In 1997 and 1998 I was sculpting large dolls — three feet high — out of porcelain clay and painting their heads, hands and feet. It was then that I acquired my painting palette, a cheap round plastic palette with a clear plastic top. This morning as I passed my desk I checked to see whether I had closed the palette properly and a large piece of brittle plastic broke off in my hand. I slapped some masking tape on the top and went on about my business, but the incident reminded me that I wanted to write about plastic.
Now, some of you will already be wondering why I didn’t immediately throw the broken plastic in the trash and go out and buy another palette, perhaps even a better one. The answer is two-fold: the lid that broke serves only the purpose of covering the paint so that it will stay moist and, with tape, still serves that purpose, but also plastic is problematic to dispose of properly and I feel it is best to limit plastic acquisitions whenever possible. The bottom of the palette where the paints sit is undamaged and I do not often have guests in my painting room, aka my bedroom. I also prefer to reserve what money I have for travel and other treats instead of using it to replace shabby possessions. If I did a self-portrait in the house jeans I am wearing right now it would tell you a lot about me: they have frayed hems and a side seam that is about to go on the inner thigh. I cannot remember when I bought them or at what thrift store but I can assure you that I have had them for more than five years.
Ahem. Why do I want to talk about plastic? Well, first of all, I read Beth Terry’s blog, My Plastic-Free Life, and follow her attempts to live free from plastic. She lives not far from me and does more than I will ever do to eradicate plastic from her life. I believe she is like a canary in a mine or a Cassandra we do not want to listen to as she chronicles the evils of plastic and its ubiquitousness. She goes to extremes that you might not want to go to — but you might: have a look at her blog and see what you think. She was talking about the amount of plastic packaging at Trader Joe’s the other day. Coincidentally, I had just stopped at Trader Joe’s for a couple of things (coconut milk, limes, dried apricots) and had had to make the unfortunate choice between limes coated with “edible wax” without packaging and organic limes in plastic netting. Which would you choose? Beth would tell me that the cans of coconut milk I bought are lined with plastic and frown that I would even consider buying apricots in a plastic bag. All I can say is that my Mom prefers apricots from Turkey to California-grown and Trader Joe’s meets her price point.
I believe that people want to do the right thing and that the right thing varies according to person and situation. I also believe that many of us are wanton in our use of plastic, that we use it unthinkingly and discard it unthinkingly. Many a young person has probably seen little at the store that is devoid of plastic packaging: it is in my lifetime that we got plastic tamper-proof seals on every bottle of pills, plastic film on cottage cheese and yogurt cartons, plastic bottles of soft drinks, plastic bottles of drinking water. It is in my lifetime that Quaker Oats went from selling rolled oats in a cardboard carton with a string you pulled to open it to the current carton topped with two plastic lids (one you remove to open it, the other reseals the carton). In my lifetime, the Ziploc bag went from something that did not exist to a required item at airports.
I am fortunate to have learned some of the old ways: my grandmother taught me to place a dampened tea towel over rising bread dough and my mother to store leftover pie crust in waxed paper. Plastic wrap often seals poorly anyway, so you will see me rubber-banding paper, wicker plates, cardboard or tea towels over the top of bowls to bring dishes to potlucks. You will see me washing plastic bags and drying them on the line so that we can continue to use them to store food. Like many of you I carry a backpack and canvas totes to pack my food at the grocery store and farmers’ market. I have a marked preference for buying food in glass, which I can re-use, and cans, which I can at least recycle. We use ancient Tupperware around the house, which seems to have the virtue of lasting forever with little degradation. We do our best to re-use those yogurt containers, bought mostly in quart-size, handy for storing soup or taking it on the road. And I carry a quart-sized water bottle with me, which I refill from taps and water fountains everywhere.
I reserve the worst of my spleen for single-use plastic: since I am not going to wash and re-use plastic wrap it is better not to use it in the first place if I can possibly avoid it. I can store food in cooking pots. I can cover a bowl with a plate or a clean cloth. Some foods, for example, cucumbers and mushrooms, keep better if they are not stored in plastic.
How many of you work to minimize the use of plastic in your kitchens? Please raise your hands and share your tips with me and with Beth. The world will thank you for it, although not the plastic-producing corporations.