Lynne Garell: Cut down on use of plastics

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— Plastic is everywhere these days, and it's hard to imagine that most of the plastics we use today weren't even invented a mere 60 years ago. Saran Wrap was introduced in 1953, Ziploc bags in 1968. It would be challenging to identify every plastic thing you use in the course of a day. Plastics have become so popular because they're cheap and durable. They can take many different forms (which is how they got their name), and they have become so useful that it can be difficult to imagine how we solved certain problems - like food storage - without plastic.

I'm not here to advocate completely getting rid of plastics in our lives, but I do want to raise awareness about how much of it we use and what happens to plastic after it goes into the garbage.

The very thing that makes plastic so useful is what makes it so dangerous: plastic does not biodegrade. There is no natural process for breaking down plastic. A discarded piece of plastic goes into a landfill or into the water supply, and much of it ends up in the ocean. It starts to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it never completely goes away. The tiniest pieces of plastic are called nurdles.

Nurdles absorb toxic chemicals; pollutants can be as much as a million times more concentrated in plastic than in water. Nurdles are eaten by small animals which then are eaten by larger animals and birds. These nurdles can poison the animals, or lead to deadly blockages. The impact on the food chain is not yet known.

Although it may be difficult to get rid of all the plastic that already is out there, we certainly can take some steps to minimize the amount we use and discard. Here are a few places to start:

1. Get a good water filter, attach it to your kitchen faucet, and drink filtered water instead of bottled water. This is one of the biggest steps you can take. It is estimated that 75 percent of water bottles are just thrown away. On top of that, plastic can leach chemicals into the food or fluids contained in it. Home-filtered water is much cheaper and safer.

Along with filtering your own drinking water, it's a good idea to find a stainless steel or aluminum water bottle to carry with you. There are several companies making these, and several local stores carry them.

2. Start taking reusable bags to the grocery store. The petroleum and other resources needed to make 14 plastic bags equal the resources used to drive the average car one mile.

3. Be aware of how many things you buy that are packaged in plastic. How many of those items can be purchased without all the plastic? Salad greens are a good example. Instead of buying a plastic box or bag with mixed lettuces, ask the store to carry bulk and bring your own bag.

Another example is office supplies. I used to be able to buy one or two pens. Now, it seems that I have to buy eight pens, packaged in what I call "weapons-grade plastic" (because it's so easy to cut my hand when I try to pry the package open). If enough of us ask for less packaging, the stores might start listening.

4. Plastics have taken over the food storage market, but there are other options. Instead of Saran Wrap, try reusable materials, such as flat silicone lids, that work both in the refrigerator and on the stove. We have a few of these, and they work beautifully.

And how about food storage containers? We use glass or ceramic. These two materials last a lifetime, and they have the advantage of not retaining flavors. This is good, because in our house the container might be used for spicy chili one week and fruit the next.

I think fewer nurdles would be a good thing. If each of us can make a few small changes, together we'll have a huge impact.

Garell is interested in sustainability and local food, and she lives with her husband, Dale Morris, in Steamboat Springs.

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