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Eco-Challenge: My Plastics Purge

Every morning I open my eyes to an alarm clock made mostly of plastic. I squeeze out toothpaste, encased in something plasticky, onto my plastic toothbrush. My shampoo and conditioner bottles are plastic; so is my shower curtain.

Plastic pervades my breakfast: Milk and yogurt come in plastic containers and cereal in bags. Even the refillable coffee mug I carry to the local cafe is insulated with plastic and topped with a plastic lid.

I know all this plastic isn't healthy for me or the planet. Those containers aren't always easily and safely recycled (Nos. 3, 6, and 7, in particular). I also know that the stuff never fully biodegrades.

There's the manufacturing issue, too. Plastic production can release cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting toxins into the air and uses vast amounts of energy and natural resources.

To create just one pound of polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or No. 1 plastic, used in water and soda bottles) it takes nearly 20 pounds of water and emits about 3 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many plastics keep emitting toxins long after they've left the factory -- even as you're using them.

Seriously reducing our use of plastic would be a very good thing for the earth. So last winter, I decided to pitch plastic from my life. It wouldn't be easy; I knew that. But I was optimistic.

I'd already made the switch from plastic grocery bags to canvas totes, so I figured I was off to a great start. But when I began to pay careful attention to every piece of plastic I encountered, the reality surprised me.

Mission: Impossible?
Shopping for a hostess gift one evening early into my experiment, I chose sustainably grown blooms at my favorite flower shop. I had never really noticed it before, but with my new plastics radar, I watched as the clerk wrapped the bouquet in cellophane. I was crushed. That feeling was compounded when I pulled out my credit card -- plastic again! -- to pay.

Later that week, I went to my regular yoga class, happy to divert my awareness from plastic for an hour. But during one pose, my yoga mat and its non-naturalness suddenly came into focus. Oh, no, I thought. That, too? Sure enough, after some research, I discovered it's made of PVC (also known as vinyl, or No. 3 plastic, one of the most toxic plastics out there).

Even the choices I made in favor of the environment put me in close contact with plastic. The seats on the ferry I took to avoid the emissions of a short plane flight were not only made of plastic, but also had vinyl upholstered cushions. I wondered if I could go even one day without using plastic dozens of times. This is beyond frustrating, I thought -- it's impossible.

Realistic Changes
Tempting as it was to ditch my experiment, I instead considered how I could make some realistic changes. The alarm clock was in great condition, so I saw no point in tossing it into a landfill.

But when it came time for a new toothbrush, I vowed to go with one made by Recycline, a company that uses postconsumer recycled plastic, a more earth-friendly choice than virgin material.

I found shampoo and conditioner from Burt's Bees and Aveda packaged in this same postconsumer recycled plastic and opted for the largest possible size, thereby reducing my plastic-to-product ratio.

I started toting an ecofriendly rubber mat to yoga, and when I wanted to bring flowers to a friend, I took the bouquet unwrapped and tied with a simple raffia ribbon.

I also kept up on the new research about plastic, particularly when reports came out showing problems with the No. 7 kind, used for hard water bottles and baby bottles. (The government acknowledged that the bisphenol A, or BPA, they contain may be an endocrine disrupter.) It was one more reason for me to feel good about making the effort to purge.

With just these few initial changes, fewer plastics piled up in my recycle bin. Did I eliminate them altogether? No. I came to see that going completely plastic-free was unrealistic, as sometimes I couldn't help but use, and discard, the stuff.

But what I could do was make countless daily choices with the plastic factor in mind, curbing my use of the most harmful types and opting out altogether whenever I could. If we all did this, the demand for plastic would fade. Then we could all look forward to a new generation of products offering healthy alternatives -- for us and the planet.

Text by Christie Matheson

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