Lose the plastic products in your life

Paper or plastic? How about neither.

I have joined the ranks of people who go nowhere without their shopping bags. My collection includes grocery-store bags purchased at the checkout and more interesting ones gifted to me by friends and family. Even my husband, who wouldn't normally carry any bag, has his own manly versions purchased from a dive shop and home improvement store.

Aside from the obvious benefits of a reusable bag -- they're stronger and can carry much more than a plastic bag -- it is not a disposable, single-use item. The proliferation of plastic is more than just a litter problem, it is a huge threat to the marine environment and living in the Keys brings that so much closer to home.

Plastic products have risen from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 130 million tons in 2009 annually. As much as 90 percent of floating marine debris may be plastic. About 1,000 miles west of San Francisco, there is something known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of plastic debris twice the size of Texas.

In ocean waters, Styrofoam breaks down into tiny polystyrene components, polluting the entire water column, not just the surface. So not only do marine animals swallow plastic bags that resemble jellyfish in mid-ocean or ingest small pieces of plastic they mistake as plankton, they also are threatened by toxic, plastic-derived chemicals.

As researchers continue to examine plastic's impact on our bodies and the oceans, there's no doubt that cutting down on the material will help the environment.

Medical studies have cautioned against the chemical BPA and phthalates found in plastic products leaching into our foods. While plastic manufacturers have come up with products using recycled materials and less petroleum, the best way to reduce your plastic impact on the Earth is to simply use less.

My husband and I have taken several steps to reduce the number of disposable plastic items we use. It's not easy but over time, it does get better.

We have a growing collection of reusable bags. We very rarely buy bottled water but rather drink water from the fridge dispenser or fill our stainless-steel water bottles for trips out. All leftovers are stored in reusable containers. I use a reusable plate cover in the microwave when reheating leftovers. When entertaining, I use reusable cutlery, plates, dishes and glasses.

When we cannot avoid the use of disposable plastic, we make sure we recycle. Monroe County accepts all types of plastic, Nos. 1 though 7. Visit for more information. Additionally, Colleen Murphy, the county recycling coordinator, accepts invitations to speak to community groups and at meetings and schools.

You have probably heard the term "carbon footprint" or even "water footprint." Now you can add to that "plastic footprint."

It's hard to live plastic-free but lowering your plastic footprint by practicing waste reduction and reusing as much as possible is environmentally sound, good for your health and contributes to the health of the fragile coral reef that surrounds us in the Keys.

Know your plastics

Why are most plastics marked with a number inside a recycling symbol? The simple answer is that each number represents the type of resin made to produce the plastic. Because each resin is different, these numbers affect how and where you can recycle plastics. You don't have to remember the name.

Plastics are identified by Nos. 1 through 7. Look for them on the bottom or side of your plastic products.

  • No. 1: Polyethylene terephthalate. Clear beverage bottles, oven-ready meal trays and water bottles.
  • No. 2: High-density polyethylene. Colored or cloudy bottles and jugs, yogurt containers and other tubs, milk bottles, detergent bottles and grocery/trash/retail bags.
  • No. 3: Polyvinyl chloride. Plastic food wrap, loose-leaf binders and plastic pipes.
  • No. 4: Low-density polyethylene. Dry-cleaning bags, produce bags and squeezable bottles.
  • No. 5: Polypropylene. Medicine bottles, aerosol caps, drinking straws and rigid food containers such as yogurt, ketchup bottles, sour cream, butter tubs.
  • No. 6: Polystyrene. Foam trays, takeout containers, egg cartons, coolers, packaging Styrofoam peanuts.
  • No. 7: Other (includes polycarbonate and mixed materials). Used in 5-gallon water bottles, certain kinds of food containers and some liners of metal cans.
  • Shirley Gun is a member of the Keyswide nonprofit Green Living & Energy Education. She writes about green living and the four Rs -- reducing, reusing, recycling and rot (composting). She can be reached at