Beth Terry’s Vision and Practice
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Photos by Nicki Rosario
As Michael Pollan was laying bare for us the bones of the industrial food system in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he cited the old dictum, “you are what you eat,” observing that if it is true, “then what we are today is mostly corn.”
Had he chosen to fix an equally penetrating eye on the centrality of plastics in our consumerized world, Pollan might have made a similarly global comment about this other monoculture of materials. He might have shown how we are becoming a civilization built on plastics, how the ever expanding use of plastic in everything we use in daily life brings with it a host of troubling health questions, and how the tidal wave of plastic waste is fundamentally changing the health of aquatic ecosystems all over the globe, ecosystems that are key strands in the larger web of life on earth.
Instead, that story is being told by Oakland resident Beth Terry (pictured at right)
Unlike Pollan, Terry is not a professional journalist. “I don’t even like writing,” she tells me. But it’s clear she has the skills and the motivation nonetheless. I first discovered her thoughtful and articulate essays online.
By day, Beth Terry works quietly as a number-cruncher, but in her off-hours, she is engaged in an ardent activism against the scourge of plastic. With a passion and dedication equal to Pollan’s, she has been bravely investigating an industry she sees as effectively force-feeding the world products that are a major contributor to the global ecological crisis. If it sounds like I’m describing a superhero here, that’s indeed what I think of Beth Terry.
Well before she got involved in the creation of her new book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (Skyhorse, June 2012), Beth was writing for—and interacting with—a large online audience at www.MyPlasticFreeLife.com (the blog formerly known as Fake Plastic Fish). In both the book and the blog she spells out the findings of the five-year-long study she has conducted of her immediate material world, which she discovered is nearly inextricably infiltrated by plastic. At the start, her approach was to try to understand the ingrained habits and behaviors of consumeristic thinking that were compelling her to generate around 48 pounds of plastic waste per year (the average American generates between 88 and 120 pounds). She then set to work reducing her weekly tally, and eventually got it so low that she was producing only a little over 2 pounds per year. Her goal all along has not been to discard the myriad items—containers, equipment, appliances—already present in her life, but to stop being a purchaser of new plastic and, perhaps more importantly, to refuse to purchase anything packaged in plastic.
The verb “refuse” is at the heart of her relentless campaign for change. She tenaciously pursues manufacturers with demands that they create options for people trying to follow a path similar to hers. Those efforts have produced tangible results, as she has succeeded in influencing a small number of companies to change their processes and packaging. Beth adds “Refuse” to the usual three “R”s of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, then continues to lengthen the list as she discovers a host of other useful “R”s. “Recycle” she keeps pushing to last place, since she has learned how little plastic gets manufactured back into effective use. “Plastic recycling doesn’t close the loop,” she says in the book. “Recycling is necessary, but not the final answer.”
Some of her other Rs are:
Replace (with non-plastic choices)
Repair (rather than buying new)
Report (as in share information about what is wrong with our acceptance of more and more plastic and about how to avoid contributing to the blight. Her blog is regarded as the go-to source for information on companies doing, or trying to do, the right thing.)
Rally (to the cause)
Responsibility (as in, take it)
Beth conveys an urgent message about the (largely underresearched and underreported) potentially serious health implications in the use of plastic (and plastic-lined) containers and other packaging to hold food and personal care products. “The truth about plastics is that they all have additives that can leach out,” she tells me. She runs down her list of possible additives, which in all too many plastics is a proprietary amalgam of fillers, pigments, stabilizers, flame retardants, plasticizers, antistatic and blowing agents, lubricants, antibacterials, fungicides, fragrances, and more—thousands more, in fact. “They won’t tell you what’s in them,” Beth says in describing her failed effort to get information from Stonyfield Farm, the organic yogurt maker, on the composition of their plastic containers. “We and our children should not have to be the guinea pigs for corporations’ latest and greatest chemical offerings,” she writes.
On a sunny July morning, I’m visiting Beth Terry and her husband Michael Stoler (pictured at right) in their Rockridge home. She apologizes for the DIY honey-and-borax ant traps sitting on the counter, both because they are unsightly and because she is feeling bad about even setting them. “They are supposed to take [the borax] back to their friends and die. I feel really horrible even saying that.”
She shows me around the kitchen, where nearly every bit of food is stored in stainless steel or glass. Two sleek black cats enter the room to officiate as Michael mixes up a batch of food for them using a recipe from the UC Davis veterinary school. “I feel like Rachael Ray, except nobody did the set-up for me,” he says as he demos the steps and explains how he and Beth have learned where to purchase every ingredient, except for the nutritional supplement, without having to accept plastic packaging. As Michael trowels the mix into a dozen small all-glass storage containers that will fit tightly into the freezer, their male cat stretches his paws up to the edge of the counter, showing off a rippling body-builder physique like nothing I’ve never seen on a house feline.
