Beth Terry,
Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic
Habit & How You Can Too

(Skyhorse, 2012)

I bought a copy of Plastic Free at a screening of the documentary Bag It. The documentary wasn't particularly compelling, but I enjoyed meeting Beth Terry of, who answered questions about plastic in the same friendly, unassuming and thoughtful way that characterizes her blog.

Plastic Free is pretty much what you would expect it to be: a guide to why plastics should be avoided and how to do it. Most of the information is practical, with lots of useful tips derived from personal experience, lists of actionable content and interviews with activists. There are also some thoughtful meditations on burn-out and whether individual actions matter, funny anecdotes (my favorite involves red wine in a Kleen Kanteen -- an ingenious use for an opaque reusable bottle) and more.

I'll admit right now that I have exactly zero intention of gnawing on neem sticks for toothbrushes, and while I am deeply concerned about the environment, do not see plastic as the most pressing issue. I've already switched to reusable bags, water bottles, food storage and bulk bins, but my life will never be plastic free -- and I'm OK with that. Regardless of where you are in your green journey, Beth Terry provides great tips and motivation to keep pushing yourself a little further.

Chapters cover subjects like plastic bags, disposable water bottles, grocery shopping, recycling, eating out, cleaning and personal care. Some of it won't be new if you've already made the switch, some of it won't be relevant depending on your lifestyle (I skipped the entire section on diapers), but it's all quite readable and you're likely to learn something new or pick up a good tip. For me, the chapter on recycling plastics was particularly eye-opening. That little triangle you thought meant something was recyclable actually doesn't mean anything, and I am finding myself looking aghast at my yogurt tub and a lot of other things that I thought were being tidily recycled. The author also discusses bio-plastics and silicone.

Plastic Free obviously has a lot of thought put into it. Every time I came up with an objection or proviso, Terry magically anticipated and addressed it -- from the way plastic is really more symbolic of our wasteful lives than anything else, to the fact that reusable bags are frequently made out of oil-based fabrics like nylon or polyester, to the bigger lifestyle and ethical changes that going plastic free entails. Yet it's not didactic, smug, judgy or simplistic, and that is quite an achievement.

Where Plastic Free loses me a bit is the science. There are a lot of "may" and "can" statements about plastic toxicity that the available evidence is inconclusive about. For example, Terry writes that "endocrine disruptors may actually have an increased effect in very small doses," and then cites an article analyzing an EPA study in which the panel of toxicologists, according to the write-up, "is not persuaded that a low dose effect of BPA has been conclusively established as a general or reproducible finding." It's definitely something that merits further research, but not a compelling reason for me to exorcise every last plastic-lined can of tomatoes from my cupboard. She also cites the Environmental Working Group frequently, although 79 percent of toxicologists surveyed say it overstates chemical dangers. I have to wonder whether replacing plastic things that studies show as being low risk with non-plastic alternatives is really a good use of resources or evidence-based decision making. Then again, heart disease and cancer are hereditary in my family, and I tend not to sweat the small stuff.

Also, as a factual nitpick, toxoplasmosis in otters from cat waste has been strongly linked to fresh water run-off rather than municipal sewage systems, so keeping your cats inside and spaying them to reduce feral cat populations is probably going to be more effective than not flushing cat litter.

Although it doesn't work for me as a science book (which it isn't meant to be), Plastic Free works on many other levels and is a testament to grassroots activism and personal conviction. I've been bringing my own bags to the grocery store for years, but now I'm feeling inspired to take the Show Your Plastic Challenge and remember to bring my own take out containers. Good read. Thank you, Beth.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

30 March 2013

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