An estimated garbage truck’s worth of trash is dumped into the ocean every minute.
In a few years, that could turn into two garbage trucks.
This is just one of the jaw-dropping estimated statistics Sandra Ann Harris rattles off, although it’s not totally surprising; the evidence is everywhere. Harris, the author of “Say Goodbye to Plastic” and founder of ECOlunchbox, is on a mission to help others eliminate plastic items from their daily routine so they don’t end up in a landfill or, in Northwest Florida’s case, the Gulf of Mexico.
“The other scary statistic that gets people interested is that scientists did a study looking at the huge amount of plastic pollution that is flowing into our oceans and how many fish are being over-fished and taken out of our oceans,” Harris said. “They’re estimating that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans in terms of tons. That’s pretty alarming.”
Founding ECOlunchbox, a plastic free lunchbox company
Harris always has been an environmentalist.
She doesn’t think people decide to be an environmentalist; they are either passionate about the environment or it’s not really their top priority, she said. The environment always has been core to Harris’ belief system. She loves being outdoors, hiking, kayaking and biking.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s, though, that she stumbled into the plastic-free lifestyle. Her son was in pre-school and she was packing his lunch for the first time as a young mom, she said. Then — and still today — what was popular were a lot of “throw-aways,” such as cracker sacks, squeeze-y yogurt tubes, cheese sticks and pre-packaged food bars. Anything convenient.
The excess food and packaging created a lot of trash, Harris said.
“I was just really motivated when I saw this problem in my son’s pre-schools with excessive waste, to try to be part of the pollution solution,” Harris said. “I thought about, ‘What do I do now? How am I going to pack my son’s lunch without packing a bunch of excess plastic?’ ”
So Harris launched ECOlunchbox, which offers a line of plastic-free food containers that are non-toxic for people and the planet. Its offices are based in Lafayette, California.
“When I talk about plastic, I talk about how it’s toxic to people because it’s a petroleum-based material,” she said. “Even though some plastics are now labeled BPA free, all plastics have some kind of estrogen-mimicking chemicals in them.”
Plastics are toxic to the environment because they accumulate in the ocean, Harris said.
“They don’t biodegrade. They break down and they’re eaten by marine mammals, lost in the environment,” she said. “They’re very rarely recycled, and increasingly, plastic is being incinerated. So plastic is also negatively contributing to global warming.”
‘Say Goodbye to Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic Free Living’
Living plastic free isn’t a destination; it’s a journey, Harris said.
“People get overwhelmed when they think about how many changes they’re going to have to make, and they start to feel like, ‘I’m never going to be perfect, so why bother, because it’s just so difficult not to use plastic, and I probably won’t succeed anyway,’ and they kind of psych themselves out. A lot of people don’t even get started,” Harris said. “They start to feel powerless sometimes, but I think the better approach is to feel powerful.”
Harris encourages people to take an inventory of what they use daily made of single-use plastic. People habitually use plastic, so they’re often not aware of how much, she said.
“It’s unlikely anyone will ever live an entirely plastic-free lifestyle, because plastic is so ubiquitous,” Harris said. “But we can set our GPS for plastic-free living as our destination and keep correcting our course and making good choices as we encounter plastic in our daily lives.”
Start with your morning routine, she said.
“Many of us like to brush our teeth first thing in the morning — typically, the toothbrush is made out of plastic,” Harris said. “So, OK, what can we replace our plastic toothbrush with that would be more eco-friendly?”
Alternatives are available.
“It could be a toothbrush with a replaceable head so you’re not throwing away the whole toothbrush; you’re only just detaching the head,” Harris said. “It’s a much smaller piece of trash. It could be actually a bamboo toothbrush that you could snap the head off of, and then just throw the polyester bristles on the top into the trash and the rest could be just biodegraded and put in your green bin.”
Instead of toothpaste, Harris recommends chewable tablets stored in a glass jar.
