Shades of Green: Drowning in Plastic

Can one family ditch plastic completely?

Beach strewn with plastic debris (Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons)

I remember digging into parenting books before my daughter was born, you know, when I still had time to read. Like all parents-to-be, I ate up advice and sought out all the information I could. I waffled over whether I wanted to adopt attachment parenting or the cry-it-out method. I threw myself into the debates over bottle feeding and early childcare. But there was one tip I heeded without question: The advice to avoid plastic.

As an employee of the Center for Biological Diversity and someone who cares about the environment, I already knew about the plastic problem. Plastic may be convenient, but that convenience carries a steep price. We’re surrounded by the stuff, and plastic never goes away. Grocery bags, food containers, coffee cup lids, straws, even receipts. Think about it: If you tallied up all the things you use in a day, I bet a big portion would be made from plastic.

Plastic may be convenient, but that convenience carries a steep price.

Plastic leaches toxic chemicals that are dangerous to our health, especially for pregnant women and babies. It has been linked to increased risk of cancer, liver problems and diabetes. And it isn’t just humans that plastic threatens. All that plastic is increasingly finding its way into our oceans and onto our beaches. Thousands of animals, from small finches to great white sharks, die unnecessary and painful deaths from eating and getting caught in plastic.

So I began the process of eliminating as much plastic from our lives as I could. Some changes were easy: We started bringing reusable cotton bags to the grocery store, we got glass baby bottles for our daughter, and we stocked our pantry and fridge with food stored in glass containers. I avoid disposable drink containers by bringing along my stainless steel water bottle and coffee cup.

We work really hard to avoid plastic — and we still find ourselves surrounded by it.

Other adjustments were a little bit harder. Convincing grandparents that plastic toys were a no-go was a tough sell, especially since the natural versions look less exciting next to their shiny, light-up, battery-operated counterparts. As my daughter gets older, it’s even more difficult — now she asks for the toys her friends have.

Buying bulk at the grocery store so we could skip prepackaged goods also had a learning curve. I needed to do some research to figure out what supplies we needed. It was definitely an investment, and one that didn’t happen overnight. We had to stock up on reusable snack bags, mesh dry-good bags and jars to take to the bulk food section, and bottles to store shampoo and soap. Then, once we had all the supplies, we needed to figure out which grocery stores let us bring our own containers for the bulk section. And we couldn’t ignore the reality that sometimes the prepackaged stuff is just cheaper.

Our whole family has a reusable cup they love, but we also need bigger changes.

Admittedly, our family is far from living plastic-free. We have a toddler who likes to throw things, which means sometimes glass isn’t an option. Not every store has a bulk section. And sometimes I just plain forget my coffee mug. Unfortunately, with a toddler, skipping coffee just doesn’t work. The thing is, we work really hard to avoid plastic — and we still find ourselves surrounded by it.

I may be responsible for remembering my coffee mug, but if we’re ever going to reduce plastic waste as a society, we need policies that support behavioral changes. For example, Austin has a plastic bag ban, and there’s a small charge for paper bags. You wouldn’t believe how many things I’m willing to carry to my car stacked Jenga-style in my arms when faced with a small fee, and I’m not alone. Cities and stores that have banned plastic bags or started charging small fees have seen a drastic drop in disposable bag use across the board. And when airports, gyms and other public places install water bottle filling stations, it’s easier to skip the disposable plastic bottles.

Individual changes are important, but they aren’t enough. We also need to urge companies to phase out excess packaging so that the demand for cheap, disposable plastic decreases. Industries need to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products and do more to prevent plastic pollution.

Because the truth is no matter how hard we try to reduce our plastic waste as individuals, it’s going to take a change across the board to make a real dent in the enormous problem. While I’m committed to continuing to work to ditch plastic in my family, I’m also going to keep pushing industries and the government to do their part to save our oceans and our health from the tidal wave of plastic.

Jessica Herrera is a media specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity.