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Living for the Long Haul: How can we reduce dependence on oil and products made from oil?

How to cut down on plastic use

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About 8% to 10% of our oil goes into making plastic. Of that, about half is in the form of single-use plastic products that are a major contributor to environmental pollution.

Once produced, plastic never really degrades. It just breaks down to smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. These microplastics have contaminated the earth and are most apparent in our oceans.

The largest, but certainly not only, accumulation of plastic in our oceans is termed “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." It is composed of two large patches, one near Japan and one between Hawaii and California. A huge convergence zone links these two “garbage patches."

These patches consist of a “cloudy soup," primarily of degrading plastic. National Geographic reports that the major sources of plastic in this “garbage patch” come from plastic water bottles, bottle caps and Styrofoam cups. These ocean microplastics enter the seafood chain and ultimately end up in our bodies as we consume seafood.

How do we begin to break this cycle with the two-pronged goal of reducing oil consumption associated with single-use plastic and preventing plastic environmental pollution?

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There are five things that we all can do immediately that will markedly reduce single-use plastic:

  1. Purchase (and use) reusable stainless-steel bottles/mugs for coffee, tea, water and soft drinks.

  2. Purchase or make (and use) reusable cloth shopping bags for all your purchases. Also, reuse plastic bags you have rather than taking new ones from the store each time you shop. For example, take your own plastic bags to the grocery store to bag fruit and vegetables rather than taking a new bag each time. Some stores even give a discount when using your own bags.

  3. Stop using disposable plastic straws. Use of straws is a habit rather than a necessity. If you must have the luxury of a straw, you can purchase reusable stainless-steel straws and carry them with you for use.

  4. Buy products in bulk and refill smaller dispenser bottles. Even if bulk containers are made of plastic, much less plastic is used compared to purchasing multiple small plastic containers of each product. Remember that the lids are not recyclable and they are a major component of ocean garbage patches.

  5. Before you recycle an item or throw it out, consider other ways you might use the item (storage of other items like screws and nails in your shop, cut up for seedling plant labels, re-create it into a gift “box," etc.)

Once we have accomplished these actions, we can begin to look for substitutes for plastic products that we commonly use. This may take some effort to find these here in northern Minnesota. We can substitute wax paper, beeswax or tinfoil wrapping paper for plastic cling wrap, and use glass kitchen storage containers, wooden hair brushes, bamboo toothbrushes, cork wine corks and paper stick cotton swabs for their plastic equivalent.
Another major source of single-use plastic is in packaging. Many of the household products we buy come in plastic containers.

However, it is possible to find alternatives. We can still find milk and eggs in cardboard cartons. Tea bags and coffee pods contain plastic, and ground coffee comes in plastic containers. One can purchase loose tea and coffee beans (in paper bags) to reduce our plastic consumption.

Liquid soap, in plastic bottles, can be found in glass bottles and can easily be replaced by bar soap. Shampoo, in the form of bars, is less common but it is available and is effective for many people. Deodorant and toothpaste are also available in glass jars.

We can also look at making some of our own personal care products. Disposable plastic razors can be replaced by reusable safety razors.

Then there is the inevitable and unwanted packing materials (packing peanuts, bubble wrap) that arrive with many purchases. We at Balsam Moon have found a small local mail-order business that can reuse these materials, thus converting a single-use material into a double-use material.

As we commit ourselves to reducing our use of single-use plastics, we will find other ways to reduce our plastic usage. Of course, the most effective way to reduce plastic usage is to reduce overall consumption of goods, being mindful of impulse buying in particular.

It can be done, and we as a society have reduced our consumption during this pandemic. As a result, our air, water and land are a bit cleaner and healthier because of it. Let’s continue that trend!

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(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: weiss005@umn.edu)

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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