“Incrementally, I encourage my readers of the book to choose something different when it comes to common household objects that are made out of plastic,” Harris said. “Say goodbye to plastic, room by room, habit by habit.”
Harris’ 2020 book, “Say Goodbye to Plastic,” is divided into chapters by household rooms.
“Think globally but act locally — extremely local, in your own home,” Harris said. “Through our purchasing power, the power of our wallet, we can drive demand for products that are excellent as plastic-free substitutes. We can also contact our policy makers, whether it’s at our local school, encouraging the school to put in place a zero waste lunch policy, or our local city council, asking them to perhaps ban Styrofoam takeout containers in our local restaurants, or at the state level or even at the federal level.”
A big piece of legislation, “Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2021,” is in discussion nationally. It would hold accountable plastic producers for the air pollution that they’re causing when they’re making plastic and the disposal costs of plastic, which largely is not recyclable, she said.
“Even though the plastic industry would like us to think that it is recyclable, the practical matter is that there are just not good recycling collection systems in place or sales channels globally to effectively buy and sell recycled plastics,” Harris said.
Beach conservation ideas
Harris’ first tip for beach conservation is simple: Clean up the beach.
“I would encourage people to join a beach cleanup, either do it individually or as a family just to model for the younger generation in their own family or for other people at the beach (to see) what it looks like to keep a beach tidy,” Harris said.
When spreading the mission, she recommends more walk than talk.
“Most people don’t want to be lectured, so I’m not really advising people to go out and talk to other beachgoers, and try to convince them to join, because that probably wouldn’t be very well received,” Harris said. “Just model what it looks like to bring an old bag you might have around the house that came with takeout and to repurpose it as a collection bag for picking up trash when you go to the beach.”
It’s better to properly dispose of trash, Harris said.
“Even though it’s going to go in a landfill probably and it won’t be recycled, at least it won’t get out into the ocean where it’ll be broken down into microplastics and then poison our marine life and our ecosystems. It’s a small thing, and it’s not going to solve the plastic pollution problem to do individual beach cleanups, but it sends a very strong message to the community.”
Another suggestion is to be mindful of what you bring to the beach and not inadvertently contribute to pollution by bringing single-use plastic items that could blow down the beach or into the ocean.
“Try to pack an ocean-friendly beach bag, which means, ‘How are you bringing your food?’ ” Harris said. “Bring homemade food and reusable containers that won’t contaminate. That would be a great way of showing friends and neighbors what it looks like to live a reusable lifestyle just by doing it.”
Sunscreen is important, too.
“Are you using a reef-safe ocean-friendly sunscreen? Check your packaging on your sunscreen,” Harris said. “If you can buy sunscreen in a container that’s not a plastic tube. It is available now, for example, in metal tins.”
Harris recommends the California brand All Good, which sells a line of reef-friendly sunscreen in metal tins.
It all centers on what materials people choose, Harris said. Young people might need training to identify materials, she said.
“A lot of people don’t really slow down to even think what their products are made out of,” Harris said. “So if you’re going to bring toys to the beach, try to bring toys that are made from biodegradable material, so that if they did get washed away or lost in the environment, it wouldn’t cause any harm.”
Reducing plastic post-COVID-19
The pandemic has been a setback, with many companies encouraging the use of individually wrapped food and preventing people from forming eco-friendly habits, such as bringing their own coffee cups for reuse.
Harris has some advice.
“What I’m really encouraging people to do is instead of getting frustrated about some of the challenges and limitations of living plastic-free lifestyle out in the world, to focus on what’s 100% under their control, and that’s their daily lives inside their homes and to pick one room in their household,” Harris said.
Read her chapter on that room for help, she said.
“With a laser-like focus on that one room, people can really start to get traction and feel the satisfaction of really noticing a measurable difference before and after,” Harris said. “If you’re trying to reduce plastic in all areas of your life at once, while that’s wonderful, it’s sometimes hard to get that sweet satisfaction of having really made some progress. So pick whatever room appeals to you the most and go for it.”