The Plastics Problem
The news is full of the worldwide problem with plastic. We read that the oceans are full of plastic, fish are full of plastic. There is some exciting ocean cleanup work being done, but what can we do to help? Here in the US, at least in some areas like the Pacific Northwest, we have excellent recycling of plastics, and we can hope that is helping. But what about at sea? Our last trip we waited to dispose of everything on land, but what happens to that trash? We can’t assume it is going to be handled responsibly, especially on small islands with limited resources. Surely it is not appropriate for us to add to their problems.
Besides these environmental issues, there are the practical issues. Hauling around plastic that is difficult to dispose of is a pain, especially on a small boat. We don’t feel bad about tossing glass and metal overboard in the middle of the ocean. Paper can be compacted and we save until we are on land. But plastic, particularly plastic bottles, are bulky and inconvenient to store. There must be a better way.
For this next voyage, I am committed to dramatically reducing the use of single-use plastics onboard. But where to start?
Quit Drinking Soda and Bottled Water!
More than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day – a total of about 22 billion last year. Six times as many plastic water bottles were thrown away in the US in 2004 as in 1997.
The first step seems to be figuring out the big-win items. What single-use plastics do we use repeatedly? I’m not immediately worried about a piece of tupperware that I already own and plan to use throughout the voyage. When I’m ready to dispose of that I will find a responsible way to do it. That is not so likely with a used toothpaste tube! But almost everything in liquid form comes in a plastic bottle and many dry items as well. Here are the ones I’ve come up with that we use and dispose of constantly:
- Personal Hygiene Items: Toothbrushes and toothpaste; shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, hand soap; lotions; suntan products and aloe; makeup applicators and products
- Cleaning Agents: bleach, vinegar, cleaners, waxes, laundry detergent etc
- Prescriptions, Vitamins and Supplement bottles
- Drinks: water bottles, juice bottles, soft drinks, some alcohol
So logically there are three solutions – 1. do without the offending item; 2. find a substitute for the item; 3. make it yourself and store in glass or metal or reusable plastic containers. Let’s look at each of these areas.
First option: Do without
Each person has to decide for themselves what, if any items fall into this category. I gleefully put makeup into that category for myself – finally, I had an excuse not to bring it – but many would feel uncomfortable about that. Hair Dye? Maybe go back to have it done, less frequently, by a salon. Or go gray! Reducing the kinds of cleaning agents we use might be possible – lots of cleaning can be done just with vinegar. Shampoo and conditioner? Read about the “No Poo” movement and see if this is a possibility for you. Soap Nuts advocates urge us to ditch the conventional laundry detergent and use a natural product that can be stored in a cotton bag. Examine the plastic containers on your boat and see what you can live without.
Second Option: Find Substitutes
There are things that we currently use in plastic containers for which there are non-plastic alternatives. Let’s look at a few of these.
Most liquid soaps come in plastic bottles or are refilled with plastic containers. Here are substitutes for some common products:
- Laundry Detergent is easy to get in powder form, although frequently there will be a plastic bag inside the cardboard box. I don’t like cardboard on my boat, but I could put this into a a reusable container once I get it to the boat. I hear good things about a soap that comes in a cotton bag – Grandma’s Laundry Soap. It has no scents or dyes and is great for people with skin issues. Another recommended product, Pure Laundry Soap Powder, is made in Canada and comes in a paper bag. And now Seventh Generation provides a cardboard bottle for liquid soap!
- Shampoo bar soaps come wrapped in paper and so would be a great alternative to shampoo bottles.
- Conditioner helps tame unruly hair, makes hair easier to comb through, and seems a necessity to many of us. Several people have suggested their own method – using a small amount of coconut oil – just moisten your fingers with it and spread through the hair to make comb-out easier and your hair soft and manageable.
- Liquid hand soaps can easily be replaced with bars. I have a ProVenDi wall-mounted soap holder in the head that is ideal for a boat – you don’t need two hands to use it! These soap bars last a long time – years – and can easily be replaced by removing the bolt at the end and slipping on a new soap.
- Body Wash – most of us could live without the convenience of liquid soap in the bath and substitute paper-wrapped bar soaps instead. One example is Dr. Bronner’s bar soap and I recommend using it with a soap sack. The sack, if properly hung to dry, keeps the soap dry between uses and allows you to use up the ends of the soap as well. Just rub the sack on your body to suds up. There is a nice cotton/hemp version and a rougher sisal version as well as a netting version shown at right.
Water bottles long ago were banished from our home and we have metal bottles to be filled manually. I like the ones with built-in flip straws (so you don’t have to turn them upside down to drink) such as HydroFlask or Nathan.
