Three years ago, Beth Terry published Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. After inspiring thousands of people with her blog, My Plastic Free Life, Beth compiled what she’d learned about plastic pollution into a book the Washington Post called, “Practical and hopeful, with a kind of cheerleading charm.”
I caught up with Beth about the recently published updated version of Plastic-Free here:
In the years since you first published Plastic-Free, would you say the threat of plastic pollution is greater or worse than you thought it was?
I think it’s even worse. Scientists are learning more and more about microplastics and are finding microplastics in more places. I wrote about the impact that plastics have on clean air for Moms Clean Air Force when my book first came out. Since then, there have been more studies of ingestion of microplastics by fish. Why is that a problem? I’m concerned about the chemicals that plastics attract, like DDT, PCBs, and others, rising up through the food chain into the fish we eat.
Another concern I have is that, while we make certain strides like removing BPA from a lot of plastics, what they are replaced with is not necessarily better and some are worse. And manufacturers are not even required to disclose any of the chemicals they add to their plastic products.
It seems like there is much more public awareness about microplastic than ever before. States are passing laws against using microbeads in personal care products. Is it just too little too late?
I’m ecstatic microbead legislation is going through, but microbeads are only a small fraction of what makes up microplastic in the oceans. A lot of microplastic comes from bigger chunks of plastic that get broken down by waves, sun, and other ocean elements.
Here’s part of the problem: when plastic gets brittle and breaks down, it releases the chemicals it contains, while at the same time attracting other chemicals that are floating in the ocean.
Are BPA-free plastic bottles a good alternative for people who are concerned about the health impacts of plastic?
I personally don’t use any plastic bottles, and I don’t see why anyone needs to, given how many great reusable bottles are available. Unless manufacturers are required to disclose the chemicals they use in the plastic, there’s no way for consumers to know what chemicals are there and what toxic chemicals can leach out. Various chemicals may be added to plastic, many of which are probably endocrine disruptors. In my book, I refer to a study of 455 different plastic products. Some were known to have BPA and some were BPA-free, compared to plain resin that hadn’t been converted to anything. Over 90% of the products tested had estrogenic effects. Researchers actually exposed human breast cancer cells to the chemicals in the products and found many that caused the cancer cells to grow.
The additives are the main problem. Thousands of different chemicals may be added to plastic to affect its quality. But we consumers don’t know what they are…and even if they exist in very low doses, they are still problematic. In fact, the low doses of endocrine disruptors that may be in plastics are similar to the low doses the body recognizes as a hormone. When they combine with other endocrine disruptors we’re exposed to, it can create a bigger problem.
Plastic bags and bottles are being turned into everything from park benches to fleece jackets. Good, or bad?
Technology definitely has increased for recycling. One big problem for recycling was industry’s ability to sort plastics. Until recently, human beings did the sorting — mostly looking for clear plastic and HDPE bottles. Now, a machine uses a ray of light to see what kind of plastic it is dealing with. Then it uses puffs of air to separate the plastics into the right sorting bin.
At same time, there are still a lot of issues with recycling in terms of air pollution. Most plastic recycling happens overseas where recyclers aren’t subject to the same environmental U.S. standards. China recently discovered table salt contaminated with tiny plastic particles, probably from ocean pollution attached to sea salt. Mike Biddle is a recycler who works with companies in China and Europe that recycle plastic. He’s met people in China who will burn plastic and smell the fumes to see what kind of plastic they’re working with. They’re killing themselves, and they know it. They feel they have no choice.
Fleece is also problem because it emits so much microplastic. Moms have been concerned because of the BPA in all that plastic, but the plastic microfibers are an issue, too.
On the one hand we have to do something with the plastic trash we do have. But recycling is not a long-term solution. A plastic bench doesn’t get recycled when it breaks; it gets thrown in the landfill. So recycling plastic may reduce solid waste in the short-term, but not in the long-term.
And of course, recycling doesn’t address the issue of toxicity and health.
I don’t focus on recycling so much as on urging consumers to reduce the amount of new things we’re consuming. We have to reduce our consumption of everything, because everything has an environmental impact. I focus on reusables.
Moms Clean Air Force members are particularly concerned about climate change. Is there a link between how much plastic we use and extreme weather events?
Yes, indirectly. The way I see it, plastic use is a symptom of a society that is based on convenience and getting things fast. Those traits that cause the ubiquity of plastic are the same type of attitude that causes climate change. It has to do with overconsumption, wanting to buy a lot of things because of something missing inside us. I experience that feeling too, all the time. I have to restrain myself from buying new things.
It’s not a matter of needing things; it’s a matter of wanting change, and wanting new stuff. I discovered that I could satisfy that need by swapping things from Goodwill. I don’t feel bad about that.
As a society, there’s a lot we can do to promote a less consumptive culture. Why does everyone have to have the same tools in their house that they only use a few times a year? Where I live, we have a tool lending library, and people use it quite a bit.
I have gotten to the point where, if I don’t need something, I don’t want it in my house.
For many parents, living plastic-free can be a pretty big challenge. What advice do you have for parents who want to reduce or eliminate plastic at home?
There are great lunch containers and school supplies for kids, like plastic-free binders. EcoLunchBox and Life Without Plastic have pulled together a lot of reasonably priced options. And more and more, these options are available in regular stores, not just natural foods stores.
One challenge parents have is requesting non-plastic gifts for their kids from grandparents, friends, and family. The book includes a lot of tips from readers who have found diplomatic ways to handle this with their family, especially.
What else is new about the book?
There’s a forward by the musician Jack Johnson, which is very exciting! I’ve included a new chapter that highlights how people all over the world are living plastic-free. There’s updated information about toxic chemicals in plastic and included more data about the low dose effect and endocrine disruptors. There are additional solutions and ideas for reducing plastic in everyday life. But I always want to know more about what steps people are taking to reduce the amount of plastic they use. I hope Moms Clean Air Force readers will get in touch and share their stories!