I met Steffi Albedhyl from Iserlohn, Germany in 1994 when she was 16 years old sitting at my parent’s kitchen table. Steffi was an exchange student who stayed with my parents for a year while I went off to my first year of college. Since then, we have stayed in touch and kept up with each other’s dynamically changing lives.
Throughout her adult life, Steffi has been interested in environmental issues such as ocean conservation and eating a plant based vegetarian diet.
Two years ago, Steffi and her partner Toby embarked upon a plastic-free lifestyle. She wanted to take a step in the right direction toward a zero waste lifestyle. Steffi was partially inspired by the movie “The Story of Stuff” and also by the book “Besser leben ohne Plastik” (Better Life Without Plastic) by Annelise Bunk and Nadine Schubert.
But what really made Steffi and Toby adopt this lifestyle happened in the kitchen. Steffi likes to cook with fresh produce, using organic fruits and vegetables. One day, she noticed that her organic vegetables were wrapped in plastic. She stopped to think, “Hmm!”
The reason she was cooking vegetarian food with fresh organic vegetables was to live with the environment in a sustainable way, and here was plastic, a material that does not easily degrade and often fills up a landfill, wrapped around a beautiful organic vegetable. It just did not make sense.
So, Steffi decided, let’s live with as little plastic as possible in our home! And Toby decided to run with the idea as well. In two years Steffi and Toby have made the following changes to their everyday life:
- Replace household plastic storage containers with stainless steel, metal, wood, glass as the plastic ones wear out
- Shop at:
- the farmer’s market for as many food ingredients as possible with a reed basket to hold purchases
- a family owned dairy farm store where products are sold in glass and returnable plastic containers in which you pay a deposit
- whole foods store and buy in bulk with containers from home
- the bakery with containers from home (and coffee cup from home for a cup of coffee!)
- Gave up:
- convenience snacks as they all come in plastic wrappers
- breakfast cereal as it comes in a plastic bag within the box
- most non-franchise family owned fast food restaurants in town that serve their products on plastic plates (except for pizza that always comes in a box!)
- Makes some of their own household products that always come in plastic containers, in particular:
- Toothpaste (baking soda, coconut oil, birch sugar and essential oil for flavor)
- Lotion bars (beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil, essential oil for fragrance)
- Household cleaner (citric acid and water)
- Dish detergent (raw shredded aleppo soap, hot water, essential oils, washing soda)
- Laundry detergent (same ingredients as dish detergent in different proportions)
- Make more gifts for friends, especially gifts for friends’ children from fabric and unfinished oiled wood rather than plastic and wood finished with plastic materials
Steffi says it was hard at first when she and Toby embarked upon this adventure because so many parts of their lives were touched by plastic. It was really embedded! It took a lot of research online and in the community to find the products and businesses that they needed for everyday life. For example, for a long time, Steffi could not find a place to buy cottage cheese that did not come in a plastic container. After years of no cottage cheese, she realized that there was a small family owned farm store next to her place of work that would sell dairy products to her in reusable containers. It had been hiding in plain sight all of that time!
Thus, Steffi says she got into the habit of asking herself, “Do I really need this?” to every product that was touched by plastic. “It made me very conscious of what we bought, especially luxury goods.” Steffi described finding stainless steel straws at the marketplace and thinking, “What a great product to replace the plastic straws!” Then she thought, “Oh wait! We don’t use straws at all!” So, no purchase at all needed.
Buying plastic-free in a plastic world takes a lot of planning. Since Steffi shops at only specific places that aren’t always conveniently located, she pays attention to the plans of friends. “When I hear my friend is going to the big box store, I make sure I ask her to pick up a few special items for me to save a long day of travel out of our little town,” she explains.
Sometimes shopping with Steffi can be a little awkward as well. “I’m the person always tapping on the bottles to see if they are made of plastic or glass. You see me tap, tap, tapping on bottles and you might give me a strange look. And I get even stranger looks when people see me rattling a box to see if there is a plastic bag or plastic insert inside.”
And even with all of the changes they have made, there are still a lot left to go. Steffi is a crafter and it is difficult to find machinery and crafting tools that are plastic free, such as paper cutters, that include plastic parts that wear out. And Steffi is not willing to give all things up that are not plastic free such as rice, tissues and tea. For some reason, she cannot find rice in bulk in her vicinity, always in plastic bags. Small tissue packages are also always in plastic and tea, even if it is loose tea, always comes in a plastic wrapped container to preserve freshness. But, these are just challenges that Steffi is still researching to find solutions.
Despite all of the hard work, Steffi is glad she and Toby have taken on the challenge. “Personally, I think my life is better – I have less asthma, better skin and fewer migranes.” Steffi is not sure how much benefit is directly from having less plastic in her life or living a simpler life from cutting down on the number of things she buys and stores she visits. But she has enjoyed benefits from the challenge all the same. “I like to tell people [about going plastic-free] and have inspired other people to take up the challenge too.” Her advice to anyone that wants to go plastic-free is to “Take it step by step. It is a long term project. Start by asking yourself before you buy anything with plastic – do I really need this now or do I have time to research it? Can I make it myself?”
She also adds, “You need to be able to go the extra mile because the world is not there yet.” We still live in a world filled with plastic. Perhaps it will change one day though. She leaves us with a quote from Anna Lappé, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”