Soft drinks and juices generally come in plastic bottles as well. Soft drinks and most sweet juices are of course terrible for you, so first I’d like to persuade you to drink water or green tea! But I realize we can’t easily change our bad habits, and have even less control over our crew members, so … do what you can. Metal cans are better for the environment, so that’s one way to go. Some drinks, like Gatorade, come powdered or in liquid form – the powdered will generally save you some plastic packaging.
Oils come in both plastic and glass. Although I don’t like to have a lot of glass on the boat, it would be reasonable to have a larger glass container and a smaller reusable plastic dispenser that you fill from the larger one. If you store the large glass one securely, maybe with a sock on it, it will be safer from breakage. For oils, I like the Evo spray containers and now they come in glass or stainless as well as plastic!
Coconut oil and Ghee both come in plastic or glass jars. The glass is better, but if you get the wide-mouth plastic jars they are sturdy enough to be reused to store leftovers. So if you believe you’ll wash the container and reuse it, go for it.
There is no excuse for the toothbrushes available today – hunks of plastic that each person is supposed to throw away 3 or 4 times a year. The picture at right was taken on Midway, an uninhabited island in the Pacific (plastic pollution story here). There are beginning to be alternatives to our plastic toothbrushes. The most responsible I’ve found are the bamboo toothbrushes with organic nylon (as opposed to petrochemical nylon) bristles that decompose in four months. Here are some choices:
- Dr.Perfect Bamboo Toothbrush – these are a great price but the flat handle is not comfortable for me. How comfortable does a toothbrush need to be? This may be a first-world problem I need to get over.
- Purity Brush is my favorite. The round handle is comfortable and the bristles are soft.
- Goodwell is slightly preferred by my husband. It also has a round handle and comes is two colors to help you differentiate which is whose.
- Humble Brush is another flat handle, but they donate one for each one bought.
What about suntan lotion? Believe it or not, there are more sustainable options for this as well. First, hats, rash guards and lightweight clothing can reduce your need for all-over lotion. But you will still need suntan lotion at times. What to do? I found one promising product that has good reviews but I have not been in enough sun to test it out thoroughly myself. I promise to report back this summer. It is powdered suntan lotion which, sadly comes in a plastic container. With twice as much sunscreen ingredient as most lotions, it can be applied in a very light layer with good results. Applying it will need some kind of brush; I chose this makeup brush, shown at right, which should last a long time. Also note that this 100% mineral sunscreen is safe for coral reefs! I will continue to look for this solution in a cardboard or metal container.
There are silicone wraps and stretchy silicone lids and beeswax wraps as well as whatever containers you use to store leftovers. And of course, aluminum foil, which recycles better than plastic. I like the beeswax wraps, they have a pleasant beeswax scent that I find pleasant but some don’t like. They work well to keep moisture in (or out), even on bread. I haven’t used the silicone wraps, but there are some brands that are getting good reviews.
Third Option: Common hygiene items you can make yourself
This is where I found many solutions that, for me, were enjoyable to make and gave additional benefits such as cost (much cheaper!) and control of the ingredients. With a few common ingredients, you can make toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, and lip balm, all with food-grade ingredients. These main ingredients include:
- coconut oil
- almond oil or other liquid oils such as grapeseed or olive oil
- shea butter or other “butters” such as mango or cocoa
- beeswax (get the pastille form which is easier to measure)
- baking soda
- cornstarch and/or arrowroot
- optional ingredients such as titanium dioxide (sunscreen) or vitamin E
- optional essential oils for scent or health benefits
These products can all be made in small batches on your boat and then stored in plastic, metal, or glass containers that you reuse each time. They generally require a finger to dispense (or get fancy and use tongue depressors). But since all these products are food-grade getting them on your finger is no problem. It might take some time to get used to applying deodorant to your armpit or toothpaste to your brush with your finger, but you’ll get over it.
Here are some of my favorite recipes:
For making these you will generally need to melt the various oils together, and then add the other ingredients. A useful pot for doing this is a Turkish Coffee Maker and the small size and pouring lip make it particularly useful. This one holds about 3 cups. A butter warmer type pan would also work. A small whisk can also be useful to add in the dry ingredients.
You can also make dish soap, shampoo, and body washes, but the main ingredient is Castile soap (like Dr. Bronner’s) and this comes in a plastic container, so there is really no savings. For all these products you can just substitute Castile soaps anyway.
Up Your Game
There are many things we can do to reduce our dependence on single-use plastics. Whether we discontinue use of optional products, substitute ecological ones, or make our own to save money and control quality we are making small and important movements towards a more sensible lifestyle. Go for it!