Interview with Chantal Plamondon
Q: Having your son in 2003 was a pivotal moment for you and your husband Jay in the creation of your online company Life Without Plastic. How did becoming parents spark your mission to help others reduce their dependence on plastic products?
A: When becoming responsible for another person’s health and well-being, parents often seek advice and research information on how to give their child the best possible upbringing. This is what Jay and I were doing when our son Jyoti was born and this is how we came across a magazine article that discussed new research showing adverse hormonal effects on children in contact with some types of plastics. We looked around us only to realize that our apartment at the time was filled with plastic products, including baby dishes and toys our son was exposed to every day. So, we started searching the Internet and looking around for non-plastic replacements. Back in 2003, this was a difficult endeavor as very few alternatives existed. So, we decided to find what we needed and buy extra stock for other parents who might be going through the same kind of questioning search. This is how LifeWithoutPlastic.com was born.
Q: It seems you can find products labeled “green” and “eco-friendly” everywhere these days. How can consumers spot “greenwashing” easily and effectively?
A: We are at the age of the informed consumer. So much information is now available at one’s fingertips. When consumers are informed about the chemistry of plastic additives, about the recycling process, about the way that plastics degrade in nature, they can start making their own assessment of the value of a product that claims to be environmentally-friendly. This is why we’ve written our book. We explain all these concepts in simple logical terms so that consumers can detect the greenwashing from afar. A prime example of greenwashing is neoprene used for lunch bags and clothing. It is a plastic-based material that is made of toxic additives, is not recyclable, and degrades slowly into millions of microscopic plastic particles that infuse the air we breathe or end up in the soil or in our waterways.
Yet, it is described by many retailers as eco-friendly because it is lead-free, vinyl-free and PVC-free. It is deemed eco-friendly not for what it is intrinsically, but rather for what it is not. An informed customer would be able to see through the smoke screen easily and decide against this product.
Q: You run an online store that sells everything from glass water bottles to bamboo straws to natural bug repellant. As consumer awareness increases, how has your company and its mission evolved?
A: We started out dealing with essential plastic-free products that were really difficult to find anywhere such as glass baby bottles, which were being phased out by large manufacturers at the time when we started 11 years ago. Eventually, we started adding more items in order to become the one-stop shop where anyone interested in ridding his or her life of plastics can now get practically anything they need to start on their plastic-free journey. The next project we want to implement is a subscription program where customers can have plastic-free essentials delivered to their door on a regular basis (lifewithoutplastic.com/subscription-box).
Q: Beyond your retail business, you both work hard to educate and inform consumers about the negative impacts of plastic products. You just released a book, fittingly, titled Life Without Plastic: The Practical Step-By-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy. Tell us a bit about the book and who you hope it appeals to.
A: Yes, education, awareness-building, and information-sharing are key aspects of our mission, as we are a mission-based business. The book is something we had been thinking about doing for years, and we are extremely pleased with the way it has turned out. It’s an accessible primer on the plastics issue from both the health and environmental angles – providing solid references from the top researchers around the world – and it’s an easily actionable how-to guide chock full of tips and tools for living with less plastic. We show you how to do a plastic audit of your life and home, and then we go through each room of the house, and various activities in life – school, gym, office, travel – offering up suggestions on ways to avoid and use less plastic. And we also offer up ways to radiate a plastic-free existence by getting involved in awareness-building activities, such as beach clean-ups, citizen science initiatives, and found plastic art projects.
We’ve already had wonderfully encouraging feedback about the book. One writer for Treehugger.com has described it as her “go-to reference on plastic safety” and a book “everyone should read”. We think it will appeal to both those who are completely new to the issue and wondering how to get started on reducing the plastic in their lives, and to seasoned plastic avoidance experts. We stress easy, one-at-a-time, individual actions taken without feeling overwhelm from the global nature of the issue, or guilt from not feeling like one is doing enough. Simple steps toward meaningful goals. We introduce you to a whole community of plastic-free living enthusiasts out there, and we provide a comprehensive resources section for literally hundreds of plastic-free alternatives suppliers – from the obvious to the arcane – as well as books, films, videos, and blog suggestions.
Q: Plastic is, undoubtedly, everywhere and avoiding it completely seems impossible at this point. Are there any plastic products that you just can’t seem to avoid yourself?
A: There are many. My computer, for example, has many plastic components and I use it every single day. I play a lot of tennis and tennis balls are covered with a nylon shell. Sports shoes are practically not available without plastic and I use them often. Plastic is a fantastic material that is water resistant and long lasting. The problem lies in the development of single-use item designed to be discarded after a single use. We need to develop ways to recycle or transform plastic trash in a way that it can be repurposed without causing harm to the environment.
