As Chicago Ponders Limits On Plastic, Here Are Some Pointers For You

plastic waste
Michael Sohn / Associated Press
plastic waste
Michael Sohn / Associated Press

As Chicago Ponders Limits On Plastic, Here Are Some Pointers For You

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As one of our resolutions this year, our household — actually, my wife Janet — decided we’d make another commitment to ‘less plastic.’

One of my beats here at WBEZ is the environment, and I’ve been reporting on the city of Chicago’s emerging efforts around limiting plastic and eliminating Styrofoam.

The details of the city’s proposed plastic ban are modeled on Portland, Oregon’s, and could end up looking like this.

How our family’s plastic-less attempt will go is a little more up for grabs.

For guidance, I went to my plastic-free guru Beth Terry. Her blog/website/book chronicles her attempt to live without plastic for a whole year. She lists about 100 things we all can do, but let’s start with her top 10 suggestions, many of which may seem sort of basic.

  1. Carry reusable shopping bags.
  2. Give up bottled water.
  3. Shop your local farmers market.
  4. Say no to plastic produce bags.
  5. Buy from bulk bins as often as possible.
  6. Cut out sodas, juices and all other plastic-bottled beverages.
  7. Buy fresh bread that comes in either paper bags or no bag.
  8. Return containers for berries, cherry tomatoes, etc. to the farmer’s market to be reused.
  9. Bring your own container to the store for meat and prepared foods.
  10. Choose milk in returnable glass bottles.

So here’s the part where I measure my actions against my knowledge and commitment.

I’m rock solid on the first three of Terry’s suggestions and also on No. 6. But I still grab those plastic vegetable bags at the store and don’t buy cereals, pasta or trail mix from bulk bins. I’ve started to bring my own containers more often after this episode with WBEZ reporter Monica Eng, but realistically, I’m probably still less than 50% on personal, reusable containers. I have absolutely no game when it comes to returnable glass bottles for milk.

plastics lunchbox
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

What am I pretty good at? Lunch! Largely through Janet’s efforts, I take a zero-waste lunch to work every day. We do have some plastic containers and wrappers, but they’re reusable and I feel pretty good that my lunches are zero-waste.

But the bathroom is a different story. I’m good with the razor and comb. The razor was a gift, and I really prefer single blades now. Highly recommended. The comb I bought at a street fair from someone who promised me it was handcarved in Mexico.

comb and razor
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

And here’s a big change: We’ve upgraded to bar shampoo and bar hair conditioner, something that I discovered few people — even those who consider themselves tuned in to environmental issues — are using or even know about. We went back to bar hand soap and eliminated the plastic soap dispensers years ago.

bar soap
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

I list this under challenges ahead: We’re still using lotion from a plastic dispenser. Another challenge is dental hygiene. My dentist is all over me to use an electric toothbrush and those single-use plastic toothpicks. Janet objects to the toothpicks, but she uses floss — and that’s plastic. Beth Terry has a new floss suggestion that looks like a viable way forward. Our toothpaste is in plastic, but the options there look promising too.

plastics toothbrush
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

One of our new projects is soap nuts for the laundry. We’ve tried them before and then just got lazy and fell off the wagon. The apple juice-looking detergent you make with boiling water seems to work just fine.

Another new project is no trash bags. Like Terry, we compost at home, so there’s not much wet stuff. I’m sure we’ve got more trash than her, but hey, we’re giving it a shot! The scary thing about not using a bag is what if some of my plastic toothpicks end up flying out of our weekly garbage pickup? Now that I’ve been thinking about plastic toothpicks, I’ve seen two on the streets. Arghh.

There are some pretty horrifying things that are made of plastic. The detail that stuck with me from Terry’s book is shopping receipts. She writes that they’re not paper, they’re plastic. She insists: Do. Not. Recycle them.

Another shocker came at work when I exchanged holiday gifts with WBEZ editor Cate Cahan. She thoughtfully gave me an Illinois endangered species calendar. My gift to her was something less artistic. She regularly drifts over to reporter Sarah Karp’s desk and grabs some gum (by prearranged understanding). I figured she needed some of her own, and gave Cate several large packets of gum as a gift. Shockingly gum often includes  some kind of plastic product. Arghh again. I gave the editor who’s encouraging me to report on reducing plastic a gift of plastic to chew on.

There’s no question we all have a long way to go. Ninety aircraft carriers of plastic enter our oceans every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. On the Great Lakes, 90% of trash in the water is plastic. Microplastics have been found in our drinking water and our beer. There’s a reason the city of Chicago named its proposed plastic ban, “The Plastic Free Water Ordinance.”

In spite of the recent efforts to eliminate single-use plastic all over the globe, the World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 30 years. But it’s not doubling in my house and hopefully not in Chicago and our lakes and rivers.

Jerome McDonnell covers the environment and climate for WBEZ. You can follow him @JeromeMcDonnell.