Plastic bottles

In 2007, Oakland’s Beth Terry decided to give up plastic after seeing a picture of a dead seabird, its stomach filled with plastic bottle caps. Her decision spawned a blog, a book and a movement to make people aware of how much plastic they consume. We’ll talk to Terry about how, and why, people should reduce their plastic use, from changes obvious (carry your own reusable water bottle) to the surprising (kick that chewing gum habit).

12 Simple Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Footprint

Beth Terry says she doesn't hate plastic. She simply "hates what we do with it."

Those are about the kindest words Terry has about the petroleum-based product. She is the author of  "Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too," and the blog

Terry's transformation to plastic-activist started when she saw a photograph of a dead sea-bird whose insides were filled with plastic objects like bottle caps, cigarette lighters —  even a toothbrush. That photo launched Terry onto a singular mission — to cut down the amount of plastic in the world.

And while Terry is not alone — more than ever the public has taken a critical eye toward plastic — both for perceived negative effects on the environment and health – many of us carry a metal SIGG bottle with us, throw plastic containers into the recycling bin and call it a day.

Terry does much more and says that it's not that difficult for us to do more too. Here, gleaned from Terry's interview with guest host Scott Shafer on Forum are 12 straightforward ways to reduce the amount of plastic in your life.

1. Pay attention

Terry suggests before even trying to rid your life of plastic, simply take some time to become aware of how and when you use it. Here website has a "plastic challenge" that encourage people to track their plastic use for one week.

"It's amazing, the awareness that comes though doing the challenge, says Marianne Davis, who took Terry's challenge. " After completing in the challenge, Davis says "Whenever you touch plastic you kind of are, like "Wait a second, what do I about this? Do I really need this? Is there an alternative to this?"

2. When dining out, request drinks without plastic straws.

3. Buy milk in glass bottles.

Though many people don't associate milk cartons with plastic, they are actually lined with a plastic film. Terry says that pretty much any packaging that is leak-proof has plastic in it.

4. Give up chewing gum and hard candies.

Yes, chewing gum is plastic.

5. Buy in bulk and bring your own reusable food containers and bags to the store.

Terry and her husband bring a stainless steel bucket to the butcher counter and ask them butcher to put the meat in that instead of plastic-lined paper. She recommends frequenting the same businesses so that they grow accustomed to your request.  

6. Use a tool lending library.

"If it's a tool that you're only going to use once, why buy a brand new one," says Terry. "Borrow it."

7. Shop secondhand and shop less overall.

When it comes to durable items like electronics and appliances, Terry asks herself "Do I really need something new?" If it turns out that she does need the item she finds "a way to get it so that I'm not creating more demand for new plastic in the world. I look for it secondhand or I borrow it, or rent it."

8. Bring own food containers to restaurants.

9. When you place an order, request that it be shipped without plastic packaging.

10: Send an email.

Contact your state legislators and let them know that you support AB 298 and SB 568. Contact your Senators and let them know that you support the Safe Chemicals Act, S. 847.

11. Don't use new plastic bags to pick up after your dogs.

Instead use newspapers, pages from an old telephone book or plastic bags that are already lying around your house.

12. Give feedback to companies.

When you find a product you want that's packaged in plastic, write a letter to the company asking if they'll switch the packaging.

And lastly, if you start to get frustrated, there's this last bit of advice:

13. Focus on can, not can't

"Focus on the areas where we're creating the most waste and have the most impact. Don't get hung up on if they're plenty of other things you can be doing."

In other words, don't lament the plastic in your contact lenses or prescription bottles if you still haven't changed the things you can more easily control.

Terry says it's important to smart small and "go at your own pace."

"It's important to take it step by step," says Terry. "I emphasize constantly: 'Choose one thing, make it a habit, do the next step, make it a habit."

The Forum Staff Takes the Plastic Challenge

To prepare for the discussion on plastics, the Forum staff decided to have some fun and take Beth Terry's challenge to track all of the plastic we used for one day. Our efforts are documented in the photos below.

Note: Your device must be Flash-enabled to view these items.

Did you take Beth Terry's challenge? You can share your photos on the KQED Flickr page.

Beth Terry's TED Talk


A (Mostly) Plastic-Free Life 1 August,2012forum

Beth Terry, author of "Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too" and the blog
Marianne Davis, from St. Paul, MN, took Beth Terry's plastic trash challenge for one month
Danielle Richardet, from Willmington, NC, took Beth Terry's plastic trash challenge for one year

  • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

    I love that you guys are collecting your plastic waste.  Can’t wait to chat with you on the show tomorrow.  I’ll bring my collected plastic from 2011 to show you.  🙂

  • Ss3ss2ss

    The shortest answer is doing.

