I've been thinking a lot about my relationship with plastic. Perhaps you have too, Because the problem with our plastic-filled world is a topic that has become impossible to ignore.
First, there was that awful, horrible video about the turtle with a plastic straw in 2015 (watch at your own risk). This year there was the June 2018 National Geographic cover unveiled in May, with an arresting photo of a plastic shopping bag partially submerged in the ocean, giving the illusion of an iceberg. The cover was part of the magazine's just-launched "Planet or Plastic" campaign, focused on the impact of single-use plastic.
Then there was news that the EU plans to ban single-use plastic products like plastic cutlery and straws. On July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils. New York City proposed legislation to ban plastic straws by 2020, and other cities like Malibu and Miami Beach followed suit.
Starbucks announced it would ban plastic straws in all stores by 2020. Companies like American Airlines followed, announcing it would "eliminate straws from its lounges and serve drinks with a biodegradable, eco-friendly straw and wood stir stick," with plans to also "begin transitioning to all eco-friendly flatware within lounges."
The news of plastic straw bans quickly spiraled, and I couldn't escape all the reactions online — how Starbucks' decision affects the disabled community, why paper straws suck, how the bans won't save the ocean but we should still shun plastic straws anyway, and so on.
It was enough for me to seriously reconsider how much I rely on plastic in my life, which motivated me to try to cut not just single-use plastic, but all plastic out of my life for a week. It was an ambitious goal. Would it even be feasible? How difficult could it be?
First, I had to determine what I couldn't use.
As part of my pre-planning routine, I researched a lot and went over my daily routine. Plastic is in nearly everything. We rely on so many items that come packaged in plastic: shampoo and conditioner, body wash, face wash, face lotion, sunscreen, tampons, makeup, and even toothbrushes. It's even in our cell phones, computers, credit cards, prescription bottles, and cars — most of which I rely on to do my job. It was going to be impossible to give up all plastic products. So I limited my plastic ban to what I could control most: food-related items.
There would be no meal kits like Blue Apron, which include ingredients that are individually packaged in plastic. There would be no takeout meals, and no beverages to go. I'd have to avoid plastic shopping bags, plastic produce bags, garbage bags, Ziploc bags, plastic wrap, plastic cups, plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers, plastic cutlery, plastic bottles, plastic Tupperware, and more. The easiest way for me to avoid plastic would be to prepare all of my own meals from scratch.
On the first day, I skipped my usual iced coffee and opted for hot tea (made with tea bags packaged in paper) at work. I did this for most of the week, which happened to be the hottest week of the year, and it was quickly evident how much I rely on a convenient cup of iced coffee in the summer.
The easiest way for me to avoid plastic would be to prepare all of my own meals from scratch.
On that first plastic-free evening, I wanted to get takeout sushi for dinner, but realized it's packaged in plastic containers, so I opted to dine in instead.
Avoiding plastic while grocery shopping was the biggest challenge.
I went to buy groceries at Wegmans the next day, where I was forced to make a major change in the way I shop. I already use reusable shopping bags, but I hadn't considered just how much of my weekly grocery list is packaged in some sort of plastic.
Things I could not buy that I normally would included packaged produce like strawberries and blueberries, bagged salad greens, a two-pound bag of carrots, and a plastic container of cherry tomatoes. Instead of a bag of arugula, I picked out a head of romaine lettuce. I grabbed a bunch of kale, tomatoes on the vine, individual carrots, four peaches, bananas, two avocados, and a few sweet potatoes— which I put into my cart as is, because again, no plastic bags allowed. It wasn't a huge deal, although I found the produce didn't last as long in my fridge when it wasn't wrapped and sealed in plastic. The bunch of parsley I'd bought went limp within 24 hours.
Saran-wrapped meats and seafood were off limits, so I picked out pieces of fish from behind the seafood counter, and they wrapped the fillets in paper for me. I wanted to buy fresh shrimp, but they're sold in — you guessed it — plastic containers. I bought a few extra cans of chickpeas and black beans to fill my protein gaps for the week. I also skipped on buying yogurt, as the only brands offered at my local Wegmans come in plastic containers, with no glass options. My snack purchases were extremely limited, as most chips and pretzels are packaged in some sort of plastic bags. I made sure the carton of eggs I picked was made from biodegradable material, as some are sold in plastic containers.
I traded in Ziploc bags and plastic Tupperware for glass containers and Mason jars.
I usually pack my lunch to eat at work every day, but I had to be selective when meal planning for the week. I couldn't rely on individually wrapped snacks. I already had a bulk purchase of almonds in my pantry, which I would have normally tossed into a small Ziploc. Instead I filled a small Mason jar to bring to work. I made sure to pack my lunches in the few glass containers I own instead of in plastic Tupperware, and kept a metal fork in my lunch box to use at work.
On the fourth day, I slipped up and grabbed a plastic spoon in the office break room, and didn't realize my mistake until I was nearly finished with lunch. I was bound to make a mistake at some point.
At home, I didn't use my regular plastic trash bags and instead collected all my scraps of food waste in a paper bag, which I disposed of each night.
I've set plastic-free goals for the future.
Truthfully, I was relieved when the week was over. Looking for plastic in everything had occupied much of my brain space for seven days. By the end, I was intensely aware of plastic, and even more aware of how dependent I am on it.
Since finishing my experiment, I've been working to change how much I interact with plastic. I'm committed to buying recyclable "good plastic" over something that is "bad plastic," like a single-use item.
Read more: Plastics by the Numbers from Earthease
I've also been researching items that could replace my daily and weekly dependence on single-use plastic — things like a stainless steel tumbler, bamboo utensils for on-the-go eating, biodegradable trash bags, reusable mesh produce bags, and reusable silicone food storage bags. I'm not going to be able to solve the planet's plastic problem, but I can start by improving the small things I can control. My hope is that if I slowly introduce these small changes to my routine, my own relationship to and dependence on plastic will change in a lasting and meaningful way.