A Guest Post from Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish

by Katy on January 2, 2010 · 13 comments

Hi there. My name is Beth Terry, and my blog Fake Plastic Fish (on which Katy guest posted recently) is not only about finding solutions to the environmental problems associated with plastic but also tracks my own personal plastic waste and plastic consumption.

Collecting Plastic

I’ve been keeping a regular tally since June 2007, and have reduced my plastic waste from 12-1/2 pounds of plastic in the first six months of 2007 to under 4 pounds for all of 2009. By contrast, based on EPA data, the average American generates from 80 – 128 lbs per year, depending on how you do the calculations.

I’m not telling you this to brag, but to ask for your help.

In addition to reducing the amount of plastic waste I produce, I’m also trying to find ways to reduce the amount I consume via durable plastic food containers, Teflon-coated cookware, reusable plastic cups and bottles, plastic-packaged cosmetics, and all the many other vehicles by which plastic can leach chemicals (BPA, phthalates, lead, styrene, perfluorochemicals, and other additives) into my food and onto my skin. And that sometimes means giving away the plastic I already own and buying glass, metal, wood, or even recycled cardboard versions to replace their plastic cousins.

(Of course, I’m not interested in replacing my plastic computer, cell phone, bike helmet, or any of the many other durable plastic items that I already own. But I’m not sucking on those things or rubbing them into my skin either.)

Now I’d love to participate in a “Buy Nothing New” experiment like The Compact. I already shop second-hand stores for clothing, dishes, utensils, and other durable goods. I replaced a broken computer monitor with a used one via Craigslist; I’ve used Freecycle to get plastic cat litter boxes and even cat nail clippers instead of buying those things new and ending up with new plastic products and new plastic packaging; I bought a refurbished mobile phone when I switched phone companies as well as refurbished SmartStrip power strips to save energy; and when I wanted to mow our postage stamp sized lawn, I borrowed a push mower from our local tool lending library.

Here’s where I run into trouble:

  1. Travel mug: Thrift stores are full of every kind of mug printed with every cute expression you can imagine: “World’s Greatest Grandma”, “I Golf Therefore I Am”, “Real Bikers Do It In The Dirt”, to name just a few. But when it comes to travel mugs (which I need because I lost my stainless steel mug, and the glass jar I’ve been using is less than ideal) they all seem to be plastic. Maybe folks are realizing that hot beverages and plastic are a bad idea.
  2. Cookware: Thrift store cookware tends to be either non-stick (plastic-coated) or aluminum, both of which are not healthy. Perhaps that’s why, like plastic travel mugs, they are ending up in thrift stores. Stainless steel pots offered on Craigslist were either too far away for me to travel (I don’t own a car) or lined with non-stick coating. Recently I gave in and bought a couple of 100% stainless steel pots from Macy’s because I just couldn’t find any used ones in decent shape (meaning without big pits or burned spots).
  3. Some plastic-free reusable products are so new that second-hand versions don’t exist yet. For example, in an effort to eliminate plastic dry cleaner bags (and by dry cleaner, I actually mean wet cleaner, which is the eco-friendly way to have someone else clean your Dry Clean Only fabrics) we bought a reusable Clothesnik dry cleaner bag. We got new stainless steel ice cube trays to replace their plastic counterparts. We purchased a whole set of ten Anchor glass refrigerator containers, which were the perfect size for freezing our homemade cat food and easier to store since they are all the same size and stackable. And I replaced disposable plastic soda bottles with a Penguin soda maker and disposable plastic straws with brand new glass drinking straws.

In hindsight, I could have bought fewer new items. Here are a few examples:

  1. My new bicycle. I wanted to find the perfect size and style for me or I just knew I’d never ride it.
  2. A new wooden book shelf that was narrow enough to fit into a particular space in our apartment.
  3. A new compost tumbler. I probably could have waited and found one from someone local who’d given up on the idea of composting. It happens all the time. And in my city of Oakland, we have green bins for food waste that is collected weekly with our regular trash and composted commercially, so there’s really no pressure to compost at home.
  4. Several new books when I was too impatient to wait for them at the library or to find them used.
  5. New organic cotton clothing — just because it was organic and I wanted to support that kind of industry. I could have stuck to used clothing.
  6. Brand new hemp purse because it screamed eco-friendly, and I had a brief moment of caring more about looking the part than being the part.