  • Irenez

    i saw the video of Beth Terry at TED last year in Kuala Lumpur, it was shown during an event called Gren drinks, since thanmy life changed i decided to follow her lead and i try to  talk as much as possible of the problem in my language (italian ) as there is no information about it in italy and no one even know what is the great pacific garbace patch and that in the mediterrean there are tons and tons of plastic waste floating.

  • Rhet

    This is the Sky News story. Not sure if it’s the original.

  • Jenn in Berkeley

    I used to work at REI, and was appalled to see that nearly every single piece of clothing was wrapped in a thick/rigid plastic bag, which helps them count each piece and to keep them from being too wrinkled.  After unpacking each shipment, there was a huge bag of plastic that was NOT recycled (the Berkeley recycling system does not accept plastic bags). If more people knew how much waste was involved purely in the shipping of clothing, I’m sure REI, among other retailers, would change it’s policy.

  • Kristine

    Great show!

  • Hgelman

    What about plastic dog poo bags? And where should I put the cat litter?

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      Hi.  I have a whole section in my book on collecting dog poop and garbage and cat litter.  Where you put the cat litter depends on where you live, what kind of litter, and whether your cats go outside (where they have the opportunity to pick up toxoplasma gondii from eating small animals) or not.  What is your situation?

  • Francineryan

    Ms Terry has an excellent balanced approach.  Human nature being what it is, however, most people are not going to eliminate plastic use, so recycling becomes critical as part of the solution.  In order for recyling in general to continue and provide the profitable motivation for recyclers, it is very important for people to buy items made out of recyled materials.  We need to integrate recyled materials with other eco issues as well. Fence posts made out of recycled plastic won’t rot and reduce the market for virgin wood, for example.  So many people miss these connections-  they recycle everything they can but then drive 45 minutes to buy virgin toilet paper and virgin printer paper from COSTCO rather than buying these products made out of recycled materials.  


  • Rhet

    Also here’s another person who did the same project in 2010:

    I wonder how fast silicone breaks down. Pizza hut uses silicone in their “cheese”.

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      Are you saying they actually put silicone IN the cheese?  Can you tell me more?

      Jeanne from Life Less Plastic lives in Chicago and blogged about her quest to live plastic-free in that city.  She started her blog in 2007, a few months after I started mine, and it was good to have a kindred spirit online.  She hasn’t blogged since 2010.  It would be nice if she started up again.

  • Aaron

    I heard you discussing the plastic bag ban (also we have a styrofoam ban in SF).  However – I can tell you – that more than half the time I get takeout (usually from mission area mexican food spots) it comes in a plastic bag or styrofoam container.  What’s the deal, is this an enforcement issue?

    • Fred

       Immigrants have a special protected status, sort of like pampered toy dogs.

      • Aaron

        no … really – this is hyperbole.

        • Aaron

          oops – I mean, really?? 

        • Fred

           I know, I was just being silly.

      • jenn

        While I can’t agree that immigrants are pampered toy dogs (!!!), I know that the City has not done much to enforce the plastic bag ban in areas like the Mission and Chinatown.  I would love to see an educational campaign launched in Spanish and Chinese.

  • Tahoe_junky

    Speaking to which bioplastics are actually biodegradable are often tough. You need products that are ASTM D6400.. Most products try to skirt real sustainability with things like GMO corn (grown from Petroleum)
    The best thing you can do is use compostables from a quality producer that actually cares. check out companies like World Centric in palo alto  

  • Frustrated Salesmen

    As a Compostable brokerage in SF, we see one of the main problems is that there is no enforcement for these products. When will consumers feel the pinch from their city governments?

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      Hi Frustrated Salesmen.  Will you say more?  What kind of enforcement?  Are you talking about biodegradable claims?

  • Jonathan Greenberg

    I emailed chick-fila a while back about their use of styrfoam cups and encouraged them to switch to paper but they said the environmental affects were the same in the landfill and their customers really prefer styrofoam and they would lose business without them. 

    • Jenn

      Jamba Juice uses paper cups in at least the Berkeley stores because  the local market is so concerned about the use of styrofoam.  Perhaps other such campaigns could start locally.

      • Fred

        Speaking of Jamba Juice, it’s now known that excessive sugar causes premature aging.

        • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

          Yep.  Skip juice.   I eat whole fruit instead now, so I don’t have to worry about what the juice might be packaged in.  And it’s healthier to eat the fiber along with the sugar.

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      They are not considering the entire life cycle of the material.  Styrofoam is made from non-renewable fossil resources, contains toxic chemicals, and is highly polluting to the environment if it doesn’t make it to the landfill… which sadly a lot of it doesn’t.  Thanks for writing to them!

  • Michelle Deely, SF

    Wondering about the financial implications of living a plastic free life- for example, milk in a glass bottle is $2 more than milk in a plastic carton at my local store. What do you say to those people that say they can’t afford to make this change?

    • Fred

       Options include buying direct from a local farm, getting a subscription at farm to get a weekly food box, using non-liquid forms of dairy like cheese, keeping a pet goat (female), switching to soy (not healthy), and using human milk.

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      It’s really a matter of shifting your spending, not necessarily spending more.  You might pay more for milk, but you might spend a lot less by cutting out bottled water and other processed, packaged foods, you know?  Also, since I buy a lot less “stuff” in general (buying secondhand, swapping, fixing what I already have), I can afford to pay more for a few things.  BTW, my husband and I live very modestly in an Oakland apartment without a car.  It can be done.

  • Dee

    Regarding Trader Joe’s, it seems to me that they wrap everything because, if you haven’t noticed, they have no scales at the check out to weigh,thus, know what to charge, for you item. It speeds up the checkout process and simplifies things from the clerkk’s point of view.

    • Making this commitment certainly does change shopping choices and locations.

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      If having no scales is the reason that TJ’s wraps everything in plastic, then the solution would be to install scales.  That’s a good point that I will keep in mind in organizing any campaign.  If Safeway can do it, so can TJ’s.

  • This takes tremendous commitment. I love it that Beth did it as a personal challenge with personal workarounds and not from a stance of pointing at others.  I also love the “step at a time” suggestion; to acquaint oneself with each layer of dependence and remedy that, then move on.  It make a plastic free (or nearly plastic free) life seem attainable.  Thank you !

  • Schalgenumber9

    please talk about plastic products that are long term usage, but eventually get disposed of, such as computers, cell phones, cars.

    • Jenn

      And cords!  We have a whole drawer of cords for different appliances, such as cameras, phones, etc., and none of them are interchangeable.  What a waste!

      • Jef

         The plastic that surrounds cords contains lead, so you should wash your hands after touching it.
        But the metal inside has real recycling value.

  • Sunshinetax

    Great show, and I commend the guest and other callers who have tried this. I do the easy things….don’t buy bottled water, bring my own bags, but I feel like we could do more. I doubt I could change my life as much as they had, but they’ve inspired me to try some of these steps. A good show!

  • Jacqueline

    And don’t forget and along with Craigslist for acquiring used instead of new 🙂

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      Absolutely!  I list lots of resources in the book, including and Craigslist for acquiring used instead of new.  In fact, I just bought a used soldering iron for $5 off a guy via Craigslist in an attempt to repair some chewed up headphones.  Oh, the joys of having cats.

  • Veti_vert

    I’ve been using baking soda for brushing my teeth for over a year now. It works well and I think it cuts down on bad breath better than regular toothpaste. I’ve gotten my boyfriend to use it as well and his breath doesn’t bother me as much as it had when he used toothpaste.

  • marte48

    Do you all bring your own non-disposable coffee cup and spoon to work?

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      I do!   And I actually bought a set of cheap thrift store utensils for the people in my office to use instead of plastic ones.

      • marte48

        Good for you! I am always amazed and dismayed at the amount of trash that is discarded every day at work. But no one likes to be lectured to, except by brave people like you! Thanks for your good work!

    • Maeve155

       Yes, always, when the company doesn’t already provide ‘real’ cups, spoons, plates etc.

  • Jim

    Your guest this morning argued against plant-based plastics winding up in landfills on the basis that when they break down, they emit methane. What she’s overlooking is that, to a first-order approximation, all of the carbon in that plastic (and hence the methane) came out of the atmosphere in the first place through the corn’s metabolism. So, just like with all “biofuels,” the material itself is essentially carbon-neutral. Furthermore, it is feasible (in principle at least) for composting centers, and maybe landfills, to capture some of the methane from decomposition to use as fuel (which means CO2/CO from combustion, but carbon-neutral overall for whatever comes from bio-waste).

