03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No Impact Week: Free to Be Plastic Free

Think you're sustainable in your plastic use? You use cloth shopping bags and recycle all the plastic you can, so you're good right? Try this exercise. Pick a room in your home or office and stand in the middle of it. Now look around and see how much plastic there is. Now go to the next room, and the next, and do the same. I'm willing to bet there is more plastic in your life than you even realize.

According to UK organization WasteOnline, the world's annual consumption of plastic has increased from around 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today. That's an extraordinary increase of 2,000 percent! Consider this, from The Lifecycle of Plastic - "...unless it has been melted or recycled, all the plastic products ever made, are, of course, still in existence, rotting slowly on landfill sites all over the world."

I thought I was doing well limiting plastics in my life until I read Beth Terry's blog Fake Plastic Fish. Terry chronicles her efforts to eliminate plastics from her life, charting her monthly plastic waste reduction. Here is her List of Plastic-Free Changes that includes everything from making your own hand lotion to making your own soy milk. And, of course, it includes not using plastic shopping bags. That's a critical step when you consider that plastic bags were found to be the second most prevalent component of litter at the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy. Clearly Terry has a lot of time on her hands, but she makes some excellent points about how choosing sustainability sometimes means forgoing a little convenience.

Inconvenience aside though, it seems as though it's impossible to live a plastic-free existence. Do you have electronics? Do you use prescription drugs? Do you drive a vehicle? Then you live with plastics. But what about recycling, you ask? What about the biodegradable and compostable plastics? Okay, let's talk about those.

There are about 50 groups of plastics and all of them can be recycled (if you've wondered what all those numbers on plastic packaging mean, check out this information on plastics resins from the American Chemical Society). According to Earth911, since 1990 plastics consumption in the U.S. has steadily increased but the plastics recycling rate has held steady at 24 percent.

This means that three of every four plastic items go somewhere other than recycling when we're done with them - some go to landfills, others become litter, and a great deal winds up in the world's oceans. In fact, there is a huge patch of garbage, comprised primarily of plastics and estimated to be twice as large as the state of Texas, stuck in the currents of the Pacific Ocean. This is our legacy: plastic litter is everywhere on the land and in the water. Clearly we aren't doing well with recycling.

Maybe the solution lies with biodegradable and compostable plastics. They seem like a reasonable solution - but not so fast. Just because something is labeled biodegradable doesn't mean that it will just go away. Biodegradable and compostable plastics require specific conditions to degrade properly, which home composting systems don't provide.

In Do Biodegradable Plastics Really Work?, Dave Gilson of Mother Jones Magazine wrote that real biodegradable plastics should be sent to a commercial facility that can provide the proper composting conditions but as of 2007 there were only 42 such facilities throughout the United States. To further complicate things, if biodegradable plastics are mixed with regular plastics, the whole batch is seen as contaminated and generally ends up in a landfill instead of being recycled. Also, biodegradable plastics are more expensive to produce and are made from starches that often come from corn, which adds to the myriad environmental problems associated with growing corn for anything other than food. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastics are quite a ways away from being the solution to the problem of plastics.

Plastics bags that are made to break down in sunlight and oxygen work because they are made with metals that cause rapid degradation of the plastic. What happens to those metals when the plastics degrade? That's a good question. They end up in landfills or wherever their final resting place is, eventually finding their way into soil and water.

There really is only so much that can be done at a post-consumer level, at least until governments enforce zero waste policies and businesses decide that it makes good business sense to be more sustainable. The City of San Francisco has enacted a Zero Waste policy that is working towards a goal of having no waste sent to the landfill by 2020. From their Web site:

While we are well on our way to our diversion goals, ultimately we will need to look beyond recycling and composting to get to Zero Waste. This includes passing legislation to increase producer and consumer responsibility. In other words, manufacturers, businesses and individuals will need to be accountable for the environmental impact of the products they produce and use.

I hope I'm still alive when the whole country goes to a zero waste policy.

What does this mean for you and me? It means taking a page from Terry's book and thinking about the environmental impacts of what we purchase before we buy, especially where plastics are concerned. The first step is deciding whether or not we really need something. If the answer is still yes, then consideration should be given to whether non-plastic alternatives are available.

A former geology professor of mine used to say that this period of geologic history would be seen in the future as "The Pampers Layer." That can't be the legacy we intend to leave. I believe we can all do better.

Originally published on the Green Fork.