery cart than many people. They put bulk beans, grains and nuts in their own reusable containers. They use mesh bags for produce and keep it fresh at home in a few plastic bags they’ve reused for years.
Palazzi asks questions at Methow Recycles and calls manufacturers to inquire about their packaging. And she asks herself questions. “What am I doing on the planet? Who am I serving? Just me?” she said.
So, Palazzi thinks about the destiny of packaging. She chooses glass bottles over plastic and recyclable plastic bottles over a tube or other container that has to go in the trash. “I want to eliminate all my trash, so I look at every little item,” she said. She realizes it will take years.
Mountains of plastic
Cutting back on plastics isn’t just a feel-good exercise, Cushman said. More than half the plastic now on Earth has been created since 2002, and plastic pollution is on pace to double by 2030, she said.
Cushman pointed to a 2017 study published in the journal “Science Advances” that found that the world has created 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste since 1950 — and 91% has never been recycled even once. “We can’t recycle our way out of this because the vast majority of the plastic in our lives has never been recyclable,” Cushman said.
Only 15% of plastic gets recycled because so much of it — like bags for potato chips and wrappers for sticky notes — isn’t even recyclable, Cushman said. These wrappers are so light that they often blow away when they’re dumped into landfills, she said.
Another study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean in 2050, Cushman said.
Manufacturers are making it easier to go plastic-free. You can get shampoo and conditioner in bars, like soap. There are little tablets that turn into toothpaste when you bite down on them, Palazzi said.
Many local businesses are helping reduce plastic. People have to bring their own mug to the Mazama Store for coffee. Many delis and bakeries offer wooden utensils for take-out and straws made from steel or bamboo. Pardner’s Mini Market stopped using Styrofoam containers and plastic bags about 15 years ago, and offers only paper cups for drinks.
All the local groceries have a selection of products in bulk, from rice and beans to cereal to kombucha. The Glover Street Market in Twisp offers oil, vinegar, shampoo and lotions that you can dispense into your own bottle, and has started selling loose salad greens.
Kvicala brings reusable containers to deli counters and makes her own tortillas and energy bars — when she has time. “Once you’re awoke, you’re awoke. The awareness stayed with me,” she said.
Palazzi makes her own carbonated water. Cushman found a way to consolidate prescription refills, instead of getting a bottle every month. “When we accept single-use plastic, we’re basically buying something that we know we’re going pay to throw out later.” she said.
“If you can’t reuse something, you have to question why it’s in your life,” Baker said.
“It’s not about recycling. It’s about not having anything to recycle,” Palazzi said.
State close to adopting plastic-bag ban
A bill passed by the state Legislature that would prohibit a retailer from providing a single-use plastic bag is headed to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature. The bill would also prohibit paper or reusable plastic bags that don’t meet minimum requirements for recycled content, and would impose an 8-cent charge for each bag a customer uses.
Reusable container rules under review
The Washington Department of Health (DOH) is considering a rule change that would allow people to refill clean, reusable containers in food establishments with an expanded list of foods, including perishable items.
The state Board of Health will consider the proposed changes this spring and summer, with a goal of adopting a new rule in September. It would be implemented in February 2021 after an education period, according to Susan Shelton, a public health advisor for food safety with DOH.
To comment on the proposed changes, email email@example.com. They are particularly interested in suggestions that would ensure public health and safety, Shelton said.
For more information, search for “retail food code rule revision” at www.doh.wa.gov.