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What to Do About Plastic: Watermelon Pickles and String Too Short To Save

There's an old joke about stingy, thrifty Yankees that deserves to make a comeback. If you haven't heard it, it goes like this:

The old man was known for his thrift and saving all his life. When he died, his children went up into his attic to see what he had kept up there. Neatly labeled, there were all sorts of things: boxes and jars of nails and screws, clothing long out of fashion, tools and books and cardboard boxes. Cardboard boxes labeled tin foil. Cardboard boxes labeled string.

And one box labeled, "string too short to save."

My grandmother knew how to make pickles out of watermelon rind, and I bet your grandmother or great grandmother did, too. I remember my mom telling me how, as a kid, they all loved when one particular mom made the tuna sandwiches for the school event. That mom only got six sandwiches out of a small can of tuna... as opposed to all the other moms, who could get ten.

Somewhere along the line, between the string-saving generations and our own, we began to live a disposable lifestyle. And the planet (as well as our purses and our schedules) is paying the price. We've got to stop laughing at thrift and econonomy, and start admiring it again.

We've got to live as though this were the only earth we've got.

I'm absolutely as big a culprit as anyone else in this country. My concern with plastic is a recent one; I used to laugh at my in-laws, who are big savers, the type of people to carefully preserve and reuse gift wrap, and to rinse and reuse plastic bags.

And though, taken on its own, rinsing and reusing bags is not going to avert environmental catastrophe, learning to live in a way that sees even the rind of the watermelon as something too good to waste may. It is no one practice of ours that must change, but our way of living and seeing.

To start with, let's recognize some basic principles:

Everything is connected.

This is just basic environmentalism, after all. Most of us understand that the DDT we spray against mosquitoes today wipes out songbirds and eagles tomorrow, and us the day after that. But we need to understand that environmental problems and solutions are connected, too: it is not enough to adopt one cause, whether its global warming or plastics in the oceans, to the exclusion of others.

This makes things complicated, of course.

I began seriously rethinking my environmental practices after I got a wake-up call from my gall bladder that I needed to rethink my dietary ones. After I began to experience frequent physical pain from my typical high-fat, low-fiber American diet, I found myself forced to make some changes. They were easier than I thought, and, though I'm not as draconian in my avoidance of fat as I once was, I'm still careful with it, and I'm still benefitting from those changes.

One of the changes I made was to make sure that any foods I take in that are high in fat are also high in fiber, something that can help my body rid itself of the cholesterol that it produces in response to the fat. This seems to have been helpful. And it has been part of a strategy for making changes in what I eat: no more potato chips (mmm... potato chips!), but popcorn instead. No cookies--but high-fiber granola bars.

This has been great for my body--and in some ways, good for the earth. Success in dealing with this lifestyle problem gave me confidence to take on others. I wasn't sure, when I began it, that I would keep up with the more environmentally-friendly practice of hand-washing our dishes, but, to my satisfaction, I've actually begun to enjoy washing the dishes by hand. And, since Peter built us our triple-decker dishrack (in imitation of the glorious one at the Woolman Hill Quaker retreat center that inspired it), it actually takes less time to wash the dishes by hand than it did to rinse the dishes and stack them in the (now unused) dishwasher.

Isn't it a beauty?

Of course, if you look closely, you can see some of what has been wrong with my lifestyle changes. That plastic bin to the right of the dishrack holds little scraps of this and that we generate as we cook. And right on top is a white and gold folded bag for microwave popcorn. You know: those plastic lined, plastic wrapped, individual size bags of popcorn that cook up in a few minutes in the microwave.

When I changed my diet, I increased the number of convenience foods I substituted for other, high-fat processed foods in my diet.

So picture me now, standing in the supermarket, making my purchases. I have brought my reusable bags--no more plastic grocery bags for me, but I have since come to understand that, since the bags are made from polyester (yes, cloth is plastic too) and has a base of plastic, this is not anything like a perfect choice. (Cotton ducking would have been better for the earth, perhaps--though more expensive and, not being associated with reusing what we can, less successful as witness to other shoppers.) I hesitate over a loaf of bread: this one is bagged entirely in plastic, but this one is in paper, though the paper probably has a thin plastic lining to it as well. When I decide to go with the less-plastic packaging for the bread, I find myself in the next aisle over, pulling down a box of Orville Redenbacher from the shelf.

