The more disposables we consume, the better the plastics manufacturers fare and it has come to my attention recently that almost everything I use comes in a plastic package. My shampoo, salad dressing, laundry detergent, lipstick, razors, ground turkey, paper towels, hair color, toothpaste, hair gel, hair spray, antiperspirant, medications, bandages, antibiotic cream, hydrogen peroxide, facial cleanser, moisturizers, calamine lotion, lip balm, dry cleaning, juice, soda, coffee, ½ & ½, milk, eggs, cheese, my clothing has tags on it that are attached with little plastic leads. My shoes come in boxes full of little lumps of chemicals designed to keep them dry during shipping. My potting soil comes in plastic, my picture frames are shrink wrapped.

Some stuff is itself plastic and comes wrapped in more plastic: cell phone, cell phone charger, blue tooth, tablet, tablet holder, laptop desk, television, turntable, music, movies, software, dental floss, toothbrush head, toothbrush battery, combs, brushes,

The plastic in my bathroom: toothbrush holder, toothbrush, mouthwash, mirror, hair product, Vaseline, deodorant soap dish, shampoo, razor, pumice stone, bath oil, hair dryer, hair spray, hair brush, more hair product. I sit at my desk. My printer is made of plastic, so is my pen holder, my eyeglass cleaning spray, my mouse, my eyeglass case and the little standy uppy thing that holds a single document.

I know, I know, I know, I know, you get it.

The main problem with plastic — besides there being so much of it — is that it doesn’t biodegrade. No natural process can break it down. It photodegrades. Plastic in the ocean will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic known as nurdles.


I don’t know about you, but I don’t want nurdles in my tea. Just saying.

Taking Apart The List

  • shampoo/conditioner – currently investigating
  • razors
  • bath oil
  • toothbrush
  • toothpaste
  • mouthwash
  • dental floss
  • facial cleanser
  • moisturizer
  • lipstick
  • antiperspirant
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • calamine lotion
  • antibiotic cream
  • hair product
  • lip balm
  • Vaseline
  • medication/vitamins
  • brush/comb
  • saline solution
  • q-tips
  • hair dryer

In going over this list I became overwhelmed and dejected. It’s too much. We’re too dependent on plastic. I’m too dependent on plastic. But, look at this stuff. I mean are you really going to stop flossing your teeth? What about your hair brush? At least those don’t get discarded every couple of weeks. But even if I focus exclusively on the disposables it’s still a crazy big list. I’m not sure how safely I can shave my knees with a straight razor. I could use the stuff that melts one’s hair off, but that comes in a plastic container. This makes me feel so petty, but I have a feeling that I’m not alone. I don’t think people are going to sacrifice personal hygiene in favor of cutting down on plastic effluent. I’m going to present this list to friends and see what suggestions they might have.

I started my deconstruct at the top of the list with shampoo

I discovered five brands of eco-friendly home and personal product lines and not one of them makes a shampoo. Some make “bodywash.” No thanks, I want shampoo. I found lots of recipes for homemade shampoo, but they all called for castile liquid soap and that comes in plastic… Granted I can get a one gallon container, which is better than trashing lots of little bottles, but I can buy shampoo by the gallon too. Can’t I go to some general store where they could ladle it out of a big wooden tub?

Lastly, there are shampoo bars.

Gear Head Shampoo

One of my favorite contenders is: Gear Head shampoo bars. They’re sold at Whole Foods among other retailers. I’m going to try some, BUT it comes wrapped in plastic, albeit plastic smaller than a shampoo bottle. I think I’m still going to try homemade shampoo. For anyone who wants to join me, here is a link to a number of shampoo recipes. The tea tree oil is really helpful for dry skin and an itchy scalp.



The more disposables we consume the more plastic we use and it has come to my attention recently that almost everything I use comes in a plastic package, is itself plastic, or is itself plastic and comes in a plastic package.

In the bathroom alone: Shampoo, conditioner, razors, bath oil, soap dish, toothbrush holder, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, moisturizer, lipstick, antiperspirant, hydrogen peroxide, calamine lotion, antibiotic cream, facial cleanser, lip balm, Vaseline, prescription medication, over the counter medication, brush, comb, saline solution, vitamins, q-tips, nose hair trimmer – (yes, I said it), hair product, hair dryer.

