In preparation for Plastic Free July, I ordered Life Without Plastic so I could learn more about the problems associated with plastic and ways to avoid using it. At this point, I manage to do a good job of avoiding new plastic in my life. But as my plastic audits showed (a recommended activity from Life Without Plastic) plastic is still all around me.
Life Without Plastic approaches plastic from two angles, the potential health risks associated with plastic and the adverse environmental impacts of plastic. I was skeptical of the health risks associated with plastic going into reading Life Without Plastic, and to be honest, my reasons for not using plastic still aren’t heavily influenced by potential health risks. A big focus of the book is endocrine-disrupting chemicals particularly plastics that mimic estrogen in the body. They cite research that EDCs can be found in cosmetics, food additives, and pesticides, and end the section about EDCs referring to a woman who can’t eat anything that has been packaged in plastic due to an allergy. While I think that it’s good to be considerate of the synthetic chemicals we surround ourselves with, I don’t think cherry picking one anecdote is a great example of why we should all fear plastic. I avoid some potential risks with plastic, like microwaving Tupperware, but I don’t see myself avoiding canned food due to the potential risk of acidic foods in aluminum cans.
The aspects of Life Without Plastic that I really appreciated were the clear outlines of what the different recycling symbols mean, what compostable means, how the recycling systems work, and ideas for plastic swaps. Every plastic item has a number in the recycle arrows on the bottom, leading you to assume that all plastics are easily recycled. Unfortunately, plastics 3, 4, 6, and 7 are not recyclable, despite the recycling symbol. They also discussed how ineffective the recycling industry is. The recycling industry has been in the news a lot lately, now that China is no longer accepting much of the world’s plastic (including plastic water bottles). But the reality is, the system has been broken for a long time. In 2014, less than 10% of recyclable materials were actually recycled. The recycling industry was created to manage existing plastic use, but instead, it let people think they were being environmentally friendly as long as they bought recyclable materials. The reality is, we need to limit our consumption of all disposables (recyclable or not) in order to be more environmentally friendly.
One of the most eye-opening sections of the book was about defining what compostable means. Bioplastics (plastics made using organic materials like vegetables or woodchips) are seemingly everywhere now, presented as an alternative to conventional plastics. They can be used to make everything from packaging to phone cases. Bioplastics are becoming popular because they are biodegradable plastics…in some cases. Life Without Plastic does a great job of defining compostable vs. biodegradable and what that means when it comes to bioplastics. Not all bioplastics are created equal, and many can’t be composted in a home compost system. The sad reality is, bioplastics are often just a form of greenwashing that makes us feel better about using disposables. I now know to read the fine print on bioplastic products to make sure I can compost them on my own, without an industrial composter. (Luckily my Pela Case passes the compost at home test).
All in all, Life Without Plastic was a great read! It presents useful information about plastic and great replacements for plastic in pretty much every aspect of life. Whether you’ve been in the zero waste game for years or want to start a zero waste journey, I’d highly recommend checking it out. Have you read Life Without Plastic? What was your biggest takeaway? Mine was that receipts contain plastic and aren’t recyclable.