It contains individually plastic enshrouded, plastic-coated, bags of microwave popcorn.

If the contradiction between my struggle over the bread loaves and the selection of the popcorn comes to seem too great, I decide to go back to cooking my popcorn the old-fashioned way: in a pot on my stove, with popcorn sold in bulk. Problem: the bulk bags of popcorn are also plastic. It's a thicker, heavier plastic, and since the only way to assess the environmental impact of one plastic package over another is by weight, since densities vary so much, I hesitate briefly, then opt for the bulk bag anyway, reasoning that the quantity of food relative to the quantity of packaging is at least slightly better in the bulk bags; I select the largest bag I can, to maximize that effect.

All through the store, I make choices like this. Do I opt for the "fresh" broccoli (not local, trucked in under refrigeration which adds to global warming but does not require plastic wrap--I do not use the little produce bags at all any more, but rather store my produce in reused bags when I reach home)? Do I purchase canned vegetables (not wholly innocent either of energy costs for trucking, though they need no refrigeration, nor of plastic, which lines the cans... not to mention, I don't like them very much) or frozen? (High energy costs for transportation, plastic packaging even if I buy in bulk, but on the other hand, very little waste due to spoilage at my home or in the store...)

It's a complex calculus of interconnected environmental values, with no perfect answers, and if I insisted on a "right" answer for every choice, I would never make it out of the supermarket.

So instead, what I attempt to do is hold to overall environmental values, to remember that it is all connected, and to be open to trying new things as I find them. Some things I buy are heavy with plastic packaging; some things are not.

I am consistently inconsistent, as I try to remain open to seeing new places my life is contributing to the degradation of the earth, and try to avoid that.

By sticking to changes that do not make my life oppressive to me, but by seeking out new visions and ideas for change all the time, I encourage myself to go on, not to give way to despair and inaction. I find that for me, gentle change is best, so long as I return, again and again, to the question of whether or not I am living in the Spirit of loving kindness toward the earth.

Rather than give specific tips and tricks for energy conservation and waste avoidance here, that may or may not be helpful to you in your particular situation, let me share with you the broad outlines of a philosophy that is guiding me in making gradual and positive changes in my relationship with the earth.


I find that I am unable to live and work in a way that does not produce plastic waste. So I am trying to bear a different principle in mind: that of stewardship. Remember how they used to say, "A puppy is for a lifetime, not just for Christmas?" Plastic is forever. Try to confine the uses of it to ones where the useful lifetime of the object is significant in comparison to the thousands of years of waste it will eventually become. Care for plastic objects--cease to see them as "disposable"; because resin chairs will last forever as waste, do not be misled into thinking of them as unimportant because cheap to purchase; protect them from sun and weather so that they will last.

Stewardship relates to other things, as well. All our products and goods took a toll on the environment in their production. Care for them, maintain them, and keep them in service as though you could not afford a replacement, because the earth certainly can't.

And make purchases, when you do, with stewardship in mind. To the extent possible, pay more for the product that is durable, rather than buying the short-lived plastic version. My in-laws used to have an all-metal window fan. It was heavy as sin, and dated to the early 1950's. It was still running fine, even after thirty years. That cannot be said of the cheap plastic fans that flood the discount stores every summer.

This leads to the next principle:

Use it up, wear it out, make it do.

As you might guess, I love technology. I have owned exactly two new computers in all the many years I have used them. Ironically, one of the two new computers is past repair. Whereas our reconditioned, used, rebuilt, gutted and refurbished computers that have come into our homes seem to be eternal. They are like the axe that has been in our family for five generations: been through seven different handles and three different heads, that axe.

My point? Repair what you can. Upgrade rather than throw away, even in high-tech, if you can.

And in the low-tech field? I will acknowledge myself a mere piker among Quakers. Go to a Quaker business meeting--any Quaker business meeting--and you will discover women with needlework spread in their laps. They are mending, knitting, sewing. One of my favorite memories is of an older friend explaining how she carefully saves the worn-out jeans her husband wears, removes the lower pants legs, and then, when other pairs of jeans wear through in the knees, she grafts in the preserved lower legs over the holes.

