Author, activist Terry proposes big steps

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Beth Terry

In 2007, shocked by a viral photo of a dead seabird with a stomach full of plastic, Beth Terry decided to give up plastic.

The Oakland, Calif.,-based accountant began cataloging every piece of plastic waste she generated — a total of 2.11 pounds in 2011 — and documenting the journey on her blog, "My Plastic-Free Life" (formerly "Fake Plastic Fish").

Earlier this year Terry's first book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, hit the shelves.

Plastic Free, like Terry's blog, gives readers a plethora of eco-friendly solutions — from using bulk bins at grocery stores to making homemade cosmetics — and outlines her issues, both environmental and not, with plastic. Terry also discusses her own struggle with living waste-free and being a green activist — one chapter details how, overwhelmed with the sheer amount of plastics out there, she began drinking the grain alcohol she used as a cleaning product.

Plastics News spoke with Terry by phone about her book, which now is in its second printing.

Q: In your book, you say the average American generates 88 pounds of plastic household waste per year. How did we get to that point?

Terry: I don't know. I'm 47, so I grew up in the '70s and '80s, and we didn't have bottled water back then. All the sodas came in glass. … Things that came in cardboard and glass then, come in plastic now.

I think part of it is that plastic is so much cheaper to produce and it's lighter-weight, which is good, but I've noticed that a lot of times the plastics industry tries to paint plastic as a green material because it's lighter-weight … but it's only looking at one aspect of plastic and it's sort of disregarding all the other issues with it.

[In the book,] I don't go around saying that everybody should switch from plastic to paper, or plastic to glass, or plastic to this, and throw those things away, because everything has an environmental impact. I think, overall, reducing our consumption is probably the most important green thing we can do.

Q: Is there any turning back now?

Terry: I can't speak for what's going to happen ultimately. I just know there was turning back for me, there's turning back for a lot of the people who are interested in green living and who are interested in changing their mindsets and changing their habits.

My book has done very well and gotten a lot of positive feedback and I've had this blog following for years before that, so there are a lot of people who do want to find ways to reduce their consumption, reduce the amount of disposable items they consume and find a different way to live that isn't solely based on convenience and what's easiest and cheapest.

In terms of whether we're going to be able to reverse the situation that we're in, I don't know. We need bigger steps than just personal actions. That's why, in the book, I give people other kinds of campaigns to get involved in if they want to go further than just changes in their personal lives.

Q: Is it ever going to be possible for us to live entirely plastics-free?

Terry: No, and I don't really think everyone should make [living completely plastic-free] their goal.

I think plastic has its place. I just think that some of the ways we use it are unfortunate. And not only the ways we use [plastic], but also just the ways we develop and use chemicals in general without ensuring that they're completely safe before putting them in products.

I use plastic — I'm talking to you on a phone, which is plastic, my computer is plastic, all the technology I have is plastic — but I've bought very, very few new plastic things since I started this project five years ago. I try to make use of what already exists by getting things second-hand or by finding a way to rent or borrow, to repair things when they break.

[Learning how to fix stuff] has been really fun, because so many things these days aren't made to be repaired, they're made to be disposed of so that people can keep buying new stuff. … I realize a lot of this research is difficult, and time consuming, and that's why people don't do it, but it's fun for me and if I can post it or put it in my book, they don't have to do as much research. That's how I feel like I'm attempting to be part of the solution, making it somewhat easier for people.

Q: If you're looking to cut down on your plastics consumption, where's the first place to start?

Terry: First of all, I always like to say that it's not one-size-fits-all, so what's easy for me might not be easy for somebody else. I personally started with plastic bags — carrying my own cloth bags to the grocery store — because I felt like that would have the biggest immediate impact and was the easiest thing for me to do to get started.

I just decided that I was not going to let myself off the hook. I was never going to take another plastic bag from the grocery store. And the reason I was so hardcore about that was because I knew that if I let myself take a plastic bag every time I forgot, I would never develop the habit of making sure I always had a plastic bag with me.

Next was not buying drinks bottled in plastic anymore, so getting a reusable bottle — my preferred bottle is stainless steel, some people prefer glass bottles but I worry about them breaking — and getting my water tested so I knew whether I needed a water filter or not. And then always drinking tap water instead of bottle water, and figuring out ways to flavor my own water so I wasn't always buying flavored tea or soda.