It’s not hard to figure out that plastic is bad news no matter how responsibly we try to dispose of it. It doesn’t biodegrade. No natural process breaks it down. Plastic photodegrades, which means that it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces as it is exposed to sunlight. In the ocean it breaks into pieces known as nurdles. Nurdles are found in the digestive tracts of birds and fish.


I don’t mean to seem light on solutions or critical of the solutions we have come up with, but really when it comes to plastic it isn’t all getting ingeniously and harmlessly remolded into new uses. Some of it is ending up in the intestines of sea birds and some of it is washing up on beaches in Portugal.

From The New York Times:

Azores, Portugal

Plastic debris washed up on a beach in Azores, Portugal. Credit Marcus Eriksen

”A study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One estimated that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, large and small, weighing 269,000 tons, could be found throughout the world’s oceans, even in the most remote reaches.”{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22}&_r=0

Some of the items floating around?

“…bottles, toothbrushes, bags, toys and other debris…”

So, can I take apart my own list and find ways to stop using this stuff? And can it be done without mixing my own shampoo and learning to use a straight razor? I will deconstruct the list in my next post.

Happy News

Having established that the subject of garbage leads everywhere and that there is an enormous amount of it that we have little or no control over, short of buying much less stuff, I feel that I need to say something positive. Let’s look at what other countries are doing regarding Extended Producer Responsibility. Here’s a happy story.

In Germany the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act requires businesses to eliminate waste production by implementing one or more of the following management strategies: waste avoidance which involves designing manufacturing processes to reduce the amount of waste produced, waste that is produced must be recycled or converted to energy, and/or waste that can’t be recycled must be disposed of in an environmentally safe manner.

“EPR was first pioneered in Europe over 20 years ago. Since then, the vast majority of EU Member States have introduced EPR for packaging, although the form of implementation varies from one country to the next, ranging from mandatory regulations to voluntary agreements between government and industry to voluntary industry initiatives. EPR for packaging in Europe has offered a much more certain future for the entire packaged goods sector. It is far less costly for consumers and society at large, and is the preferred policy tool for industry to drive recovery and recycling packaging rates.”


“In the European Union, extended producer responsibility is mandatory within the context of the WEEE, Batteries, and ELV Directives, which put the responsibility for the financing of collection, recycling and responsible end-of-life disposal of WEEE, batteries, accumulators and vehicles on producers. The Packaging Directive also indirectly invokes the EPR principle by requiring Member States (MS) to take necessary measures to ensure that systems are set up for the collection and recycling of packaging waste.  Additional waste streams for which producer responsibility organisations have been most commonly identified within the European Union include tyres, waste oil, paper and card, and construction and demolition waste. However, a much broader range of waste streams are subject to obligatory or voluntary producer responsibility systems in some MS, including: farm plastics, medicines and medical waste, plastic bags, photo-chemicals and chemicals, newspapers, refrigerants, pesticides and herbicides, and lamps, light bulbs and fittings.”

Trash Planet: Germany

“Germany leads the European nations in recycling, with around 70 percent of the waste the country generates successfully recovered and reused each year. To put that figure into perspective, consider this: In 2007, the U.S. was able to recover only about 33 percent of the waste generated that year.”

How do they do it?

“…while the country’s conscientious waste management strategy requires cooperation from the government, the industry and the citizens, it starts at the very beginning of the waste creation process – with the product manufacturers.

There are three simple components the manufacturers must consider: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.

By incorporating waste avoidance into industry, much of Germany’s waste management becomes “invisible,” as corporations are forced to re-think every aspect of manufacturing. Packaging, processes and disposal of items are all engineered with recycling and elimination of waste in mind.

Federal Waste Management Policy

In 1996, German lawmakers who were concerned about the country’s growing number of landfills passed the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act, which requires businesses to eliminate waste production by implementing one or more of the three management strategies.

Waste avoidance is first priority because it encourages companies to design their manufacturing processes and packaging with elimination of wastefulness in mind. Second, waste that can’t be avoided must be recycled or converted into energy. Lastly, waste that can’t be recovered must be disposed of in a way that is environmentally safe.”

So, in Germany, those who create the waste are responsible for cleaning it up. The U.S., on the other hand, has a “consumer pays” policy, in which waste management is funded by citizens.

