Living 'Plastic Free' with Beth Terry
By Heather Clisby on June 15, 2012
BlogHer Original Post
Beth Terry makes a valiant effort in living a life with little or no plastic - no small feat in today’s disposable world. Furthermore, she's made it her life mission to help others do the same. Today is the official launch of Beth’s new book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, inspired by her popular blog, My Plastic Free Life, which dives deep into the environmental damages of living in a plastic-crazy world.
The blog provides solutions and tips for avoiding plastic while challenging readers to keep track of their own weekly/monthly plastic trash. The new book recounts her former life as a convenience food eater and plastic trash generator until she came upon an article by Susan Casey in Men’s Health entitled, “Are Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic...Are We?”
Image: clizbiz via Flickr
The article led Beth to jarring photographs taken by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation featuring carcasses of dead baby albatross, their flesh worn away to reveal rib cages that contains bits of plastic, fed to them by their parents who mistook plastic for food. The startling images changed Beth’s outlook and the course of her entire life, leading to major behavioral changes, the commitment of an activist blog, and now, a book.
BlogHer: The book’s intro talks about your epiphany with plastic consumption and how plastic has literally become a dead baby albatross around our necks. Have you been in touch with the articles author, Susan Casey?
Beth Terry: I’m trying. I wrote her a letter and have been trying to get in touch. She’s the editor in chief of O now. Obviously, I’m thinking I’d love to have her review the book. I’m so grateful to her, if I hadn’t read that article, none of this would have happened. I want to tell her, most of the time we don’t get to know what kind of impact we have and I just wanted her to know.
BH: In the book you write, “We’re pumping this stuff into the environment so fast it’s coming back to us on our dinner plates.” Can you explain?
BT: When the plastic makes its way into the ocean, it breaks down into tiny pieces and a lot of the sea animals are eating it. In one rainbow runner fish, 17 little pieces of plastic were found. Small fish eat small pieces of plastic and the bigger fish eat the smaller fish and the plastic makes it way up the food chain. And those tiny pieces also accumulate toxic chemicals because they are attracted to the plastic - it’s bad for both reasons. Charlie Moore likes to say that plastic attracts both attracts oil-base pollutants and leaks out toxins.
As the plastic based-toxins - BPA, styrene - all those chemicals leak into the oceans. At the same time, plastic attracts oil. You know when you have the tupperware that has had something oily in it, how it’s hard to get it clean again? Plastic is lipophilic - which means it loves fat. So the plastic itself even more toxic than the surrounding (polluted) sea water. People worry about mercury in fish but there’s all these other chemicals that are rarely discussed.
BH: Regarding your transformation from former plastic junkie to near-complete avoidance, you write: “So, I replaced several addictions with one great big one.” Other than the plastic consumption, how has this mission changed your life - for better or worse?
BT: It has changed my life in a lot of good ways. Read the last chapter - it’s short and sums up some of those changes. Also, Chapter 8, it talks about getting overwhelmed and getting drunk. But for one thing, my life is a lot better because I was addicted to convenience food, sodas and energy bars; I didn’t want to cook. I have had to learn to eat fresh, whole food and it’s great, very eye-opening. I certainly feel better physically.
Another positive change, this has given me a lot more confidence just in realizing that I have a voice and I can speak up and people will listen.
Also, I’ve saved money! If I do need something that’s plastic like electronics or something, I look for second hand. I’m not buying new stuff. Of course, if you don’t buy soda and bottled water, you’re also going to save money. Some people think that if you buy at farmer’s markets or from bulk bins it is more money but it balances out because I save money in other ways.
BH: Readers of your blog really appreciate your interactions with companies and how you challenge and engage them on their packaging.
BH: In the book, you mention that plastic is in products. Which ones?
BT: Chewing gum, most of it is made from plastic.
BH: What about Dairy Queen ice cream? I’m pretty sure it’s made of plastic.
BT: Ha! I don’t know about that but there is plastic in a lot of medications - pills and capsules. Also, a lot of things that people think are just paper are coated with plastic - cups, plates, ice cream containers. There are things that people think are wax but are now plastic. They haven’t been wax since the 50s. People assume they are wax - I did! Of course, BPA in the lining inside metal screw caps, jar lids and bottles. And BPA in food cans, beverage cans, soda cans - all contain a plastic lining. A few companies are trying to switch from BPA to something else but what they are switching to is in question - anything safe? We really don’t know. They have to line the cans with something to keep it from corroding.
