Beth Terry was as hooked on plastic as the next North American consumer—until she stumbled across a photo of a dead albatross chick, its carcass overflowing with bottle caps and other plastic debris. The chick’s photo was taken on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand miles from civilization in the middle of the North Pacific. The photo shocked Terry so much that within a week she’d put herself on a radical plastic diet. She started a blog to chronicle her journey, became a part-time activist, and published the book Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.

I discovered Beth Terry’s blog “My Plastic-Free Life” after learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This floating garbage patch, aka the North Pacific Gyre, is a soup of plastic debris. It covers an extensive area—as large as Quebec according to some estimates. The sun photodegrades the floating plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, which act as sponges, absorbing organic pollutants like DDT and PCBs. Jellyfish consume the smaller particles, while sea birds and turtles routinely mistake larger pieces for food—and then die when they can’t digest the plastic. The toxins from this plastic soup eventually make their way up the food chain to us. Sadly, the North Pacific Gyre is just one of many areas in the world’s oceans where currents have concentrated plastic waste. And this plastic is in the water for good—there’s no practical way to get it out again.

It’s hard to imagine life without this amaz- ingly cheap, versatile and durable material. But the qualities that make it so useful tous make it a nightmare for nature. Because plastic is so cheap and versatile, the world produces a lot of it (280 million tons in 2011, according to the trade organization PlasticsEurope). Much of it is produced for single-use items like grocery bags and packaging. But because plastic is so durable, it stays in the environment long after it’s outlived its usefulness.

In the best-case scenario, discarded plastic travels to a recycling plant. But even this has its drawbacks, since plastic recycling is energy-intensive and a source of pollu- tion. Furthermore, the markets for various recycled plastics fluctuate, so some of what we put in our blue bins may end up in the landfill anyway. Plastic that is landfilled can take centuries to degrade, leaching out toxic chemicals in the process. In the worst-case scenario, littered plastic gets carried down a waterway to the sea. (According to the State of California Ocean Protection Council, 80 per cent of marine debris is estimated to have come from land-based sources.)

There are also potential health concerns associated with consuming foods and bever- ages packaged in plastic, since plastic con- tainers can leach trace amounts of troubling chemicals like bisphenol A and phthalates into their contents. (For a good overview of this subject, search for the article “Pots, Pans, and Plastics: A Shopper’s Guide to Food Safety” on

After checking Beth Terry’s book out of the library, I’m convinced that a life with less plastic is both doable and desirable. Terry offers all kinds of practical suggestions to get concerned consumers started:

Bring reusable bags to the store. If you find the cheap store-brand bags too bulky, flimsy, or hard to keep clean, Terry suggests invest- ing in some better quality ones. I asked for some well-made nylon grocery and produce bags for Christmas, which I found online from a Canadian source. They’re easy to carry, washable, and much more attractive than the ones I had previously. Consequently I remember to use them more often.

Pass on bottled water. Municipal water on Vancouver Island is tested from several times a month to several times a day, depending on a number of factors, so what comes out of our taps is safe. It’s also virtually free. There’s no reason for most of us to pay up to a 3,000 per cent markup for our drinking water.

Buy larger packages rather than smaller ones. Single-serving or travel-size containers are convenient, but they generate a huge amount of waste. It doesn’t take much timeto fill a soap dispenser from a refill package, or transfer yogurt from a large container into smaller ones for kids’ lunches. Think bulk, and you’ll save money, too.

Cook and bake from scratch. Much of the plastic we dispose of daily comes from food packaging, especially convenience foods. The more you cook and bake from scratch, the less packaging you’ll consume. This is another win-win suggestion as your family will get healthier meals and your grocery bill will almost certainly go down.

Make your own personal care and cleaning products. Terry’s book offers a number of DIY recipes, many of which are also available on the web. I’ve tried many of them successfully. I use a baking soda solution instead of shampoo, and a cider vinegar solution instead of conditioner (Google “no ’poo method” for the details). I also make my own deodorant and almost all of our household cleansers.

Use plastic alternatives. For every plastic product we’ve grown to depend on (like disposable diapers or feminine hygiene products), there’s a plastic-free alternative. Terry’s blog has a comprehensive list of suppliers if you’re looking for something difficult to find.

Buy second hand. By buying plastic items like toys second hand, we can cut the demand for new plastic, extend the useful life of existing items, and avoid a ton of wasteful packaging.

Buy quality. As Captain Charles Moore* told David Letterman, “We need to make plastic into stuff we really want to last forever. Plastic lasts a long, long time. Let’s make stuff out of it that we want to be around, and if we have to have throw-aways, let’s make them biodegrade so you can throw them into the compost pile and get rid of them.”

I couldn’t agree more!

*Moore is the oceanographer who first brought the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the world’s attention.

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at kids