“Germany’s three-point strategy doesn’t apply to just the country’s solid and packaging wastes, but also to liquid, gaseous, hazardous, radioactive and medical wastes. The efforts have been hugely successful; according to the German Federal Statistical Office, between the years 1996 and 2007, the country has reduced its total net waste amount by more than 37.7 million U.S. tons.”

Marie Look,

To read more about how Germany handles its waste, go to:


Extended Producer Responsibility

What if we made manufacturers responsible for disposing of the products they produce? You would think that products would start to last longer and become cheaper and cheaper to recycle. This concept was first introduced by Thomas Lindhqvist in a report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment in 1990. The idea was named Extended Producer Responsibility, (EPR) and was defined as follows: “[EPR] is an environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact of a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal.”


Photograph: Alte Fabrik Finkemeier 002


Corporate Social Responsibility, (CSR) has become a buzz phrase with companies wanting to communicate their environmental achievements. Consulting agencies rate companies on their corporate responsibility and advise them on environmental ethics. Annual Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability reports allow them to tout their accomplishments. Yet the media is inundated with images of e-waste in Africa, India and anywhere else there is a ready market of cheap labor and an absence of environmental protection measures.


Photograph: Jim Puckett/AP

So how can industry be puffing its chest over CSR while its used and discarded products continue to clog land and waterways in the third world? Here is what Greenpeace said in a report from 2006.

“The hi-tech sector continues to produce ever shorter-life, often superfluous products with inherently hazardous materials. Why are hi-tech corporations, which profess to be responsible corporate citizens allowing this to happen? One answer is that CSR initiatives, whether they involve Codes of Conduct or reporting guidelines, are voluntary. At best, CSR can be a way for the best companies to lead the way. At worst, CSR initiatives can even be a diversionary tactic, used by industry to pretend that they are taking action and to avoid regulation.”

As always some business will adhere to the code of conduct and some will use it to further obscure their nefarious practices. It isn’t any different from large oil companies using their public relations budgets to air television ads about their environmental programs. We’ve all seen the ad campaigns that portray as environmental hero the petroleum company responsible for the most disastrous and extensive oil spill in the history of the planet. The company was found to be “grossly negligent” and yet the eco-friendly ads continue to grace our air waves. It is up to us as individuals to separate truth from fantasy and to demand greater corporate responsibility.


Why Me?

Today I went in search of a new mouse. I lost the little wireless usb thingy that connected it to my laptop. My first thought was to just replace it. This alarmed me a bit, my complete apathy towards waste. So I called the manufacturer to order a new usb thing, but they didn’t make that mouse anymore. I was annoyed that I couldn’t replace the part, but honestly I didn’t have time to wait for a new one anyway. So now I have the old mouse staring me in the face. Just as I was beginning to resent having to cart this thing 5 miles to dispose of it responsibly it occurred to me to ask why the responsibility for disposal falls to me in the first place? I don’t mean where do I give it away or how do I find an organization that will dispose of it for me. I mean like unmaking it, removing it from the planet as if it had never been.

I’m not a manufacturer. I didn’t have the vaguest idea what went into the production of this thing in the first place. I mean shouldn’t companies that manufacture huge quantities of plastic/metal/glass/wire gizmos know how to safely dispose of them? And, having created them in the first place, shouldn’t they take responsibility for disposing of them at the end of their useful life? If this responsibility fell to them I’m guessing that the lifespans of their products would begin to double, triple, quadruple. I’m not trying to shirk all responsibility for the waste I produce, but maybe we should be rethinking things that are only useful for a few years, but will remain on the planet forever.

Greenpeace Photo Ghana

To see where your old computer is likely to end up watch this amazing video from Frontline:

On the outskirts of Ghana’s biggest city sits a smoldering wasteland, a slum carved into the banks of the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. The locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah.

More Bad News

In addition to the inherent shortcomings of recycling as a solution to our trash problem, I came across the following sobering statistic: municipal solid waste, (household waste) represents about 2% of national waste, (what the country throws away in a year). So it seems that what you and I do with our garbage really makes very little difference. That sounds overly cynical. Recycling is better than discarding, but we’ve got a much bigger problem.

While numbers vary, the most conservative estimate is that the average consumer product generates 18 times its own weight in waste during the manufacturing process. So, that’s what has entered the waste stream before you’ve even gotten out of the store.

The unavoidable conclusion is that we have to consume less and who wants to do that? I like my stuff. I like my stuff a lot. I like my stuff perhaps too much. This is where I hit a wall.