All I do is knit... and I'll admit, I sometimes have yielded to the lure of cheap synthetic yarns, at that. Mending is kinder to the earth than playing with fiber... though, given my ability to knit my own, I will say I have begun to ask myself very seriously

Do you really need that?

I try to cultivate an attitude in myself that says that, if I can make it myself, from organic materials, it is cheating to settle for the machine-produced version. If I can do without it, why should I stuff my closets and drawers and shelves with more things I will one day have to cart to a landfill ( or, at best--albeit a good best--a used book or clothing store)?

It helps that I'm no fashion model. Books are my vice, and it is a thousand times harder for me to pass up a book than a blouse or a coat or a pair of boots. But whatever your priorities are, asking yourself that basic question--is this a need or a want?--is going to be helpful.

The recession is our friend.

Please don't hate me for saying this. I am well aware of the human suffering this recession is causing--near as well as far, as I watch friends struggle to cope with unemployment or the potential for it. And I know that it is much, much worse in communities here and abroad that have historically been poor, the last to benefit from good economic times and the first to suffer from bad ones.

But we have been living, producing, and consuming as if there was no limit, and that's patently untrue. I've been struggling for years to reduce my "earths required to sustain it" lifestyle from the American average of 15 to at least the European average of 5. (I'm at an 11 now, thanks for asking.) But necessity changes us faster than reason. Just as I did not make lasting change in my diet until compelled to by pain, so humans seem unable to make lasting changes in our relationship with the earth until we must.

And just as, though gas prices have fallen from their historic highs, the demand for gas guzzlers has not risen in response, perhaps we can take advantage of this moment of falling production and demand to rein in... our excessive production and demand.

For years, economists have bemoaned the fact that the United States is in transition from a production-based economy to a service-based one. But, in truth, which economy can the earth afford? We don't need more HDTVs, SUVs and I-pods. We do need health care for everyone, art, music, education, and community. We need to make the transition from an economy based on stuff to an economy based on people. And getting weaned off the stuff is probably easier while we're all worried about money.

Will it prolong the recession? Probably. And I'm honestly sorry that it is going to hurt so many individuals. But so will the economic disasters that global warming and desertification of habitats are going to cause. This recession can be our early warning: we've got to stop our out of control consumption, or we'll kill our planet.

In recognition of this, let me suggest:

Why not serve instead of consume?

This year, my family has opted for token-gifts and charitable donations only. No scrambling through the crazy shopping malls, looking for some gee-whiz bargain to make an already jaded consumer's eyes widen. This year, the gifts are few, small, handmade, used, or even flat-out regifted. Why not? If I give you my favorite Yule tree ornament, are you really going to be so mean as to complain because I have loved it for years before giving it to you?

The money we save is going to charitable donations. I'm hoping our big Christmas day activity, while turkey is roasing, will be choosing which organizations we as a family want to give money to. I think the shared generosity is going to feel a whole lot nicer than opening up a box with yet another sweater or CD in it... don't you?

Of course, it helps that we have chosen to:

Kill the television.

We do own one. It's a third-hand model from sometime in the 1980's. Probably consumes a lot of energy--except it's rarely turned on. And when it is, it's playing DVDs. We do watch television--but not current television, unless its with friends who have chosen to share the television with us. And we do buy DVDs of television shows we love--but mostly used, and then we share them with other friends.

And we don't watch ads.

Television shows and ads promote a vision of America that is blind to pollution, hunger, and even how Americans really live. Look around! Does anyone really look the way everyone looks on televsion: slim, eternally young, perfectly lit, in glamourous architectural fantasies of houses that never need cleaning (or mortgage payments real people can't afford)?

Ads are brainwashing. But your brain actually becomes cleaner and clearer without them. Kill the television. You won't regret it. Or save its use for among friends, in community, because being surrounded by real people you love is a wonderful antidote for the brain-poisoning consumerism television promotes.

Speaking of which, don't forget to:

Cherish community.

