For Beth Terry, the epiphany came when she read an article about how albatross chicks are being killed by discarded plastic. It was time to banish plastic from her life.
First, she focused on her kitchen and got rid of the shopping bags, microwaveable Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, Clif bars and the washed salads in plastic tubs.
Then, she turned to her bathroom, where she switched to shampoo bars instead of bottles and made hair conditioner from apple cider vinegar. Toothpaste without plastic packaging was exceptionally hard to find, so she started making it with baking soda.
Sometimes, her personal war on plastic created awkward moments. During a vacation to Disneyland in California to run a half-marathon, Terry and her husband left their reusable cloth bags in the hotel, soon discovering that the local supermarket only had plastic bags. How to carry a bunch of apples, oranges, avocados and melons?
“We just rolled it up in our T-shirts and carried it that way,” said Terry, 54, recalling how she crab-walked back to the hotel to stay true to her principles. “If I let myself off the hook this time, it would be easier for me to take plastic next time.”
Treating plastic like a drug habit that needs to be kicked is a lifestyle pledge being shared by more consumers, horrified by the nearly 300 million tons of plastic created worldwide each year, much of it in the form of single-use items like straws, that end up in landfills or the ocean.
As a marketing term, “plastic-free” is emerging as the new “no carbs.” Stores that pride themselves on zero plastics have opened in Brooklyn and London, selling items such as silicone water bottles, cardboard poop scoopers, biodegradable vibrators and iPhone cases made of flax.
Designers have embraced plastic free as a new challenge, whether it’s building a supermarket aisle without plastic or making eco-friendly clothing that does not involve virgin plastic. Celebrities including Jeff Bridges and SZA have joined the anti-plastic crusade.
Even some Fortune 500 companies like Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo want a piece of the action. In the summer, those companies will test selling products such as Tropicana orange juice in glass bottles, Pantene shampoo in aluminum bottles and other items in refillable nonplastic containers.
“The awareness has exploded,” said Susan Freinkel, a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.” “The movement to get rid of trivial plastic has taken off. There is a critical mass of consciousness.”
To exist in the modern world without plastic, however noble a goal, may not be possible. If you gathered up all your plastic waste each week, as Terry once did, you would have a huge mound on the floor. Where to even begin?
“The one thing I try to emphasize to people is to go step by step,” said Terry, an accountant who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland, and who is the author of “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.” “Don’t try to do everything at once. It’s been a practice of mine to not get overwhelmed by it all.”
That’s easier said than done, because once you wake up to the plastic problem, you see it everywhere: in jars of peanut butter and bags of grapes, in tubes of toothpaste and Tupperware containers, in bottles of Dawn dish soap and Tide laundry detergent, in the wrappers of Doritos chips and the lining of milk cartons.
“I thought I’d be able to find a plastic-free version of all the convenient foods I was consuming,” Terry said. “I didn’t realize that plastic made those foods possible.”
At the grocery store, you find yourself staring at a 10-foot shelf of yogurt brands, with only one in a glass jar: Oui by Yoplait. But you don’t like Oui by Yoplait. Also, it costs much more. What do you do?
To navigate the consumer minefield, plastic purgers develop mental maps of places where they can shop. It may take months, but they learn where to get milk in a glass bottle or which health-food store lets you grind your own peanut butter. Rather than see it as a huge inconvenience, they treat living plastic free as a fun game.
“I wake up and think, ‘How am I going to make it through the day without using any single-use plastic?’” said Dianna Cohen, 53, an artist in Santa Monica, California, and a founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition, an advocacy group. “Right away, the challenge hits you in the bathroom with the toothbrush.”
For her, the answer is often the farmers’ markets, which exist year-round in Southern California, to which she brings her own bags. “I’m a big fan of baskets,” Cohen said. “I bring baskets and canvas bags to put vegetables in. I will bring my own glass jam jars.”
Like many who aim to live plastic free, Cohen never leaves home without her eco-survival kit, which includes a steel cup, a set of bamboo utensils or a metal spork, two stainless-steel straws and a cloth bag. To her, it’s worth the extra minutes it takes to ready herself before leaving the house. “I have to be very thoughtful in advance,” she said.
Indeed, plastic purgers need to rearrange their lives to avoid the offending material. If a restaurant serves food only on plastic plates, they won’t eat there. Fast food? Most wrappers contain plastic. Smoothies from a juice bar? Unless they put the smoothie in a stainless steel cup, move on or make your own at home. Bread? Buy it from a local bakery to avoid fresh-seal bags.
There are certain situations where plastics are unavoidable. Try having a medical procedure without using a plastic syringe or an intravenous drip bag. Plastic water bottles can be indispensable after natural disasters.
Despite their best efforts, the purgers all say they can’t totally banish plastic from their lives. For Cohen, it’s a favorite hairbrush she has had for decades. Terry confronts the limits of her plastic ban each time she visits the pharmacy, where no pharmacist would put medicine in a Mason jar.
“It’s a daily challenge,” Cohen said. “But I think it’s becoming easier. It’s really just learning new behavior.”
Going plastic free is easier these days because there’s more awareness and alternatives. Stores sell dental floss made of silk, wooden toothbrushes with pig-hair bristles, stainless-steel ice cube trays, food wrappers made with beeswax coated cotton and other nonplastic versions of household items.
Nevertheless, it is usually more expensive to buy stainless steel or wood items instead of plastic ones, or fresh foods instead of packaged ones.
It can be difficult to avoid plastic in poorer communities. Not everyone has access to year-round farmers’ markets, or the means to shop at them.
Kristal Ambrose, 29, an environmental scientist who founded the Bahamas Plastic Movement, an advocacy group, faces that challenge daily. Much of what is sold in the archipelago nation is imported and shipped in plastic.
“I avoid plastic in areas where I can control,” said Ambrose, who carries bamboo cutlery and a reusable bottle with her at all times. “For me, not using a plastic bag means so much more. But the mother who’s juggling work, kids, other things — their priorities are different.”
Part of her mission is to show that you don’t need to be rich to avoid plastic. “Sometimes, people can’t afford a bamboo kit, but you can take a fork from home,” Ambrose said. “Even an old pasta sauce jar can be made into a reusable item.”