Beth is an avowed animal lover, as the comment about the ants attests, so it’s not difficult to imagine how she suddenly found her psyche being dragged over an emotional cliff one day in 2007 after she happened on a photograph of the carcass of a young albatross filled with bits of plastic. She then learned about the problems of birds and sea creatures killing themselves and their young by mistaking pieces of plastic for food, and it suddenly struck her that her life as a consumer of plastic-packaged and plastic-constructed convenience products had consequences for other beings. Instead of crawling into a shell of denial or simply signing petitions and throwing money at wildlife organizations, she began a campaign of public questioning that led her into the pivotal activist role she now plays via her blog, and, more recently, through the book and associated appearances. These are serving a public increasingly interested in the information she is gathering and anxious for advice in how to follow her lead.
Although Beth tells me she encounters the usual naysayers, those who would rather punch holes in her findings or catch her in a misstep than attempt the kinds of lifestyle changes she has made for herself, a perusal of customer reviews on Amazon.com reveals a host of raves. The only real exception is one semi-miffed reader who says in the middle of all his/her praise, “It KIND OF seems like the book was geared towards ‘well off’ middle-class people living in green-friendly states.”
Beth readily admits that the options are more numerous here in the East Bay, where we have many stores that stock bulk containers from which we can refill our own reusable bags and bottles. But seriously, the book includes so many charts, lists, instructions, and examples to guide those interested in reducing their impact that I can’t imagine how a determined person residing in a region with few resources for green living would not find enough guidance to achieve a 50 percent reduction in their yearly output of plastic waste. As Beth says in her chapter on strategies for take-out and home-packed meals, “The biggest job [is] paying attention.”
The words “paying attention” remind me of what I—and many people I know—seek from meditation or yoga. I recall a time when I thought I couldn’t make room in my busy life for those practices, but it turns out that mindfulness practice is a great way to clear out the psychic clutter that drags us back from the fulfilling life we all seek. As I spend time with Beth’s book, I find resonance with a broad spectrum of ideas and actions I value. She actually uses the word “mindfulness” in describing one more R: Realize. This R, she says, “precedes and permeates all the others.” Of this word she says, and this is the thought I will leave you with:
“Living plastic-free is inextricably entangled with awareness, consciousness, mindfulness. In a world of plastic, we don’t have to think about where the products we use come from or where they are going. Our lives are unexamined. “•
Find Beth Terry’s blog at www.MyPlasticFreeLife.com and her book at your local independent bookseller. Beth is available to give presentations at community events, and if your organization has a budget to offer a speaker fee, I encourage you to pay whatever you can, since this is a fantastic opportunity to support an important cause and hopefully propel Beth and her work into a very large arena. Reach Beth directly at this email address: beth(at)myplasticfreelife(dot)com.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay.
Mark P’s Homemade Ketchup
In Plastic Free, Beth Terry provides lots of recipes for those who want to DIY for the cause and for the sheer fun of it. Her friend Mark Peters makes most of his own condiments, and offered this recipe, which is appropriate for right now, since we’re in the heart of a big tomato season. Beth notes that some homemade ketchup recipes call for processed tomato paste, which often comes in BPA-lined cans, while this recipe uses only fresh ingredients. She also mentions that Mark’s ketchup ends up a brownish red color. “[It’s] not the artificially enhanced red of many commercial ketchups. But believe me, it tastes fantastic. You can try adding a little lemon juice or sugar to preserve the color.”
4 pounds tomatoes (farmers’ market, produce aisle, garden)
1 large onion, chopped (farmers’ market, produce aisle, garden)
1 cup your choice of vinegar—Mark uses plain white. (bulk or glass bottle)
1 teaspoon salt (bulk bin or cardboard container)
1 teaspoon ground cloves (bulk bin or glass jar)
1 teaspoon ground allspice (bulk bin or glass jar)
Drop tomatoes into a pot of boiling water for about a minute, or until their skins split. Once skins have split, remove the tomatoes from the water with a slotted spoon, pull away and discard the skin, and then chop the tomatoes. Combine with chopped onions in a large saucepan and simmer for about 10 minutes. Transfer tomato/onion mixture in small batches to a blender with a glass pitcher (Beth doesn’t recommend putting hot foods into a plastic blender pitcher!), filling it only about half full each time. Purée each batch and pour into a bowl, then empty the bowl back into the saucepan, making sure there are no more big chunks. Add vinegar, salt, cloves, and allspice, and stir. Let the ketchup simmer slowly, uncovered, for several hours, stirring occasionally, until it is reduced about 50 percent or to the desired thickness.
Transfer ketchup to jars and let cool before refrigerating or freezing. It will keep for about four months in the refrigerator and indefinitely in the freezer. Important: If you plan to freeze the ketchup, do not fill the jar all the way. Leave space at the top for expansion. Glass jars are fine in the freezer as long as they are not overfilled.