The Connection Was Made

The Connection Was Made:
An Interview with Beth Terry, the Plastic-free Woman
by Eric Daniel Metzgar

In 2007 Beth Terry read a news article titled "Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic...Are We?" She had encountered this sort of gloomy information before, but this article had an unprecedented effect. After reading it, she decided to stop buying new plastic. That was three years ago. Since then, she has been on a mission to live a plastic-free life and to educate others (without preaching, she hopes) about the ills of plastic consumption.

Beth was gracious enough to grant us an interview.

Q: Beth, we are overwhelmed with information about environmental problems. You had encountered depressing facts, photos and statistics about plastic before reading the article that changed your life. What was it about this piece of information that triggered action?

BT: More than the article, it was the photo that changed my life. Prior to that evening, I'd heard that there were chemicals in plastic that could leach into your food. I knew that plastic wasn't biodegradable and was filling up landfills somewhere. But these weren't problems that carried real urgency for me. Toxic chemicals might have been scary, but they were invisible and no worse in my mind than other unhealthy habits I might have had, like eating too much fattening food or not getting enough exercise. And as far as plastic waste, once the garbage truck came, it was out of sight, out of mind.

Then, I saw a photo of a dead albatross chick carcass filled with plastic pieces, and I was utterly stunned. Here was tangible evidence of direct harm. The connection was made. My actions had a direct impact on creatures thousands of miles away that I hadn't previously known existed, and not just in a theoretical way. My reaction was visceral. I knew I had to change.

Q: How did it feel to begin making the changes in your life?

BT: At first, it felt like an adventure. I took field trips to stores and recycling centers to learn as much as I could about plastic and plastic-free alternatives. I was solving real-life puzzles. And it was gratifying to see my plastic waste drop as I changed my habits and learned how to live without it. Instead of feeling guilty or ashamed about my plastic waste, I posted my results on the blog and looked at it methodically, as a scientist would.

Q: Let's say you walk into a grocery store and head to the produce section. There you find a horde of busy people stuffing their fruits and veggies and bulk goods into plastic bags. If for a moment they all stopped and gave you their full attention, what would you say to them?

BT: I'd ask them to stop and look at the plastic in their hands and ask themselves why it was necessary. I'd remind them that fruits and vegetables grow in the dirt, and that it's really okay to put their apples and cucumbers and broccoli in the same bag "naked." I'd ask them to think about the irony of putting healthy foods fruits and vegetables into a material whose manufacture is so toxic to the planet and which may contain toxic chemicals that can leach right back into their healthy foods. And then I'd challenge them to make their purchases without plastic, just that one time and see how it went.

Stridence doesn't work. Trying to make people feel guilty only turns them off. What works is assuming that people are doing the best they can for their current level of awareness and encouraging them to challenge their assumptions and try to see the possibilities for living in a different way.

Q: Our shoppers can look on your website for all sorts of practical information and tips, but in a nutshell, could you describe your 'plastic-free' shopping process?

BT: I choose to shop at stores that provide foods like beans, nuts, grains, flour, pasta, dried fruit, cereal, etc. in bulk bins. Then, I shop the perimeter of the store and rely less on the processed foods in the aisles. I buy produce "naked" instead of using any kind of bag. For bulk foods, I bring my own bags and containers and first have them weighed at the customer service desk so that the weight of the container can be deducted from the total weight at checkout. I choose dairy products in returnable glass jars and bottles when possible, bread in paper bags or my own bags for loose breads like bagels (I also shop a local bakery where I can have whole loaves put in my own cloth bags.), and ask to have meat and cheeses cut and put into my own stainless steel containers. For the few processed foods I do buy (spaghetti sauce, for example) I choose glass jars and reuse them to store all kinds of food in the pantry, refrigerator, and even the freezer. It should go without saying that I don't buy bottled water and that I carry all my purchases home in a reusable grocery bag or my backpack or purse.

Q: What allows you to maintain your commitment?

Seeing how my blog is helping to inspire and motivate others. Many people are participating in the Show Your Plastic Trash Challenge and learning about their own plastic footprint and what they can do to reduce it. When you use your own life as an example for others, you really can't backtrack.

What's more, the picture of that dead albatross has never left my consciousness. It's always there when I have choices to make about buying plastic.

More about Beth Terry and her plastic-free life can be found at, including her inspiring blog and many tips for reducing our plastic consumption.


Orion Montoya said…
Does the Coop's checkout system allow us to subtract the weight of our bulk containers? I would love to do this but I've never seen anyone do it.r
Cynthia said…
The checkout system does not allow us to subtract the weight of bulk containers at this point, but it is something we are interested in adding. Two of our committee members will be doing a brief presentationat the beginning of tonight's GM about some of our plans to reduce plastic usage--stop by if you can.
David said…
Beth Terry's suggestions are great as far as they go, but there are still some issues I can't as yet get around, like refrigerating for any length of time green leafy vegetables and some root vegetables like carrots. They simply last longer when in plastic bags. My only solution for using less plastic, which I'm not at all happy with, is to use the same plastic bags over and over again.
Jenna said…
@Orion: Thanks for your comment. Several members of the Environmental Committee, including myself, have been looking for solutions to get around the checkout system-tare weight problem. Most other Coops allow for this feature, either at checkout or in the bulk aisle.

We are planning to propose a solution to the General Managers. Suggestions are welcome!
Jenna said…
@David: Nice to see you at the GM meeting on Tuesday!

Checkout my Caring For and Using Muslin Bags post.

You can also try storing in glass, wood, or metal containers. Checkout Life Without Plastic.