Log in

Less Plastic: Toothpaste

Hello, friends. I wanted to let you know that I've been thinking about toothpaste an unreasonable amount during this last year, but I've made some interesting discoveries.

In May, I read this post by Green Bean and realized that I, too, could use toothpaste to the last drop. I could also use less. This idea focused on the principle of "reducing," and really snuggled with my thrifty nature. It so happened that this epiphany coincided with needing to buy toothpaste again. I bought the normal stuff with all of the plastic trimmings because I just didn't have the energy to do otherwise at the time.

So, I brought my new tube of toothpaste home and sat, staring at it. "Beth thinks she can make you last a whole year," I explained to it. "But really? I think we're dealing with six or seven months of material. I'm going to make you last until December."

And so, we set out on our Life Quest, with a side of "reduce toothpaste." I cut my amount down to a third, because it occurred to me that at least a third dropped off of my toothbrush usually, so I was never using the full amount anyway. And you know what? Using 66% less has not inhibited my brushing experience. In fact, besides not swallowing any or dropping any, I cannot tell the difference!

Last week, as I was cutting apart my toothpaste tube in order to truly make it "good to the last drop," I felt an overwhelming sense of victory. I did a little thrifty dance. And then, I thought about what else I could do.

In that same post, Beth talks about how baking soda irritated her mouth and how dentists want us to have more flouride, etc. But I started thinking...

I thought about my grandmother, who used to play "Little House on the Prairie" with me when I'd spend the night at her house. The only part of that whole experience that I can really remember is getting to brush my teeth with baking soda, because it was so novel. I also thought about my aunt, who always adds bread to stuffing mixes to stretch them, or macaroni noodles to boxed macaroni. This principle of "stretching" is something we can see also in the trend to add water to shampoo or lotion. How could I stretch toothpaste?

I want to lower my impact, but not give up toothpaste (I do love it so), so here's what I came up with: I will brush my teeth with toothpaste (I purchased Tom's of Maine) during the day, but use baking soda at night. That way, I'm using much less toothpaste, but also not enough baking soda (hopefully) to irritate my gums.

I have started doing this, and so far it's working well.

Less Plastic: Planning

I think that trying to live life "less plastic" builds character, just as maintaining any kind of diet or exercise regime does. I think that these things all promote self-discipline, responsibility, and vigilance. Today, I want to write about just one manifestation of this: planning.

Sometime in fall of 2006, I saw a poster that changed my life. It was trying to sell me a University of Idaho Sustainability Mug (To-Go mugs, branded with our Sustainability Center's logo), and it said "Last year, UI students and faculty threw away (astronomical number) of paper cups," and had lots of statistics. As a drinker of a daily latte, I stopped and said, "Woah." As soon as possible, I bought a to-go mug (not a UI one, because they actually leak...) and started carrying it every day.

Now, as many of you know because you have probably tried to use a to-go mug at least once in your life with varying degrees of success, to-go mugs come with their own set of problems. I foresaw the cleanliness issue, and never let my mug sit with a few drops of coffee in it. I also foresaw it making a mess in my bag, so I learned to wash it out before I tossed it in. I still maintain this habit: I wash out the mug as soon as I'm done with the coffee (or during the first available class break, etc). This does most of the cleaning for me, actually, but I also wash the mug out with dish soap and often let it sit overnight with soapy water inside. Phew!

I never forget my mug. Maybe I used to, but it has become such a habit to keep it clean and available that I am always good to go. It is now, two years later, much loved (read: battered), but I have decided that I will use it until it dies. Another issue that I had to think about was that it has a plastic exterior, but how environmentally-friendly would it be to toss it now? Instead, I decided to make it last as long as possible and then repurpose or recycle the parts somehow.

So, the life skill that I have refined is "planning."

