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Home / Articles / Boulderganic / Boulderganic /  A bright future outside plastics
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Thursday, August 21,2014

A bright future outside plastics

Local author charts a course toward a life without the modern era’s most ubiquitous material

By Elizabeth Miller
Mary Perkins

When Michael SanClements set out on an eco-dare to create no plastic waste for two weeks, he says it changed the way he saw the world by opening his eyes to just how prevalent plastics are. In his book, Plastic Purge: How to Use Less Plastic, Eat Better, Keep Toxins Out of Your Body, and Help Save the Sea Turtles, he documents a day in the life of a modern plastic consumer.

6:15 a.m. — Alarm goes off on my plastic cell phone, which is plugged into a plastic wall outlet.

6:18 a.m. — Flip plastic light switch to bathroom.

6:20 a.m. — Brush teeth with plastic toothbrush using toothpaste from a partly plastic toothpaste tube.

6:23 a.m. — Push aside plastic shower curtain. Turn on water, plastic bad? I wonder. I add salad dressing to my salad. The bottle is glass but the cap is plastic.

5:50 p.m. — Put on my fleece jacket (made from recycled plastic — thanks, Patagonia!), headlamp, running shoes, and running pants (which are aso partially plastic! Nylon is the culprit here) and head out for a trail run with my dog, Hank. At some point on my run I have to pick up Hank’s poop. This requires a plastic bag.

7 p.m. — Feed Hank. His food bag, while looking very papery, is actually lined with plastic.

7:45 p.m. — Grab a quick bite to eat. I get tacos that are sitting which flows through plastic pipes.

6:25 a.m. — Wash my hair with shampoo from plastic bottle.

6:45 a.m. — Eat cereal poured from plastic-lined bag and add milk from plastic milk jug. (Not to mention that my refrigerator has a lot of plastic components.)

6:55 a.m. — Pack lunch into Pyrex container with plastic lid.

7 a.m. — Place laptop into nylon work bag. Nylon is plastic.

7:05 a.m. — Hop on my bike, which contains many plastic parts (like the seat and the grips), and bike to work.

7:15 a.m. — Use plastic key card to access building, walk across carpeting that contains plastic fibers. (Oh, by the way, your shoes likely contain some plastic.)

7:20 a.m. — Turn on computer and sit on chair containing plastic foam.

7:30 a.m. — Fill stainless steel reusable coffee cup from plastic coffeemaker in kitchen room. Screw plastic lid on top of reusable coffee cup. The coffee itself came from a plastic package.

10 a.m. — Print some papers with plastic printer. Staple them with plastic stapler.

10:40 a.m. — Recycle a piece of scrap paper I have been sketching an outline on by tossing it in a recycling bin made of plastic.

12 p.m. — Lunch with friends. In the lunchroom I see other people microwaving throwaway plastic containers in the plastic microwave, then sitting in plastic chairs at the tables to eat. Is microwaving plastic bad? I wonder. I add salad dressing to my salad. The bottle is glass but the cap is plastic.

5:50 p.m. — Put on my fleece jacket (made from recycled plastic — thanks, Patagonia!), headlamp, running shoes, and running pants (which are aso partially plastic! Nylon is the culprit here) and head out for a trail run with my dog, Hank. At some point on my run I have to pick up Hank’s poop. This requires a plastic bag.

7 p.m. — Feed Hank. His food bag, while looking very papery, is actually lined with plastic. 

7:45 p.m. — Grab a quick bite to eat. I get tacos that are sitting in a reusable plastic basket lined with wax paper, and the cup I was given for fountain soda was lined with plastic, not wax as most people usually think.

8:30 p.m. — At my favorite coffee shop, using my laptop to prepare for a talk I’m giving the next day, I order a tea. The tea bag is wrapped in plastic. There is a band playing live jazz at the coffee shop. I notice their instruments and speakers contain plastic. I am sitting in a wooden chair, but it has a thin cushion with a plastic cover. I get water and pour it from a pitcher into the reusable plastic cups they have set out.

10:30 p.m. — I walk home from the coffee shop. The talk I give tomorrow will be projected via a plastic projector, via a plastic computer, powered by all sorts of plastic-coated wires.

Boulder-based author and scientist SanClements was blogging for Grist at the time and his blogs about the epic attempts to reduce his plastic waste were so popular, he was approached for a book deal.

The book turns first to where his mind went as he tried to unravel the presence of plastic in modern life: How did this happen? The answer: With a billiard company that offered $10,000 to someone who could invent a replacement for ivory in billiard balls. Then World War II hit, and the use of plastics spread there, particularly with nylon products.

“People didn’t like plastic products then, they thought they were really crappy and cheap,” he says.

The industry that had been profiting from plastic sales during the war to military decided to try to turn their image around, and launched a campaign to re-brand plastic that included, among its early forays, a “house of the future” made entirely of plastic by none other than the well-known big-ag business Monsanto.

Then, Plastic Purge moves to down building life without plastic into bitesized chunks — think, a recipe for homemade toothpaste and suggestions on alternatives for some of those other items in that diary of daily plastic use.

“You can’t live without plastic,” he says. Literally, so much modern medical equipment utilizes plastic that avoiding plastic altogether could be fatal.

His goal, he says, was to help people be realistic and smart about their plastic use.

“We have this world now where we have so many people and so few resources, so how do we allocate our resources the most wisely?” he says. “We want to be able to use plastic, so we want to be able to shift our consumption away from those worthless, easy-to-avoid plastics that cause problems, whether it be human health or environmental health problems, and focus those resources on places where we really need to use plastic and it greatly improves or betters our lives.”

That means prioritizing the use of plastic as good, bad and ugly. Good uses are those where the use of plastic can actually increase the life or functionality of a product — phones, computers, tents, medical equipment, ski bindings. Ugly are those at the opposite end where eliminating the use of this plastic product, like single-use plastic bags, takes minimal effort.

Bad are those products in the middle that, while useful, are loaded with chemicals that transfer from plastic into the skin — BPA on receipt paper, for example, easily transfers into the bloodstream.

“I feel like the environmental effects are sort of easier to see and we do know a little bit more about those,” he says, pointing to the issues of single use plastic bags in trees, a visible problem, and the public awareness of sea turtles dying from plastic bags in the ocean, which people also seem to be familiar with.

“But researching the book really made me think a little bit more about the invisible chemical landscape that’s around us all the time,” he says. He used his background in science — SanClements has a Ph.D. in ecology and works as a staff scientist at the National Ecological Observatory Network — to wade through the research and try to bring more clarity to the conversation on the health effects of plastic.

Part of that inquiry was fueled by the pending arrival of his first daughter. For her, he worked to keep everything she comes in contact with non-plastic, detailing off the steps — cloth diapers, wooden rattles and glass bottles, and says, “It was not as hard as I thought it would be.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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