Those were my first two steps, but I encourage people to take the "Show Your Plastic" challenge. ... They collect their plastics for a week or more and then look at it and answer some questions to figure out where the best place would be for them to start. You get to see your personal plastic footprint, you get to see what your consumption actually is, and you can figure out what things feel like they're important for you to keep buying and what things you can give up.

One thing that I stress to people is, don't start with the hardest thing. A lot of times ... people will email me and say, "There's this product [maybe it's a particular snack food or whatever] that comes packaged in plastic and I can't get it anywhere else and I just love it, so what should I do?" And I say, "Well, don't start with that. That's your favorite thing and there are so many other areas where you can cut back. Start with the low-hanging fruit."

And that's not to say that you won't find an alternative to this thing that you love right now, but why start there and make it hard for yourself?

Q: What's been the hardest plastics product to give up?

Terry: There's two categories here — things that I need and I don't have any way to get without plastic, and then there's things that I want.

In terms of things that I just need to have, there's the supplement powder for our homemade cat food that comes in a plastic bottle and then prescription medication that comes in plastic.

It would be so nice if we could just take back the same prescription bottle and refill it every time with the same prescription. But we can't do that in California … so I have to get a new prescription bottle every time.

I try to get a three-month prescription every time, so at least I'm using fewer plastic bottles, but that's something that I can't avoid.

And plastic tape is something that's been difficult to avoid. ... Unfortunately, because of this project, I end up reviewing a lot of plastic-free products that companies want me to write about on my blog. And I always say, if you send me this item to review, please don't use any plastic packaging in the box and please try not to use any plastic tape, and tape seems like the area where some companies just haven't made the switch or figured it out, even though there are alternatives.

Q: Some of the alternatives in your book seem like they'd be difficult to obtain or are more expensive than plastic products. Is living plastics-free for everyone?

Terry: [Right now] it may not be possible for everyone to be as plastic-free as I've been able to achieve living in the Bay Area … but there's something everybody can do … to reduce the amount of plastic they consume.

A lot of it has to do with being able to speak up. I've gotten emails from people all over the country who have taken steps and have been able to get companies to change or get organizations or schools to change. So there are definitely things everybody can do, no matter where they live. ...

I don't want people to think, "Well, I can't do all of this so I'm not going to do any of it." … Creativity is important here. Also, there's a sprit of experimentation and having fun.

In terms of expense, that's why I tried to focus a lot … on buying things secondhand or buying things used, not necessarily buying things new. And when it comes to glass, our refrigerator, cabinets, even freezer are full of reused glass jars from pasta sauce or pickles or stuff like that, and those didn't cost anything extra.

Yeah, there are some really nice stainless-steel containers or glass containers you can buy if you want to buy something new, but … it's always going to be more eco-friendly to get something that already exists rather than buying something new ... and it's a lot more cost-effective.

Also, if you're somebody who buys bottled water all the time, a stainless-steel water bottle might cost a chunk of change upfront, but it's going to save you a lot of money in the long run if you stop buying disposable bottles. … I haven't sat down and figured out how much money I've saved, but I know that I have saved money just because I've shifted my spending and I just don't buy as much new stuff anymore.

Q: You cite numerous sources in your book and on your blog, but how did you decide which ones to trust? For example, you dismiss some claims by the Food and Drug Administration, but cite info from Environmental Working Group.

Terry: The FDA is a government department that's underfunded, understaffed and doesn't actually have the resources or the mandates to test all of these products. So they rely on the research from companies or rely on reports that companies give them, but they don't actually have the resources to go through and check all the data they're given.

And for me, just the fact that the FDA still allows bisophenol A … and other chemicals like that makes me feel that I can't necessarily trust that our government has the ability to protect us in the way that I would like them to.

As I mentioned in the book, we don't follow the precautionary principal in the United States. The precautionary principal would require that if there was any suggestion of harm from a particular chemical, and if there was another chemical that could be used instead, that we would use the safer alternative and would not allow the possibly dangerous one on the market until it had been actually proven safe.

We don't follow that philosophy in the United States, so it's very difficult to ban chemicals or to regulate them because there has to be so much testing … to prove that something is dangerous, rather than having to prove that something is safe. So basically, consumers are guinea pigs. Someone has to get sick before something is banned.

