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Beth Terry: Doyenne of Plastic-Free Living

image of Elizabeth Royte
The blogger-turned-author talks awkward restaurant encounters, hand-crocheted headphone pads, and "showing what's possible"

Over the last few years, many people with good intentions, a bit of free time, and a modicum of Internet savvy have blogged about doing more with less, eschewing superfluous consumer goods, and generating less waste in the process. But no one has taken these goals to such an extreme as Beth Terry, a mildly obsessive Oakland accountant who in 2007 started a blog called Fake Plastic Fish as a platform for tracking her attempts to allow almost no new plastic into her life.

By any measure, Terry -- a former convenience addict, hooked on bottled water and take-out food in Styrofoam trays, double bagged in plastic -- has been a success. Her blog, which has now been re-branded My Plastic-Free Life, generates enviable traffic for a website of its kind, scores of comments, and even some revenue from advertisers pitching waste-reducing products. She’s a frequent speaker on the less-garbage circuit. Terry’s advocacy efforts succeeded in pushing Brita to take back and recycle used water filters and convincing the manufacturer of the laundry detergent Soap Nuts to switch from plastic to paper packaging.

In mid-June, Terry will publish her first book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, which includes a brief and amusing rationale for her efforts, but which mostly sticks to practical solutions for reducing overall consumption. Take it from someone who knows, and makes the spreadsheets to prove it: while the average American generates more than 100 pounds of plastic waste each year, Beth Terry produces barely more than two.

You blame much of your nearly two pounds of annual plastic waste on your cats, packing tape, and friends who’ve given you gifts. What do you do with that “unavoidable” waste?

At first I was recycling what I could, and of course weighing and counting it. Then I learned more about recycling in China, how it completely polluted the air and the water. Residents go through and burn that waste, wearing no protection. So I thought I’d keep it for educational purposes. I’m an example: I want to show what’s possible.

Others have blogged about living with less stuff, or less plastic, but have either fallen from the eyes of Google or have quit chronicling their efforts or -- gasp -- returned to their old ways. Why have you stuck with this for so long?

Because I have OCD? [Laughs.] I don’t have a good explanation. I’ve abandoned other projects, but this one stuck in part because I feel like I’ve found what I’m supposed to be doing. At the project’s core is being a voice for the most vulnerable -- for creatures that can’t speak for themselves, for animals and little children and disenfranchised communities affected by plastic pollution. So I do it out of a sense of fairness.

Have you ever done a body burden test, to determine if you have fewer chemicals linked with plastics in your body than the average Joe does?

No, because it’s very expensive. I feel healthier now, with less plastic in my life, but I can’t prove it. I’d be interested to find out what my levels of pollutants are, but I’m not sure if it would do much to further my message. My rental apartment has wall-to-wall carpeting, which I can’t remove, and I work in an office where the plastic isn’t under my control.

Which is harder, avoiding disposable plastic or explaining why you’re rejecting a straw or single-use cup?

Explaining to people in restaurants and stores is way harder than finding workarounds to plastic use because, believe it or not, I'm naturally an introvert. Speaking up to explain why I don't want plastic or to request a store or company to change takes me out of my comfort zone, even after all these years. But it's important to me to broaden the impact of my personal actions by educating others. So it just depends on how much energy I have. Sometimes I’m tempted to say I’m allergic to plastic, and get a note from a doctor. I had postcards made up for my book, so now I can whip one out and say, “See! It’s all about living without plastic.” And they say, “Wow -- that’s really cool!” It’s easier when I’m out with other people, too, because they help explain it.

Has avoiding plastic cost you or saved you money?

Definitely saved. There were some initial expenses: buying a Kleen Kanteen and some kitchenware, since I had to learn to cook. But in general, there’s a lot less impulse buying. I used to buy whatever I wanted. Now I get clothes and electronics secondhand, which is sometimes cheaper and also avoids some packaging.

Does your personal situation and location help you cut waste?

Yes, definitely. Living in Oakland, I can compost.  I can shop at Whole Foods, which has a bulk aisle. Wherever you live or whatever resources you have, there are things you can do to reduce your plastic consumption. I work three days a week and don’t have kids, so I have time to do experiments for the blog, like making liquid soap or homemade cosmetics.

Do you spend a lot of time on Martha-y projects, making bread and yogurt and ceramic storage pots?

I have a good bakery nearby that doesn’t use paper or plastic bags, so I’m not baking bread. And I don’t like yogurt. But I do make chocolate syrup, mayonnaise, kombucha, and my own deodorant, using baking soda. When my headphone pads were worn out, I crocheted a new pair, but I’m not constantly doing little crafty things. In my book, I’m clear that I want people to develop an awareness, to find out what’s available in their neighborhood. There are resources out there that people don’t know about. You don’t have to go to Amazon and order a new plastic-wrapped gizmo every time something breaks.

Okay, here’s the money question: are your individual efforts doing any good?

I have no illusions that my not buying plastic is making a dent in the overall plastic pollution problem. But it matters to me because I saw harm -- photographs of these albatross chicks with stomachs full of plastic -- and I had to stop contributing to it. I also want to protect the health of people who live near plastic-manufacturing plants, and I want to support companies that are trying to provide plastic-free alternatives, like this one company that makes lip balm in a compostable cardboard tube instead of in plastic. And through my blog, book, and the educational work I do, my personal actions are magnified if they can inspire other people to change.

What about the larger implications of your work?

When you’re trying to make personal change and you hit a wall and there’s no way around buying a certain harmful product, you realize it’s a systemic problem that needs to be fixed. We learn where we should be doing advocacy work. I want to stress that I’m not saying everyone should live the way I do. While I do want to inspire people to use a lot less plastic, I don’t want everyone in the world to obsessively record their plastic or reduce every bit of plastic that comes into their life. Save your energy to take action on the legislative and consumer-action level. This is just my way of showing what’s possible.

Find out more about Beth Terry’s book at her website, where you can also download an electronic version or free reader's guide.

image of Elizabeth Royte
OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her "no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places."... READ MORE >
These are great comments and thanks to Ms. Terry for her efforts and OCD :). We should all be so obsessive! Here are some things I do: 1-carry bamboo utensils with me all the time (try to be one step ahead of your server at the counter: tell them you have your own as soon as you place your order, or the plastic ones could end up on your plate, anyway. 2-bring your own containers from home when you do a take-out order. Again, be sure to tell them at the time you place your order. 3-Try to be aware of the packaging of products: ie - shoe shopping with my elderly Mom and doing all the go-phering, size-checking and unpacking of products. Lots of plastic shoe inserts. Called the company to let them know it was a deterrant to my (Mom's) purchase.
I applaud Beth Terry's commitment. It's work for sure, but let's remember it's not as hard as covered wagons across the wild west. We can all do it. What's the alternative.... well by doing nothing we are taking a stand on not caring. It's a selfish stand that says "I don't give a rats ass what I leave for others as long as my convenience isn't impacted". When you look at it like that it does seem so very self-centred and ethically impoverished. I also applaud vendors who help consumers by instigating a reusable bag discount for each and every bag used. Plastic at grocers is insidious you have to be super vigilant in order to not have the cashier re-wrap your meats and produce in yet "more plastic". Kudos go out to "Be UnPackaged" too. This is a store in London that only sells their goods either unpackaged or in reusables. Our grandparents took this way of life for granted. The small amount of work and habit is actually healthy for our bodies. It's a shame when people fight a return to green living tooth and nail. To all the eco warriors out there.... "Keep up the Good work" Diana Carebags
I'd like to add that you don't need to spend money to go plastic bag free. Check out this site on how to make them yourselves.