True confession: I still use an iPhone SE with a four-inch (gasp!) screen. According to my teens, this makes me a late adopter, the opposite of those dope souls who are quick to try new stuff. But when it comes to the pitfalls of plastics, I showed up early to the party. Fifteen years ago, I had my then-toddlers switch to glass from brightly colored plastic sippy cups. To avoid BPA in canned-food liners, I learned to can peaches. I’ve toted canvas bags to the store for years, and never liked straws anyway. Overall, I’ve felt pretty good about my plastic footprint.
Until last week, when my oldest — a high school senior who reveres teen climate activist Greta Thunberg — threw down a challenge. Could I go a day without single-use plastics, the stuff that can only be used once before it’s thrown away or recycled and is now harming marine life and clogging our oceans?
Day 1. I’m no morning person, but I feel almost euphoric as I get out of bed. Nothing energizes like a purpose, and today I’ve got a big one. Then, in less time than it takes to drink my first cup of coffee, I watch my son douse Corn Chex from a plastic-lined cereal box with milk from a plastic jug, sign a permission slip with my daughter’s plastic mechanical pencil, and sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano from a plastic deli container over the arugula from a clear plastic clamshell I’m prepping for lunch. This is going to be harder than I thought.
Day 2. Borrowing a page from Whole30, the stupendously restrictive diet I followed last winter, I’m doing what I should have done yesterday: taking a prep day. Back then, I cleared my pantry of sugar, grains and legumes. Today I find myself strolling around Zero Market, a low- to no-packaging store in Stanley Marketplace, looking for plastic alternatives. Full of unpackaged soaps, cloth wipes and housewares in soothing earth tones — no bright plastics here! — Zero is peddling a mindset as much as its products.
Just walking in, I feel virtuous. But feelings won’t make a dent in the microplastics littering our oceans, estimated by the United Nations to be 500 times more numerous than stars in the galaxy. So I ask the clerk to pour bulk conditioner into the glass jar I’ve brought from home, peppering her with questions about the essential oils that can be added to make it smell good. Similar conversations ensue about the other products I spring for: a bamboo toothbrush, since it’s time to replace my Oral-B; and reusable produce bags. Each product triggers a ripple effect of questions, answers and choices, and before I know it, I’m running late to a meeting. If I’ve learned anything today, besides the fact that Bulgarian lavender is more floral than the spike variety I put in the conditioner, it’s that while I might be saving the world from plastic, I’m definitely not saving any time.
Day 3. I love the toothbrush, which looks like something out of a design catalogue. The conditioner — now transferred into a repurposed hand soap dispenser because I didn’t want the jar to shatter in the shower — is thinner than what I’m used to, but my hair smells great. Before leaving the house, I cobble together an assortment of containers and throw them in the car. Planning is the name of the game.
A travel mug comes in handy when I meet friends at Starbucks. We’re all surprised when the barista acts like it’s entirely normal to fill my container with iced green tea. It’s the same story at Sprouts, where I ask the cashier if he’d mind weighing my empty jar before I fill it up with cashews. “Sure,” he says, “I do this all the time.” At checkout, he does a simple subtraction problem — gross weight minus tare weight — and I walk out bag-free and with a smile on my face. One more plastic bag saved from the waste stream.
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What I can’t save, however, is the hard plastic shell around my son’s new calculator. Office-supply stores must be ground zero for single-use plastics: Other than reams of paper, everything seems to be made from plastic or shrink-wrapped in plastic, or both. This is especially disturbing since most of that plastic will end up as trash. According to Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society, more than 90 percent of all plastic ever made hasn’t been recycled.
I see just as much plastic inside the 7-Eleven where I stop for gas and a snack. In my quest for food in plastic-free packaging, I wander the aisles so many times, I fear I’m making the cashier nervous. Ultimately, I find four options, none of them good: Altoids (metal tin), fresh fruit (bruised), a plain hot dog (the bun is wrapped in plastic) and a glass-bottled Starbucks Frappuccino (too much sugar). Lest that make you as hangry as I was, here’s some good news: More and more companies, like more and more consumers, are changing their behavior around plastics. DELL, for example, has experimented with recovered ocean plastic in laptop trays, and Adidas has put out shoes with upcycled ocean plastics. Could that help my predicament at 7-Eleven? Who knows, given the additional complication of what’s food grade. But it’s a start.
Day 4. Today’s my lucky day — or rather, the oceans’ lucky day. After all this prep, I’m ready for the challenge of a grocery store. But when I get there, I realize that I’ve left my reusable produce bags at home, and watch with dismay the rising tide of plastic: plastic Icelandic skyr containers, a plastic bottle of mustard, a plastic jar of SunButter, my daughter’s peanut-butter alternative. Surely other shoppers are laughing at me as I reach for the sandwich bread, put it back, reach for it and put it back, struggling with the dilemma of whether I should bake my own bread — something I used to do regularly — in order to avoid the plastic bag in which the loaf is packaged. But this week is shaping up to be busy, and ultimately convenience wins: Plastic-bagged bread it is. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch dancing in my head, I feel a wave of guilt and hopelessness. Single-use plastics are everywhere. Straws and plastic bags are only the beginning. I have no choice but to admit defeat to my daughter.
Day 5. Motto for today, borrowed from those meme-worthy inspirational posters hung in corporate offices: Make It Happen. When I swing by Chop Shop for a late lunch, I give myself a pep talk — I will make it happen! — and grab the reusable container that’s still in my car. The qualms I feel over asking if my salad can be put in that instead of the takeout container disappear in an instant. “I think it’s so cool what you’re doing,” says an employee behind the counter, echoing the sentiments of neighbors, friends and many others I’ve talked to since the challenge began. Her words are well-timed encouragement. I go home, eat my salad and vow to put more reusable containers in my car. Sure, the problem is big. But the solution — or rather, a step in the direction toward it — doesn’t have to be. All it takes is a reusable container.