May 9 2011

Reducing Plastics In Our Lives

“Rethinking Plastics,” an informative program sponsored by Piedmont CONNECT on Sunday, May 1, 2011, while acknowledging that plastic is ubiquitous (found in everything from clothing to car parts), also illustrated numerous ways we can reduce the wasteful and dangerous use of plastic in our daily lives.

Guest speaker Stuart Moody, Board President of Green Sangha, a grassroots organization with several chapters in the Bay Area, outlined the history of plastic, from its origins in products made from cellulose plant fibers in the 1860s, to the discovery of oil-based polymers used to make the multitude of plastic products today.  In 2009, the U.S. produced 49 million tons of plastic; in the same year, American households and offices threw away 30 million tons of plastic.  Only 7% of that material was recovered for recycling, most of which is shipped to other countries for reprocessing.  Unfortunately, Moody said, overseas recycling operations have low standards of worker and environmental protection.  Lots of the plastic that we dutifully “recycle” ends up being burned, going to landfills, or ending up in the waterways of other countries.

Some of the plastic that we carefully deposit in our recycling bins, such as plastic bags, never even makes it to “recycling” factories.  What does get reprocessed is almost always “downcycled” into other products, such as carpet, clothing, luggage or construction materials.  These products, like the original materials from which they were made, are not biodegradable and release particles into the environment as the products wear out.  Every year, tons of discarded plastic products break down into small particles that ultimately pollute our waterways and oceans and are ingested by fish, sea birds, turtles, and marine mammals who often suffer painful deaths.

Toxicity is another key issue in our addiction to plastics.  Phthalates, a class of chemicals used primarily to make PVC plastic more flexible, interfere with normal reproductive development in both humans and animals.  Perfluorochemicals, a class of plastic ingredient found in non-stick cookware and related materials, are considered a likely carcinogen by the EPA.  Bisphenol A, or BPA, found in polycarbonate bottles and nearly all canned food liners, is a hormone disruptor linked to breast and prostate cancer, insulin resistance, learning disorders, and obesity.

In a world dominated by plastic products, reducing their use “requires creativity, planning, and anticipation,” said Moody.  But it’s easy to do, once you’ve made a habit of it.   Piedmont CONNECT offers these recommendations:

• Always have reusable bags with you – carry them in the trunk of your car for groceries and other retail purchases.  (Moody noted that a number of other countries and many California municipalities, including San Jose, Palo Alto, and San Francisco and Marin Counties, have banned the use of plastic bags by retailers.)

• Buy – or make your own – cloth/mesh produce bags for fresh produce.

• Invest in a reusable cup for coffee or tea and a reusable water bottle, and remember to take them when you travel.  Have your kids bring theirs, too.

• Reduce or eliminate use of “ziploc” bags and other disposable plastic containers. Instead use non-disposable containers for lunch items.

• Examine how your purchases are packaged and avoid excessively wrapped items and shopping on the internet, if possible.

• Buy as many items in bulk as you can, such as coffee, tea, cereal, pasta, snacks, flour, rice, beans, body lotion, and shampoo, and store them in containers.

• Reduce or eliminate purchasing items that are pre-bagged or sold in plastic containers.

• Reduce or eliminate purchases of single-serve items, such as juice boxes, yogurt, cheese, potato chips.

• Shop at farmer’s markets all year long.

• Go back to using bar soap in all bathrooms.

Parents from the Piedmont Schools’ Green Committees have come together to reduce plastics in school events by providing guidelines for “green serviceware procurement.”  The guidelines ask: do you really need the item? If so, can you use a non-disposable item? If not, is it compostable?  Is it recyclable?  The guidelines recommend World Centric, which sells compostable products in bulk, with a 25% school discount. Phone 650.283.3797 ext. “0” or visit: .  World Centric items are also sold through Whole Foods or Cost Plus World Market.

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