Discussing Plastics, Paper Towels, and the Journey to Living Thoughtfully with Eve O. Schaub, author of Year of No Garbage

Underwater image of fish swimming near floating plastic trash.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash.

After reading the new book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Eve O. Schaub. She was fun to speak with and very passionate about the subject matter. I loved the way our conversation flowed between funny and serious.

Seriously, she’s great to talk to. She’s very relatable, enthusiastic, and extremely knowledgeable. She explains complex matters in an honest and open way. We’ve all experienced conundrums with garbage and recycling at times, some of which have no resolution. She makes the reader understand that we aren’t alone in this. Plus, the book is quite an entertaining story!

The Beginning

Schaub has written three books within this paradigm: Year of No Sugar, Year of No Clutter, and Year of No Garbage. I wanted to know how it all started and how it transpired from No Sugar to No Clutter to No Garbage. She had seen an online talk by a pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, who associates sugar with many of the most common western diseases. “I was captivated by this. I mean, I’m not in the habit of sitting around and watching 90-minute medical lectures,” she laughed. But she found that his findings made so much sense. “It was like I had been given a new pair of glasses. I saw the world in a completely different way.” Schaub decided to make this a writing project. “What could be more important than the health of our families and the food that we put on our table?”

What would it take to eliminate sugar? Schaub thought that it couldn’t be that hard, so she convinced her family to live for one year without consuming added sugar, with a few exceptions. She drew inspiration from authors, such as Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who created a set of rules for a specific period and then reported on it. As she would come to find out, it is actually very difficult to eliminate sugar because it’s in everything.

After finishing her first book, Schaub said Year of No Clutter felt like a very natural next project. She stated it was more of a personal project for her because the root of the clutter in her home was her. “As the self-confessed polar opposite of Marie Kondo, I spent a year confronting my inner hoarder and wrote a book.”1 This journey led to the idea of Year of No Garbage.

Large, full yellow dumpster with all kinds of trash and debris.
Image by Nathan Copley from Pixabay.

No Garbage

The idea of garbage and what happens to it had captivated Schaub since childhood. Trash is a given thing in our culture, and most people never give it a second thought. “Trash is like weeds. Right? Weeds are only plants that are in the wrong place…that’s the same with trash. There’s no such thing as trash, it’s just whatever we say it is. It’s in the wrong place, it’s inconvenient, we don’t know what to do with it,” she said.

What’s more impressive is Schaub did this during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many actually found it significantly harder to have less trash that year than any other, her family managed to do it by following a pre-established set of rules. She said it was a good distraction during a time when we were forced to slow down, and she felt it provided a good opportunity to reset and rethink.

“I kept trying to remind myself that the very fact that trying to live without garbage is super difficult—and at times virtually impossible—was the whole darned point: if it were easy there wouldn’t be much to write about, and everyone would probably already be doing it, and the earth would be a happier, less trashy, more equitable, less cancer-filled, less disaster-prone place. The End.”2

Trash symbol, outline of person in white paint throwing paper in a trash receptacle, black background.
Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash.

Plastics

Plastics are the hardest type of garbage to deal with, and there’s so much of it. Schaub acknowledged that it’s nearly impossible to avoid buying food without plastic packaging. “You’d have to live in a cave and grow all your own food in the ground, and drink from a stream. I mean, that’s how hard it is…That’s how ingrained it is.” But if we know this, we can work to turn off the plastic tap and think about ways to use less.

Most people don’t realize that plastic is made from oil and chemicals. Big Oil is openly planning to triple its plastic production by 2050. “And they’re proud of it!” Schaub exclaimed. “Do we need three times the amount of plastic in our lives than we already have now?! No, I don’t think anybody thinks that. But they are looking for new markets. They’re trying to increase profits, especially in the wake of people buying [and] turning to electric cars, for example. They’re going to be selling less oil in other departments because of environmental initiatives.” Capitalism drives everything in our culture, and Big Oil is one of the most aggressive industries. Those are the forces we are up against, she said.

“The plastic waste crisis is horrible, but it’s not your fault. It is the fault of forces that are beyond each individual person’s control. This is corporations. This is Big Oil.”

She mentioned that personal responsibility is not the sole solution, but that awareness is the key. Films such as The Story of Plastic, which highlights the global problem of the people whose lives are negatively affected by our waste; videos of a sea turtle with a straw in its nose; and images of dead albatross with stomachs full of plastics are disturbing. But they are powerful because they raise awareness.

Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll.
Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic in its stomach at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll. March 31, 2015. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0 US).

Recycling

Single-stream recycling is a lie, especially when it comes to plastic, the author acknowledged. Knowing that the plastic recycling rate is only 5% is crushing, because people try so hard to do it properly and follow the rules. Yet, most plastic is landfilled. “Every other material has a place to go and has a way to break down. Or be made into something new.” Schaub said that after five decades of recycling, “five percent is the best we can do?!? That’s shocking.”