The problem with BPA and and these endocrine-disrupting chemicals is that they do the most harm at low doses. The hormone system reacts to them and mimics estrogen and your endocrine system can’t tell the difference. At high levels, it’s too high, it can’t be recognized. When I tell this to people, they start to get a sense of the problem - it’s totally scientific. One thing I do want to say is that people think that that I’m so immersed in this issue that I go around worrying all the time. I don’t! I am more motivated by a sense of justice and the unfairness of it to those who can’t speak up, like animals especially and little babies. Honestly, I worry more about them than I worry for myself about every little chemical.
BH: We’ve previously discussed how you’ve become this ‘plastic consciousness fairy’ that sits on many shoulders guiding people through their daily lives with regards to plastic usage. You sat on mine just last night as I asked for foil instead of Styrofoam for my leftover pizza. Tell me about how it feels to be the voice of the conscious for so many people now.
BT: It’s kind of awesome but I have that little traveling consciousness fairy that sits on my shoulder too! I’m always thinking, “What would Beth do?” Ha! Like the higher self, right? Because I get recognized sometimes now, I am extra careful. I wouldn’t be buying plastic anyway, but I also need to not wear polyester clothes, even if I had them for years anyway, because of the perception. I feel like I’ve set myself as an example and I have to live this. It’s fine. Sometimes it’s tiring but I spend so much time inside so it’s fine.
BH: Tips for plastic reduction?
Start bringing reusable bags, which a lot of people do now. I switched to Chico bags and keep a couple of those in my purse because they fold up real small and I don’t have a car. Yes, they are polyester but I’ve had mine for the last five years and when you think about all the bags they’ve replaced, it’s worth it. But if you’re diligent about organic cotton or hemp, that’s great but a canvas bag isn’t any good if you leave it home.
There’s a little story in the book about this. Michael and I went on a trip to Anaheim, California and we went to the store and bought all this produce, but didn’t bring any bags! So, we put the fruit in our shirts! That might seem extreme, but if I gave in, I wasn’t gonna develop the habit. Episodes like this made me develop that habit a lot faster.
BH: Other tips?
BT: Start carrying reusable utensils, water bottle or a travel mug - stainless steel is my preferred material of choice. Aluminum bottles are lined with plastic. Carry a set. If I’m going out, then I will have a lunchbox container or eco-lunch box to put leftovers in. Tiffin boxes too - I list a bunch of them in my book. Skip the produce bags. Buy produce naked - there is rarely reason for a bag. Or you can buy cloth bags too. (Ed.- These are my favorite.)
BH: Describe the plastic trash challenge from your blog.
BT: I invite people to collect their plastic trash for a week, take photos, document everything. There is a worksheet in the book, plus questions that help you figure out what your personal plastic footprint and where you want to focus your attention; everybody has a different lifestyle. These questions help you find our your priority. Then, you can post online and get feedback from other people.
BH: How many people have taken on this challenge?
BT: I haven’t counted but probably a couple hundred. Last year, when writing the book I was still collecting the plastic in my own life, though it’s pretty minimal now. When I wasn’t posting it weekly, I lost the sense of how much I was accumulating. It’s good for me to do it weekly. I talk about that at the end of Chapter 1.
BH: So, what’s the difference between the book and the blog?
BT: There’s info in the book that’s not on the blog. Plus, the book is organized in such a way that’s it’s easier to find everything. On the blog, well, it’s a blog! The info is everywhere and it’s five years wroth of info all spread out all over the place.
BH: Five years!
BT: Almost to the day - I started this in June of 2007.
BH: And now the big question: Will this book be delivered by Amazon with plastic pillows in the box?
BT: (Big sigh.) I don’t have any control over Amazon. To nip that in the bud, I got together with BuyGreen.com and they are selling the book, plastic-free. It does cost more but again, it aligns with book. The best way is to visit the book link on my site that explains all the different options - also IndieBound to find local, independent book sellers who are carrying it. The book is already in stores. And if you want a signed copy, you can buy the book directly from me. All that info is there. It’s available anywhere books are sold and if they are out, they can order more, which would be awesome.