Culture Shock & Awe

I just recently returned from an incredible trip to Africa with one of my best friends.  I would love to share every single detail of the camel-riding, souks-shopping, safari-camping experience, but alas I know this is not a travel blog.  However, I did observe something that relates to non-toxic living that I wanted to share: lots and lots of trash.

Our travels took us through Morocco, Tanzania, and Zanzibar and it’s difficult to share just one aspect of the trip, especially one like trash which is such a downer compared to every other amazing thing we experienced: flavorful foods, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating people.  But perhaps it is because of all the wonders I saw that I was so shocked and saddened by the endless litter scattered around streets and homes in the places we visited.

Now, America is by no means litter-free, especially in cities like DC.  But visiting countries that are still developing is really eye-opening to just how much an organized trash collection system makes a difference in people’s lives.  And going from the U.S. to Morocco and then onto Tanzania was very interesting because it allowed us to see various levels of development in the world.  

The Moroccan cities we visited had buildings, paved roads, and lots of restaurants and stores.  Garbage was noticeable on many of the busier city streets, and in the medinas (old, walled parts of the cities).  We saw some dumpsters in alleyways as a means of trash collection but they were often overflowing and crawling with dozens of stray cats.  


Then on our first day in Tanzania, we drove through the small city of Arusha.  It was the middle of the day and there were people crowding the streets on foot, on motorbikes, and with wagons full of goods to sell.  One of the many sights that struck me as we drove through the city was how much trash there was ALL over the place.  Plastic, metal, glass.  It was on the streets, and in the bushes, and floating in shallow streams. People of all ages were walking around in it barefoot.  I saw people eat food and then just toss the wrapper right on the ground in front of them.  There was no trash disposal system, at least not on the outskirts of town and out in the countryside.  No public garbage cans let alone recycling bins.  It was mind-blowing to see that kind of poverty and so much trash, especially because just a few miles away were the most beautiful and pristine national parks, full of lush grasslands and exotic wildlife.


At the end of our visit to Tanzania, we had a very heartening experience when we visited Shanga, an open-air workshop in Arusha that employs people with physical disabilities to create beautiful products out of recycled material.  I was incredibly humbled to see such a positive and productive operation.  People who are deaf, or missing limbs from childhood polio would otherwise have no means to make a living for themselves in Arusha.  But here they were part of a supportive community where they could create beautiful art, things like blown glass vases, woven blankets, and beaded jewelry.  To add to the wonder of this place, most of the materials were recycled, like old wine bottles melted to created new glass pieces, and my favorite — a rock tumbler made from a salvaged bicycle tire and an old motor.

My culture-shock coming back to the U.S. was almost as deep as it was arriving in Africa.  I struggled internally with meshing the beauty and luxury I had seen with the destitution and pollution.  I could donate all of my material goods and do volunteer trash collection for the rest of my life and even that wouldn’t make a dent.  What I’m starting to realize is that there are things I can realistically do in my everyday life back here in the U.S. to be impactful.  The first is to continue to cut back on material items that I really don’t need like plastic bags from pharmacies to hold a pack of gum or plastic utensils with a carry-out meal.  Just because I’m lucky enough to live in a place with regular trash pick-up, doesn’t mean I should try to make more trash!  Secondly, I can make a more concerted effort to reuse bottles, boxes, wrapping — anything that can be upcycled (thanks Shanga for the inspiration!).  And thirdly, I can support great organizations like Shanga that make a difference for humanity and for the planet.  If you are interested to learn more or donate, here’s their foundation’s website:  You can also order their beautiful products online!

If ever you have the opportunity to travel abroad, I hope you take it.  It puts so much into perspective.  And the more I see of this world, the more I want to care for it so that future generations can see it too.

Water Bottle Woes

Humans are supposed to drink eight 8-oz. glasses of water a day to stay healthy and hydrated.  And in the past decade, more people actually are reaching for water as their daily thirst-quenching drink rather than soda — a great step towards better health!  But because so many of us are on-the-go, we are much more likely to drink water from bottles in our cars than from glasses sitting at a dining room table.  However, disposable plastic bottles have a huge impact on the environment.water bottle fact text

Most empty water bottles are tossed into a garbage can rather than a recycling bin and end up in a landfill or incinerator.  And by most, I mean billions of them every year.  With billions more to come the next year. The Natural Resources Defense Council states that, “Most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic bottles, but only about 13 percent of the bottles we use get recycled. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic water bottles ended up clogging landfills instead of getting recycled.”

Plastic water bottles also require a huge amount of oil in the process of getting into our hands.  Yes, the trucks and ships that transport pallets of water bottles around the world daily require energy, and don’t forget about the bottles themselves!  Plastic is a petroleum product and water bottle manufacturing in the U.S. alone requires millions of barrels of oil.  Not to mention, when you buy a whole case of water the whole thing comes shrink wrapped in plastic as well.