Single-stream (curbside) recycling often collects plastics with RIC numbers 1-7. But most of those (#3-7) are not recycled and end up in developing countries. “If I know that my plastic is being shipped to Malaysia and Myanmar and Thailand, I’m going to be hesitant to put it in recycling at all because I know that that’s the system in place,” she explained. “These are our plastics that are being shipped across the sea to litter the landscapes of developing nations that do not have the infrastructure to deal with it. You literally have children playing in our waste plastic. And the list of countries is long…these people are living in our trash plastic…this is an environmental justice issue. This is racism.” We have the impression that we are doing a wonderful thing when we put plastic in the recycling bin instead of the landfill, but that is unfortunately sometimes false.

“In the name of recycling, countries around the world are suffering.”

Smiling child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola.
Child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola. Photo by etoile on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC-BY 2.0).

The Role of Corporations and Industries

I asked Schaub: “How do we get these corporations to do the right thing? Because at every turn, like you talk about in your book, they’re looking for a new stream of revenue. How do we get them to stop?” Schaub responded, “Well, they won’t stop, because financially, it doesn’t make sense for them to stop. So we can’t really turn to the corporations too much. I mean, we can try.” But they are always going to put profits first. For example, Coca-Cola has been making environmental promises for decades. But they don’t actually fulfill those promises, “because there’s no sheriff in town,” she said. There are no entities that make sure companies fulfill their promises when it comes to plastic and other environmental endeavors.

“We need more transparency…we need to have a sheriff.”

Schaub observed that industries often put the responsibility on the consumer, in that we shouldn’t buy those things, or that we don’t recycle properly. But it is the industry that should be making better products. “There are a lot of parallels between plastic and sugar, actually. It all comes down to something that’s cheap and it’s easy and it’s convenient and that’s why it’s everywhere, in the case of both of those things…The industry does not have an incentive to do better.” There is an illusion of choice for the consumer as well. There may be 30 types of bread at the supermarket but only one of them will not have added sugar in it. The same is true with plastic. “Try buying cheese without buying plastic. It’s incredibly hard!” Schaub is right – I’ve never been able to buy plastic-free cheese, anywhere.

“Personal responsibility is very important, [and] personal awareness. But if I go buy a bamboo toothbrush and a shampoo bar, that’s good, but it’s not going to fix the overall systemic cultural problem that we’re encountering.”

Legislation May Be the Most Important Focus

Schaub says turning to legislation is perhaps more important than asking corporations to change. She said that proposed bills such as The Break Free from Pollution Act and the United Nations Plastic Pollution Treaty, as well as state and local legislation, show us progress. There are plastic bag and plastic straw bans where she lives, and there is even a charge for paper grocery bags in Vermont. “This is the low-hanging fruit. You have to start somewhere,” she said. (I didn’t tell her that my state, Tennessee, has a law banning bans on plastic and polystyrene containers.) The hope is that more states and municipalities will do the sensible thing. “The more we ask, the more available it will become.” Asking puts in your vote as a consumer!

Diet Coke bottle floating in water.
Diet Coke plastic bottle floating in a body of water. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay.

Toxic Chemicals

Plastic packaging is often full of toxins that can leach into many things, including food and beverages. “Avoid plastic packaging especially when it comes to food whenever you can. And definitely do not heat your food in plastic,” Schaub said. Don’t put plastic in the dishwasher because the heat releases the toxic chemicals in plastic, and most of the time we don’t know what’s in those plastics.

“It’s amazing to me that when you go to the supermarket, and you buy a food product, they have to tell you what’s in that food…But nobody has any obligation to tell you what’s in the packaging. That’s another instance of where we assume that ‘well, this has to be safe,'” she said. But they may not be! There are so many chemicals and the formulas are often proprietary and secret. “Plastic and food need to stay way the heck away from each other, as much as possible.”

“It’s one thing when you’re talking about ‘the ice caps are melting and the polar bears are starving,’ and nobody likes that – that’s bad! But when you start putting toxic chemicals into my body, suddenly I’m paying even more attention…or, when you’re talking about putting those same chemicals into the bodies of my children…I think that’s probably what it’s going to take, is for people to start understanding that connection between plastics and our health, and all the negative effects that can be correlated. The same thing with sugar. When you start connecting the dots, it’s very alarming. And of course, sugar and plastic are so often used in conjunction, from candy bars to all the soda, it’s like they are best friends!”

Box with variety of plastic-wrapped candy bars.
Most candy bars are wrapped in plastic. Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash.

Avoiding Garbage Changes The Way We Purchase

I asked Schaub what items she’d stopped buying because of Year of No Garbage. She laughed, “I had quite a love affair with paper towels. I was the person who went to the supermarket every week and bought the largest bale, like a hay bale, of paper towels.” She explained that sometimes the large bales have individually plastic-wrapped rolls in addition to the outer plastic wrap. “Horrible! But I realized that there were so many times that I could avoid using paper towels very simply, by just having dish towels on hand…or I’ve got rags that I’ve made from cutting up really old towels or sheets. That’s what I use for cleaning now…and I get a great sense of satisfaction out of that…I have incorporated [it] into my life, it’s part of my routine now. So now I just do it without even thinking about it. It does take some effort to set up a new routine. And there is discomfort in that.”

But it was manageable. And she still uses paper towels but significantly less. “I went from going through a hay bale of paper towels every week to now, I buy one roll at a time, and I’ll have it for weeks.” If you don’t want to use a certain item, like paper towels or sugar, the best thing to do is to avoid bringing them into your home. That will automatically discourage use.