Here is another example: next semester, I will not have a place to buy in bulk within a ten minute walk of me. Instead, I will need to plan so that I can make one trip to the bulk foods store every two weeks. This will mean planning a vague range of meals in advance, etc. Also, not buying convenience foods will mean learning to cook...

...and I am sure that I can overcome even this greatest of obstacles, and I will be healthier and happier for it.

What have you learned from your own brand of environmentalism?

Less Plastic: Christmas 3

Alors, I said that I was going to make my own Christmas wrapping in the form of drawstring bags. I took it one step further, in order to trim the costs and energy involved. I decided that I could be more economical and environmentally-friendly if I re-purposed something. I went to Goodwill and found The Perfect Thing - an old Christmas tablecloth, made from beautiful fabric. It was way cheaper than buying beautiful Christmas fabric at the store right now, and...well, beautiful. I bought two, but the by-far-prettier one is a dark green with darker green embroidery.

Then, I busted out the sewing machine when I was in Oregon and finished nine bags of varying sizes in about an hour and a half. I didn't touch the second fabric because I was done with bags for the night...unfortunately, I forgot to do any sewing until the last night that I was there. Sad day. Maybe I'll have an opportunity later, but I suspect that I won't actually need more than nine bags. I could also use the other fabric for Furoshiki. Oh, the options!

When I was at the Co-op buying gifts, a woman asked me if I was the one who wrote the article! WOW! She recognized me from the picture, I guess, or maybe my basket tipped her off (but I can't elaborate, because some of you are getting gifts from that basket...), but it was super cool. I was infinitely glad that I had no plastic in my basket. :)

Less Plastic: Fast Food? Really?

Hello, all! I have very pleasant news, though it's a bit taunting to those of you who do not live in the Pacific Northwest.

Burgerville has long been my favorite fast food restaurant. It's puzzling, perhaps, because I'm a vegetarian and yet I harbor this love affair with a fast food restaurant with "burger" in its name. However, Burgerville has two (TWO!) amazing vegetarian burgers. One is a simple garden burger with all of the goodies, and the other is a black bean burger with chipotle sauce.

Burgerville is expensive, averaging $4-6 per sandwich and $3-4 per milkshake. What it has always had going for it, though, is that all of the food is local. The onions are Walla Wallas, the cheese is Tillamook, and the milkshakes are always made from in-season nuts or berries (chocolate hazelnut, anyone?). Basically, great ingredients.

On Tuesday, Jesse and I went into Burgerville and I kind of had a very sad moment as we walked up. I realized that this would be the first time that I could not have a milkshake because this is the first time I've been there since becoming hardcore-no-plastic. I sighed, and accepted this as we walked in.

As we ordered, the straws caught my eye. The wrappers said "100% Compostable." I scoffed, thinking it was the el-fake-o "biodegradable" plastic that isn't really biodegradable at all. The cashier, however, assured me that they were made from corn. He told me that Burgerville was "going green."

And then, I challenged him. Rapid-fire, I examined the restaurant. Cups? (Corn) Lids? (Corn) To-go containers? (Biodegradable - he showed me one) Wrappers? (Paper)

(At this point, I got teary and ordered a milkshake. I actually cried a little...)

All Burgerville restaurants are powered by wind, he told me. (I looked it up - they buy wind credits that equal 100% of their energy use!)

Okay, I said, gearing up for the ultimate challenge. Here is where many people fall short: they wrap up their compostable goodies in plastic trash bags and send those to the landfill, where even food will never break down if it isn't exposed to wind and rain.

"And your trash bags?"


Okay, okay...I only had one more question...

"Do you have a composter?"
"Not yet," he said, "As we're the farthest south. We get everything last. But half of the Burgerville locations have composters, and we should be getting one soon."


I am going to write a letter to Burgerville, thanking them for giving me a reason to love them. I went ahead and got a gift card for my cousin (plastic, but really...that would have been too good to be true, right?) in order to support the company and give Vaughn tasty foods.

