What it’s really like to live a plastic-conscious lifestyle; and easy ways to make the switch

What you’ll get in today’s post:

– a few facts about the plastic crisis and some recycling myths
– an interview with my sister-in-law Kiyomi, who works as a fisheries scientist in Nova Scotia
– a guide to reducing your plastic use: easy, medium and hard
– some recipes for making your own stuff
– a directory of local zero-waste shopping options

A few years ago I was obsessed with a little TV show called Mad Men.

In one memorable scene, Betty and Don take their children out for an afternoon picnic. It’s a picturesque moment with the entire family seated around a checkered cloth. At the end of the shot as they get up to leave, Don crunches his beer can and casually throws it into the park. Betty does not clean up the remains of the meal, but simply takes the corners of the blanket and shakes all the refuse; Styrofoam plates, cutlery, cups and food scraps out onto the grass.

I remember watching this and being horrified. What monsters these people from the 60s were! Thank god we’re not like that anymore.

I grew up in the 90s. From Kindergarten on, the evils of littering were hammered into our skulls. Every spring and fall, they’d send us out with our plastic garbage bags to pick up whatever refuse had blown into the school yard. Somehow, we came to believe simply putting our trash in the correct bins freed us of all responsibility. We did the right thing. What happened to it after wasn’t our problem.

But when we put our plastic in the blue box and send it out to the curb, what are the implications? What really happens to it? If you’ve watched the documentary A Plastic Ocean, or spent any time reading about environmental issues, you realize it’s actually pretty hypocritical of us to judge Mr. and Mrs. Draper. 

Look up from your screen and survey the room you’re sitting in. How much plastic can you find? Go to the grocery store and you might just have a heart attack. Everything from steak to tofu to broccoli is wrapped in plastic.

Since World War II, we’ve become a single-use society. We use something for a little bit, throw it away and then get new stuff. According to National Geographic, half of all manufactured plastic was made in the last 15 years and most of it will take 400 years (or more) to finally break down.

We believe our water bottles get made into tires and our pop cans turn into wheelchairs and by using email we “save the trees”.

Unfortunately, filling up your blue bin these days is as bad as a trash bag. Here’s why:

  • Since 2018, China no longer takes our plastics and recycles them for us. This means we have to deal with our own mess and a lot of it ends up in landfills, incinerated or floating in the ocean. Only 9% of what goes into the blue bin actually qualifies for recycling.
  • Most items can’t actually be recycled for various reasons such as food waste contamination (looking at you greasy pizza box); it’s already been re-purposed once (water bottles), or the plastic is too difficult to recycle due to its composition or colour (bright orange laundry bottles). A lot of times the only way to reuse plastic is by combining it with new plastic… solving nothing.
  • Biodegradable plastic doesn’t work like compost. It requires a specific high-heat process to break down. If it gets sent to a landfill, it just gets mowed under the dirt and stays there like everything else.
  • Most municipal recycling programs do not require residents to sort items (glass, plastic, paper). This means even less of what is put out is actually reused.

If reading this makes you want to stamp your little feet in frustration. “I TRIED goddamit!” Well, me too. 

I’ll be the first to admit, our household has miles to go when it comes to reducing our plastic footprint. I read the articles and watched the documentaries and my heart sank. I felt like a monster. 

Most of us don’t have the financial or social wherewithal to do anything substantial, and the issue seems so overwhelming and far gone we think to ourselves, is my one water bottle really going to make a difference? Realistically, on a large scale, probably not. But it took the actions of billions of individuals to get us into this mess, so it’s going to take the same incremental movement to improve it.

I’m a newbie to the eco-friendly lifestyle, so to get a better understanding of what it really means to be plastic conscious, I reached out to my sister-in-law.

Kiyomi works as a fisheries scientist and studies the populations of various species living along Canada’s East Coast. This means she comes face-to-face with the disastrous implications of our plastic habit every day. One of her biggest concerns is the micro-plastic which has now become part of the ocean sediment and is ingested by fish (and then us). 

Kiyomi is a quiet activist. You won’t catch her berating you for not bringing along a stainless steel water bottle, or forgetting your reusable grocery bags at home. (She admits she does this too from time to time). She isn’t on social media championing her cause or talking about the latest green product she bought, instead she has opted to lead by example and inspire others through tangible action.

“I just believe there’s no change that a single person can make that’s too small. Any efforts are efforts and it’s more about passing on habits and making habits then changing the world in a go, it’s not going to happen overnight, but we can try.”

A few years ago she started taking small steps to reduce her plastic use and as it turns out, you don’t have to break the bank- or give up the things you love to make a lasting impact.

When I ask her about the first change she made on this journey, she has to think.

“Probably … switching to bar soap,” she says. “For body wash and in the bathrooms.”

It seems like a no-brainer, but take a look in your own bathroom and count the number of plastic hand soap, shampoo, facial cleanser, bubble bath, shaving cream and lotion bottles. A quick peek in my bathroom, there’s 19! Yikes. And that’s not even getting into all the other plastic items: razors, toothbrushes, make-up, loofa’s the list goes on.

Kiyomi admits she has kept a few plastic pumps, but refills them at her local package-free store: The Tare Shop. The Halifax haunt carries everything from groceries to cosmetics to household items and more of these places are opening up all the time.

To refill her conditioner bottle, she says costs $8, but because the ingredients are all organic, it is quite comparable to similar products found in drugstores or online. Most organic conditioners available on well.ca for example are $10 and up.

For shampoo, she has also switched to a bar. When it comes to these, she says it can take some trial and error to find one you like. 

