The Plastic Detox

YAM writer embarks on a journey to cut back on using products that clog up our oceans and discovers a whole new mindset.

By Gillie Easdon

Want to go on a tour of the Hartland Landfill?” my friend Leah asks.

Why yes. Yes, I do! The two of us often seek new experiences together, from squash to virtual-reality games, so a tour of the landfill isn’t that much of a stretch. Little do I know how deeply this tour will impact my life.

On a sunny day in November, we arrive at the CRD Hartland Landfill Learning Centre, or “the dump” as some people refer to it.

“Don’t call it a dump; that just hurts people’s feelings,” our guide says, laughing, but I can see she means it.

Apparently, a dump is a hole in the ground filled with trash, while a landfill is an organized system of environmentally controlled waste management that includes recycling, separating materials and converting landfill gas into electricity. Hartland is also about more than just garbage — it recycles more than 80 items, including cell phones, paint, plastic bags and smoke alarms.

You’d think most of us would be recyclers, but our guide tells us that when Hartland staff break open trash bags to see what people are throwing out, as they sometimes do, time and time again they find lots of easily recyclable plastic. Despite the focus on recycling, Hartland is expected to be completely full by 2048.

As the tour carries on, I learn many ‘paper’ cups I had assumed were recyclable actually have plastic in them, and many things I’ve been putting in the garbage, like cooking oil and batteries, can be recycled right here. I begin to feel a slow-burning discomfort about the many flaws in my recycling system and all the plastic items I’ve purchased.

Time to Rethink

At home after the tour, I search the Internet for information about plastic waste. I gawk at a photo of a dead sperm whale with a belly full of plastic — two flip-flops, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags and 115 drinking cups, to be precise — and another photo of an ancient sea turtle snapping up a plastic bag for dinner, mistaking it for a jellyfish. The more I search, the more I brew up a heady disgust for the human race and a deeper understanding of the way we’re collectively harming the environment.

It’s not that I don’t recycle, but I’m not perfect. I don’t always wash containers out. (As I learned at Hartland, you do have to do this!) However, I do avoid plastic lids on my to-go coffees because I can walk with a cup and not spill it, usually. I also don’t put produce in plastic bags at the grocer. I buy the big containers of yogurt and bricks of cheese to divvy up into Plexiglas instead of the more convenient single-serves for my son. But the granola bars I buy are individually wrapped, and I don’t like to bake. These actions are definitely better than doing nothing, but the more I think about it, the more I realize my only major conscious act is not making eye contact with the cashier when they handle my butter lettuce.

I know I can do much better, but the thought of a plastic detox is slightly overwhelming. Where do I begin? How do I manage my busy life without the convenience of plastic?

I decide to reach out to a few people who are living a zero-waste, plastic-free life, or as close as you can get, for a real-life connection and some education.

My first stop is with my friend Becca Blachut, who works part-time at the Zero Waste Emporium, which was recently awarded a 2018 EcoStar Award.

Becca’s advice? “Start paying attention,” she says, noting that her big incentive for reducing plastic is her desire to have kids one day.

“I want them to be able to see the beautiful things in the world that I get to see,” she says. She gives me solid life hacks, such as using paper mushroom bags instead of plastic bags to buy bulk or for dry produce. Choose glass over plastic. If you have to buy something wrapped in plastic, choose the extra-large pack over the two-pack of paper towel, for example. 

Her comments resonate. As a mother, I want my child to experience the beauty of a world not choked with plastic. As a certified scuba diver who has swum with magnificent sharks and spiraling squid, I want to do my part to ensure a plastic-free ocean.

More than 100,000 animals die each year after ingesting plastic bags. Invest in a reusable one.

The Home Front

By this time, I feel like a switch has been flicked in my head, so I decide to do a home inventory. It doesn’t take long for me to start noticing the plastic all around me: my salad spinner, my kettle, my whey powder container, my ibuprofen bottle, my thermos, the meat
I buy in plastic wrap, and the gross styrofoam trays the meat comes on.

Looking at all the plastic, I feel like a class-A jerk. Fortunately, I’m the kind of person who wallows deeply and briefly, then finds a solution and moves forward.

While it’s tough to buy items like non-plastic salad spinners, the key is to first ask: Do I need this in the first place? Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no. But the real way to make a significant dent in household plastic is to stop buying single-use plastic items.

I pick up a set of bamboo utensils from Good Planet and a glass water bottle, and I store them in my computer bag so they’re with me during the day.

My first chance to avoid buying single-use plastic is put into practice the next day when I find I’m out of laundry detergent. I’m actually excited about it — this is my chance to try out West Coast Refill, a store launched by Leanne Gallagher Allen who, dissatisfied with the overabundance of plastic packaging and the lack of product alternatives, sourced out simple, effective cleaning solutions with no petrochemicals or single-use plastic packaging and launched her business.