    Of course the energy to manufacture, transport, etc needs consideration, but that exists for every material; this is simply a response about the material choice.

    What matters most for humanity’s atmospheric carbon footprint is the carbon that we pull out of the ground and emit into the air, because the _geologic_ carbon cycle is on the order of millions of years. The biosphere’s carbon cycle is on the order of decades. Generally speaking, that means that coal, petroleum, natural gas, and all the stuff we make out of them, such as  conventional plastics, imply increasing atmospheric carbon — and that plant and animal products, including even farting cows and burning wood, are at worst carbon-neutral — from a material sense, anyway.

    So push for plant-based plastics in disposable items wherever they function  well, even if they don’t get properly composted in the end. If they decompose and out-gas carbon, then they’re carbon-neutral; if they get buried deeply and don’t break down, then they’ve sequestered that much atmospheric carbon back into the earth. Either way, they’re a carbon-footprint win compared to petroleum-based plastic.

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      Hi Jim.  I do agree that plant-based plastics have a lower carbon footprint, which I did mention on air but I think my comment went by really quickly.  My point is that if you already have materials at home that you would be throwing away anyway, use those things before considering going out and buying brand new corn-based bags to pick up dog poop.  In my book, I explain why plant-based plastics are a better choice than fossil-based plastics in terms of carbon emissions, but I also discuss many of the drawbacks to corn-based bioplastics (made from GMO’s, grown with petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers) and argue against single-use disposable products in general.  Cheers, Beth

  • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

    The City’s plastic bag ban, so far, has only applied to large grocery stores and pharmacies, which is why you still see so many plastic bags in the Mission and Chinatown.  But they recently passed a measure to apply the ordinance to everyone.  I believe it starts in October.

  • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

    [deleted by Beth]

  • Kenji Yamada

    Hi Beth, thanks for your work.  I’m gonna get your book and see how I can replace some of the plastic containers in my life.  There are some that I don’t know of any practical alternatives to, so I can use the help. 

    How do you feel about durable, multi-use plastics?  I’m thinking of my laundry basket or electric razor.

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      Hi Kenji.  I have a whole chapter in the book on durable goods.  I have and use many of the items I already had before starting my project.  I still use my plastic laundry basket, for example.  But when it broke, I found a way to fix it instead of getting a new one.  My goal was to stop acquiring new plastic.  So if I needed a new laundry basket and couldn’t find a plastic-free one (although there are many choices), I would be okay with a secondhand plastic one via Freecycle or Craigslist.  By the way, here’s how I fixed my plastic laundry basket:

  • NikiBowie

    Stainless steel can leach chemicals too!  Metals such as chromium can end up in your food and in your body!  IT isn’t harmful, but plastic doesn’t reduce your exposure to chemicals.  The chemicals are just different.  Cast iron leaches iron!  Also,  they took the BPA out of products, what do you think they replaced it with? At least we understood BPA and it’s properties.  

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      There is a difference between the chemicals in stainless steel or cast iron and those in plastics.  Many of the chemicals used in plastics are endocrine disruptors and have an effect at very small doses in the human body.  They have been linked to cancers, reproductive disorders, developmental problems, diabetes, and other problems.  The problem is that they mimic the action of hormones in the body.  Chromium and iron are minerals the body needs.  Chemicals like BPA, phthalates, and other hormone disruptors are not.

  • Cheryl

    “Buy milk in glass bottles” – you have got to be joking! That is the kind of suggestion that makes it difficult to take the plastic free life seriously. If you are going to suggest this, at least give us some resources on where to get bottles of milk.

    • Beth Plastic-Free Terry

      Hi Cheryl.  There are actually many dairies that still bottle milk in returnable glass bottles.  Where are you located?  In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are two:  Straus Creamery and St. Benoit. Here’s a list of sources:

  • It’s nice to hear people
    trying creating something out of nothing. Gathering waste plastic is a great
    idea at the same time reproduces something useful to the community. Obviously this
    activity will help to reduce plastic footprint.



  • Polythin is a substance that said to be as environment
    unfriendly. Although there are certain kinds of
    plastic that can be reprocessed by using drop bins and at drop-off centers. Synthetic
    products has become our day to day necessitate and we use poly bags to keep our
    food, use it as trash bags, also use plastic made utensils and children’s toys and
    many more things. Plastic is also used in the fittings and in numerous home
    appliances. US is the world’s leading purchaser of plastic water bottle.  

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