This Is Plastic

Last year on this blog, I posted some misleading photos of a gorgeous beach on Mexico's Caribbean coast. While the pics weren't photoshopped, the truth is that the beaches in Mexico only look pristine after workers pile all the debris from the shore into wheelbarrows. Every morning along the stretches of beach developed for tourism, you can see them clearing away seaweed and mounds and mounds of plastic.

Around the same time, I saw an article posted on Facebook: scientists predict that by 2050, there will be more pieces of plastic waste in the world's oceans than fish. That plastic will never decompose; it's with us forever.

Once you start noticing that almost everything we consume contains plastic, it's easy to stop — noticing, that is. After all, what can any of us do about it?

And yet, if we want to transform reality, whether as writers through our craft or as activists trying to create a better world, we first have to accept it. Or at least be aware that it exists.

Most of us would rather check out, a thing that my friend Tomislav Svoboda refuses to do. He owns a community house, called the Barley Jar, in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood that strives to be plastic-free. He and his tenants split household chores and meal preparation, sharing food that's vegan, organic, and grown locally. They peel, chop, and can local fruits and vegetables to eat through the winter. They even have a composting toilet on the second floor.

Recently, when I decided to move out of my apartment, I asked Tomislav if I could crash with him short-term. I've slowly abandoned many of my progressive habits over the years, and I wanted to reboot by learning some practical tips for a greener lifestyle.

So for two weeks, I peed on compost made from local autumn leaves and prepared vegan, 100-mile meals (including a version of my favourite comfort food, yapingacho). I learned about the Barley Jar's Zen Buddhist spiritual principles as well as its commitment to evidence-based, scientific practices. The night I left, Tomislav, a physician at St. Michael's Hospital, was arguing to one of his tenants that the houseplants would not, in fact, "love" the wastewater she'd used to soak beans in. "Decomposing matter consumes oxygen," he explained. "So the legume particles in the water will actually deprive the plant of oxygen as they decompose."

"Well," our housemate smiled, "my plants used to love the stuff."

"Probably because you weren't giving them very much of it."

Here are some of the awesome eco tricks I learned during my time at the Barley Jar:

* Bring your own reusable cloth bags to the store and buy spices, beans, and grains in bulk

* Brush your teeth with baking soda. It's cheap and makes your mouth feel nice.

* Clean with baking soda, vinegar, and/or pure soap crystals

* Keep a big (metal) bowl in the sink to collect grey water, and only use clean tap water to rinse your dishes

* Use bars of soap in a ceramic dish rather a plastic pump. Tomislav says that the idea that bars of soap are germ-ridden is not backed up by scientific studies.

* Store your food (and other stuff) in glass jars and cloth bags

* Buying local and organic food is a lot cheaper if you're cooking for a bunch of friends rather than just yourself. Tomislav estimates that each meal at the Barley Jar works out to just over $2/person. Not bad!

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