Natural Life Magazine

Crafting for a Greener World:
The Problem With Plastic
by Robyn Coburn

plastic washed up on a beachGuess where our plastic is going. Here’s a hint: someplace else.

Ever since I wrote my first article for Natural Life Magazine about plarn in the July/August 2009 issue, I’ve been shying away from dealing with plastic as a crafting material. Now that the Plastiki, the million dollar catamaran floated on gas filled PET soda bottles, has docked in Sydney, it seems like the time has come.

The BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico occupied most folks’ ocean watching energy for a few months. With the capping of that crisis, our attention can return to the more insidious problem of the plastic accumulating in the world’s oceans.

People have been talking about these alarming “islands” of plastic waste the size of various big places – “the size of Texas” is a common comparison. The trouble is, this island imagery conjures visions of a homogenous mass with defined edges. We like to imagine Kevin Costner and his cohorts sailing a flotilla of mechanical baleen whales which could scoop the dirty water into massive maws, then filter out the floating straws, lids, yogurt containers, and PET bottles like so much plankton, and deliver it to a recycling center. (More on that next time.)

If only the clean-up could be that simple! Our prior experience of near shore oil slicks leads us to expect a mass of surface sludge washing ashore and coating the feathers and fur of unfortunate wildlife.

Just as this vision falls short of the true complexity of the oil presence at all depths in the Gulf, the concept of an “island of plastic” is inaccurate.

Marine scientist and former soda bottle rafter Dr. Marcus Eriksen and colleague Anna Cummins have recently set sail to research the North Atlantic Gyre. According to Dr. Eriksen, “We’re not looking at an accumulation of large chunks of plastic but a thin, diffuse soup of micro-particles.”

Apparently the plastic items degrade into ever tinier bits of confetti that float below the surface and effect ocean organisms at macro and microscopic levels. Also disturbing is that the debris is both trash and industrial waste. The Eriksen/Cummins team has found  amongst their samples “nurdles – scrap plastic resin pellets from the production of plastic goods.” Why aren’t these nurdles being reclaimed and reused at the original factory?

There are five gyres – one in each of the world’s major oceans. The accumulation of a near invisible amorphous miasma of plastic soup in each one is an increasingly likely probability, as each gyre is investigated. Sea creatures are ingesting the stuff, not just the near shore birds, turtles, and seals filling up on bags masquerading as jellies, but all of them out there. The micro pellets absorb additional toxins and hold them, taking them into the food chain and ultimately to us.

So where is it coming from? Only twenty percent of the waste is coming from aquatic sources – boats or offshore platforms. The rest blows or flows from the land to the sea. I live near a beach in Los Angeles. It’s always horribly dirty, especially in comparison to the beaches I remember from my youth on the East coast of Australia and Tahiti. Sorry Southern California, but it’s true. There is always a post-consumer mess of junk on the beach at the high tide line, much of it sharp, most of it “disposable” products. I join the cleanups periodically, but the mess is ubiquitous and overwhelming.

I remember the time I was visiting the US Virgin Islands on my honeymoon cruise in 1997. The plastic gyres were still generally unsuspected, but we already knew about litter and the dangers to aquatic wildlife of eating shopping bags. While we were ashore in the town on one of these tropic yet arid islands, there was a sudden and unexpected rain shower. I watched an appalling tangle of tourist trash and mud ooze out of the storm drain and dump into the seemingly pristine turquoise waters. It was awful and startling. I wondered why the simple expedient of some kind of net filter wasn’t in place for this very contingency.

We thought only nuclear waste’s presence was to be measured in eons. Something has to be done. And we, land-dwelling, plastic using humans, have to do it.

Of course there are techno-solutions on their way – starting with corn or soy instead of petrochemicals to make biodegradable polymers (go Sun Chips!), enzymes and microbes that will digest particles, and better recycling processes. But the most important factor in halting the plastic soup spread must be to contrive to make less, much less, plastic trash.