Avoiding Plastics

Schaub and I agree that it’s best to avoid plastics whenever possible. And when you do have to buy something with plastic, it’s almost better to put them into the landfill than to try to recycle them. “I feel like that’s a much more honest approach. If I have something that’s going to go to the landfill, I’m just going to put it right in there and accept that’s the only thing that can happen to this piece of plastic…but knowing that will now cause me to be ever more vigilant to try and avoid buying that product,” she said.

For me, that has been items such as bottled shampoo, plastic straws, and plastic shower curtains. Once I became aware of the problems with those things, I stopped bringing them into my home. We switched to shampoo bars and have never reverted back to liquid shampoo. We don’t need a straw for most drinks; when we do, we have metal straws. And though I’ve had my trials and tribulations with fabric shower curtains, I have not had a plastic one in the house for 10 years. As for paper towels, I also use very few and the ones I purchase are plastic-free.

Year of No Garbage book cover

Normalizing Environmental Actions

I was telling Schaub that I routinely keep two clean glass containers in my car with my cloth shopping bags. This way, if I’m at a restaurant and want to take my leftovers home I can do so without having my food touch toxic Styrofoam (polystyrene). But while bringing your own bags to the supermarket is common now, bringing my glass containers to a restaurant is still kind of weird to people. She affirmed, “I think this is all about normalizing it, right? If somebody is standing next to you when you go and use that container at the butcher or the restaurant, they see you doing that and they go ‘Huh! That’s interesting.’ And it starts the process of becoming more normal. And that’s a wonderful thing we can do. We’re not just helping ourselves, we’re progressing this whole idea forward.”

“Awareness is the beginning of all meaningful change.”

Glass container with bamboo lid, white background.
Glass container with bamboo lid from IKEA.

Living Intentionally

Schaub said that all three projects permanently changed how her family lives and consumes in the world. This is because they can’t ‘unknow’ the information they’ve learned. She also liked the symmetry of the three projects because she felt like her family came full circle. “We started with the things that we put into our bodies, and then I focused on the things we bring into our homes, and then lastly I focused on the things that we’re putting into the environment, which, guess what – spoiler alert – because they’re in the environment, they’re now coming around and going back into our bodies as well. And so now we’re finding microplastics in foods because it’s in the dirt! It’s in the produce! It’s in the tap water and the bottled water! These microplastics don’t go away…[plastic] never breaks down.” It turns into microscopic plastic pieces. “But it’s still there, and that’s the stuff that’s going into our bodies as well as into the environment,” she maintained.

Our culture is so busy but when we slow down, we can be more thoughtful and more intentional, including with our resources. She wrote, “As it turns out—and I’m as surprised as anyone about this—living No Sugar, No Clutter and No Garbage all led to the same place: living thoughtfully…Being thoughtful about your space, your resources, your food, where the objects of our life come from and where they all go; devoting the time to put those ideals into practice: getting objects to people who will love and use them, recycling and reusing, cooking as much as possible from basic ingredients.”3

Cardboard sign with black painted letters with sky in background: "All You Need Is Less."
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash.

Read Year of No Garbage

Schaub’s goal is to spread information and provide people with more information so that they can incorporate it into their lives in a way that makes sense for them. She said that some people read Year of No Garbage and find it an entertaining story. For other readers, it might change everything about the way they shop and discard and recycle. She doesn’t want people to feel shame because guilt isn’t going to make anything better. These are urgent issues and we need to come together. Her book incorporates these ideas, so be sure to check it out!

If you are interested in purchasing Year of No Garbage or any of Schaub’s other works, you can find links on her website.

Read my book review, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023

Video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” Education, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, May 26, 2009.

Documentary, “Fed Up,” 2014.

Video, “Plastic Straw Removed From A Sea Turtle’s Nostril (Short Version),” The Leatherback Trust, August 13, 2015.

Website, About The Story of Plastic film.

Footnotes:

Book Review: Year of No Garbage by Eve O. Schaub

Year of No Garbage book cover

“Trash is America’s number one export.”

I recently had the pleasure of reading Year of No Garbage by Eve O. Schaub. The book is a great source of well-researched information regarding the huge problems surrounding our waste crisis. I found myself laughing out loud at the many humorous and relatable stories, which help make very real topics like plastic pollution feel more approachable. Especially when those topics can be so complex and depressing!

Overflowing 'Litter' bin with trash piled in front of it, a crowd of people in background.
Photo by Paul Schellekens on Unsplash.

“Our garbage is everywhere, all around us, in our very bodies, and we don’t even realize it. Microplastics have been found in humans’ blood, lungs, the placenta of unborn children, and, most recently, breast milk.”

Garbage is a Problem For Everyone

Garbage doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else.

Even the most extreme environmentalists and zero-wasters have found objects for which there is no way to upcycle, recycle, or reuse. Nobody knows what to do with them, so they must go in the garbage. Many environmentalists often don’t talk about these types of items, but Schaub puts those stories front and center.