At West Coast Refill, you fill your single-use containers and are charged by weight for the products, which range from all-purpose cleaner to hairspray, and baking soda to bubble bath. The store also stocks plastic-free items I didn’t even know existed, such as eco safety razors and blades, plastic-free pot scrubbers and bamboo dental floss. (Most dental floss is waxed nylon, which comes from crude oil, just like plastic, and can take thousands of years to decompose.)

For my laundry, I choose a peppermint laundry soap and am thrilled to later discover it does a great job of cleaning my clothes. 

Inquiring Minds

By now, I’m questioning everything. Why is plastic twine wrapped around the organic vegetables? Should I buy milk in paper, plastic or glass? (Glass is best!) These are questions I ask Carol-Lynne Michaels, a project producer at The Number Creative and a Confabulation producer and co-artistic director who did a year of living entirely plastic-free, save for a few items that fit into a small grocery bag. The more challenging experiences she shared were not buying produce with plastic stickers (try to rip them to see if they’re paper) and explaining to a pharmacist why she didn’t want the plastic bottle (they compromised for a sanitized small paper bag). Her year-long detox has led to an ongoing plastic-free habit.

Carol-Lynne recommends reading the book Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson. She also notes that not all plastic is bad. Think medical devices that save lives, such as pacemaker.

“Be kind to yourself,” she says. “Don’t throw shade on a person in a store who’s working in a system that might not be eco yet. Provide options. Be curious.”

Her positive approach speaks to the distress I’d felt looking at the photo of the sperm whale. I’m beginning to feel part of something positive and proactive.

Having consciously decided to reduce plastic, I deepen my research. It turns out even our clothing can be a big problem. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, over 9.5 million tonnes of new plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year. About 15 to 30 per cent is made up of synthetic micofibres like spandex, nylon, acrylic and polyester, shed from clothing, mostly in washing machines. That’s equal to everyone on the planet throwing a plastic bag into the ocean every week.

Researchers at the University of California found that, on average, a synthetic fleece jacket releases about 1.7 grams of microfibres during each wash. Thinner than a hair, microfibres pass easily through wastewater treatment and they never biodegrade. In the ocean, they absorb toxins, which ends up on our tables in the form of seafood and salt.

I decide I will make more effort to choose natural fabrics, such as cotton and wool, and take a few tips from the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) and wash synthetic clothes by hand. When that isn’t practical, the PPC advises following practices which are easier on fabrics and loosen less microfibres. Use a liquid laundry soap, wash clothes in cold water, and dry them on lower settings. I’ve also discovered the Guppy Friend wash bag. It captures 99 per cent of fibres released in the wash.

Keep food in reusable containers such as glass jars.

It’s a Plan

I talk to Jill Doucette of Synergy Enterprises, the woman who helped launch Canada’s first food eco district and the Vancouver Island EcoStar Awards.

“Even two years ago, there weren’t a lot of alternatives to plastic,” says Jill. “Now there are so many amazing businesses with great options. I love shopping at Migration, Anian and Patagonia for sustainable fashion.”

Jill keeps a basket of clean refillable containers, so when she needs to shop, she’s all set. And she plans ahead, buying extra bottles of refilled shampoo, so she’s never caught out when refill stores are shut.

She also tells me about bar shampoos. “Most of a bottle of shampoo is water, and much of the cost is due to weight, packaging and shipping. One of my team uses Lush’s bar shampoo and swears by it.”

Jill tells me one of her team members took a room-by-room approach to reducing plastic. This appeals to me. It’s a bite-sized approach that offers a sense of accomplishment. She also suggests looking at your blue bin. If you usually fill it up every two weeks, try to half that.

“We’d be way ahead as a society,” says Jill.

Step By Step

At the grocer, I have a hankering for a BLT. I spot my beloved grape tomatoes, but they’re encased in plastic so I opt for on-the-vine tomatoes. I add a bunch of loose greens to my basket and choose mayonnaise in a glass jar instead of plastic. I do buy bacon in sealed plastic. Some things are hard to avoid.

I’m beginning to feel a quiet pleasure in making better decisions, like creating a bin filled with clean, refillable containers for shopping trips.

One day, I’m working at Club Kwench on Fort Street and I crave Thai food. I’m slammed with writing, so I want takeout, but there’s so much packaging in takeout. I take a plate from the kitchen up to Sookjai Thai and ask if they’ll plate my takeout. “Sure!” They don’t bat an eye. I pick up my basil chicken and walk it down to my co-working space.

“Takeout?” Tessa McLoughlin, Club Kwench founder asks. “Yes,” she announces. “Look what Gillie did!” The room, packed with solopreneurs, nods.

“Great idea,” a few people comment. I feel a bit embarrassed but also proud that maybe someone else might do the same because now they have the idea. 

My plastic detox primer, and the people I talked to, didn’t just give me tools — they gave me hope. I appreciate that this may sound cheesy, but I challenge anyone who wants to reduce plastic to try changing even one habit and tell me it doesn’t feel damn good.