I’ve been guilty of a mindset where because I know I can pop stuff into the recycling, I have become less mindful of the amount of single use plastic coming into my home. Plastic recycling is a whole ‘nother story (which I am saving for next time). It’s hard to reduce plastic because so many of our essentials seem to be packaged in it – food, drink, pharmaceuticals, household products for our daily use. Complicating matters is the sad fact that food packed in alternatives is often more expensive at the store and may be heavier to transport. Milk bottled in reusable glass is a good case in point – although milk can be bought in paper cartons. Wait – that paper is coated in plastic to make it impermeable so it can’t be recycled either – aarrgh!

Some people are leading the way. I’ve been visiting “Fake Plastic Fish,” the blog of inspiring plastic renouncer Beth Terry. In it, she chronicles her daily use of disposable plastics, making note of every window envelope, tag, and lid. Her use of plastic is relatively minuscule. I read and feel ashamed that I am not doing more. Her site is packed with useful links and strategies for reducing plastic, as well as astute commentary on the state of our plastic culture.

For example, Ms. Terry has noted a rise in the sales and use of men’s shower gels and concomitant decline in the use of plain old fashioned bar soap by men. Bar soap is often packed in cardboard, while shower gels, of course, come in plastic bottles.

This immediately made me think of a book I used all the time when I was in college, now out of print – Elizabeth Franke’s Make Your Own Cosmetics and Fragrances for Australians. In it, was a wonderful recipe for a truly all purpose liquid gel soap. I used to wash our household laundry in it, wash my hair, do the dishes, and clean surfaces. It could be diluted to spray on aphids. It was so cheap and easy that we never ran out of soap.

Here is the recipe, which is so simple that I remember it clearly twenty years later:

  • Finely grate one third (that’s right, a mere one third) of a cake of plain white soap. Don’t use a moisturizing beauty bar or clear soap – it has to be a regular hard white soap.
  • In an enamel or glass double boiler gently melt the grated soap with a little water until fully dissolved.
  • In the bottom of a plastic (sorry, but it can’t be metal) five gallon bucket dissolve one third of a cup (yes, a mere one third) of Washing Soda in about a cup of hot water. Stir gently to avoid suds.
  • Now I want to be very clear here. Washing Soda is a clear, crystalline water softener. It is not the same as Baking Soda, Borax or soap flakes, all of which are white. In Australia and Canada you will no doubt find it on the supermarket shelf in the laundry aisle. In the USA you might have to order it online. I’ve only seen it once in a store here.
  • Once the Washing Soda is dissolved, pour the hot melted soap into the bucket and mix – very gently – with a wooden spoon.
  • Fill your bucket slowly, again to avoid lathering the mixture, with warm water. Allowing the water to run down the inside wall of the bucket helps. Give it a final gentle stir, and walk away.
  • The next day you will have a full five gallon bucket full of translucent, vaguely milky looking, medium firm gel soap. It will stand up on its own if spooned, just like gelatin dessert.
  • A generous cup will do a regular load of laundry. I used to hang ours up to dry in the sun. There are no optical brighteners in this solution, so sometimes a bit of bleach or oxy booster might be needed for whites, and warm water worked better than cold. Other sources recommend adding dissolved Borax to boost the stain fighting – but don’t do that for shampoo use.
  • I kept a good sized jug of it in the bathroom. A gloppy palmful washed my waist length hair, with real lather doing the cleaning work. I rinsed my hair in very dilute apple cider vinegar instead of conditioning. I had dyed hair then, as now, but I don’t recall that washing my hair with soap and vinegar caused it to fade any quicker than using a shampoo for colored hair. Hair stylists used to remark that my hair was strong.

I have to say that I didn’t ever try it in an automatic dishwasher, for the simple reason that I didn’t have one. But I fear it might be overly sudsy and could leave a film if you don’t use an acidic rinse aid. So try that at your own risk. But it’s great for hand washing dishes. I kept some in a saucer and dipped my brush and scourer into it for extra cleaning.

After a long career designing for theater and independent films, Robyn Coburn finds her joy as an unschooling mother who also writes and crafts. She has been a confirmed greenie since working for Greenpeace during her college years in Australia. Robyn is currently working on two crafty books, a fairy tale screenplay and a TV series about doll making and collecting. A past speaker and funshop presenter at Live and Learn Unschooling conferences, she contributes regularly to unschooling e-lists. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband James and ever inspiring daughter Jayn. Contact Robyn by email at or visit her at and


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