The idea of using a bar of soap on my hair is a little baffling. I ask her how it works.

“I would compare it to instant coffee,” she says. “It’s really, really concentrated shampoo. You just rub it in your hands like a (regular) bar of soap and it creates a lather, then you wash your hair with that. A bar lasts for like a year, it’s crazy.”

Just be careful not to over-do it, she says. “I find my scalp will get dry if I use too much.”

Kiyomi buys her’s from Lush, where the bars range in price from $10-$16. The site claims one bar will last for up to 80 washes. If you only wash your hair once or twice a week, that could take you pretty far. Kiyomi’s favourite is the Coconut Rice Cake bar.

“I just believe there’s no change that a single person can make that’s too small. Any efforts are efforts and it’s more about passing on habits and making habits then changing the world in a go, it’s not going to happen overnight, but we can try.”

She also buys raw ingredients like shea and cocoa butter from the Tare Shop to make her own deodorant, shower lotion and belly cream. 

“I just saved an old (speed) stick and I make my own and pour it in,” she says. “It’s mostly cocoa butter, shea butter and beeswax, then a couple oils to make it actually glide. It’s all natural and it works. There’s things I’ve tried and failed, so I end up not bothering, but those two things: lotions and deodorants, I’m happy with those.”

Kiyomi considers making her own products from scratch the most hardcore thing she’s done so far, but says having access to something like the Tare Shop definitely makes it easier. Still, even if you live in a rural area like me, there’s plenty of other things you can do beyond saying ‘no’ to a straw in the drive-thru.

A few years ago Kiyomi switched to a safety razor and hasn’t looked back. 

“It’s one of the things I did that I actually find better,” she says. “It’s just a metal razor and it uses a stainless steel blade. I thought it was going to be hard to use, but it’s the same. It’s three years old now and it’s unbelievable how little waste it produces. It lasts for so long because you can fully clean it after every use. It’s never going to die. That was a really easy change that I didn’t even notice and it’s saving me so much money and waste.”

Another upfront investment with a huge return is a menstrual cup. The initial purchase will set you back around $40, but that adds up quickly when you’re buying pads and tampons every month.

“You save so much money, they never leak and they’re awesome,” Kiyomi says.

Finding ways around things you have less control over, is a bit trickier, especially when it comes to food.

Grocery shopping can be one of the most challenging aspects of plastic reduction, Kiyomi says. Almost everything in the supermarket- including a lot of fresh produce and meat is wrapped in some kind of plastic. Even things like milk cartons and ice cream tubs which seem harmless, are coated in plastic and not easily recyclable. Shopping at bulk or zero waste stores is one option, along with local farmers’ markets, but you aren’t necessarily going to get the deals or selection you would at mainstream groceries and it can be pricey.   

“There’s one snack they sold at Costco, I loved it. It was dried seaweed, but it came in a hard plastic container, wrapped in plastic packaging, stacked in a pack of 10 and then wrapped again in plastic,” she sighs. “I thought, ‘this is way too much garbage to food ratio’, so I don’t buy those anymore.”

In these kind of situations, less is more. Be picky about how much plastic you allow into your home and bring your own bags and containers if and when it is possible. The day after my conversation with Kiyomi she goes to Tim Horton’s on her way to work and picks up some Timbits. She declines the box and puts them in a glass Tupperware instead.

Kiyomi is curious and passionate, but not strict with herself when it comes to finding the best plastic alternatives. She admits there are a few things she’s not ready to give up yet because she hasn’t found something comparable in quality- her electric toothbrush for example.
“If I really love it, I keep it,” she says simply.

Kiyomi’s process is a gradual one, which keeps it realistic and budget-friendly.

“The easiest way to transition is a very slow and probably endless process. You only look for alternatives once you need to replace the things you are already using.”

When it comes right down to it, one of the best things you can do for the planet is to stop spending money on new things (made of plastic) you likely don’t need.

“When I throw something out, I’ll be like, why am I throwing this out and is there an alternative that’s easy? Sometimes it’s yes and sometimes no.”

A quick-start guide to reducing your plastic use, whatever your situation

Make these small changes for a big impact:

Take it to the next level by making some of these swaps:

Challenge yourself to do one of these this year:

Directory of package-free shops in the GTA/Southern Ontario

The Stone Store
Molloy’s Bulk Refill and Soap Supply

The Pale Blue Dot

Sustain Ecostore

The Kind Matter Co.

Refillery District


Eco + Armor

Bare Market
Unboxed Market

Zero Waste Bulk

Kiyomi’s DIY recipes

Natural body butter

½ c. virgin coconut oil
¼ c. raw cocoa butter
1 tsp vitamin E oil
2 tbsp rosehip oil
2 tbsp almond oil
20 drops of geranium, lavender and/or frankincense essential oil

In a double burner, melt coconut oil and cocoa butter.
Pour into a glass container.
Let cool until skin temperature.
Add other oils and blend with an immersion blender.
Seal lid and store in a cool, dark place.
Apply 2-3 times daily directly on stretch marks.

Homemade natural deodorant

1 oz shea butter
1 oz beeswax 
2 oz coconut oil*
½ tbsp baking soda
1.5 tbsp arrowroot powder
¼ tsp (24 drops) sweet orange essential oil
4 to 6 drops frankincense essential oil

*Kiyomi cut down on the coconut oil by almost half because she wanted it to hold up better in the summer (and not melt), but this means it is quite hard in the winter.

Melt the first three ingredients in a double boiler.
Remove from heat and stir in the rest.
Pour into a clean deodorant container.

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