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  • Linh Dan Do

How Watching A Lot of Romantic Period Movies Helped Me Help the Planet

A picnic from August 1909, similar to scenes from films like A Room with a View. Source: Deseronto Archives on Wikimedia Commons

I have really been enjoying Patricia Alber’s series of articles, “The Plastic Problem is a Fossil Fuel Problem,” particularly Parts 1 and 2, which focus on Extraction/Transport and Refining/Manufacturing, respectively. The articles opened up my awareness to the story of plastic before it gets to us consumers. For the past few years, I have been focused on the waste aspect of plastic (which Patricia addresses with excellent detail in Parts 3 and 4) - what happened to it after the recycling truck took it away to be, supposedly, recycled.

In 2018, the news came out that China was refusing to accept and recycle plastic waste from the United States. What is happening now, instead, is that our excess plastic is diverted to smaller, developing countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that do not have the capacity to process all that plastic. The fumes from the processing factories are so bad that residents can barely breathe the toxic air. Young children are suffering from respiratory diseases. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight. (Not to mention that ocean life often ingest the plastic and die.)

I was moved to tears. I was freaked out.

I had already been on a personal mission to reduce waste for a while. I haven’t bought Saran wrap, Ziploc bags, or Hefty garbage bags in over a decade. I steer clear of any coffee shop that doesn’t offer coffee in a real mug. I clean my floors with a “Cuban” mop - instead of a mophead at the end, there is a wooden dowel around which I wrap an old rag that I remove and throw in the wash or simply shake out. (Take that, Swiffer.)

But now, I was REALLY on a mission to eliminate all single-use plastic, and waste in general, from our household — regardless of if it was supposedly recyclable. I knew I couldn’t trust those labels anymore. We were going zero-waste. Author of Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson and her family generate only a mason jar’s worth of trash in an entire year. We are not there yet - we generate a mason jar’s worth in about 2 weeks.

About a week's worth of trash in my household

But - as I became more aware, and as our household got closer and closer to zero-waste, I also became very angry. I was angry at every full dumpster I saw, every overflowing trash bin, every Starbucks coffee cup. I was losing sleep.

Looking for an escape from my bitter thoughts, I sought out romantic movies, gravitating particularly to ones set in the first half of the 20th century. It is a time period that is relatable and not too foreign to our own contemporary lifestyles, as indoor plumbing and electricity start to make an appearance in everyday homes. It is also an era refreshingly devoid of plastic waste.

Even though the first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, disposable plastic items did not hit the mass market until a few decades later: Johnson and Johnson introduced the first mass-marketed disposable diaper in 1948, and a year later Dow Chemical created plastic wrap. Plastic utensils were mass produced starting in the 1950’s, and Ziploc came into being in 1968. And the plastic coffee cup lid that so incenses me? It arrived in 1984, one year after my own birth.

But for now, as I watched my movies, I was in a world of romance, before all of these nuisances existed. And while I was mostly enraptured by the undying love of couples like Lucy and George, I started noticing little details in the background, too. Tea in china decorated with dainty nosegays, wicker picnic baskets heavy with real dishes and real silverware, freshly baked pies kept warm under a kitchen towel, children’s toys carved from wood, pocket handkerchiefs pulled out to politely dab a tear, and ethereal and carefully embroidered linens and garments billowing on the clothesline.

I started applying some of the things I saw to my own life. For park outings, I wrapped sandwiches in cloth napkins. At a secondhand shop, I found exquisitely embroidered, vintage handkerchiefs that replaced disposable facial tissues and wipes. I carried small cloth bags with me to the grocery store and transferred bulk items to glass jars when I got home. These changes not only reduced waste, they filled my soul with inspiration and beauty. I realized that for me, I not only needed to drive our family’s waste down to nothing, I needed a positive alternative of beauty and care to fill our daily rituals.

Clockwise from top left 1) cloth bags for buying bulk 2) Glass jars for storing food, 3) our going-out-to-eat kit, 4) picnic!

When I watch a period movie, I know I’m watching a romanticized depiction of the past - no era in human history is without its challenges - but I let myself be inspired by a life before plastic - to find ways to live my life without plastic - and with beauty.


Here are a few Bay Area businesses committed to supporting a plastic-free, zero-waste lifestyle that I recommend:

Based in Berkeley, Fillgood offers home delivery of household and personal care products. Their products are delivered in glass jars which they will pick up when empty, sanitize, and refill. No plastic packaging!

The Silo offers home delivery of groceries with minimal waste and packaging. Most products are packaged in recycled kraft paper.

Of course, start with what you already have! Going to the farmer’s market? Bring your own produce bags. Going out to eat? Bring along your own to-go container to bring home leftovers. Going for a picnic? Bring utensils from home and reusable water bottle. You will surprise yourself with how many good ways to reduce waste you can come up with!


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