You can choose help diminish the environmental impact from plastic water bottles with a few simple actions:

  1. Avoid plastic water bottles.  Instead use a water filtration system at work and at home, and use glasses and/or reusable water bottles.  My favorite is the glass Camelbak Eddy
  2. When you must use plastic water bottles, always recycle them.  Even if it’s not convenient and it means carrying around your empty bottle for a while until you spot a recycling container.
  3. Encourage recycling in your community.  If your neighborhood streets and parks have trash bins but no recycling bins, petition your local government.

Also, this quick video does a great job of showing how water bottles are marketed, manufactured and disposed of — with shocking truths all the way through the process…

It’s A Wrap

With the holiday season here, I’m most of the way through packaging up gifts for my loved ones. At this time of year (and let’s be honest, starting at Halloween) beautiful holiday wrapping paper is on sale everywhere you turn. It’s tempting to buy a few rolls every year. However, by noon on Christmas Day the living room floor looks like a disaster area with discarded wrapper paper piles stacked high.  Stanford University estimates that “If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet. If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.” I’ve seen lots of eco-friendly alternatives to traditional wrapping paper like wrapping gifts in newspaper comics or brown butcher paper.  But ultimately that paper will still end up in the recycling bin (or worse, in the trash) after the gifts are torn open. So personally, I’m drawn to gift boxes and bags. They come in every size anyone could possibly need and in festive colors and designs, just like gift wrap.

The best places I’ve found in the DC area for stocking up on gift bags are Homegoods and World Market. Both usually have a great selection and bargain prices. After all the presents are opened, you can round up the gift bags, ribbons, and bows and store them away for next year.  364 days after being tucked away in a box in the back of a closet, and I promise they will seem new and exciting again. This year, I added handmade personal gift tags to each bag that I’d made from scrapbook paper.  You’ll be doing something nice for your loved one and for the planet.

Whatever kind of gift wrap you use, I wish you and your loved ones a happy and healthy holiday!

The Plastic Problem

Learning more about toxic-free living has heightened my awareness of how much plastic I use and waste every day.  It’s in everything from Metro transit cards to sandwich baggies to bottles of soap and beauty products.  So I’m trying to cut back on plastic for two main reasons…

It wasn’t until I started seeing products being marketed as “BPA free” several years ago that I began to wonder what the heck BPA was and why should I be free of it.  Recently I researched more about BPA, which the National Institutes of Healh (NIH) define as, “Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical produced in large quantities for use primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.”  Not only is BPA found in products that we would probably guess like water bottles, take-out food containers, and food packaging but also things like the linings of cooking pots and pans, and reusable metal drink cups, for example.

Even though consumer awareness of BPA has risen in recent years,  detectable levels of BPA were found in 93% of participants ages 6+ in a 2003-2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study.  This data is “considered representative of exposures in the United States. Another reason for concern [about BPA], especially for parents, may be because some animal studies report effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.”

I have become very stringent about using glass food storage containers knowing that almost daily I re-heat leftovers for lunch at work.  I also am moving over to metal and ceramic reusable to-go cups for my morning tea and smoothies.  These containers are a bit heavier and bulkier on the go, but that’s a small burden compared to the potential effect of these chemicals on my body and maybe future Hilary Jrs!

Another reason that I want to try to decrease my “plastic footprint” is to help out poor planet Earth a bit.  A few months ago I heard about something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), which sounded horrifying.  A bit of quick, unreliable Google Image research brought me to this photo:

Manila Harbor

Thankfully, this is not accurate despite looking exactly how I would have pictured a garbage patch.  That is actually a widely-spread photo of Manila harbor.  (Although, it’s still sad that this does exist at all).  The GPGP isn’t a huge floating mass of large pieces of trash that we might imagine from its name but actually a plethora of tiny pieces of plastic that have broken down over time. According to National Geographic, “The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces.  About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year.”  So it’s very possible that a plastic Deer Park water bottle that was in my possession for about 20 minutes more than 6 years ago is now floating in tiny pieces in the ocean.

The garbage patch is a huge problem because it blocks out sunlight that is vital to sea life and therefore the food chain, not to mention that many marine creatures ingest the garbage.  Recycling is a great start but 1) think of all the events or outdoor activities that only provide a garbage can and no recycling option, and 2) we would be naive to think that ALL the products we throw in a recycling bin actually make it to a recycling processing plant rather than a landfill.

To keep my consumption plastic in check, I try to patronize companies with greener shipping policies like when shopping online. Keeping my canvas totes in my car helps to remind me to always bring them into the grocery store.   I ask my dry cleaner not to use plastic bags to separate my garments and if I forget to ask, I knot the hanger holes and reuse the covers as garbage bags.  And I’ll keep trying to think of ways to diminish plastic from my life.  Planet Earth, I got yo back.