Plastic is a wonderful thing. It's used in medical devices, it is indispensible in industry and manufacturing, so many things that we use every day would be impossible without it.

Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth TerryBut you can have too much of a good thing, and you can misuse it. Some of it is filled with gender bending chemicals and dangerous flame retardants. Most are made from fossil fuels, and much of it is thrown into landfills or lost into the environment. Instead of being used where it is needed, it is used everywhere.

Beth Terry has been trying to use less of it for years, blogging about the process on Fake Plastic Fish, renamed MyPlasticFreeLife. Her big breakthrough was with her very public campaign to get Brita to take back their water filters; she won that, and became a green hero. Now she has pulled it all together in a book, "Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too."

I was immediately endeared to the book during the introduction, when she added to our list of eight Rs that we have been preaching; we have already covered Reduce, reuse, rot, repurpose, return, repair, recycle (our least important) and refuse (to take any more of this crap, perhaps our most important). She adds:


There was a time when plastic wasn’t omnipresent. If you are above a certain age, your parents may recall such a time, or you may. Not everything was made of plastic — and yet we survived and turned out all right. Possibly better. Yes, times have changed, and some plastics have made our lives safer, but we can still find useful guidance from the way we used to live.
Report: Make noise and talk about it.
For the past several years, I’ve been reporting my findings on my blog, and now via this book, sharing information about the problems and the solutions. You can do the same. There are many forums for letting others know what we have learned and discovered about plastic-free living.
One I really like, Rally.
Some people argue that changes in our plastic consumption habits aren’t really going to change the world. The problem is just too big, the ocean too polluted, and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted too enormous. How could one person using a canvas bag instead of a plastic one really have any effect? But large groups of people united in a cause can influence companies, industries, and political institutions.
And finally, Realize.
Living plastic-free is inextricably entangled with awareness, consciousness, mindfulness. In a world of plastic, we don’t have to think about where the products we use come from or where they’re going. Our lives are unexamined. Like my cats, we can loll around all day, being cute, secure in the knowledge that food and shelter will be provided for us from sources whose nature we don’t really have to worry about. This is great for cats, but not for humans. Humans make decisions, humans take responsibility—another R.
Beth then explains much of what is wrong with plastics, from the chemicals used to make them, some of which can leach out and hurt us, our kids and the unborn; the truth about bottled water, and an excellent chapter on recycling, including a visit to a recycling facility that shows how it really works, which is not very well at all.
The only plastic that actually gets recycled is that which recycling plastics reclaimers are willing to buy. Recycling is a business, and if there is no market for a material, it will end up in the landfill or incinerator. ...Another reason is the cost of processing. While it’s possible to incorporate recycled PET back into new bottles, cleaning the material to the standards necessary for food contact is much more resource intensive and expensive than simply using virgin resin, so much of it gets downcycled into secondary products like carpet or polar fleece. And the way recycling centers combine mixed plastics into bales impacts the quality of the material available for sale.
Subsequent chapters will be familiar to TreeHugger readers who have been listening to us whine about reducing disposables, saying no to prepared foods. There are useful checklists, tables for you to fill out to track your progress, sidebars, and Less-plastic heroes to inspire.

Finally, Beth addresses the issue, the excuse that a lot of people are using today, that "Our personal actions don't matter. Only policy changes can make a difference." Beth is convinced that personal actions are not irrelevant." They do matter, and she lists nine very good reasons. My favorites:

Our actions affect our own health and the health of those we love.

Our use of plastics isn't just a global problem, it's personal, as we learn about the effects of the chemicals we are absorbing from plastics.
I would add that it is also personal in other ways. Somebody is paying for the trucks to take all this stuff away to the dump, the people who drive them, the separating, the dumping, the trying to sell dirty used plastic for downcyling, and it ain't the manufacturers of the stuff, it's you and me in our taxes. Nothing is free.

We can vote with our wallets to support small, ethical businesses and create a greener economy.

By hiring local people to repair our things when they break instead of chucking them out and replacing them, we promote an economy based on services rather than extracting resources to produce more and more stuff … changing the way we spend out money helps create a more sustainable economy.
I have to concede that getting more stuff never makes me happier — it just makes me want the next thing even more. It’s a pleasure to refuse the treadmill of consumerism and focus on what really gives me pleasure.

I have to be honest and report that if you have been following TreeHugger for a long time, you have heard much of what is in this book. But one thing that this book makes very clear, in a way that we haven't; as one of Beth's reasons says,

Personal Changes lead us to examine Our Values and evaluate What’s Helpful to Our Physical and Spiritual Well-Being and What’s Not.
Doing something like getting plastic out of your life changes the way you do everything, from shopping to eating to, really, living. It is a clear demonstration that small steps are important.

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This story was originally written for Treehugger. Copyright 2012.