GLENVILLE – At the Glenville Library, during a program called “Life in the Sea,” children wiggle with excitement.
When the presenter, “Blastoff” Brandon, asks what animals they might see in the ocean, the kids jump up from their seats and the room explodes with voices.
“Jellyfish, crabs, whales!” one girl says. “Sharks, octopus, fishes!” adds a little boy. “Clams, starfish, seals!” another girl cries out.
Then Brandon holds up a plastic shopping bag, the kind that’s banned in New York state.
“How many of you have seen a plastic bag floating in the ocean?”
The hands shoot up.
“Can they eat this?”
“No,” the children answer emphatically.
“It’s really important to pick up after yourself when you go to the beach,” Brandon tells them. “It harms our sea creatures.”
For adults, the question of what to do about all the plastic in our oceans, rivers, lakes and landfills is not so simple.
The problem is huge, says Margie Shepard, a longtime volunteer with Sustainable Saratoga, a nonprofit environmental education and advocacy organization. “And it’s being run by the plastics industry, which cannot stop coming up with new and unnecessary plastic.”
When a writer for The Gazette visited Shepard’s home in Saratoga Springs, the first thing Shepard did was unroll a 25-foot-long paper scroll inscribed with the handwritten names of hundreds of household items.
“I took an inventory of how many things in my home were made of plastic,” Shepard explains.
On her kitchen table she points to what looks like a bar of soap, which she uses in place of shampoo in a plastic bottle, and a brown packaging material that can replace polystyrene foam. It’s made of mushroom mycelium and produced by Ecovative, a Capital Region biotech company.
“I try very hard to keep my eyes open to ways I can reduce my own plastic,” she says.
“It’s insane,” says Gina Michelin, a lifelong environmentalist who is the community-relations coordinator at Saratoga Springs Public Library. “Less than 10% of all the plastic that’s ever been created since 1950 has been recycled.”
At Capital Region libraries, including in Saratoga Springs and Glenville, the summer education theme was “Ocean of Possibilities.” Inspired by that, Michelin, who has an environmental science degree, decided to create “The Plastics Problem: Tips to Reduce Plastics in Your Everyday Life,” a program for adults that she presented Aug. 4 and hopes to present again.
“It’s an extremely serious issue. There are literally mountains of plastic all over this planet,” Michelin says.
She’s on a mission to eliminate single-use plastic, which includes items such as coffee-cup lids, water bottles, restaurant takeout containers, straws, shopping bags, produce containers, eating utensils and containers for shampoo, body wash, cosmetics and cleaning supplies.
“Forty percent of our plastics problem — the plastics in the ocean, the plastics in the landfills — is single-use plastic,” says Michelin. “We need plastics in different areas of life. Plumbing, electrical and in the medical field. It has a positive place in modern society. But if we got rid of single-use plastics, we’re cutting back this problem by 40%.”
Shepard and Michelin agree that recycling can be challenging.
“If I find it confusing, imagine busy people who are trying to do their best,” says Shepard. “We have a long way to go to make that situation better.”
She suggests consumers learn as much as they can.
“Some of the recycling companies will allow you to visit their sorting facility. I did that and I recommend it. People are still skeptical about whether things are being dumped into the garbage. So go and see these amazing places. It’s a combination of human effort and machines.”
“It’s not easy,” says Michelin, because you can’t trust the recycling symbol on all plastic containers.
“If you are going into your produce section of your store, and you are looking at all this boxed lettuce and boxed herbs and boxed berries, and they are all in those clamshells, they can’t be recycled even though they have that little triangle on the bottom.”
Shepard and Michelin have changed how they shop. Both women put fruits and veggies in mesh or cloth bags that they keep in their cars instead of using the store’s plastic produce bags.
“If I see two things containing the same food item that I want, I’ll buy the one that’s most recyclable,” Shepard says. “And it’s much easier now to find stores that have bulk shopping. Everyone can find something to [change] with their shopping.”
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“We’ve never had more choices than we have now,” says Michelin. “Because we have so many choices, this is where people have the power.”
The other thing to watch for, she says, is buying things on impulse that you don’t really need.
“We need to dial it back. I go back to my childhood and being raised by people who reused everything. Now we have too much of everything.”
Like Shepard, Michelin is always discovering environmentally sustainable products. She uses a refillable deodorant, bamboo toothbrushes and toothpaste pills called Bite, which come in a glass bottle.
“I use silicone bags instead of Ziplocs. You wash them.”
Instead of plastic wrap, she likes covers made of beeswax for her bowls. Her latest find is Hold On, a company that makes compostable trash bags.
Shepard and Michelin store staples such as grains and legumes in glass containers. A rodent invasion spurred Shepard to make the switch in her kitchen.
Mice had chewed through a plastic bottle of vegetable oil and she found them dead, floating in the bottle. “I took everything edible out of plastic and cardboard, and I collected glass jars,” she says.
Michelin and her husband recently reorganized the pantry in their Greenfield Center home using glass containers.
“It can create a beautiful home. I love going into my laundry room and seeing my three cleaning products in glass bottles instead of a plastic bucket of plastic bottles and sprays.”
If you need help moving away from plastic, Shepard recommends “The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide” by Jen Gale.
“I loved her approach,” Shepard says. “You can’t do everything. You do what you can. And people learn from each other.”
Michelin suggests picking one thing in your house to change.
“Have fun with it. It can be like a game,” she says.
Sustainable Saratoga will answer questions about recycling all kinds of things, not just plastic, if you send an email to [email protected]
Sustainable Saratoga also has upcoming events: Saratoga Recycle Day on Saturday, Oct. 1, in the parking lot at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center; Paint Collection Day on Sunday, Oct. 2, in the SPAC parking lot; and Repair Café on Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.
For more info, visit sustainablesaratoga.org.
Cutting back on plastic
The state Department of Environmental Conservation offers these tips on how to “precycle,” which means reducing household plastic by not bringing it into your home.
* Look for food items without packaging; shop in the bulk section and the produce aisle.
* Bring your own reusable produce and bulk food bags to the store.
* Look for reusable and refillable packaging.
* Buy refillable milk and soda containers.
*Switch to a reusable razor.
*Use a travel mug or reusable water bottle.
*Use reusable containers and silverware for leftovers when you go out to eat.
* Buy reusable food storage bags.
Tips from Gina
* Change your focus: Reduce or reuse instead of just recycling.
* If you have a product that you love but feel it could be packaged differently, write the company.
* Cook more, buy less takeout and prepackaged food.
* Shop local.