For example, in Year of No Garbage, she included a hilarious story about a Styrofoam-filled beanbag that her cats had peed on. There was no saving or repurposing it so she had to trash it. Her husband thought her blog readers would ‘crucify’ her for having something like this that was dumpster-bound. But she thought this was the point entirely! “I mean, I have to talk about this, right? This is what the whole thing is about. I mean: look at this. Things like this should not exist.”

The stuff – meaning the plastics and Styrofoams and disposables – pervades every part of our lives. It is almost impossible to not come in contact with them constantly. In fact, Shaub tried just going a single day without touching plastic and found it nearly impossible. That is, she had to avoid the toilet, the soap dispenser, her cell phone, pen, computer, yoga mat, light switches, etc. “I couldn’t drive anywhere, because cars are 50 percent plastic. This was probably just as well, because I also couldn’t wear my glasses.” Even books and magazines often have a plastic coating on the covers. On her blog, she commented:

“I still hate plastic and everything it is doing to us, but this impossible day gave me a newfound understanding of what we are really up against. Who knew that in only a few short decades our society could have so thoroughly encased ourselves in mysterious plastic chemicals, to the point that doing without them immobilizes us? Recently I had happened upon an article in the New York Times, ‘Life Without Plastic Is Possible. It’s Just Very Hard.’ I beg to differ—and I speak from experience.”1

Black garbage bag sitting in front of a door next to a pair of slip-on shoes.
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash.

Recycling 

One way the author attempted to reduce her family’s garbage was to recycle everything she could. But this wasn’t easy as just throwing it in a blue bin. One of the chapter titles, “I Become the Sherlock Holmes of Recycling . . . or at Least Watson,” referred to the vast amounts of research it took to recycle many items. “There are so many things about recycling that we just don’t know, that prevent us from doing it correctly and efficiently, and I was pretty much spending every waking moment trying to figure them all out.”

Plastic’s rate of recycling used to be just 9%, but has fallen even lower to between 5 and 6 percent. And that’s typically only plastics with a resin code of 1 or 2. The rest is often shipped off to other countries, where they often do not have the infrastructure to deal with these plastics. “No matter what your garbage service provider is telling you, numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7 are not getting recycled.”

Schaub noted that recycling programs are flawed and often don’t work. That includes everything from single-stream/curbside to extreme recycling programs like TerraCycle. “But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. What I am giving up on is the myth of personal responsibility…it took me an entire year of looking and asking and researching to finally accept what so many have long suspected…Plastic recycling does not work. Extreme ‘recycling’ programs are not trustworthy.” She wrote that legislation (with enforcement) regarding plastics, chemicals, and waste will be what makes the most difference. That is how we can get corporations to make better products and packaging, as well as use less toxic ingredients.

“Before the Year of No Garbage, did I love that I could buy a package of lovely, sealed, organic ground beef at the supermarket that would keep good for much, much longer than other, mere mortal organic ground beef? Of course—it’s convenient and efficient. It reduces food waste and saves money. Longer shelf life probably even made my supermarket more likely to carry organic meat in the first place. But where Intergalactic Space Plastic reduces waste of food, it creates waste of something arguably even worse: permanent, forever garbage. At least wasted food, if composted, can degrade back into the environment.”

A seagull at a body of water with trash in its mouth.
A seagull with trash in its mouth. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

Garbage Reduction

There are so many things that most of us absent-mindedly throw away because we don’t know what else to do with them. This book teaches us to think about trash differently – whether we recycle, give items a second life, or avoid buying certain items in the first place.

Schaub’s family was able to greatly reduce their garbage, mostly by paying closer attention to what they bought. They made incremental changes, such as “eliminating paper towels, instituting a burn pile for small and unrecyclable paper, collecting wine corks and plastic caps to donate for school craft projects, composting all food scraps (not just some),” collecting plastic film for the bin at the supermarket, washing and recycling their aluminum foil, and avoiding the purchase of disposable items as much as possible.

Schaub recommended not using garbage bags. “Garbage bags are black holes, I realized. They encourage things to be thrown in them, things we’d rather not think about or deal with. Not having a bag in the bin means no messy organic material (which should really all be going into the compost anyway) but it also means, when I empty it, that’s one more time I think about my garbage and what it is composed of.” She uses pet food bags to bring trash to the dump.

“Instead of that ninety-six-gallon trash bin we used to fill each and every week, today we fill one-half of a kitchen-sized garbage bag every week, always composed pretty much entirely of single-use plastic food packaging that I couldn’t figure out how to avoid. We have gone from 96 gallons of trash per week to 9.”

Three waste bins in green, red, and yellow: Compost, Waste, and Recycling respectively.
Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash.

Zero Waste Is Extremely Difficult

“There’s a lot of stuff out there masquerading as useful and sustainable, when it’s really just more stuff…As the Zero Wasters like to say, the most environmental purchase is the one you didn’t make.”

It is very difficult to go completely zero waste in our modern society. “Zero waste is a lovely idea,” Schaub wrote. But “the number of people who are both willing and able to genuinely go full bore zero waste under our existing system is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Which means, effectively, that even though it is technically possible, it is not realistic. And it’s not going to fix anything.” Fossil fuel companies are the biggest drivers of emissions and plastics production. They don’t have any plans to put themselves out of business.

But we have to keep trying.