On the other hand, isn’t it worthwhile to support companies that are producing environmentally friendly products in order to pressure less eco-friendly companies to change their ways? Does avoiding all purchases really allow us to vote with our wallets?

I’d just like your opinions and suggestions. I’d love to try a “Buy Nothing New” month, at the very least. But I might need a little help.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy @ Retire at 40 January 2, 2010 at 11:26 pm

You seem to be doing very well indeed. I am concerned about the number of things you’re replacing though. Buying more non-plastic stuff for the plastic stuff. Surely it’d be best to wait until that plastic stuff ended it’s life and only _then_ replace it with a non-plastic equivalent?


CC January 3, 2010 at 1:31 am

I don’t really try not to buy new but I do watch what I buy. And I recycle/reuse lots of the items I already own by using them for something else that is needed. This is the way I consume less.

For cookware I use cast iron, mostly inherited. I did receive a Lodge dutch oven(cardboard package) for Christmas. I’ve cooked in it twice since and it is great. I made a roast(usually us a crock-pot), I couldn’t believe how much better it tasted. I also use a lodge pizza pan, we like it way better than the aluminum one it replaced. You might be able to find used cast iron. I can’t so buying new works for me and it should last me for as long as I’ll be cooking. At which point I can pass it on.


Bellen January 3, 2010 at 6:55 am

Couple of suggestions for things you’ve had trouble finding used:
Travel Mugs, stainless steel, and stainless steel or enamel lined cast iron cookware: we’ve been able to find them at yard sales/thrift shops in 55+ communities. I’m guessing they aren’t commuting to work anymore and the weight of the cookware is too much – or they aren’t cooking anymore either.
We’ve also found the lesser known thrift stores – locally those sponsored by Meals on Wheels and another by the Rape Abused Emergency Care offer high end, usually clean, everything at really good prices. Husband bought a used, in excellent condition, Dell computer to replace the one that completely failed for $65. and I just bought a queen sheet for $1 to make covers for our (yes but it’s Florida and real just does not work) fake wreaths and 4 foot Christmas tree – which we bought for a total of $7 at the same store – thus eliminating plastic bags for storage or tossing.

We look for wood, cabinets, fencing, plants, pots at the curb on recycle/garbage days – we always ask first and have never been turned down. For you, without a car, this would probably be more difficult.

Like anything sometimes looking outside our comfort box/zone will open up new opportunities.


Jinger January 3, 2010 at 8:47 am

I am not a Compacter either, but I believe I still tread lightly on the earth. I make few purchases at all, but when I do, the items I buy new are things that will last or be reused indefinitely. Making mindful decisions on what you purchase, as you are doing, is the best way to live.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl January 3, 2010 at 11:17 am

I’m sort of where you are, in that I have absolutely no problem buying something new if it is not available used and will be environmentally friendly. For instance, I’ve found a few glass pyrex lidded leftover containers at Goodwill, but most of mine were purchased brand new. I don’t regret this at all because the glass containers last forever, help me avoid food waste (I can see what’s in them) and help me pack my husband’s lunch without using plastic bags. They are an all-around win, and I’d hate to use plastic bags, waste food, and use Gladware just because I didn’t want to buy something new.


AJ in AZ January 3, 2010 at 11:38 am

You are inspiring me to try the Compact too, although I am a lifelong thrift store shopper already.


