Life

My Family's Escape from Plastic

We chucked our handy snack-stashers. Are we eco-nuts?

By James Glave, 1 Aug 2008, TheTyee.ca

Plastic Garbage and Hands

Health fears lifted the lid. Image by Nora Kelly.

I said goodbye to a few old friends this morning.

I dropped Sabrina and Duncan at day camp and continued on down the road to my community's recycling depot. There, I walked up to the big green "mixed plastics" bin and tossed in my FridgeSmart stackables, Ziploc Twist n' Locs and, perhaps most painful of all, my beloved half-cup-size Rubbermaid Servin' Savers -- indispensable snack-stashers that fit perfectly inside my kids' lunch boxes.

All these little tubs are now gone, casualties of a recent pact between my wife and me to minimize the amount of time our family's food spends inside plastic containers.

It was a watershed moment for the two of us -- the latest stop in a journey that has begun to wander into territory that I once reserved for a class of people I once referred to as "eco-fruitcakes." It has taken us beyond social norms, outside the fuzzy boundaries of mainstream consumer behavior.

Go ahead and laugh

It's now socially acceptable to forgo plastic bags at the store -- even Ikea is calling them "so last year." But my Servin' Savers purge represents a far more radical act.

I can hear you snickering out there, and I don't blame you. As far as eco-resolutions go, this one is probably both ridiculous and futile. We know that the lion's share of our food -- yogurt, milk, berries, applesauce, nuts, cooking oil, you name it -- is sold to us in plastic packaging. For decades, industry and government scientists have assured us these "food grade" pots, tubs, and sacks are completely benign.

They're lightweight compared to glass -- which means less of a carbon penalty from shipping -- and of course they're recyclable. And as a former Servin' Savers evangelist, I know the convenience is unbeatable.

But here's the thing, Mr. Industry and Ms. Government. I've been struggling with a few trust issues as of late.

BPA blues

You see, when Sabrina and Duncan were infants, we often fed them pumped breast milk that we warmed up inside polycarbonate Philips Avent plastic bottles -- bottles that we recently learned were leaching bisphenol-A, or BPA.

Unless you've been living on Baffin Island for the past six months, you know that's bad news. Earlier this year, Health Canada declared that chemical "toxic" and stated that there is "some concern for neural and behavioral effects in early stages of development" for low levels of exposure.

On its Avent website, Philips today touts a redesigned BPA-free baby bottle that the company assures us it is developing "because we know that needs sometimes change."

Needs do change, yes. So do paradigms. And the thing is, I'm presently undergoing a shift so foreign and clumsy that it feels like puberty all over again. It boils down to this, Philips: I don't trust you anymore. My consumer confidence has plummeted. In fact, it's in the basement.

And it isn't just you; I'm not tying this shift inside my head to this specific named chemical, this particular crisis-management episode. I'm not going to feel reassured when you switch over to a "safer" replacement that is equally convenient for me and profitable for you.

That weird plasticky taste

Oh I know, I know: The third-party research is solid; polypropylene and everything else with a number inside a triangle is perfectly safe. Plastic will remain a staple of our lives for many years to come. Hey, I'm touching it as I write this story.

But I don't trust that science anymore, and as a result, I'm no longer going to eat off the stuff. I'm no longer able to brush aside the odd taste the water in my squeeze bottle assumes after it's spent a hot day under my sea kayak's deck rigging. I'm not going to microwave yesterday's macaroni in the fresh-saver locking-lid container and then serve it up to my family. I'm not doing any of that anymore. This stuff is petroleum, and I've lost my enthusiasm for its endless miracles.

Maybe my Tupperware purge won't mean a damn in the big scheme of things -- petty acts of consumer disobedience don't often cast so much as a ripple. But radical or not, Elle and I have set down some new ground rules around our place. Eventually we'll get our hands on one of those Japanese stainless-steel lunch kits, but in the meantime, I'm packing Duncan and Sabrina's lunch boxes with small glass mason jars and wax paper.

The wax paper is ok, but the jars suck. They're heavy, and the counsellors at day camp are not very pleased to see my kids dealing with them on their field trip to the beach. After all, glass is a liability. It breaks.

Uncharted territory

I don't know where this one is going, because the truth is, I don't know who to trust. I find I'm running confidence problems in my head: I score one point to Canada's new government for standing up to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association on this one -- the lobbying has been intense. But then I dock two from that same agency for not telling me sooner, when I had two screaming babies around the house.

Please don't paint me as a Luddite who would do away with life-saving medical devices and send us back to the oxen in the fields. It's just nowhere near that clear-cut. Indeed, there are many scenarios where plastic is the more sustainable choice. I think of my lunch-kit reboot as the start of a personal investigation into my relationship with plastic; we can't live without this stuff, but I wonder if maybe we can learn to live with less of it, or figure out how to deploy it more thoughtfully.

In the end, we only have our own gut to guide us on this stuff. And laugh if you will, but from here on out, mine is going to contain a few molecules less of Rubbermaid's latest injection-molded god-knows-what.

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