“I’m not suggesting that just because personal responsibility will not solve the problems of garbage and plastic and climate change, we should all just throw in the towel. Forget it! Hand me that plastic straw! Turtles be damned! No. What I’m saying is that personal behavior changes are never going to be enough all on their own, because the forces at work are so enormous.”

Black trash can with trash items sitting on top of it and on the ground around it.
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash.

Intentionality

Schaub wrote that being intentional is key to making any great change, whether it is at home or through legislation. We can all do better if we know better. We can all become more intentional in our lives. This is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from minimalism even if we are not minimalists. She wrote:

“If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it follows that living mindfully gives us purpose. I hope my kids will live life with a sense of curiosity about the world and our place in it. I hope that if something doesn’t seem right, they’ll know that blind acceptance is not their only option; that even if one person might not be able to solve the problems of the environment, global warming, racial and environmental injustice, we can start the conversation, change minds, reveal a wrong, by the simple act of slowing down and taking a closer look.”

Read the Year of No Garbage!

I highly recommend reading this book! It’s fun, interesting, and full of well-researched information and first-hand experiences. A Year of No Garbage resonated so much with me because I have run into many of the same roadblocks and situations with plastics and garbage. I have struggled with replacing my plastic shower curtain with non-plastic. It was difficult to find alternatives to take-out containers made from Styrofoam (polystyrene) because of their toxicity. I also stopped paying for garbage bags and now just reuse dog food bags or I upcycled my own from shipping envelopes.

Understanding some of the problems surrounding waste in our society is the key to being able to change it. Schaub wrote, “As I’d learned with our other two projects, even when you are supposedly ‘done,’ you are not done at all. In fact, in some ways, that is when the hardest work begins. After all, the whole point of the crazy year-long project is to change how we do things so dramatically that it changes us.”

I had the opportunity to interview Eve O. Schaub, and I look forward to sharing that with you in my next article! In the meantime, you can check out her blog. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

All quotes from this article are from Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023, unless otherwise cited.

Tennessee River Clean-Up!

Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River, water in foreground and hills at center. Bridge at left. Cloudless blue sky at top.
Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River on the day of the clean-up. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.

“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1

So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.

This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2 

The Experience

I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.

My son talking to a crewmember with a dog on a grassy area.
My son making friends with a crewmember of Living Lands & Waters. She had a dog, and he loves dogs, so it was an easy conversation starter. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son cleaning up trash along a river bank, holding a yellow bag, boat at right center background, clear blue sky.
He wasn’t afraid to get into the water and clean up trash along the river banks. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. He is trying to pull it out here.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.

One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.

The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!

Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!

Flat bottomed boat on the water with one person and heaps of trash.
Dan Breidenstein from Living Lands & Waters with trash loaded onto his boat. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Two women removing a large tire from the water, a shoreline with logs. A dog crosses a log. Two boats in the background with a man loading trash onto one of them.
Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful with Callie Schaser from Living Lands & Waters, removing a large tire from the water. Photo by Marie Cullis.
People loading trash into a floating boat, background shows lake, land, and bright blue sky.
Loading one of the boats. The black piece in the foreground is the truck bed liner. Photo by Marie Cullis.

By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.

Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris.
Full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris. Person with his arm up in the back of the boat.
Second full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!

“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3

Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Our group photo! Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Photo of the second group, courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.

I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

The Chemicals in Plastic and Why it Matters, Part 2

Last updated on May 21, 2023.

Colorful plastic litter organized by color on a beach.
Image by Filmbetrachter from Pixabay

Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum, which you read about in Part 1 of this series. Today, I want to tell you about the chemical contents of plastics according to resin code, the number on the bottom surrounded by a triangle. More importantly, I want to inform you of the ways they may be toxic to our health.

Resin Identification Codes (RICs)

Resin symbol for #1 plastic, or PET.
Image by OpenIcons from Pixabay.

The plastics industry created RICs in 1988 as part of their campaign to boost plastic’s image. They even lobbied to have state legislatures adopt them. But this little symbol on almost all plastic packaging is misleading. Many assume that the recycling symbol or RIC means that a package is automatically recyclable. However, that is not true, it actually only refers to the type of plastic resin used.

To reduce confusion, ASTM, the organization that regulates the RIC system, updated the symbol from the chasing arrows to a solid triangle in 2013. “However, manufacturers aren’t required to change their equipment to incorporate the new symbol, which is why you still see the arrows on many plastic products,” according to an article on Oceano.org.1 So it’s still easy for people who don’t know to mistake the RIC as a recycling symbol versus an industry tag for the plastic.

Graphic comparing the types of recycling symbols used with RICs.

A clear plastic PET food container showing the updated symbol, a numbe 1 inside of triangle.
Example of a plastic PET food container showing the updated symbol. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“Thanks to the intelligent strategy that the plastic industry came up with in the early 1980s of imprinting a recycling code on the most commonly consumed plastic items, a large majority of consumers think that the bulk of the plastics they consume are recyclable and actually do get recycled through their local curbside recycling program. In reality, only a small percentage of the contents of a recycling box is recycled.”2

The RICs / Types of Plastics

Please note: There are 7 resin identification codes, but that does not mean there are only 7 types of plastics. There are, in fact, tens of thousands of chemical combinations.3

Resin Identification Coding System graphic
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Next, let’s look at the 7 RICs types, what they are used for, their characteristics, their chemical contents, and their potential toxicity. Note that this is not an exhaustive list; nor is each category exhaustive in the standard products or characteristics.

