Could You Go a Whole Year With Only Five Pounds of Plastic Trash?

8 years ago

3.7 pounds of plastic wasteWhat if you were told you were only allowed to generate five pounds of plastic trash this year? And what if that five pounds had to include both your recyclable AND non-recyclable plastic? Could you do it? How would you live?

According to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF) and the California Integrated Waste Management Board (PDF), the average American generates between 88 and 128 pounds of plastic trash (before recycling) per year.

Think about all the plastic most of us go through on a daily basis: grocery bags, produce bags, bottles, food wrappers, shipping packaging (including the plastic tape on the box), personal care containers such as soaps, shampoos, and lotions, take-out containers and utensils, disposable cups and straws, and all the other throw-away plastic our lives. In this day and age, could anyone eliminate so much plastic?

Last year, I did just that.

Beth Terry's 2009 tally of plastic waste

My plastic waste came in at 3.7 pounds in 2009, less than 4% of the national average. Here’s a video I made this weekend showing not only my plastic waste but also some solutions for reducing our plastic consumption. (Please disregard how many times I say, “No way” or “No Way, man.” I’m turning into my father who repeats himself all the time.)


But why would I do this? For the fame and money? Ha! No way, man.

Dead albatross full of plasticIn June of 2007, I read the article and saw the photo that would change my life. The article was “Plastic Ocean” in Best Life Magazine, and the photo was of a dead albatross chick, its belly full of plastic pieces. I was stunned that my personal actions could impact a creature I hadn’t even known existed.

Then and there, I decided to make a change. I would collect each piece of plastic I used up and would set up a blog ( to keep track of it. As I discovered new alternatives to plastic, I would report them on the blog. At first, I did it only for myself and the handful of family and friends that I spammed with my updates. But soon my audience grew to include other like-minded people. Strangers who were trying to lessen their own plastic impact. A blogger was born.

Harm from Plastic

As I researched the topic, I learned more about the harm from plastics in our environment and in our own bodies.

1) Oil: Most plastic is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource and terribly polluting industry. In the next few years, if we don’t find alternatives to oil voluntarily, we’ll be forced to do so. In the meantime, the U.S. has 2% of the world’s oil reserves, yet uses 25%. For this reason, wars are waged for this diminishing resource.

nurdles2) Nurdles: Before becoming plastic products that we can use, the petroleum is made into tiny raw plastic pellets, called “nurdles.” These tiny nurdles are shipped in containers all over the world plastics factories. But before they reach their destination, many of these nurdles are littered in transit, where they are fatally swallowed by birds and fish. Moreover, the nurdles are accumulators of hydrophobic pollutants – things like DDE and PCB. These can be up to one million times more concentrated on the surface of these pellets than they are in the ambient sea water, according to a recent Japanese study. In short, these plastic pellets not only kill the birds and fish that eat them, they are also a source of poisons in our food chain.

3) Toxic Chemicals: The nurdles are melted down and formed into all kinds of products for us to use, many of which contain harmful additives which can leach from the plastic. One example is PVC (polyvinyl chloride, #3 plastic), used for cling wrap and other food containers as well as flooring, window blinds and even children’s toys. PVC may contain lead and phthalates, chemicals which disrupt hormones and are linked to cancer. Another harmful plastic, polycarbonate (#7 plastic), may be used in plastic baby bottles, 5-gallon water bottles, “sport” water bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups. It can leach Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that mimics the action of the human hormone estrogen and has been linked to several cancers and genetic damage in infants. Check out the IATP Smart Plastics Guide for information on chemicals in plastics.

Recently many manufacturers have been phasing out these two types of plastic in response to public pressure. Trouble is, we don’t know what other chemicals may have been added to the new PVC-free or BPA-free plastics.

sea turtle eating plastic bag4) Litter: We’ve all seen plastic bags blowing down the sidewalk or plastic bottle caps in the curb. These discarded plastics are more than eye sores. Through runoff, they often make their way to the ocean via storm drains, creeks, streams, and rivers, where they do their damage to fish, birds, sea turtles, and other animals.

5) Lasts Forever: Plastic doesn’t go away because it isn’t biodegradable. Most plastics, on the other hand, are photodegradable, which means that if they’re exposed to light, they will degrade into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that are not only swallowed by marine creatures, but become embedded in the zooplankton, the very bottom of the food chain, and thereby poison our food with toxic chemicals. In a similar process, many of the new “biodegradable plastics” only break down into smaller pieces of plastic as well.

