Editor’s Note: A new documentary, The Story of Plastic, details how single use plastic has become such a dire issue and explains how we can solve it on a large scale. We start with one woman’s small efforts.
We are live in the city, I’m usually on the go, and I eat out a lot. I fear I am the embodiment of a walking-talking, single-use plastic machine. When I learned about the effort to completely remove plastic from nature by 2030, I was intrigued. That’s a global goal, it’s not much time, and it’s so huge it seems daunting. There are 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste in the world. Where to begin on a task like that? One thing is certain, it’s going to take all of us. I decide to challenge myself: I will go one week without single-use plastic.
Monday, Inventory Day
I wake up and look over at my nightstand. There it is, standing at attention. A single-use plastic water bottle I bought yesterday at a gas station while on a long drive. If I didn’t finish it yesterday, it’s not technically single use, but I take note. With more planning on the front end, I could have brought along a water bottle on my drive and not purchased this devil.
I eat my oatmeal; all good there. I put a little peanut butter in the mix and finish the plastic jar the peanut butter came in. Should the next jar be glass? I look it up. Plastic requires drilling and fracking of crude oil and natural gases, the production process releases tons of toxic pollutants, and plastic never degrades. Glass is made from readily available sand, ash, limestone, and binding additives, all of which are mined. That has its own environmental consequences. And glass is heavy, so glass peanut butter jars require more energy to transport than plastic ones. We’re not great at recycling glass in the U.S., but it can easily be recycled—or repurposed. So in the glass vs. plastic debate, glass wins by a mile. Then again, purists might forgo both and grind their own peanuts.
In the glass vs. plastic debate, glass wins by a mile.
Lunch is a chicken dish I bought in the supermarket. It’s wrapped in plastic. (1) I’d like a salad with it. Wow. Without thinking, I have made it a habit to buy lettuce in plastic. I buy my salad all chopped up for me in a plastic bag (2), and the dressing is in plastic too (3). Do stores even sell whole heads of lettuce anymore? I’ll be on the lookout. Or go to the farmers’ market.
I have a light snack at a bar before going out for the night. I ask for water, and the glass is filled to the top with ice. I wish I had a straw but don’t want to ask for one because it will be plastic. But wouldn’t you know? Without even asking, the waiter delivers a paper one! My lucky day. On the way home, I’m still hungry and stop in at a little organic market. They have a nice piece of salmon, but it’s wrapped in plastic that I will toss immediately, so I opt for a can of soup. I don’t have a reusable bag with me since I didn’t know I would be shopping. I simply carry my can of soup and my glass jar of peanut butter in my hands. When I take plastic shopping bags I always reuse them, but, of course, it’s better not to take them in the first place.
Tuesday, The Family Whale
I buy a Starbucks Refreshers in an aluminum can rather than a fresh order of iced coffee or tea so I can dodge the plastic cup, though I see they have compostable straws. Only, I don’t see a compost bin, so there’s that. I eat lunch at a quick Mediterranean place, and I have to eat in to avoid a plastic container. However, they only have plastic forks. I forgot to put my metal camping spork in my purse so I have no choice put to use the plastic fork. I am feeling so badly that I decide to wipe it off at the end of the meal. Eureka moment—if I reuse it, it is not a single-use plastic. I slip it in my purse to use again. But will I? (4)
That evening, the weather is beautiful, so my son and I head to the roof of our building for some wine and cheese. The transparent disposable plastic cups I bought for such a purpose are a no-no. We use junky opaque reusable plastic cups with advertising on them. It’s not the same, but we were happy to do our part for the whales. When they were little, I took my sons on a whale watch, and they loved it so much they put their piggy banks together to adopt a whale named Salt for a year. They were notified every time Salt was sighted. Cheers to Salt and friends.
Wednesday, Disposable Has Been an Accepted Way of Life
I had no problems all day until I went to an evening cocktail reception. I could not get a drink because the only choice of cup was clear plastic disposable. I went over to the food, and rather than use a clear plastic plate and fork, I put my little nibbles in a napkin and ate with my fingers. I was so thirssssty!
It’s an easy day because I spend most of it at home. I take notice of all the plastic I have, however, and it’s not minimal. Shampoo and soap in plastic bottles, face creams, my printer, my phone case, plastic over the clothes that come back from the cleaners, plastic TV remote controls, and plastic packaging for detergents. Toilet paper rolls are wrapped in a thin plastic and then a thicker plastic. I am swimming in plastic. I think parts of my car are plastic too.
Rather than use a clear plastic plate and fork, I put my little nibbles in a napkin and ate with my fingers.
If I take the dry cleaning plastic back to the cleaners to be recycled, these are all multiple-use plastics. But even if I put them in a recycling bin, it doesn’t mean they will be recycled. Local recycling operations don’t necessarily recycle some types of plastic, including PVC and dry cleaning bags. I note that I generate a sizable amount of plastic waste for a small household.
An electronic recording device I had ordered arrives at my door, and sure enough the packaging inside the box is thick single-use plastic. I put it in the recycling bin but I’m not sure it will be recycled.
