Before June 2007, Beth Terry was, by her own account, “one of those people who bought and threw away hundreds of plastic water bottles, chose plastic bags over paper (and doubled them on purpose), and stocked up on frozen foods in their cute little plastic containers.” She had been an activist for environmental and other causes during her 20s, but burned out and, as she wrote in her blog, www.fakeplasticfish.com, “kind of stopped giving a crap.”
Twenty years later, Terry was working as an accountant three days a week and looking for meaningful ways to occupy the rest of her time. In June 2007, she heard a radio interview with “No Impact Man,” Colin Beavan, a New Yorker who decided in 2006 to see if he could reduce his family’s environmental impact to zero for one year. (A documentary about his project premiered at the Sundance Festival in January 2009.) Through his website (www.noimpactman.com), she discovered an article in BestLife magazine about the huge masses of plastic accumulating in the North Pacific (see Coast & Ocean, Winter 2005-06).
Terry was horrified, particularly by a photo of an albatross carcass filled with bottle caps and other bits of plastic. “That image is now burned into my brain,” she later wrote. “Until that particular day, I must have seen hundreds of terrible environmental images and simply ignored them or chose not to see.”
A few days later, Terry’s “plastic project” was born. She began to look closely at her use of plastic and try to use less. To keep herself on track, and perhaps make her own effort ripple out to help others, she created a blog to report on her progress. “I am not making a vow to give up all plastic,” she wrote in her first post, on June 20, 2007. “I’m looking at this as more of a learning experience, for me and for anyone who cares to follow this blog. I want to see what the possibilities are, for eliminating plastic waste, sure, but also for alternative uses for plastic that already exists, for ways of recycling and reusing, and for non-plastic substitutions.”
She didn’t realize that the project would become a major enterprise. She read about the plastic industry and its products, about packaging, waste disposal, and recycling, and added what she found to the blog. She visited local natural foods stores, chain supermarkets, and pharmacies, and posted reports about the relative amounts of plastic packaging of the products they carried, as well as the non-plastic options available. Some of what she found was predictable--“Plastic at Costco. Plastic galore”--but there were surprises as well, such as the mountains of plastic at her local farmers’ market. She made phone calls and wrote letters and e-mails--to cable company Comcast, to complain about the plastic-encased advertisement hung on her doorknob (a representative called the next day promising it wouldn’t happen again--in Oakland, anyway); to Zipcar, asking that they put reusable bags in each of their cars for members to use when shopping (they said they’d think about it)--and returned excess packaging from mail-order products.
She learned how to make things herself--chocolate syrup, mayonnaise, hand lotion, tooth powder--in order to avoid the plastic packaging the commercial versions come in. All of it went on the blog, including an ill-fated attempt to make liquid soap by dissolving a solid block in boiling water (the conclusion: “Bar soap does not make great liquid soap”).
Terry’s campaign to get Clorox to recycle the disposable filters on its popular Brita water pitchers was covered by the New York Times and other newspapers, and she was interviewed on American Public Media’s Marketplace as part of the radio program’s “trash challenge.” By the end of 2008, the number of daily hits on her site had grown exponentially, and she had inspired others to start similar blogs and write their own letters and e-mails. She had changed her shopping and eating habits, and had successfully tested the blog as an effective citizen action tool in the effort to cut plastic consumption.
On a rainy winter morning, Coast & Ocean met with Terry over coffee at the Crepevine restaurant in Oakland’s Rockridge District. A small, athletic woman with short dark hair and glasses, she sparkled with energy and enthusiasm for her subject.