The saddest thing about American life is the way we tend to retreat to our individual houses, close the doors, and commune with the big electronic eye (whether as television, video game, or computer screen). We are atomized as a culture, and we are atomized as families. Half of all American families have the television on during dinner; 40% of teens do not eat dinner with their families at least five times a week. But the truly ironic thing about this is that the electronic media we retreat to present us with an imitation of the friends and family we are missing! Even video games, such as World of Warcraft, are popular in large part because of the interaction of player characters with other player characters (or NPCs--"non-player characters"--the ultimate surrogate friends). What we are hungry for, it seems to me, are the very relationships that are being repackaged and sold back to us in the form of movies, computer games, and television shows.

Are computers and media always destructive to community? I would say no--the vast majority of the friends I've had for more than a decade are friends I knew first either through the Internet (or its precursor, the Echo Net) or through their writing. The difference is in taking the time to meet, to correspond, and to invest in one another. If we treat one another as disposable resources, to be discarded as we flip a dial from one channel to another, or flit from one Internet forum to another, then we are not cherishing one another, and we will never truly be friends.

Conversely, if we behave as though each human being we interact with electronically is as human and feeling as are we, we may find ourselves rich in community.

Those of us rich in community rarely need stuff to make us feel whole. It's a start.

Work less.

I'm horrible at this one. My job eats my life, from September to July. And there's something wrong with that: being a school teacher should not be a sixty-hour-a-week commitment. Over time, most of us in the United States especially have added more and more hours of "productivity" to our working lives--and seen our time with community, with family, and with Spirit dwindle as a result. Not only does the excessive work schedule I have committed to make me much more open to reliance on more polluting convenience items, but I have noticed in myself a tendency to want to substitute shopping--something that can be quick, spontaneous, and on my erratic schedule--for time with friends, and material possessions for the missing walks in the woods, time spent with community, and even quiet rest and thought.

I doubt I'm alone in that.

It is no coincidence that old-time Quakers like John Woolman so simplified their work lives as to have time for their communities. It is no coincidence that the lion's share of Quaker and Pagan bloggers and thinkers I love and admire today have, by choice or by necessity, downshifted work lives, working sometimes in part time or in low-paying retail or temp jobs by day, but reserving enough of themselves as humans to think, play, connect with Spirit and with others.

Our culture sometimes looks down on those who are not in high-powered professional careers. As a society, we admire the work-addicted stock broker more than the part-time carpenter.

Have I mentioned that our society is broken? Our society is broken. When you find your way open to downshift, or if you find yourself urged inwardly to do so, do not insult yourself as lazy, but realize that Spirit may have more important uses for your time than buying and selling. Let it go.

Bear witness.

There is not a one of us capable of solving this environmental crisis. But each of us, if we are open to them, will find ourselves receiving inspiration from others. Just as Peter saw, at Woolman Hill, a model of a different way to approach dishes, and we were moved to adopt it, how many of my readers will be moved today to try to find something new, something more to move toward environmental sustainability? When I bring out my (alas, polyester, plastic-bottomed, and thus, flawed) reusable shopping bags at the supermarket, often there will be an opening to discuss them as some shopper in line with me remarks that they'd like to use those, too ( but they "always forget them." "Oh!" I say. "I used to do that, till I started keeping them folded in my purse. Now I use them all sorts of places, not just the grocery store!").

We share with one another. We encourage one another. We suggest and advise and laugh with one another about the inherent inconsistencies and complexities about what we are trying to do. Most of all, we support one another in seeing another set of values for our culture than consumption and competition. Together, in our witness, we invoke a changed vision that can lead to a changed world.

I will admit to being more open to one-on-one witness. One of the areas of my life I need to work much more assertively to change (along with unplugging things not in use to prevent "phantom load" contributions to global warming, buying in bulk from the co-op in order to avoid plastic packaging, and so on) is my relative unwillingness to pick up a pen and write a letter to suggest ways to reduce waste.

Every time I open a package and find a product wrapped entirely in biodegradable materials, some one has been there ahead of me, witnessing. I need to be more proactive, and write more letters to corporations, local restaurants, manufacturers, and so on. If I am regarded by my culture primarily as a consumer, I need to point out my needs and desires as a consumer to those who see me that way.