Burgerville only has locations in Oregon and Washington, so it is unfortunate that plastic-free fast food is not the norm for all of us. However, as Burgerville continues in this business model, we can lift them up as an example to the other "Burger" chiefs of the world.

Guest Column

I was featured as a guest columnist this week for the university newspaper, The Argonaut. You can see the online version of my article here.

I wrote this article in order to give the students here some easy options to transition to the "less plastic" lifestyle. I wanted to present concrete ideas, along with some of the deeper philosophy about consumption. I'm eager to hear from you as well.

It's funny - they changed two of my usages of "Aquafina," but left two. Silly newspaper people - did they think Aquafina would be so threatened that it'd sue us?

Less Plastic: Christmas 2

I just had an epiphany, and I wanted to share it with you guys.

In my last post, I talked about the waste that wrapping Christmas gifts entails. Jeanie recommended using gift bags that can be reused, and that still wasn't sitting well with me - those bags are paper, lined with plastic and just not truly sustainable. For the past few days, I've been trying to figure out how I was going to present everything in such a way that my friends and family weren't like, "Um, you forgot to wrap this."

Then, I saw this set of bags on Reusable Bags, and I got excited for about two seconds. First of all, the idea is great - use cotton bags to replace paper or plastic ones. However, I wasn't so keen on the idea of some company determining what patterns of fabric I'd get, and what sizes. Also, I know from experience that it doesn't cost that much to make cotton bags.

Do you see where this is going?

And then it hit me: Hello! I can sew! I don't know why I was considering another bit of consumerism when I have everything at my disposal to make bags myself. And, if I make them myself, I can pick the sizes and patterns that fit my needs. And (and!), it's more meaningful if I put my own sweat and blood (well, hopefully there won't be blood...) into it.

So. That's that. Hooray.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about consumption in general. We have a culture driven by consumption, because consumption is the thing that makes people lots and lots of money.

Two examples of "traditions" that equal consumption:

"Back to School" shopping - We are trained from an early age to want new school supplies at the beginning of every school year. Have we used our pencils and notebooks to exhaustion? Probably not. And, whereas children may outgrow clothing in a single year, college students will not. We need to examine our needs, and not just participate in this tradition mindlessly.

Wrapping Christmas gifts - Why do we wrap Christmas gifts? To deepen the suspense, some would say. Or because it makes them pretty. Okay, but what about all of that waste?

My solutions:

I have a goal not to buy a single new pencil or pen until I have exhausted my current supply. I suspect that this will take YEARS because of all of the school supplies I've accumulated over my lifetime. Yes, mechanical pencils and pens are made of plastic, but I already own them. Throwing them away would be really wasteful. I also have stopped buying new notebooks every semester. I am using up all of the notebooks I have, and when I am done with those, I will come up with an environmentally-friendly alternative like a recycled notebook.

I don't ever want to have to buy another pen. Therefore, I've switched to writing in pencil for everything except journaling and important documents (checks come to mind).

As for Christmas gifts, I am not going to wrap any this year. And let me explain what a sacrifice this will be for me: I love wrapping gifts and it's one of my favorite holiday traditions. However, this is not a sustainable tradition in its current state. Maybe my challenge will be finding ways to wrap gifts and love the earth at the same time.

Other ideas about reduction:

Have you ever thought about how much toothpaste you use, versus how much you actually need? I've been running an experiment where I only use a dab of toothpaste instead of putting a hugely long strip on the bristles (half of which always fell off anyway). This has enabled me to make a tube of toothpaste last...gasp...three times as long!

"Reduce" is not the easiest step in the cycle, but it is the most beneficial to the earth. The recycling process still takes energy, so the best thing that we can do is reduce what we consume to begin with. A good example is reducing the amount of newspapers that you buy - read the paper online or share a subscription with three or four people at work. A newspaper can be recycled, yes, but if you never buy it in the first place, you haven't used the manufacturing OR the recycling energy.

Less Plastic: Christmas

Today, I started to consider less plastic gift-giving. I have a slew of family and friend birthdays coming up, not to mention Christmas. I need some ideas, but first let me give you my own:

Give memories - buy someone concert tickets, or a "rain check" for taking them out to dinner. Memories are always better than material goods, and they don't require any packaging. :)

Make your own - bake cookies, crochet a scarf, etc

Invest in the person - this is perhaps a better example with kids, but instead of buying toys, you can fund piano lessons for the year or provide money for a school trip.

But if you are giving "stuff," how should you go about it? Is it fair of me to say to my family and friends, "I'll like your gift better if it is plastic-free"? And what about our cultural perception that used gifts just aren't as good (books, for example)?

This post is really just a brainstorming post (I need your ideas!), but we'll be speaking about this more in weeks to come.

Less-Plastic: Contacts?

I have worn contacts, quite happily, since the sixth grade. I have always found them easy and comfortable. However, with a goal to eradicate plastic from my life, I had to evaluate my contact lens system.

I wear two-week soft lens. I thought that I was doing pretty good because I've been using the same case forever (I wash it constantly) and I buy the big bottles of solution. Yesterday, I wondered if contact lens solution was really necessary, so I Googled it.


In short, I found out that contacts and contact solutions are way more dangerous than I'd ever thought, AND there's no way to cut down my use of plastic here and still be safe.

Contact lenses are also made of plastic, packaged in plastic, sterilized with solution that comes in plastic, stored in plastic containers, and not made to last forever. They are expensive, and now I am fully aware how huge the risks are. Wow.

So, I've made a decision. I'm going back to glasses.

I spend about $265/yr on contacts and contact paraphernalia, whereas I could simply spend around $100/yr on glasses (as long as my vision is changing...after that, I can keep glasses for much, much longer). With glasses, it's a way cheaper option (and better for the environment!) to replace only the lenses. Also, this doesn't take into account that most insurance plans cover glasses and do not cover contacts.

I have one and a half months of contacts left, which will conveniently last me until I have an opportunity to go to the eye doctor's back home. At that point, I will say farewell to contacts until a safer, more environmentally-friendly system comes along.

Less Plastic: Free Samples?

Today, I went to the Cheese Walk at the Moscow Co-Op. Whereas the cheese samples were very good, the procedural stuff disappointed me. There were about ten sampling stations set up throughout the store, and nine of them had serious shortcomings for a Co-Op sponsored event.

1) Each station had a “trash can” created from a paper grocery sack and lined with a plastic bag! Okay, Co-Op. Seriously. I think we’ll be fine throwing our trash into a simple paper sack, especially since we were throwing away things like toothpicks.

2) Were they composting? I couldn’t be sure. The lady at the first station assured me that the trash would be sorted later, but it seems like it would have been a lot easier just to separate it from the start. Additionally, she might have been saying that to appease me, and that thought makes me cranky.

3) Sometimes, there were wine and beer samples in plastic sample cups! Other stations had paper sample cups of roughly the same size – why couldn’t they just use those? The swig of wine or beer would be gone before it could degrade the cup anyways.

4) Cheese is almost always wrapped in cellophane or packaged in a plastic tub. I feel like it’s better to get the latter, because then you can either reuse the tub or recycle it.

5) They were inviting people to use plastic spoons to sample the soft cheese when they had bread available as well.

Are you wondering what the tenth station was? Well, it wasn’t really cheese at all! It was a coffee station, and they made the coffee in a porcelain coffee maker and poured it into compostable cups (which is really good, because I’d left mine in the car – shame on me!). The guy even told me to drink my coffee within the hour or the cup would start breaking down…lol! The shining crown on this coffee drinking experience, however, was the stir sticks. They were strands of pasta! This worked great, and I wish coffee shops all over would start offering this option. Starbucks would never do it, of course, but I bet that there are a lot of neighborhood coffee shops that would be up for this change.