Why We Still Use [Some] Plastics

As we were browsing YouTube to find a few new exercise videos, we happened across about a million other interesting videos we wanted to watch – like a whole collection of ones on food and sustainability from CBC Marketplace. So, instead of ogling Tiny Houses, we’ve been watching things like “Food Waste: How much food do supermarkets throw away” and “Why buying plastic free groceries is so hard” during our lunch breaks this week. The videos have been enlightening, but more importantly, they have served as a great reminder to get back on track with some of our own lapsed sustainability efforts – like remembering to bring our cloth bags to the store and reducing the amount of single-use plastic we purchase.

I’d love to be able to purchase zero plastic but sadly, a lot of our store-bought produce comes in a clamshell or overwrap and 100% of the produce on the clearance rack is bagged in plastic mesh. I hate it but I hate the alternative even more. Yes, we could (and often do) purchases loose apples, oranges, peppers, and other produce using our own reusable mesh bags but our first choice is always going to be the plastic bag of 6 apples on the clearance rack for 99 cents that is 2 steps away from becoming food waste. To us, saving the food trumps avoiding the plastic. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t still feel bad about it. I mean, there’s absolutely no way to reuse or recycle those plastic mesh bags. Or is there?

Enter YouTube for the save! I’m definitely going to try some of these this week.

In addition, I also found that some communities allow these mesh bags to be placed in the recycling bin. Though they aren’t usually labeled with recycling symbols, the bags are generally made from polyethylene plastics No. 1, 2 and 4 or polypropylene plastic No. 5, which are recyclable materials.

Along with the mesh bags, we also use some plastic in our kitchen. If you came to our kitchen, you’d probably be in shock at the number of plastic lunch meat containers that we actually have in the cabinet. See?

And that doesn’t include the ones you can’t see.

We do not eat lunch meat. Neither does my mom, but one of her work friends feeds her dog deli chicken and saves the containers. A few years ago, she brought us an entire garbage bag full of them. We saved them for a while and then last April, we purged our kitchen of plastic and sent them to recycling (they are labeled as No. 5 plastic). A month later, she brought us another bag of them. This time, we decided to use them as freezer cups. We’ve been using this same set of containers in the freezer almost a year now. They work great for sauces, homemade veggie broth, and portioning servings of desserts (cakes and cookies freeze very well, by the way). As the containers break, we do take them to recycling but only after extending their life many, many times over.

Then, there are the Glad containers.

We bought these divided plates several years ago when we were travelling more often. They made it easy to take meals with us, saving us money on dining out. When we decluttered the kitchen a few months ago, we thought about donating them to Goodwill as part of our continued “plastic purge”. But…for as much as I’d like to believe that someone would scoop them up and use them every day, there’s a chance that no one would want them, or Goodwill would deem them unfit for resale. Do you know what happens to items that Goodwill can’t sell? They throw them away. Yes, there are some stores that attempt to recycle what they can, but the fact remains – somewhere between 25-65% of all donations end up in the landfill anyway. I can’t, in good conscience, leave the fate of the plates in the hands of a stranger. I bought them. I’m responsible for them. I will continue to use them until they wear out and then I will recycle them. They are also No. 5 plastics.

Oh, and the Ziploc bags.

We stopped purchasing these things about a year ago but sometimes, we still end up with one. Our apartment manager loves to fill them with candy and leave them on the door for holidays. It’s a thoughtful gesture but it leaves us with a bag that can’t be recycled. So, we wash and reuse them…until they are beyond dead. These two have been around for about 4 months now.

The best course of action is to never buy plastic in the first place, but until manufacturers drastically change their packaging, this is unrealistic for most of us. We’re inevitably going to end up with something made of plastic in our grocery cart – whether it’s a milk jug or a mesh bag. The second-best course of action then is to repurpose those single-use plastics. From pot scrubbers to freezer containers, there are many creative ways to extend their life, even if it’s only a few extra uses. And when their lives really are over, recycle.

Do you have any creative uses for single-use plastic?

The Heat is OFF

I’ll never forget the winter of 2017-18. It was cold INSIDE.

Outside, the temperatures were average for our area – mid-30s in the daytime, teens and 20s at night, with occasional bursts of sunshine boosting us into the 50s. We had some ice, a bit of snow, but nothing compared to the wintry weather our friends in Colorado and Minnesota were experiencing. Yet, inside our apartment, we had icicles on the bedroom window, with the central heat unit running constantly to no avail. When my mom came over for her birthday last January, it was so cold inside that she wore her coat the entire time. She even had me stand on a chair to feel the cold air coming from the vents in the ceiling. It was not a fun time to say the least.

A year ago, maintenance checked our unit and said it was running fine. They concluded that the cold air was due to the outside unit itself being cold, which supposedly restricts airflow. I attribute it to poor building maintenance. Our apartment was built in the 90s. The duct work is probably leaking. But I’m no HVAC repair woman so we decided to handle matters our own way.

When the temperatures started dropping in October, we challenged ourselves to see how long we could go without turning on the heat unit. Instead, we used two of these little guys:

We thought the space heaters would buy us a few extra weeks without turning on the heat. We never expected that they would work so well that 3 months later, we’re still using them as our primary source of heat.

We have two 1500W forced-air space heaters that cost $10 each. We use one in the living room when we are home and one in the bedroom/bathroom as needed throughout the day. Neither runs constantly. When the inside temperature reaches 71 degrees, we turn them off. When it dips below 68, we turn them on. So far, we have not used either heater while we’re sleeping at night, though Angie turns the bedroom heater on about 30 minutes before we get up to knock off the chill. The lowest overnight temperature (outside) so far this year has been 17 degrees. That same night, our indoor temp dropped just 7 degrees (from 71 when we went to bed to 64 when we woke up). When my mom came for Christmas, it got so warm inside that we had to open the back door. It was 40 degrees outside and no heat was on inside.

Not only are we not freezing to death inside our apartment this year, we’re actually comfortable. Angie is not wearing her beanie to watch TV this winter and I don’t have a thermal layer on under my jeans. We did add a 2nd blanket to our bed but other than that, no special accommodations have been made to stay warm. We’re simply capitalizing on some heat-generating aspects that we never thought to consider before. For example, we’re on the 2nd floor of a 3-story building, making us the “sandwich” apartment. We are insulated by the apartments above and below, which helps us maintain our temperature longer. Also, by cooking dinner every night, we can raise the temp by 1-2 degrees (and have a delicious meal to boot!).

Our experiment primarily started as a way to avoid turning on the inefficient central heat unit. We weren’t thinking about saving money or reducing our carbon footprint at the time, but the byproduct of our effort is that we did both. Our energy bill dropped by 13% and we reduced our carbon footprint by 20%. We’re pretty happy about that! Almost as happy as we are about my mom’s sudden interest in recycling plastics. Oh yes, that happened this month too. After years of picking on us for recycling everything, she suddenly one day started sending me home with her empty plastics to take to recycling. 2019 might just be the year for miracles after all!

All kidding aside, even the smallest things can make a big impact when it comes to saving money and saving our planet.