6) Difficult to Recycle: While most communities will accept bottles and some containers, most of our plastics are either not recycled or are downcycled into products which then cannot be further recycled. And many of these plastics are shipped overseas to Aisa, where they contribute to plastic pollution in someone else’s backyard.

My Plastic for 2009

So what plastic waste did I end up with last year?

  1. Cat-related items: Cat litter bags, BalanceIT supplement for homemade cat food, Frontline flea treatments. The cat-related waste came in at 2 pounds, which means my own personal plastic waste was only 1.7 pounds.
  2. Electronics-related packaging: Battery charger and rechargeable batteries to avoid disposables; camera packaging and battery when my own camera was stolen; cell phone & memory card packaging when I switched to Credo Mobile I could continue using my old phone.
  3. Expired credit and gift cards.
  4. Medical Waste: Prescription and OTC bottles & a few bandaids.
  5. Dental: Toothpaste tube & caps from recyclable aluminum tubes. Note: This waste doesn’t include Preserve toothbrushes, which I send back to Preserve.
  6. Food-related waste: Plastic caps from glass milk bottles and other glass bottles, as well as plastic bottle neck seals; two plastic wine corks; a couple of wrappers; a few condiment containers and one straw from a take-out place; and seals from pints of ice cream that I couldn’t resist.
  7. Laundry-related waste: One detergent scoop when we made the mistake of trying a brand we don’t normally use.
  8. Exercise-related waste: Tyvek race tag & related plastic from SF Bay to Breakers.
  9. Shipping and mail-related plastic: Packing tape; envelope windows; plastic envelopes from finance company.
  10. Clothing: A few tag hangers that you can’t even see in the photo because they are so small.
Plastics Eliminated

Here are some items I have managed to give up entirely. You can get a look at many of the solutions in the above video.

  1. Plastic bags: Grocery bags, produce bags, baggies, department store bags, etc. We have switched to reusable canvas tote bags, as well as reusable cotton produce and bulk bags.
  2. Plastic trash bags: Since we compost our food waste and recycle everything we can, we end up with a very tiny bit of dry trash, which can be put into the waste cans directly without a liner.
  3. Plastic toilet paper, paper towel, and napkin wrappers: We buy recycled toilet paper in paper wrappers instead of plastic; use natural cloths and scrubbers instead of paper towels; and choose cloth napkins over paper.
  4. Processed food wrappers: We patronize natural food stores with bulk bins and fill up our own containers and bags. We weigh the containers before filling so the clerk can deduct the container weight at checkout. We even bring a stainless steel pot to the butcher for meat for our cats!
  5. Bottled water: We fill up our reusable bottles from the tap.
  6. Soda bottles: In the instances we want soda, we use our soda maker to make our own.
  7. Frozen convenience foods: We skip them entirely. There isn’t any frozen meal or snack that comes without plastic.
  8. Lunch containers: We’ve found a variety of stainless steel options.
  9. Food storage: We use glass and stainless steel containers and even reuse mason jars.
  10. Take-out and leftovers: We bring our own containers to restaurants to carry home take-out food and leftovers.
  11. Plastic cups and cup lids: Think about all those iced coffee drinks we imbibe during the summer. I bring my own reusable mug regardless of the temperature of the beverage.
  12. Plastic utensils: I have a little lunch kit I keep in my purse with utensils and even a glass drinking straw.
  13. Personal care containers: We use solid soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and lotions. And recently I found a brand of lotion and lip balm that comes in compostable cardboard containers and tubes.

These are just a few of the ways I have found over the past two and a half years to reduce the amount of plastic waste that I generate. There are more details and solutions on

I realize that my personal changes are not going to make a difference in the bigger picture. But I do it because I have to. The photo of a dead albatross is with me every day. And I hope that the information on my blog will inspire others to try some of these personal changes themselves. We need to make our voices heard not only in the voting booth but with our wallets as well.

Other Bloggers

Here are a few other bloggers who write about ways to live with less plastic:

Linda from Citizen Green

Juli from Plasticless NY

Anna from Bring Your Own, who is currently on a voyage to study plastic in the Atlantic Ocean.

Martin from Plasticless

And for more information on stemming the plastic plague in general, visit the web site of the newly-formed Plastic Pollution Coalition.

What plastic-free changes would you be willing to make in 2010?


Beth Terry: attempting to live plastic-free and blogging the heck out of it at Follow her on Twitter.

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