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The Trials And Tribulations Of Living Without Plastic

But just try brushing your teeth with bamboo.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Living Without Plastic
Jonas Hermann

BRUNSWICK — Marian Klapp's friends can always tell which presents are from him because their wrappings are never held together with Scotch tape, only string. That's because tape contains plastic, and Klapp believes it is appalling stuff.

So he tries, whenever possible, to live without it. He likes to say it's not a sacrifice. On the contrary, "every step I take to a completely plastic-free life feels great."

The 25-year-old studies psychology in Brunswick, Germany, where he lives with his girlfriend Eva. She also avoids plastic products, and not, he insists, because she's showing solidarity out of love. "She feels the same way about it that I do," he says.

The couple's daughter Anna was born seven months ago, and they want her to grow up as plastic-free as possible. Friends and acquaintances know that, but Anna still received one plastic baby gift. Eva returned it to the giver, "but I did praise how beautifully gift-wrapped it had been," she says.

Little Anna wears cloth diapers. Luckily, the family lives in a small apartment building with an attic where laundered diapers dry quickly. And of course, their self-imposed ban on plastic also applies when they go shopping. By now, the sales people are used to Marian Klapp showing up at the cheese counter with a metal receptacle to pack his cheese. Only once did a sales girl refuse to put the cheese in the box. She thought she smelled a trick — that he somehow intended to sneak the cheese past the cashier without paying for it.

Marian buys shower gel in drug stores that are willing to fill the container he brings with him for that purpose. He buys his Kleenex in paper packaging, and carries everything home in used paper sacks.

It isn't just plastic that Marian rejects, but also other common consumer practices. He wants to live an alternative life. He eats "mostly vegetarian." He doesn't drink alcohol because it's possible to have plenty of fun without it, he says. A couple of days ago, he organized an alternative bachelor party with a treasure hunt, an organic picnic, and a hand-painted, second-hand T-shirt as a gift for the groom. The party started at 10 a.m., and they were all back home that evening in time for dinner.

He won't take planes and doesn't own a cell phone, but he does have an Internet connection and a car — a Volkswagen Polo. He needs the vehicle primarily to transport drums. His group, wearing gaudy clothing, drums at demonstrations to bring some "joy and relaxation" to the atmosphere, he says.

Marian buys as few new things as possible, which is sometimes difficult for his parents to understand because they want to give the young family gifts. "But we don't need a lot," he says. "And for sure nothing made out of plastic!" It has been three years now that he has been largely plastic-free, since an acquaintance told him that plastic is dangerous.

Alternative lifestyle, for good reason?

Plastic is not just an environmental burden, but it also poses health risks to humans. That's particularly true of the plasticizers that make their way into the food chain. According to the European Commission, they can cause both cancer and sterility and lead to genetic changes. The German Federal Ministry for the Environment claims that the concentrations present in food are generally not high enough to warrant a health hazard. But the ministry doesn't exclude it and recommends avoiding packaged foods as much as possible.

There is no conclusive information about how much harmful matter gets into our bodies from packaged food or plastic water bottles. Marian knows this, which is why he's afraid to drink water that's heated in a plastic kettle. His is made of stainless steel.

By now, nearly all plastic containers have been banished from his apartment. He has joined a purchasing association that requires him to put in four hours of work time every month. In return, he can stock up on food items directly from jumbo sacks.

Marian doesn't want to "preach" his lifestyle to anybody. He wants to inspire. "I don't tell anybody "you're doing it wrong," but I will sometimes mention how I do it, or that there are other ways of doing things."

A couple of his friends took his words to heart and now bring glass bottles of water to the university rather than plastic. Unlike water in plastic bottles, the water in glass bottles still tastes fresh after several days, Klapp says.

A couple of weeks ago he went to a department store to buy a non-plastic garbage can. It looked like the trip would be unsuccessful, but then he found inspiration in a big cooking pot in the household goods department. For a plastic-free diaper pail, he scoured the streets of his neighborhood for stuff that was being thrown away. He found a ceramic container, got a glass lid from a junk store, and voilà: diaper pail.

But it's not always so simple. The electrical appliances in his home are made of plastic, and his attempts to use a bamboo toothbrush failed, so now he's back to a normal toothbrush — a plastic one.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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