The average American uses 185 pounds of plastic a year and less than 10% of that winds up getting recycled. It takes up to 1,000 years for plastic to degrade — so nearly every piece ever produced still exists in some form, much of it winding up in our oceans.
Images of such ocean pollution inspired Beth Terry to pursue a plastic-free life back in 2007. We talked to the California accountant-turned-activist about why she eliminated plastic from her life and how others might do the same.
How did you start to eliminate plastic from your life?
BT: I had no idea how much plastic I was using so I starting collecting all of my plastic waste and tracking it on my blog. Each week, I'd look at what I was using and decide what to cut out next.
For me, the easiest thing to cut out first was the plastic shopping bags from stores. I decided I’d never take another.
At first I’d forget to prepare for my shopping trips but now I just never leave the house without three to four reusable bags.
The second major thing to cut out was bottled drinks, then plastic food containers.
What did you learn?
I found that plastic is everywhere! Any paper that is leak-proof — like that in ice cream-cartons, frozen vegetable packages, milk cartons, paper cups — is lined with plastic. Lids on glass jars are usually lined with plastics, as are those on beer bottles.
Many of the foods we buy feature useless plastic garnishes, like the little plastic grass that comes in sushi containers or the plastic ring that sits in the middle of pizzas.
So I had to get creative and see things in different ways. I started always carrying a glass or stainless steel bottle and container with me to store leftovers. Also, when I'd buy produce, I wouldn't put it in a bag. Produce grew from the ground and I was just going to wash it at home anyway!
Trying to wean plastic out of my kitchen was super important. Plastic that’s used in containers can leech chemicals into food so I didn’t even necessarily think of it as an environmental thing, but as a health thing.
How has this changed your life?
Before I started this, I lived on frozen microwavable meals, energy bars, and convenience foods. To reduce plastic, I wound up eating a lot more whole foods and less processed stuff. I started buying fresh ingredients from local farmers markets that are sold in paper bags, or no bags at all.
I stopped drinking sugary sodas, opting instead to make my own seltzer water at home. Without thinking about it, I found myself eating food that was healthier and had fewer additives, preservatives, and chemicals — I was buying apples instead of apple "products."
Cutting out plastic caused me simplify to my life by purging stuff and giving a lot of things away. When shopping now, I’ll ask myself if I really need something, or if it’s just an impulse. Often, it’s the latter.
I love looking in my refrigerator and cupboards and seeing lots of glass jars and no packaging. It makes me feel good to reduce the amount of stuff I buy and I have less laying around that I don’t know what to do with.
This seems really intense! How do you stay motivated?
Eight years after first starting this journey, avoiding plastics has become a habit. My blog and my book connect me with people around the world trying to reduce their own plastic use, which really keeps me going, too. This is a growing movement and every year the movement gets bigger.
If you're inspired to make a change and move towards a simpler, healthier life, here's how to put some of Beth’s plastic-reducing tips into action.
Interview by Emma Loewe, mbg editorial. This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo courtesy of the author
After learning about the devastating effects of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, Oakland accountant Beth Terry began an experiment to see if she could live without buying any new plastic. Since then, she has reduced her plastic waste to less than 2 percent of the national average. That experiment turned into the popular blog MyPlasticFreeLife.com and new book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. A founding member of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Terry gives presentations on plastic-free living and why, despite what some critics assert, our personal actions really do make a difference. Her work and life have been profiled in the award-winning film Bag It, as well as Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and Captain Charles Moore’s Plastic Ocean.