But I need to do all this remembering:

Love is the first motion.

No one takes in much that is shouted at them. If I cannot speak in kindness and respect to the restaurant that brings me an unwanted plastic straw or container, the earth probably doesn't need my help. If I do not see those I witness to as fully human, fully deserving of love and respect, and if I do not keep Spirit at the heart of all my witnessing, not only will I most probably alienate those I wish to reach, but I will also shut myself off from the movements of Spirit within me, witnessing to me in a way stronger than any human voice, testifying to what I must do next.

As Carl Magruder of Confessions of an EarthQuaker wrote,
Jesus warned the Jews continually against a legalistic piety, on the one hand. On the other, he said things like, "Forsake thy mother and father and go with me," which I think is less about family relations than it is to say, "Even that to which you are most attached, and that it seems appropriate for you to be attached to is secondary to your living a faithful life." How, then, can I not Forsake my Isuzu and follow?
It is only in love--love of one another, love of the Spirit or spirits that guide us, love for the planet that nurtures us--that we will find our way forward.

We will find our way forward, friends. (We must.)

Excuse me, please. I've gotta go turn off a few more lights, and unplug a few more appliances that aren't in use right now.


Want more ideas on what to do? See my friend Beth's suggestions on Peace Frog, We Make a Choice Every Time We Buy Something.

Remember, as in the ecosystem, everything is related. And this is not cause for overload, but for celebration: so often, doing what is right in one part of your life will create openings to do more in the way that's right for you in other parts of your life.

Anonymous said…
These two entries are great, Cat. This is something I've been thinking a lot about over the year. Last week, I gave a presentation in my class about bottled water. But you present so much here that I didn't know. Thanks.
Erik said…
books are my vice

And mine... which leads me to one of the hardest mental struggles I have ever come upon with regards to matters environmental - to Kindle or not to Kindle?

Buying an iPod for my other emotional necessity was a no-brainer: all commercially released music comes in and on plastic anyway, and Apple is no more rapacious than most of the major record companies, so buying one small plastic thingy and then buying my music in download format was an obvious win on the less-plastic front. Books are MUCH harder.

Setting aside the purely personal arguments - tactile sensation, emotional satisfaction (the Kindle has none, books have tons o'), or financial considerations (e-books being frequently cheaper than new paper books, although I do buy almost all my books used anyway) - on a purely ecological front, is the Kindle a better option than taking down tons of trees each year?

I don't know.
Anonymous said…
Great post, Cat. I've been having these same conversations with myself over the last couple of years, trying to be more intentional about what I buy and consume. I once did a little experiment with chewing gum and breath mints. Easy, right? Far from it! This one experiment showed me how much we have become accustomed to over-packaging and waste. I think I found a good resolution in going back to purchasing the rolls of breath mints in the foil/paper wrappers. I'm also trying to buy as much locally produced food in order to cut down on shipping expenses and to help support local families rather than corporations.

I've also learned you never "arrive" at a place where all purchases are in complete harmony with the environment. At least not until the society changes as a whole. That's still a ways off.
Anonymous said…
Agreed, agreed, and agreed. It's amazing how one thing leads to another.

I was, though, under the impression that studies had shown the dishwasher to be more energy and water efficient than washing by hand.
Ah, yes... the famous dishwasher study. There is only one, it turns out and it is seriously flawed. For more information on how, see my comment immediately after my previous post, where I discuss ending the use of the dishwasher in our house.

The study that everyone seems to have heard about (I can only guess that the only thing mainstream media like more than a man-bites-dog story is failing to question an industry-sponsored press release) actually looked only at water consumption--not energy consumption. It also compared the most efficient model dishwasher on the market with the least efficient means of hand-washing dishes.

I suppose since everyone wanted to believe they didn't have to work harder to save energy, the story got something of a free pass... but it's a truly flawed study. Common sense turns out to be right yet again!

Ah, well. I've discovered that washing dishes by hand keeps me warm in the winter, anyway, something my dishwasher never did!
Anonymous said…
Ah, good to know. Reminds me of the disposable nappies vs reusable nappies study, which assumed all sorts of strange things about how people actually use the latter.

Our house doesn't have room for a dishwasher, anyway!

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