“Despite how useful these additives are in the functionality of polymer products, their potential to contaminate soil, air, water and food is widely documented…These additives can potentially migrate and undesirably lead to human exposure via e.g. food contact materials, such as packaging.”4

#1 PET/PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate

Standard products: Water bottles, soda bottles, salad dressing bottles, food containers such as cooking oil and peanut butter, wrinkle-proof clothing, fleece blankets, padding in pillows and comforters, carpeting, other polyester fabrics.

About: PET is the most valuable type of plastic and the most recycled. There are typically two types: one is made with a blow molding machine; the other is thermoform which is made by heating a plastic sheet until pliable and then molded into a specific shape. The main difference is in molecular weight. Higher molecular weight items, such as bottles and jugs made from blow molding, are more valuable than their thermoform counterparts. Thermoform, though more difficult to sell, is often recycled into carpeting.5

Chemical content: “A chemical called antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst and flame retardant in making PET, and this antimony additive is considered a possible carcinogen.” The amount in one single water bottle is minimal, but leaching increases with heat. Think of those water bottles stored in the car during the summer. “There is research showing that PET may leach phthalates too, even though the plastics industry says that phthalates are not required to make PET.”6 Regardless, think about switching to metal or glass containers whenever possible.

Close-up of clear blue water bottles
Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay.

#2 HDPE: High-density Polyethylene

Standard products: Milk jugs, water bottles, juice, bottles, bleach, dish and laundry detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, cleaner containers, over-the-counter medicine bottles, cereal box liners, Tyvek home insulation, plastic-wood composites, snowboards, 3D printing filament, and wire covering. It is even used in some plastic surgery procedures.

About: This is one of the most widely used plastics because of its versatility. It is strong, flexible, cost-effective, moisture-resistant, and resistant to most chemical solvents. It has high tensile strength and has both a high-impact resistance and melting point. “The polyethylene polymer has the simplest basic chemical structure of any polymer, making it easy to process and thus extremely popular for low value, high volume applications.”7

Chemical content: While this is considered a ‘safer’ plastic for food and drink use, there is evidence that these release endocrine-disrupting chemicals, especially when exposed to UV. “The main leaching culprits are estrogen-mimicking nonylphenols and octylphenols, which are added to polyethylene as stabilizers and plasticizers.”8 Those chemicals disrupt the body’s hormones and can cause cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

“Nearly four pounds of petroleum are required for every two pounds of #2 (HDPE) plastic produced.” -Tom Szaky, Terracycle9

Angled photo of plastic milk jugs at the supermarket.
Milk jugs are typically #2 HDPE. Photo by Marie Cullis.

#3 PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride

Standard products: Think all vinyl products. Shower curtains, medical bags, medical tubing, shrink wrap, children’s toys, binders, school supplies, plastic furniture, garden hoses, vinyl clothing and outerwear, wire and cable insulation, vinyl records, carpet backing, flooring, credit cards, clamshell packaging, plumbing pipes, vinyl siding, window frames, fences, decking, other construction materials.

About: “PVC can take on a staggering variety of personalities – rigid, filmy, flexible, leathery – thanks to the ease with which it can be blended with other chemicals.”10 PVC is versatile as it can be adapted to many applications depending on the plasticizing additives. It is strong and resistant to moisture and abrasion. It can be produced clear or colored. About three-quarters of all vinyl produced goes into construction applications.

Chemical content: PVC is known as the poison plastic because it leaches toxins for its entire life cycle and should be avoided whenever possible. Vinyl is manufactured by polymerizing a chemical called vinyl chloride. It can contain up to 55% additives, mainly phthalates. The chemicals it may release during its lifetime include cancer-causing dioxins, endocrine-disrupting phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), lead, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals. “The problem with PVC is that its base monomer building block is vinyl chloride, which is highly toxic and unstable, thus requiring lots of additives to calm it down and make it usable. But even in its final ‘stabilized’ form, PVC is not very stable.”11 The additives leach out and you can inhale and ingest them.

White PVC pipes stacked at a manufacturer or store.
PVC pipes, photo by Dennis Hill on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

#4 LDPE: Low-density Polyethylene

Standard products: Film applications like bags, such as those used for bread, shopping, dry-cleaning, newspapers, frozen foods, produce, and garbage. Also used for shrink wraps, linings for cartons and cups, container lids, some squeeze bottles, orthotics, and prosthetics.

About: LDPE is a soft, flexible, lightweight plastic material, known for its low-temperature flexibility, toughness, and corrosion resistance. But it is not recyclable in any practical sense. Citing data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one large recycling corporation noted that “the overwhelming majority of products made from LDPE end up in landfills…Dumping tons of LDPE in landfills can have devastating consequences…plastic buried in landfills can leach into the soil and introduce chemicals into the groundwater.” They can threaten marine life in coastal areas, and “lightweight plastic bags can be blown great distances by the wind, ending up in bodies of water where animals eat them or become tangled in them.”12 Plastic bags causes huge environmental problems.

