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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Plastic Free

Air Date: Week of
Beth Terry collected this much plastic during the first half of 2007. (Photo: Beth Terry)

We live in a plastic-filled world. It’s used in almost everything, from cars to chewing gum to prescription drug bottles. Five years ago, Beth Terry decided to stop consuming plastic and she’s survived to tell the tale. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Terry about her new book, “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.”


GELLERMAN: In the 1967 film classic, “The Graduate,” a young Dustin Hoffman gets a piece of advice about his future.

[CLIP FROM THE GRADUATE: “I just want to say one word to you, just one word.// Yes Sir.// Are you listening?// Yes I am.// Plastics.// Exactly how do you mean?// There’s a great future in plastics, think about it.”]

GELLERMAN: We didn’t just think about plastic…since then, we’ve turned the polymers into every part of modern life. Look around you. Today, the average American goes through 220 pounds of the stuff a year. But Beth Terry isn’t your average American - she said - enough is enough! Her new book is “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.”

Images of bird carcasses filled with plastic, inspired Terry to cut her use. (Photo: Beth Terry)

TERRY: Hi, thanks so much for having me!

GELLERMAN: Beth, I want you to 'fess up – five years ago, you were a plastic addict.

TERRY: I was! I was addicted to the convenience that plastic offers. I was used to taking double plastic bags at the grocery store, and I would take bottled water to the gym everyday and throw the bottle away because there wasn’t a recycling bin handy. And I pretty much didn't worry about how things were packaged. And now I don’t use any! But it took a while to develop the habit.

GELLERMAN: Well, why did you decide to kick the habit?

TERRY: Well, five years ago, almost to the day, I stumbled across an article about the plastic pollution problem in the ocean. And what completely blew my mind, and broke my heart, was this photo I saw of a dead albatross chic on Midway Island, thousands of miles from civilization - halfway between the United States and Japan. And it was just the carcass; it was full of plastic pieces. Like the plastic that I used on an everyday basis - things like bottle caps, things that didn’t come from the middle of the Pacific Ocean - they came from us. I just had to change.

GELLERMAN: So, I was looking at your first week’s collection of plastic. You used 20oz. of plastic that first week. Twenty ounces, that’s about a pound and a quarter.

TERRY: Mmm hmm.

GELLERMAN: So far this year, about six months… you’ve used less than half a pound.

TERRY: My plastic waste for last year, for 2011, fits into one regular sized plastic grocery bag. And it comes to about two pounds. And what’s in there are things that I either can’t avoid or stumble upon accidentally. Like, for example, prescription bottles, which can’t be refilled in the state of California, but they can only be recycled.

And, there are things like plastic packing tape because when I sometimes order something from a company - I will request no plastic packaging, but there's still sometimes tape on the box. But I find every year, it’s a learning process and I find more and more ways to reduce plastic, and more and more ways to get other companies to stop using so much plastic.

GELLERMAN: But plastic is so darn convenient and useful! It’s silly putty, but it’s also the same thing that vaccines come in, for saving lives.

TERRY: Yeah, you know there are great things about plastic, and there are truly problematic things about plastic. And so, whereas a plastic IV bag or a plastic blood bag, for example, might save a life in the short term - which is so important - a lot of those contain phthalates, which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals which can leach into the IV, into the blood and into the person. It’s a mixed bag. I’m talking to you using a computer and a headset.

She collected only this amount in all of 2011 (2 lbs in orange grocery bag). (Photo: Beth Terry)

GELLERMAN: Mm hmm - and you’ve got a lot of plastic at your fingertips.

TERRY: I do!

GELLERMAN: I mean, literally, your mouse is plastic, right?

TERRY: My mouse is plastic.

GELLERMAN: The keyboard is plastic…

TERRY: That’s right. However, I didn’t buy any of these things new. When I decided to stop buying any new plastics, I didn’t commit to stop using the plastic I already had, first of all, and I don’t recommend that anybody go through their house and purge the plastic and throw it away, because that’s just so wasteful, I think. But when my computer broke and it couldn’t be fixed - my first step is always to try and fix things and make them last as long as possible - but, when it couldn't be fixed, I looked on Craig’s List and I found a secondhand computer.

GELLERMAN: So, you’re following the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But, in your book, you go one step further - you go to Reporting.

TERRY: Yeah. Because I feel that my personal actions might not seem like they’re gonna make a huge difference in the world. When you look at the scope of the plastic pollution problem in the world, it’s huge! And what can the actions of one individual, what difference can they make?

She collected only this amount in all of 2011 (2 lbs in orange grocery bag). (Photo: Beth Terry)

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it’s a drop in a plastic bucket!

TERRY: It is, it is. And for me, I had to change my behavior because I felt so connected to the rest of the planet. I just couldn’t keep doing harm when I knew - when I became aware of what I was doing. But report is important because I can share this information that I’ve discovered with other people and my personal actions can be magnified by the example I set. And I’m not out there trying to tell everybody that they should religiously reduce every single tiny bit of plastic in their lives. I want to encourage people to be mindful about their choices and to show them that they actually do have choices.

GELLERMAN: But you know, people that are so mindful sometimes become too serious. They take themselves too seriously.

TERRY: (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: And I’m just thinking of things made out of plastic that are just fun! Like… pink flamingos! Right? There’s no substitute…

TERRY: You know, I have fun and one of my favorite things is to experiment. So doing this project has been very fun and has brought out a lot of creativity for me. Fun can be had in many different ways and the things that truly make me happy and laugh, don’t come packaged in plastic.

GELLERMAN: Beth, do you have a dog?

TERRY: I have a cat - I have two cats.

(Beth Terry)

GELLERMAN: Well, I have a dog. And plastic plays a very significant role in both of our lives when we go for a walk. What do we do if I am going to kick the plastic habit?

TERRY: There was a woman I met who actually uses old yellow pages to pick up after her dog.

GELLERMAN: Gives new meaning to… let your fingers do the walking!

TERRY: (Laughs.) Yes. And there are actually lots of things that you can use to pick up pet waste instead of taking new plastic bags from the grocery store. Think of all the bags and types of containers that you already have at home. Bread bags, chip bags, cereal bags… if you haven’t completely gotten the plastic out of your grocery shopping yet - as most people haven’t - these are all things that you can use.

GELLERMAN: So, Beth, if people want to buy your book - and it gets shipped to them - what does it wrapped in?

TERRY: It doesn’t come wrapped in anything. And in fact, my publisher - Skyhorse Publishing - when they decided to create a book about plastic-free living, they committed to making the book itself without plastic. There is no plastic coating on the cover, the jacket is just plain craft paper. It’s compostable. I believe you could compost this book at the end of its life.

GELLERMAN: Beth, you saw the movie the Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, yeah?


GELLERMAN: So, when you think about it now, and the advice he got… I’ve got one word for you… plastics… what do you say?

TERRY: No thanks! (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: That’s Beth Terry, her new book is “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.” Beth, thanks a lot.

TERRY: It was a pleasure.



Beth Terry’s blog, “My Plastic-free Life.”


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