November 6, 2020 § 2 Comments
If I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic problem. If I’ve learned a second thing, it’s that we can’t buy our way out of it either.
It’s too bad, because if there’s one thing Americans are really, really good at, it’s buying things to make ourselves feel better. I don’t just mean wine and chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream; I mean buying specific products to signal our value system, and make us feel like we are creating something good in the world while also buying ourselves more stuff.
We buy plastic products decorated with pink to “benefit breast cancer research;” we buy bucket soda to “benefit juvenile diabetes research.” If I look hard enough I bet I could find a cigarette whose sales benefit lung cancer research.
The same goes for many of the supposedly “eco-friendly” products on the market. I mean, if you are a person who needs a straw for medical reasons that’s one thing, but does the world really need so many metal straws? Do we need gold ones and glass ones? Do we really need kits for them with little straw cleaning brushes and a convenient container pouch? Don’t you wonder how many of these things will end up being discarded after a year or two of hanging out at the bottom of our purses and fanny packs?
Sometimes we’re being sold ordinary products, but produced in a way that is supposed to make you feel good. You can often tell they’re using the Virtue Strategy by counting the buzzwords: this super-soft throw blanket is made with vegan-organic, responsibly sourced, ethically produced, biocompatible eucalyptus fiber!! Made by pandas!
My point is, when at least one aspect of the problem is an over-abundance of stuff- why do we think buying more stuff will fix it?
So I’ve been trying NOT to buy stuff in the name of sustainability. Then recently I was given a gift certificate for my birthday to the eco-friendly-product website Earth Hero and I was excited to check it out, although a little apprehensive. Would I find items that would really help me to live garbage-free? Or would it be just regular shopping, but with more trendy adjectives?
My reaction was mixed. There were a few things for sale on Earth Hero that I thought were just plain silly. Food huggers? Do we really need a specific product to keep our avocado halves from turning brown in the fridge? Bamboo flatware sets for school lunches? I’ve been putting stainless steel flatware in my kids’ lunch boxes since kindergarten and so far no one has sought psychiatric counseling over it.
After surfing around the site I selected three things I was curious to try out with my gift certificate:
– Two Toothbrushes made from bamboo and castor bean oil
– A set of “Heirloom Mayan Loofah Scrubbers” (sponges)
– A Stainless Steel Rectangle To Go Container
When the box showed up the other day I was delighted to note that Earth Hero had used paper tape to close the box: Yay! Ten points to Gryffindor! Inside the box I was impressed again by the lack of plastic packaging: paper held the sponges together and paper boxes enclosed the toothbrushes.
Then I noticed that the steel food container had vinyl stickers on it- ugh. Minus five points for Gryffindor.
By this time you may be wondering- hey wait… isn’t the lid on that food container also plastic? The Earth Hero website assures me this product is “plastic free”- so what gives?
The lid, as it turns out, is made of silicone. And whether or not silicone is a kind of plastic depends— like so many of the definitions I’ve been seeking out this year— a whole lot on who you’re talking to.
The argument goes like this: silicone is made from sand, and therefore is a natural product more akin to rubber than plastic. But hold on! Because Life Without Plastic, which is another eco-friendly online vendor, argues pretty convincingly that silicone should not be considered harmless or eco-friendly.
“Like any plastic polymer, silicones are synthetic and include a mix of chemical additives derived from fossil fuels… Silicone does not biodegrade or decompose (certainly not in our lifetimes),” they explain on their website. “Silicones are very persistent in the environment.”
Contrast this with the heirloom loofah sponges which are 100% plant fiber. Giant Egyptian Cucumber to be exact, which is officially the coolest name for a plant I have ever heard. According to the package, when you are done with it, you can toss it in your compost or bury it in your garden and it will degrade in 30 days. My previous sponges were Ocelo, which are made of cellulose (wood pulp) but came with a tougher, “scrubby” component made of plastic, not to mention being encased in plastic packaging, so I consider this a big eco-upgrade.
And here’s the thing: although I was prepared to sacrifice some degree of effectiveness in exchange for biodegradability, the loofah sponge works noticeably better than my old Ocelo favorite. The bamboo toothbrush is kind of crazy- I can only say it feels substantial— like something Fred Flintstone might use— but seems to work every bit as well as my old plastic one.
The food container is my least favorite of the group, not just because of the silicone lid, but also because I find that seeing the leftovers in the fridge is key to getting them eaten, so I like glass best. You can even find older Pyrex at junk and antique shops that has glass lids, and they also sell some at the Vermont Country Store, although as far as I can tell in-store only, not online. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn more about silicone, which seems like yet another deceptive switcheroo: an attempt to trade one bad, landfill-ready product for another: Throw away all your plastic Tupperware and replace it with earth-friendly silicone!! And next week we’ll come up with something else to replace that!
In Year of No Sugar, we were shocked to realize that the health food store, or health food aisle at our supermarket, was often every bit as bad a culprit for using excess sugar as everywhere else, and sometimes worse. (If you don’t believe me, try checking out the sugar content of “healthy” breakfast cereals, keeping in mind that 25 grams of sugar is equivalent to a candy bar.) There’s something about being told that you’re Doing The Right Thing— the healthy thing, the environmental thing— that seems to give us license to turn off our normal healthy skepticism. When that happens, we can end up doing precisely the opposite of what we wanted to do in the first place.
So don’t take things at face value. Don’t buy reusable plastic to take the place of disposable plastic: it is still plastic. Don’t buy glass or metal straws if you really don’t have to use a straw in the first place. And for crying out loud don’t buy an avocado-hugger, because you should really send that money to the Giant Egyptian Cucumber farmers instead.
I hear they’re very biocompatible.