Chemical content: These can leach some of the same chemicals as #2 HDPE plastic. It is a thermoplastic made from the polymerization of ethylene. Ethylene is considered a building block of plastic, but it is highly flammable and reactive. It is created by Ethane Cracker Plants, which use an environmentally questionable process to extract the ethane to make ethylene. While difficult to avoid, steer clear of this plastic whenever possible.

Angled photo of the bread aisle at the supermarket.
Bread bags are typically #4 LDPE. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Blue plastic cap from a gallon milk or water jug, #4 LDPE plastic.
Blue plastic cap from a gallon water jug, #4 LDPE plastic. Photo by Marie Cullis.

#5 PP: Polypropylene

Standard products: Polypropylene is used in packaging, yogurt cups, sour cream and soft cheese containers, prescription bottles, butter/margarine containers, plastic to-go containers, leftover containers, freezer meal containers, the filter cases of some disposable home water filters, electrical wiring, and plastic bottle caps because polypropylene can withstand pressure. It is also used in vehicles for bumpers, carpets, and other parts. Polypropylene allows moisture to escape and stays dry, making it ideal for use in disposable diapers.

About: Polypropylene is sometimes referred to as the “safe” plastic, but there really is no safe plastic when it comes to food. All plastic has the capacity to poison us in certain circumstances. Polypropylene is a stronger plastic than other types, but it is generally not recyclable because there isn’t sufficient reprocessing capacity. Polypropylene is more stable and resists heat better than other plastics. So it is generally considered safer for foods and hot liquids because it leaches fewer chemicals (though it still does leach, which is why you should use glass or metal containers for your food).13 However, this is what many leftover and freezer meal containers are made from. Have you ever noticed rough patches or surface defects in your leftover containers? Any disruptions on the surface mean the polypropylene has been compromised, which increases the chances that it will leach chemicals into your food, especially when heating it.

If you have polypropylene leftover containers from before 2013, replace them. These contained phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). And if you do replace them, please buy stainless steel or glass containers and just avoid the chemicals in plastic altogether.

Chemical content: Polypropylene is a rigid and crystalline thermoplastic made from the polymerization of the propene monomer. There is ongoing research about the health effects of certain additives leaching from polypropylene, such as oleamide, a polymer lubricant and a bioactive compound. Oleamide does occur naturally in the human body, but the long-term effects of synthetic oleamide are not yet known. In a 2021 study entitled “Plastic additive oleamide elicits hyperactivity in hermit crabs,” scientists found that it may be perceived as a feeding cue by marine species, thus increasing the consumption of microplastics.14

Angled photo of the yogurt shelves at the supermarket.
Yogurt and other dairy containers are typically #5 polypropylene. Photo by Marie Cullis.

#6 PS: Polystyrene

“Most recognizable when puffed up with air into that synthetic meringue known technically as expanded polystyrene and popularly by the trademark Styrofoam.” -Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story15

Standard products: The foam form, called Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), also known as Styrofoam, is used in egg cartons, meat trays, single-use food and take-out containers, coffee cups, vehicles, bike helmets, packing peanuts, and home insulation. The rigid form is used for single-use food containers, cutlery, CD and DVD cases, disposable razors, etc. “It is also combined with rubber to create an opaque high impact polystyrene used for model assembly kits, coat hangers, electronic housings, license plate frames, aspirin bottles and medical and lab equipment, including test tubes and petri dishes.”16

About: It may be difficult to avoid this stuff in home insulation, vehicles, and bike helmets, but it should be avoided at all costs when it comes to food and beverages. I wrote a lot about polystyrene in my series on Styrofoam and polystyrene food containers. These containers and cups leach styrene into food and beverages and thus enter your body. Styrene is known to likely be carcinogenic. It is considered a brain and nervous system toxicant and causes problems in the lungs, liver, and immune system.

Chemical content: Polystyrene is a synthetic polymer made from the polymerization of styrene. It is a chemically produced plastic that can be made into a hard or foam plastic. The foam is created by expanding the styrene by blowing various chemical gases into it. Polystyrene is made from ethylene and benzene, both hydrocarbons derived from by-products of petroleum and natural gas (also known as petrochemicals).

Take-out in polystyrene containers
Image by albedo20 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

#7: OTHER Plastics

This is the catch-all category for all ‘other plastics.’ Any plastic items not made from the above six plastic RICs are grouped together as #7’s. These include acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, epoxy resins, polylactic acid (PLA), and multilayer combinations of different plastics. These are never recyclable except through a few rare and expensive take-back programs, because of the vast array of resins and chemicals mixed together. Below are some of the individual plastic types that fall under #7.

Acrylic: This is a rigid thermoplastic that is strong, diverse, and resilient; and it can be clear or solid colored. Acrylics are used to make bulletproof windows, LEGOs, dental fillings and dentures, airplane windows, aquariums, shower doors, vehicle parts, helmets, and even textiles such as clothing, tents, and sails. This is a stable plastic and is considered a ‘safer’ plastic, except for certain ones used in dental applications. Those, specifically acrylic methacrylate resins, are suspected to be cytotoxic (toxic at the cellular level) because they leach chemicals such as formaldehyde and methyl methacrylate.17 That being said, keep those LEGOs out of your toddler’s mouth.