Q: What are the top 3 worst plastic offenders that we should aim to eliminate ASAP (and why)?
The worst offenders are single-use disposable plastics. Things like plastic bags, plastic water bottles and plastic straws. All of these are generally used for minutes and then discarded. Take plastic straws, for instance; about 500 million are used in the U.S. every single day. That’s 175 billion annually in the U.S. alone. While many hope these types of plastics are recycled, the reality is that most are actually not. In fact, only about 9% of all plastics are recycled. Many plastics end up in landfills, or as we are seeing more and more, as environmental pollution. In the marine environment, this plastic may well be eaten or nibbled at by wildlife, slowly poisoning them.
All three of these major plastic pollution culprits are so easily replaceable with reusable alternatives like cotton bags, and glass or stainless steel bottles and straws.
A: You have been leading the fight against plastic for over a decade now with your husband Jay. How do you both draw the line between “work” and “personal” time?
This has been an ongoing challenge for Jay and I. Getting an office outside our home has helped tremendously in creating this distinction between work and personal time, but we often find ourselves typing away on work-related emails late into the night while sitting at the kitchen table or on the living room sofa. But while we do need time away from running the business to recharge our batteries, so many of the plastic-free living tips and tools we suggest to people are now just part of our everyday life. They’ve become habits; our normal way of living, and we don’t even think twice about them or have to put in any real effort. They are just part of our routine. Things like packing waste-free lunches, or always have a reusable bag, bottle and utensils on hand when going out.
Q: There’s a lot more awareness about the negative environmental and personal health impacts of using plastics. Yet, the population continues to swell and cheap/disposable products continue to flood the market. Big picture: is it getting better or worse?
A: On the bright side, as you mentioned, consumers, in general, are so much more aware. When we started 10 years ago, people bringing their own reusable grocery bags was still rare. Now it’s a generalized habit. We hope the same phenomenon will happen with reusable utensils, straws, and containers. We’re happy to see more see zero-waste grocery stores popping up across the world…
On the other hand, we’ve also witnessed large companies switching their packaging from glass to plastic (i.e.; mayonnaise and ketchup packaging). Glass is inert and safer for your health. It is also infinitely recyclable, which makes it an ideal packaging alternative. With the lower demand for glass containers, glass recycling is diminishing so that more of these containers bypass the recycling plant and go straight to landfill. This is unfortunate because the plastic containers that are replacing the glass containers can only be downcycled for a limited number of times and into lower quality products, meaning the recycling material resulting from the recycling of plastic cannot be used to make another complete food packaging container. This means that more virgin plastic is increasingly being used. What we need are new packaging solutions that incorporate a cradle to cradle approach where the material can be 100% reused for a similar use, forever.
The amount of plastic being produced globally still increases every year. We need to decrease the demand for plastic by avoiding it and using alternatives. And we need to move toward a circular economy where plastics never become waste; rather they re-enter the economy through reuse and recycling. A plastic product design revolution needs to happen, so the plastics are designed from the start to never become waste. And this is beginning to happen with some of the largest consumer product corporations in the world adopting circular economy principles and moving slowly toward zero waste.
Q: You describe yourselves as activists for a ‘plastic-free planet’ – what gives you hope?
A: Ah, there is so much reason for hope and optimism. Waves of awareness about plastic pollution and toxicity issues are building all over the world, in schools, businesses, newsrooms, public policy think tanks, research labs, United Nations conferences, government departments, villages and urban metropolises – and of course in homes. Yes, awareness is literally exploding as people see videos and news reports of whales and turtles dying excruciating deaths caused by plastic they mistake for food strangling them from the inside by filling their intestines. And they hear about microplastic particles now being present in our air and water and as a layer across the surface of the Earth, from the Himalayan peaks to ocean depths.
All this disturbing information and the stunning images are jolting people into action like never before. The whole zero waste movement has taken off really just in the past couple of years, but it is now a global phenomenon.
And an enormous source of hope are the children and youths who are taking action to find solutions to plastic pollution and toxicity problems. For example, Carter and Olivia Reis, who started the non-profit One More Generation, have created a whole plastic pollution education curriculum they distribute to schools all over the world. And then there is the annual Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions (POPS) Summit organized by Algalita Marine Research and Education. It’s a three-day educational program that convenes 90 students from around the world to lead the charge to launch and implement action-oriented solutions to reduce plastic waste in their home communities.
Article by Kim D’Eon