I have to do some errands and run into Panera to eat a salad. I eat in the restaurant to reduce packaging that surely would involve plastic. The restaurant takeout business needs to get on board. They use plastic containers and send you on your way with a full set of shrink-wrapped plastic utensils—even if you’re carrying out to eat in a place that has reusable utensils. Of course they put the whole thing in a plastic carryout bag. Eating in the restaurant was a fine concession, and I was so pleased that they use stainless steel forks and plates that go in the dishwasher. But they also use disposable plastic for drinks. I tell the cashier that I can’t use the plastic cup, and when I tell him why, he finds a paper cup for me. Extra tip!
Friday, Attempting to Get it Under Control
All is well today until I go to buy a present for my brother. I am in a bookstore, and I pick up a book I know he will think is funny. It’s an inside joke and absolutely perfect. He’ll love it! I checked out and leave the store before it dawns on me that the book is shrink-wrapped in plastic. (5) Am I completely immune—how did I not notice? I am crest-fallen. I have just read yet another story about a dolphin dying with plastic in its belly, and a new report says tiny islands in the Indian Ocean are overcome with millions of discarded plastics.
Then I learn that the conservative governor of Florida vetoed a bill that would have prevented local governments from banning plastic straws. The State of California and the cities of Boston, Chicago, Seattle, LA, and San Francisco have banned plastic shopping bags. Major cities in Hawaii require them to be biodegradable. Dollar Tree, one of the country’s largest cheap-plastic-item purveyors, plans to phase out plastic additives bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates from their products, and Walmart set reduction goals for its suppliers. Live Nation, the giant concert promoter, announced a ban on single-use plastic at their events within the next two years. The UK is banning plastic straws, stirrers, and the sticks for cotton balls by next year. The European Union is banning all single-use plastic, including plates, cutlery, and straws. Costa Rica aims to be the first single-use-plastic-free country within the next two years.
The cup option for the ice cream is plastic. I do my part to save the ocean—I get a cone.
So I feel a bit better knowing that things seem to be moving in the right direction, until I find this: A new law in New York will ban plastic shopping bags at stores, but check out the exceptions: Bags distributed at the meat/deli counter and bulk food area are exempt, as well as newspaper bags, trash bags, garment bags, bags provided by a pharmacy for prescription drugs, and restaurant takeout bags.
These are hard habits to change. We literally use plastic all day and night. I make a promise to myself to go find a new bottle of Windex, the one SC Johnson just debuted, made entirely from recovered ocean plastic.
Saturday, Travel Day
I leave the house at 5:00 a.m. for a flight to New Hampshire. I know it’s going to be hard to avoid plastic. I fill up a 1-liter water bottle and take it with me. Plus, it’s so early I will sleep on the plane and avoid beverage service. I get to my destination and can’t find a place to refill my water bottle. I have a long drive to Vermont and try to make it without drinking anything, but I need caffeine. I stop on the highway at a gas station for some iced tea. I find case after case of refrigerated drink options in plastic bottles. I am so ashamed, but I also want to get there safely, so I buy the tea.(6) I couldn’t even find a recycle can to pitch it.
I meet my brother, and we go to what he thought was a free outdoor concert but turned out to be a campaign event for Bernie Sanders. There is free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and I am so delighted that they are using paper containers and wood spoons.
Sunday, We’re All in This Together
My brother is game. He opens that shrink-wrapped gift very carefully at the top seam so that it retains the shape of a bag and can be reused. He promises me that he’ll store chopped onions in it later.
We go out for tacos and the choices for drinks include lots of single-use plastic. I tell the cashier that I’m going a week without single-use plastic, and he lights up. He proudly tells me that his 12-year-old daughter signed a pledge to give it up. He is determined to find me a glass, and he returns with a beer glass filled with ice. There is a giant plastic water dispenser where I help myself.
Monday, Even Greenies Use Plastic Without Thinking
I’m driving through bucolic country towns to get back to the airport. I stop at an old-timey general store and café for one last New England ice cream. There is a certificate on the wall commending the store for donating their used cooking oil to make biofuel. But the cup option for their ice cream is plastic. I do my part to save the ocean—I get a cone.
Now that the public is starting to part with one-and-done plastic, stores and restaurants will eventually adhere.
When I get back home, I have packages waiting for me. I had ordered two outdoor chairs for my deck, and they arrived in separate cardboard boxes. I cut open one box, and oh no! The chair is wrapped in yards of bubble wrap. I carefully take the bubble wrap off and fold it up and put it in a closet that already has a few feet of bubble wrap in a stack, waiting for a reuse that hasn’t appeared in months. Sigh.
Consciousness Will Drive Us
This week hasn’t been easy. Even being obsessively careful, I had to give in to single-use plastic six times (five if I subtract the shrink wrap my brother promised to reuse). But I liken this effort to living with a dairy or gluten allergy. Years ago, it may have been hard to eat in a restaurant with those restrictions, but today options abound. Now that the public is starting to part with one-and-done plastic, stores and restaurants will eventually adhere, either by consumer demand or by law.
I bought a reusable plastic gizmo for half lemons and avocados to keep them fresh in the refrigerator. I don’t think it works well—certainly not as well as a plastic baggie. But think of the original gluten-free products. They were nearly inedible. We’ll get there. This is only the beginning. The photos of our plastic trash in the ocean and in the bellies of finned creatures are the best inspiration there is for a sea change in our habits.
A version of this story was originally published in June 2019.