When I cited studies, I did try to go to the actual source and understand the study myself and how it was completed, rather than quoting from newspaper articles or something like that. The point in talking about the precautionary principal is that … if an organization or a university has done a study and found a possibility of harm, and it sounds like a reasonable possibility, that's something that I want to bring up, that's something I want people to be aware of.

I think you'll notice in the book that I quantify a lot of statements. I don't necessarily say, "This chemical causes this," or, "This chemical causes that." I say, "There's been a link, there's been a suspicion, this may"… I want people to realize that these things aren't absolutely proven, but if we follow the precautionary principal, we would be wise to hold off on consuming a lot of this stuff until we know for sure that it is actually safe.

Q: You raise a lot of concerns about recycling, but whose responsibility is it to improve recycling?

Terry: It's everybody's.

I talk a lot in the book about extended producer responsibility … which requires manufacturers to take full responsibility for the full life cycle of the products they produce. One of the reasons [EPR] is important is not to blame manufacturers, but to encourage them to redesign their products with full life cycle in mind. If they are responsible for figuring out how to recycle it, they'll be more likely to design it to be more easily recycled.

If they're just relying on community curbside recycling programs — and it seems like the bottled beverage industry is really, really pushing that instead of bottle bills — then they can make their bottles any way they want, and we, the taxpayers, have to deal with figuring out how to recycle it.

But we as consumers have a responsibility, of course ... which is why in the book I have a section called "Extended Consumer Responsibility." We're the ones making the choices to purchase these things, or not purchase these things, in the first place.

We have a responsibility to find out what is actually recyclable where we live. I think so many people just assume that the little chasing arrow symbol … means it can be recycled. … People have all kinds of misconceptions on what is recyclable and what isn't, and the truth is that it depends on what your community accepts.

Also, customers have a responsibility to choose products that are more easily recyclable. … If you've really got to get something and it only comes in plastic, look for it in a type of plastic that's more recyclable if you have a choice.

That's whose responsibility it is to make sure things get recycled, but before we even go there, before we even think about recycling, we need to think about reducing and eliminating as much disposable plastic, disposable packaging of all sorts, actually, and thinking of recycling as what to do with what's left, not as the end in and of itself.

Q: What can the industry do to combat this plastics problem?

Terry: I feel like the industry needs a new mindset. I appreciate the people that invented plastic, the people who felt that they were making the world a better place by developing these amazing chemicals and products.

We have so much creativity and so much ingenuity. I want to see these people with these great ideas looking a little deeper into the implications of what they're producing, thinking a little bit further ahead — "This is really cool that it'll do this, but what's it going to do if it gets loose in the environment? What's it going to do to my body down the road if I ingest it or inhale it or if I'm exposed to it over and over again?"

I want to see the industry, No. 1, develop chemicals and develop products with health and environment and full life cycles in mind, and take responsibility for the consequences of the products they produce, whether those consequences are what happens to at it the end of its life … or what kinds of chemicals are going to be leaching out of it.

Q: What about developing materials that are more easily recycled, or ones that are bio-based or biodegradable?

Terry: Honestly, before anything else, I just want them to come clean and disclose all the chemicals that they're using. If I buy a container of food that comes in plastic, I want to be able to call the company and say, "What's in this plastic?" because if I don't know what's in it, how do I know it's safe?

The industry is very secretive. I get pitches all the time for various kinds of, quote, "biodegradable" plastics, that have not been third-party-certified for compostability, and they're usually fossil-based plastics with an additive in it.

If you ask them, "Well, what is the additive that makes it break down?" they'll say, "That's our secret proprietary formula. We can't tell you that."

I understand that they don't want people to copy them, but as a consumer, I'm concerned about things being safe. If you don't tell me what's in it, how do I know if it's safe? If I have one thing that I want the plastics industry to start doing, it's telling me what's in your stuff.

Q: As concerns about plastics continue to be publicized, do you think we're going to see more people cutting back?

Terry: I hope so. That's my goal: to get people to cut back on consumption. And get regulations passed to reduce consumption on a much larger scale, because I don't think that individual personal choices are going to be enough to reverse this trend. I think we do have to get our legislators involved.

I personally have seen growing interest, growing concern, especially from parents, about exposing their children to plastics and finding alternatives.

It is a growing concern, but most people at this point don't realize they have choices. That's why I wrote the book; I want people to realize they don't have to just accept whatever's on their grocery store shelf. There are other things that they can do.