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Six days without plastic? Good luck

  • Article by: KAREN YOUSO
  • Star Tribune
  • September 11, 2009 - 3:03 PM

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean floats a mass of plastic waste twice the size of Texas. Acres of bobbing bottles, bags and Barbie shoes, it's where plastic trash comes to rest in the ocean.

Actually, it doesn't rest. Despite what we've heard -- that plastic lasts a thousand years -- it doesn't. A recent study reveals that plastic breaks down a lot faster than that, but into toxic elements. To what end, nobody yet knows.

Long before it's trash, however, plastic leaches toxins into our bodies (a premise strongly objected to by the FDA and the plastics industry), and nobody knows the long-term consequences of that, either.

Meanwhile, we are creating a layer of plastic on the planet. Enough plastic is discarded each year to circle the Earth four times. Only a fraction of that is being recycled. (I think I know why. It's too confusing: Only some of the plastic is recycled, some of the time, and the stuff that is recycled often really isn't. It just becomes another product for a while on a one-stop detour to the landfill.)

I think I hate plastic. I'm going to forgo plastic for six days, a plastic mini-Lent, it might be called, and learn a new way of living. Split with plastic, and worries about the health effects, recycling and pollution all go away.

Being plastic-free

Day One: I can't brush my teeth (plastic handle on toothbrush), have cereal for breakfast (there's a plastic bag inside the cardboard box) or make toast (bread is wrapped in plastic). I scramble eggs (from a cardboard, not Styrofoam, carton). I pick up my glasses to read the newspaper, and put them down again. They have plastic frames.

Day Two: I find wire-rim reading glasses, but they are sealed in a hard plastic shell. Arrggh! I can't go without reading. I'll make an exception list.

At a catered party, I encounter plastic plates, glasses and silverware. I can't refuse food at this function, and besides, I'm hungry. I make this meal an exception.

Doing laundry, I realize that the detergent is in a plastic jug. I use it, justifying the exception because I'll recycle the jug. (All right, it won't be recycled back into a jug. But it might be a lawn chair for a while before it's added to the planet's plastic layer.) Next time I'll buy detergent in a carton -- one without a plastic handle.

Day Three: I get in the car to drive to work and stop short. There's plastic everywhere: dashboard, locks, knobs. I don't have time to take the bus, and don't buses have plastic seats, anyway? Cars go on the exception list.

I sit down at work and stare at the plastic keyboard and the plastic laminate desktop. Even my desk chair is plastic. I can't work! I go to tell my boss, but before I do, she points out the plastic buttons on my outfit. The workstation is exempted, but not the clothes.

Day Four: I rummage through the closet, looking for clothing with no plastic buttons or zippers. Is there plastic in elastic? (I think my undergarments are a violation, but I wear them anyway.) Let's have pizza for dinner. It'll come in a cardboard box. I'll just tell them to skip the plastic table-like spacer in the middle.

Forget it. I'll make gazpacho, a cold tomato soup. My garden veggies are chopped using a wood (not plastic) cutting board and put into a glass (not plastic) bowl. As the last ingredient, canned tomato juice, is added, I notice the inside of the can. It's lined in white plastic! I'm not throwing away dinner. The tomato juice gets a pass.

Day Five: I stop to buy milk, but the store only has plastic cartons. I'll try another store. Grocery stores are challenging. I'm expected to put fruit in plastic bags, or buy ones on trays covered with plastic. The produce and meat aisle are all about plastic and Styrofoam. I buy cans (hopefully not lined in plastic), boxed goods and fruit on the loose (won't do grapes again; they were a disaster). It's cash instead of plastic for payment, and I carry the groceries out in a paper bag.

Day Six: Last day. I brush with a wood-handled toothbrush (after exempting the plastic packaging) and wear clothing without plastic (I think). I drive to work (exception), and use a workstation, computer and phone (all exceptions). But I'm drinking water from the tap, and using a pencil instead of a plastic pen. Plastic pens are everywhere! The sandwich shop won't take a check in pencil. I pay for lunch with cash, tell them to hold the plastic bag, and get a drink in a paper cup -- no cover, no straw.

I think I love plastic. OK, I still hate it, but I don't want to live without it.

Plastic has problems, no doubt about it. But it's not going away. Plastic's problems will have to be solved in other ways, and soon, or we'll all end up sitting on a heap of plastic forks and ballpoint pens. Now there's a health hazard nobody will dispute.

Karen Youso • 612-673-4407

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