Lisa January 3, 2010 at 11:52 am

I’m not a compacter but think I’ll give it a try. I seldom shop now and when I do, I often buy used. So the compact might be an interesting challenge. Things here are often reused, recycled, or re-purposed. Since our area has no recycling centers, I’ve tried to find novel uses for plastics and papers. Several people in the neighborhood save their plastic grocery bags for me to use in crafting. They make durable, light weight rugs, bags, etc. Also, a cover can be crocheted to fit on a glass drinking jar. Add a strap to wear it around your neck like a pendant for hands-free biking or walking. It insulates your drink without coming in contact with what’s inside the jar.


Tara Morrison January 3, 2010 at 5:27 pm

I know not everyone is a fan of cast iron but you can always find it used. Also are you opposed to Ebay because generally you can find a lot of used irems on there that you may not be able to find at a local thrift store. I am a compacter and live in a small town in the deep south and thrift stores here are probably lacking in comparison to CA.


magdalena January 4, 2010 at 8:58 am

I use glass jars for storage (except for freezing.) Either I bought something in the glass jar like olives, or I may have picked it out of someone else’s recycling bin. (I am not ashamed.) I do think it wothwhile to invest in very good stainless or cast iron cookware. I use a lot of old enamelled pots, too, just like my great grandmother. Even chipped they are safe, since they are steel underneath. Old aluminum kettles are used here for carrying things, not for cooking.


Shannon January 4, 2010 at 9:34 am

I think we all hit walls where a new purchase is unavoidable, and when that happens I definitely try to buy handmade, local and ethically produced items, made from natural materials and the like. I do like the idea of voting with my dollar, but for me personally I want to get away from buying things I don’t need, even if it is for a good cause. That said, when I do need something I am willing to pay more for a good quality item. For example a few summers back I decided to treat my feet well and got a ludicrously expensive pair of very cute German-made sandals (they feel like they were made by angels, seriously) and that’s all I wear most of every summer now. To me clothing shouldn’t be disposable.
BTW has anyone else noticed all the pseudo-vintage stuff that’s being mass produced? At Target this Christmas season I was amused that I saw them selling fake-aged rock t-shirts for kids, granny-square knitted scarves for ladies, and little sparkly pink and white cardboard churches w/ bottle brush trees. It was really weird.


Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish January 5, 2010 at 12:21 am

Thanks everyone for your suggestions! I’m wondering if the key to successful thrift store shopping is to go on a regular basis and just browse to see what they have? I tend to go when I need something specific, and that doesn’t see like a great strategy.

Magdalena, we actually do use glass jars for freezing leftovers. They are fine as long as you:

1) don’t fill them up all the way because the contents will expand
2) don’t try to defrost them too quickly

We store things like homemade pesto or leftover mashed yams. Soft stuff like that.


Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship January 5, 2010 at 11:47 am

I was lucky enough to find multiple stainless steel pots at a church garage sale this summer, and I didn’t realize what a good find they were! I’ve also stocked up on little glass glasses and bowls for my kiddos secondhand. My biggest struggle is convincing well-meaning family and friends that we really DON’T need all the new toys, etc that they buy us. Every year the first “item” on my kids’ wish list is “less plastic, more wood, fewer buttons and batteries, more imagination.” We still get lots of plastic toys, and last year got tons of batteries in the adults’ stockings because my in-laws interpreted “fewer batteries” as me being cheap. !!

You are inspiring, Beth!
🙂 Katie


Emily January 7, 2010 at 10:00 am

Hello Beth!
You know, I think your plan for reducing consumption and waste is a wonderful idea for the environment! I think that like you have pointed out in a few places that you have had to buy some things that you cannot find used – in an effort to conserve more (such as your own dry cleaner bag, stainless coffee mug…)
I have begun a similar ‘tiered’ idea that for what I need I will first see if I can repurpose something in my home to meet my needs, if not – I check to see if it is available used (craigslst,freeccl,eby) and then if I cannot find it used then I will buy from a responsible company offering a recycled or sustainable product, if that doesn’t exist I will buy something new.
I agree it is important to encourage responsible companies. Put your money as an informal “vote” as to where you want industry to thrive.
So, I have found antique aluminum ice trays and also straws (not glass but aluminum and stainless steel) called iced tea ‘spoon-straws’ used online.


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