Red, blue, white, yellow, and black Legos in a small pile.
Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.

Nylon: This belongs to a group of plastic resins called polyamides that include Kevlar and Velcro. Invented by DuPont in the 1930s, nylon was originally invented to be a synthetic alternative for silk, for example, stockings. Nylon can be fiber, solid, or film. Items made from it include clothing, toothbrush and hairbrush bristles, rope*, instrument strings, tents, parachutes, carpets, tires, food packaging, boat propellers, skateboard wheels, and mechanical and automotive parts.

DuPont advertisement for Nylon from 1949, showing woman pulling up her Nylon stockings.
DuPont advertisement for Nylon from 1949. Image by clotho98 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

*NOTE: Most rope and nets used in commercial fishing are made from nylon and present a huge problem in the oceans. The rope and nets break away from the fishing vessels and become threats to fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals who get entangled in them. Since nylon is plastic, it will not decompose and will remain in the ocean for decades or longer.

Seal on beach with nylon fishing net entangled around its neck.
Nylon fishing net entangled around the neck of a seal. Image by Noutch from Pixabay.

Polycarbonate: Originally designed as an engineering plastic to compete with die-cast metal and substitute glass because it is lightweight, strong, transparent, and shatter-proof. Polycarbonate is very toxic, as it is produced through the reaction of bisphenol A (BPA) with phosgene COCl and can leach chemicals into water or food.18 In the past, it was used in reusable water bottles and baby bottles until bisphenol A (BPA) was ruled toxic. “It is still a favorite for rigid products including CDs and DVDs, eyeglass lenses, dental sealants, lab equipment, snowboards, car parts and housing for cell phones, computers and power tools.” It is also still used in the large, blue water containers common in offices.19 This type of plastic is good for items not related to food or beverage. However, we should use it less overall in other applications when possible to reduce waste, because when polycarbonate breaks it cannot be recycled.

Epoxy resins: Known for high strength, low weight, temperature and chemical resistance. Used in many applications: high-performance adhesives, coatings, paint, sealant, insulators, wind turbine blades, fiber optics, electrical circuit boards, and parts for carts, boats, and planes. They are also used on the interior lining of most canned goods. Avoid these when possible, especially with food and beverage containers because they contain chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and epichlorohydrin. The latter likely causes blood, respiratory, and liver damage and is a probable carcinogen.20

Polylactic Acid (PLA): This is a bio-based plastic made from lactic acid, which is a fermentation product of corn or cane sugar. This is the most common bioplastic, used in a variety of products including clothing, bottles, weed cloth, gift and credit cards, food packaging, diapers, wipes, and disposable dishes. PLA is advertised as compostable but it is only biodegradable under industrial composting conditions, which is still largely unavailable.21

Polyurethanes

This large family of plastics was introduced in 1954. Polyurethanes do not have an assigned RIC, but they are worth mentioning because they are so common. They come in foamed versions that are soft and flexible for uses in mattresses, cushioning in furniture, cars, and running shoes, spray foam insulation, and carpet underlay. They can take on a flexible form for hoses, tubing, gaskets, seals; and they can be tough and rigid for items such as insulating lining for buildings and refrigerators. Polyurethane can also be made into thin films or coatings, such as adhesives for food packaging and waterproof coatings for wood. When it is spun into fibers, it makes Spandex, Lycra, and even latex-free condoms.22

Polyurethane is made from isocyanates, a chemical that is potentially toxic, as it is the leading cause of occupational asthma. “As for our day-to-day use, polyurethanes have also been linked to a skin irritation known as contact dermatitis through direct contact with such polyurethane items as a toilet seat, jewelry and Spandex tapes sewn into underwear.” It is highly flammable and may contain flame retardant additives that go in mattresses and spray foam insulation. Flame retardants are full of chemical combinations that are considered trade secrets, so the public does not know what potential toxins are present in their items. Spray foam insulation, even once cured, can off-gas isocyanate methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), which has been linked to asthma and lung damage.23

Person in white Hazmat suit applying purple spray foam insulation.
Image by justynkalp from Pixabay.

What You Can Do

The best thing you can do is to keep learning, which you’re already doing if you’re reading this article. Stay informed and be aware of what chemicals you’re exposed to through plastics, packaging, and additives. Avoid those which are documented as toxic or even potentially toxic. Additionally, remember that few plastics are actually recycled, so reducing the plastics you purchase is essential to the environment and your health. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

“We all need to separate the hopeful and increasingly fantastical act of recycling from the reality of plastic pollution. Recent data indicates that our recycling wishes, hopes, and dreams – perhaps driven in part by myths surrounding RICs – will not stop plastic from entering our oceans. Instead, if we truly want to protect the environment and marine life, we need to campaign for more plastic-free choices and zones, and for the reduction of plastic production and pollution.”24

 

Additional Resources:

11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food

To learn more about Bioplastics: The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 3

The different types of plastics used in packaging: Guide to my Packaging Industry Series

More about polystyrene #5: Guide to my Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food Series

Article, “An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling,” by John N.Hahladakis et al., Journal of Hazardous  Materials, Volume 344, February 15, 2018.

Footnotes: