Sunday, March 29, 2009


When I spent an afternoon with Elizabeth Royte in February, we talked about the toiletry items that would eventually need to replaced, hopefully with plastic-free packaging: soap, shampoo, make-up, toothpaste, etc.

The thing I most feared replacing? Q-Tips. The cotton swabs with "hundreds of uses" that most people, including me, only ever use for one thing that isn't listed anywhere on the box. You know what I'm talking about. When I purchased my current box of Q-tips about a year ago I got the small box-- all cardboard except for plastic wrapping on the outside. Of the places I looked (Duane Reade, Rite Aid and Whole Foods health section) that was the least amount of packaging in cotton swabs to be found.

It must be an addiction. I know the standard advice- don't stick anything in your ear larger than your elbow. I tried breaking the habit by substituting cotton swabs with flushing the ear canals with warm water and drying them with a corner of a towel. It didn't work. Now that I was attempting to go cold turkey on disposable plastic, my dwindling supply of Q-tips had me worried.

No longer! The next week, these arrived in the mail from Elizabeth:
She had a bunch extra from a big pack purchased without plastic packaging from a 99 cent store. Eventually I'll widen my search for plastic-free cotton swabs to NYC 99 cent stores, but I should be all set for QUITE some time. She even sent them in a re-used padded envelope (that I will re-use again) and with a note on scrap paper, what looks like part of a draft page from Bottlemania. What a fantastic souvenir! Thank you, Elizabeth!

...and now I've discovered Ms. Royte has a blog of her own, on "waste, water, whatever". Here at my little blog I document a personal and local effort to reduce plastic waste and gripe about the waste I see, without delving much into the larger issues. Well, Elizabeth Royte delves into those larger issues in a BIG way, and she writes extremely well. I encourage anyone to read her books, Garbageland and Bottlemania, and visit her blog:

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Go, Monsignor Strynkowski!

One of my singing jobs is to cantor the Tuesday noon mass at St. James Basilica in Brooklyn. This past Tuesday, Monsignor Strynkowski had the mass and started his sermon by talking about water.

He remarked that bottled water used to be a status symbol, but now it is so commonplace that for someone to NOT carry bottled water seems unusual. That our tap water in New York City has won awards for taste and quality and is just as good if not better than water you can buy in a bottle for many times the price. That the plastic bottles for water consume oil to make and transport, and take up space in landfills, pollute our landscape, don't biodegrade, and are hard to deal with.

Then he moved in to the meat of his sermon, which had to do with the waters of baptism.

AND at the intersessions, we prayed for those who do not have access to safe, abundant and clean water.

It really made my day.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Week 18 Plastic Waste, in which alcohol and plastic avoidance do not mix.

Here is the tally for the week- not a banner week to be sure. I probably missed a couple things, to boot.

- dishwashing soap bottle
- cap to an eyedrop vial
- 2 coffee creamer cups
- Snickers wrapper
- 2 bar straws

We had another bottle of dish soap under the sink, so it'll still be a while before we switch to bar soap for dishes. Actually, the topic needs to be broached with my roommate. The cap was found while cleaning out my make-up bag. The creamer cups were from a rehearsal where they provided donuts and coffee, and there wasn't any regular milk. I could have foregone the cream, but didn't. I bought the Snickers before a different rehearsal when there wasn't time for dinner and I wanted something to tide me over so I didn't get cranky. There was an orange in my bag, but I still gave in to the Snickers urge. Stupid clever ad campaign.

About the bar straws-- swizzle sticks are my weakness. This isn't the first time since starting my plastic pledge, either. When I am out and alcohol is involved, I forget to ask for no straw- I haven't remembered a single time. Tsk. I've got to get better about that- or start drinking things that don't come with swizzle sticks.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Response from the MTA

I got a reply to my e-mail inquiry from the MTA. Unfortunately, it didn't answer my questions, and raised new ones.

This is in response to your recent e-mail to MTA New York City Transit regarding the ability to recycle Unlimited Ride MetroCards.

Supervision in our Department of MetroCard Operations advises that MetroCards may not be recycled through ordinary means due to the type of plastic used to manufacture these cards and the magnetic strip imbedded in the card that is used for encoding its value. However, New York City Transit has already implemented a program to collect used MetroCards. This program involves the installation of MetroCard receptacles on the sides of the MetroCard readers in the subway, with signs attached to these receptacles to attract customers’ attention. These receptacles have been installed in all of our stations for the convenience of our customers.

If you have other transit-related concerns, you may call Customer Services at (718) 330-3322, Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or write to Customer Services at 2 Broadway, RM A11.146, New York, NY 10004.

We take the concerns of our customers very seriously and thank you.

La Wanda C. Green
Associate Transit Customer Service Specialist II

Well, actually I didn't ask about recycling. I asked about REFILLING. Why can't the unlimited cards be refilled? And now I also want to know:

- what kind of plastic are the cards made from?
- what happens to the used cards that are collected in the Metrocard receptacles? Are they re-used? Recycled? If not, why bother collecting them, why not put out an extra trash can?

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Metrocards show up regularly on my plastic tally. I buy the Monthly Unlimited card, which is not refillable. Here's what I just sent the MTA:

I am trying to reduce my use of disposable plastic, and blog about it at

Currently the Unlimited Monthly Metrocard is not refillable, resulting in me and many other New Yorkers throwing away a plastic Metrocard each month. I want to be able to refill it, and past that, recycle it. Will this ever be possible?

The EasyPay XPress Pay-per-ride option would allow me to refill a single Metrocard until it expires. But as a daily commuter, it would be significantly more expensive than my Unlimited Monthly card.

I would greatly appreciate any information you can provide on options the MTA is considering to make Metrocards more environmentally friendly. I would especially like to know why the monthly unlimited cards cannot be refilled.

If my pockets were deeper, I'd consider the refillable pay-per-ride option, but the cost difference really is significant. Here is some math:

Cost for a single ride: $2

Monthly Unlimited Card: $81/month
- used 2x/day for 30 days: $1.35/ride
- used 4x/day for 30 days: $0.68/ride
- used 2x/day for 26 days, 4x/day for 4 days: $1.19/ride

Pay-per-ride Card: 15% discount on purchases of $7 or more, $1.70/ride
- used 2x/day for 30 days: $102/month
- used 4x/day for 30 days: $204/month
- used 2x/day for 26 days, 4x/day for 4 days: $115.60/month

In order for a pay-per-ride card to cost $81, the price of an unlimited monthly, I'd have to only use it 2x/day for 24 days a month. But I'm a daily commuter. There are very few days I don't ride the subway, and many days when I make more than one round trip.

Am I willing to put my money where my morals are, to suck it up and pay at least $21 extra a month for a refillable card? I guess this is a case where my pockets are shallow, and so am I. :(

Here's hoping the MTA has some good news for me. There must be some cost-related reason for not making the unlimited cards refillable. I wonder what it is.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Trailer for Tapped

I can't wait to see this! It looks like it covers many of the same areas Elizabeth Royte does in Bottlemania, but focusses more on the plastic aspect. This should be a real eye opener for a lot of people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Checking in on Gimme 5

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbageland and Bottlemania, for an upcoming magazine article. We spent a few hours together on a Saturday talking about plastic reduction and reduced consumption in general, and visited Union Square (compost drop off) and Whole Foods (batteries and plastics drop off). Elizabeth was kind enough to take my picture, after helping me negotiate permission from the customer service staff:

Hmm. I don't think those items were included in any tallies. The take out dish and yogurt tub were from my roommate and the Brita filter is a shared household item. I'm so thrilled to be able to recycle it!

This has been my only time dropping #5 plastics off for Gimme 5--- so far. I noticed the bag was almost empty, with only a few yogurt cups in the bottom. At Union Square, the Gimme 5 collection box is behind the Customer Service counter. You have to know it is there to use it. The box at Columbus Circle is a bit more visible; the Customer Service desk is right by the entrance and with no room behind the counter, they put the Gimme 5 box in front.

There hasn't been much hoopla about Gimme 5. I'm almost afraid that the program will not be promoted, and then quashed for lack of interest.

However, The New York Times Magazine had a "Consumed" column last week that was all about Preserve, the company that sponsors Gimme 5. The article poses a question pretty similar to one Elizabeth asked me: will I buy a product because I like its 'story' and I like the green practices of the company, even if it is plastic or more expensive?

For me the answer is yes, but only if and when I need it. I want to reward companies like Aveda and Preserve with my purchases, but the purchase will still go through the same thought process as anything else: do I truly need it, can I get it used, can I get it w/o packaging, where did it come from and where will it go when I'm done with it, etc.

Have you taken items to Gimme 5 yet? What was your experience like? Do you feel an obligation to reward companies that "go green"?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Week 16 Plastic Waste

Here's my waste for the week:

- another Metrocard
- razor head for my Mach 3
- Wrigley's wrapper
- 2 dental floss containers
- mechanical toothbrush head
- hair goo jar
- eye drop vial
- bottle of expired aspirin

Metrocard - I really should check with the MTA to see if there are better options. Razor head- I have 3 more new ones, they should last me a long while. Wrigley's wrapper- once again, it looked like paper through the vending machine glass. I wasn't looking very closely, obviously. Dental floss- I have 2 more of these around, so it'll be a while before I look for a less plastic option. Toothbrush head- thanks to a trip to Costco pre-pledge, I'll be using these for a long time yet. Hair goo jar- been hanging on to this for a while. There is no "chasing arrows" symbol on it, but there is a big PP marked on the bottom. Probably means polypropylene. But without that #5 stamp it can't be recycled through Gimme 5. Aspirin bottle- not recyclable. Ideas for what to do with the old aspirin? It is over a year past the expiration date.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Thing I Dread About Spring

Last weekend in NYC we had spring-like temperatures. Everyone stripped off coats and sweaters and headed out of doors. Cold temperatures have returned, but signs of spring have been seen this week-- spring fashions in store windows, Easter candy at Duane Reade...and the annual re-appearance of iced coffee cups.

Crystal clear polypropylene iced beverage cups with matching flat or domed lids and colorful thick long straws: these things didn't exist 15 years ago*, but now they are ubiquitous. Almost all of these cups, lids and straws end up as trash. Polypropylene is #5 plastic, so it is now recyclable through Gimme 5, provided there is a chasing arrows symbol on the cup or lid. It sure would be nice if Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds et al took back the cups for recycling as well. Think about it-- 15 years ago, this waste stream DIDN'T EXIST. And somehow we all muddled through our summers without a throw-away cup of iced coffee or iced tea attached to our hands.

And by the way, these 'disposable' cups, lids and straws don't come cheap. Look at the prices on this retail site, for example. Your average cup with a flat lid and straw runs about $.12, just for the packaging!

Do I want stores to stop selling iced coffee and iced tea? No. That would make them lose a lot of money. Here's my message: Iced beverages taste just as good in re-usable mugs and tumblers as they do in a plastic cup. What's more, many places will give you a discount for bringing your own tumbler, just like they do with hot beverages. I want stores to push re-usable containers for iced beverages, and for consumers to be just as aware of this kind of waste as they are becoming aware of plastic bags and bottles.

Rant over!

*I based my 15 years figure on this article, stating that Dunkin' Donuts introduced iced beverages in 1995. I don't know when clear polyproplene cups were introduced to the market.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

How Compacting is similar to Plastic Reduction

In 2007 I participated in The Compact, a loosely organized global group of people who dedicate themselves to not buying anything new for a calendar year, with the exceptions of food, socks & underwear, and items necessary for health and safety.

Compacting changed my life. It changed the way I view and make every single purchase. It changed my view of participating in the economy-- just because you stop buying newly manufactured items does not mean you 'leave the grid'. It changed the way I eat, making me healthier and lighter in the process. It made me more aware of advertising and consumption of all kinds. It helped me clear a lot of clutter from my life and taught me to value the things I already have. It helped me learn to live within my means, even when those means shrink a bit. It made me aware of blogs like Crunchy Chicken, 365 Days of Trash, No Impact Man, and Fake Plastic Fish, which resulted in me taking my own Reduced Plastic Pledge and starting this blog.

Two years later, I mostly still "do" The Compact out of habit. I purchase new things from time to time, but with a lot of thought as to why I need it, if I can get it used, what it is made from, what kind of packaging it comes in, how long will I use it, and what will happen to it after I am finished with it. That thought process has been engraved in my brain and I don't think it will ever leave me-- which is a good thing, IMO.

So how is Compacting similar to Plastic Reduction? For one thing, when you avoid new purchases you cut out all the plastic packaging. But the big similarity is in living with what you already have.

For my Reduced Plastic Pledge, I have already tackled the low hanging fruit: I use cloth shopping and produce bags, and I carry a mug or water bottle with me for liquids, and a metal fork and spoon for eating. This cuts out most of the single-use plastics we encounter every day.

After that comes the not-so-low hanging fruit: avoiding processed food that is packaged in plastic, and finding plastic free alternatives for household and toiletry consumables. This last thing is about as exciting as watching paint dry. For instance, I'm excited about replacing my shower gel with bar soap, but it will still take me months to use up the gel. I could give it away, but would the recipient recycle the bottle and cap? And besides, just using up what I already have saves me money.

Doing The Compact taught me the Rule of Halves. In Compact terms, that means making the stuff you have last longer. A dab of toothpaste instead of a glob. A quarter size dollop of shampoo instead of a handful. 3/4 carafe of coffee instead of a full one and wasting the rest. Washing my hair 2x a week instead of 3-4x, which is better for my hair anyway. The list goes on.

So if anyone is wondering when I will talk about plastic free and reduced plastic alternatives to shampoo, razors, toothpaste, soap, etc., those things are coming. But it could take a while.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pasta problem

I love pasta. I do. I eat a lot of it. Pasta is cheap, easy and delicious. But I have a problem.

I'm down to my last 2 boxes of spaghetti and can't find pasta that doesn't come without plastic in New York City.

Oh sure, I could try making it from scratch. But that would defeat the whole cheap, easy and delicious premise. Homemade pasta is a pain in the rear and it just isn't as good as when you leave it to the experts and their industrial machinery.

Apparently bulk sections in other cities have some pasta selections, but not in NYC that I have seen.

Solutions, anyone?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Why

Beth at Fake Plastic Fish posted this video yesterday. I'm posting it here, in case you haven't seen it. It is Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the person who discovered and continues to study the Great Eastern Garbage Patch, speaking at the most recent TED Conference.

If you've ever wondered why I'm trying to reduce my plastic consumption, just what is so bad about plastic, watch this. Just watch it. (Click here if the video does not embed.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Week 15 Plastic Waste

Bless me, Blogosphere, for I have sinned. It has been 8 weeks since my last plastic tally.

I started slacking off because of the guilt. Its not like I've been churning out tons of plastic, but when you keep track of it you get freaked by how MUCH there is, and then when you feel like you have to explain WHY you have it... I felt like I was back in parochial grade school, playing hooky from confession.

So here is a list of what I threw out this week, plus some other things from a picture I took a few weeks back. I'm calling amnesty on the rest, and will try not to let guilt prevent me from posting my tally in future.

- wrapper from a kielbasa sausage
- plastic fork
- display hook from a pair of socks
- tape from a piece of mail
- eye drop vial (one of many thrown out in the past few weeks)
- 2 pocket tissue wrappers (last ones, I swear)
- lots of fruit stickers
- Annie's Mac-n-cheese powder envelope
- 2 'disposable' contact lens cases
- 3 Metrocards
- broken and melted plastic clock
- chicken broth box (recycled)

Sausage: I looked for kielbasa w/o a wrapper, didn't find one, so went ahead and bought one in a wrapper. WELL. Since then I've found two sources for "naked" sausage:

1. Saturday at Union Square greenmarket there is a vendor with poultry products, including pheasant sausage that is not sealed in plastic.
2. Koglin German Hams at Grand Central Market has naked kielbasa and a variety of other unwrapped wursts. EXACTLY what I was hoping to find.

Fork: came from a trip to Hallo Berlin (can you tell I've had a craving for wurst this winter?), where the meal was served on a real plate, but came with a plastic fork.

Eye drop vials: I have a chronic, cyclical eye condition. Some weeks I don't need drops at all, other weeks I need lots of them. This is one area where I use plastic with no regrets.

Fruit stickers: Still can't find citrus without stickers locally. I'll keep looking though.

Annie's Mac-n-cheese envelope: You'd think I'd be sick to death of Annie's mac-n-cheese after my January experience. You'd be wrong. I get these unholy cravings for cheap and easy processed food sometimes.

Contact lens cases: Because of the eye condition, my eyes just aren't tolerating contacts anymore. I tried this pair in January and spent the next couple weeks getting my eyes calmed down again. I still have several pairs of contacts left. What to do with them?

Metrocards: Is there a way to get a monthly unlimited card that is re-fillable?

Clock: It stopped working, even with new batteries. I had it leaning against the steam pipe in the corner of the bathroom and it melted. Bye-bye, plastic clock.

Chicken stock carton: there are still a few more of these from my last trip to Costco. Thing is, I'm not using them and would rather just make broth from scratch. I might give the other boxes away. BUT- I haven't tried buying a whole chicken without plastic yet. Is it possible?