I Tried Avoiding Single-Use Plastic for a Week and OMG Was It Hard
Single-use plastic is everywhere, which I never really understood until I tried to stop using it.
Back in college, I started thinking about the amount of rubbish I produce. I've made a bunch of easy swaps like using a reusable water bottle and taking my own bags to the grocery store, but I had been pretty complacent about my waste disposal systems. After I came across a nasty video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck way up its nostril earlier this month, I thought a bit harder about my plastic use in particular.
According to a 2016 Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) report, plastic waste is a major source of ocean litter, and certain products can be very dangerous to marine animals. Obviously, plastic is an incredibly useful material, especially for food packaging. It's lightweight, cheap, and easy to produce. The problem is that it does not degrade the way. As such, it can sit in landfills for decades-or find its way into places it should not (like the ocean, and turtles' nostrils).
It dawned on me (if not suddenly, at least more ) that perhaps I could be doing more to help less to the problem, so I looked into the recycling options where I could improve. I set out to eliminate nonrecyclable plastics from my life. At least for some period of time.
For a week, I tried not to use any plastic item I couldn’t put in my building's recycling—and it was actually quite difficult.
Per the New York recycling guidelines, I can recycle rigid plastic items-that's anything that's inflexible like clamshell food packaging, bottle lids, yogurt cups, plastic bottles, and plastic soup and takeout containers. But there's a lot of nonrigid plastic that I regularly use, like Ziploc bags, plastic straws, grocery bags, grocery bags, grocery bags, drink stirrers, and all sorts of flexible food packaging (like the thin plastic bags washed salad greens and veggies come in, or the plastic wrap used on meat and fish. These types of plastic are usually not in your apartment building or curbside bin. According to PlasticFilmRecycling.org, you have to take these items to a grocery store, or even if they do not accept salad mix bags, frozen food bags, or the plastic rings from six-packs.
The most major change was adapting the way I grocery-shop.
I do most of my grocery shopping at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, because I like their products and they are relatively convenient to get to. Both of these companies are publicly dedicated to eco-friendly practices and say they try to use recycled and recyclable materials as much as possible. In a January 2018 blog post, Trader Joe's said they're working on biodegradable produce bags. And the Whole Foods "green mission" webpage states that the store is in the process of "replacing traditional plastic and paper-prepared food containers with compostable fiber packaging made from renewable resources." In the meantime, there's still a lot of plastic there.
My usual weekly food haul includes salmon, tofu, prewashed greens, baby carrots, snack packs of nuts and olives, string cheese, and bagged popcorn. You guessed it! These items had to come in the exact type of plastic packaging. Because I did not want to spring for a reusable bag, I bought whole fruits and veggies that would be OK without bagging, like squash, sweet potatoes, and grapefruits. But I could not find for myself the life of me, find fish that did not come wrapped in either plastic film or in wax paper, which you can not recycle.
I was also quite mindful of how I transported food around.
I usually have about six snacks in my backpack at any given time, most of them in a plastic container of some sorts. Instead of using Ziploc bags, I put celery sticks into a mason jar. I used a little cheesecloth bag to ferry around almonds, and ditched my beloved, plastic-wrapped energy bars and almond butter snack packs for the week.
And at work events, I paid attention to how food and drink was served .
I went to a couple of events during the week of my plastic experiment. One of those was a wine tasting, and we were served drinks in glass cups with paper straws-yay! The second event was much larger, and the drinks were served with plastic cups and straws. I skipped the straw, and used the plastic cups after the bartender told me they planned to recycle them. I avoided the food, which was served on paper plates with plastic utensils. In theory, plastic knives, forks, and spoons can be recycled. But in practice, they have to be completely clean and free of any food residue, and the chances of one of the hardworking event. So, no plastic cutlery for me.
I also encountered small, everyday pieces of plastic I never before thought about.
The lid on a to-go coffee cup? Plastic. The packaging on my favorite K-beauty sheet mask? Plastic. Clip-on name tags at a professional event? Plastic. Medication packaging? Plastic.
By the end of the week, I found that a lot of my brain was dedicated to plastic.
I found myself staring at a pomegranate for five minutes while pondering whether the large sticker on it was (a) plastic and (b) recyclable. Becoming more aware of what food packaging is out of there and what other options I had access to was helpful, but did not agonize over the individual fruits was not.
It was a genuine relief when this self-imposed experiment was over. Going forward, I hope to use significantly less of the hard-to-recycle plastic. For example, I'll continue to buy prewashed greens, but I'll look for greens in rigid packaging that I can easily recycle rather than the thin salad bags. I also plan to shop more often at the farmers market, where lots of produce comes in cardboard containers. I can even get some reusable produce bags! But what if they come in plastic packaging?