Have you ever considered a life without plastic? I challenged myself to avoid consuming new plastic and to-go containers. Read on to learn about it went!
Plastics: they’re everywhere. From the food and drink containers we engage with sometimes every day, to our face wash and our clothing. The invention that was supposed to change the world has become such a monstrous presence in our environment that it’s actually slowly (or quickly, depending on who you ask) destroying it. When it comes to sustainability efforts, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the many things one could eliminate to reduce waste and consumption: not just plastics, but clothing, animal products, excess water, excess electricity, fossil fuels…But no matter how you slice it, plastics infiltrate every industry and are thus some of the worst environmental offenders out there. When I read some of the statistics about plastic’s evil reign over the world—Americans use a cool 102 billion plastic bags a year; they take 500 years to decompose in landfills; and it costs $4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags—I was truly aghast. As someone who’s already conscious of most of my lifestyle’s global repercussions, I’d nonetheless been blind to how much plastic I actually “consumed;” or, rather, bought and threw away for the future to deal with. Even the cost of recycling plastic is pretty high; it’s difficult to separate properly, especially in large cities, and it’s not the most efficient material to recycle as it degrades with every treatment.
So I decided to do a week-long plastic detox as a way to help me see how big my plastic footprint was and take steps to shrink it in the long-term. In the case of plastics, reduction is the primary R to focus on (reusing is amazing, but as noted above, recycling is perhaps the less preferable of the three). What made my mission especially challenging is a new work schedule that involves a lot more on-the-go-ness: i.e., more potential to just “stop in” somewhere for a drink or snack that’s inevitably wrapped in plastic (in the US alone, coffee shops sell around 370 cups per day–that’s a lot of cups!). Nonetheless, and despite my insatiable sudden craving for iced coffees, I was undeterred in my goal to circumvent the easy route and purchase things with much more intention than I had before, even in circumstances when I thought I was being mindful (like on my weekly trip to the grocery store). The surprising results of my life without plastic are below!
Day 1: Thursday, June 29
Part of what motivated me to start the detox was an event I attended on Tuesday with PD editor-in-chief Juhea and the founder of Dear Sundays, a 10-free nail polish brand with a salon in Saks in NYC. Juhea impressed the crowd not only with her personal style and commitment to sustainability but also with some of the astonishing facts about climate change and waste around the world. Having trekked around the city all day, I was starving and happily munching on a health bar during their Q&A. When I was done, I looked down at my hands and saw the wrapper I now had to throw away. Did I really need to eat that, rather than waiting an hour to get home? No. No, no, no. Peer pressure turned up to high, I gave myself a buffer day to get prepared for the detox.
With that in mind, on Thursday I had a combo day of meetings and working at home. I caved into taking the subway instead of walking to my lunch date, but it would have taken a ridiculous amount of time and with my laptop to carry it wasn’t an option—still better than a car! I had with me a reusable water bottle in case I got parched along the way and *needed* hydration. After lunch, my friend and I went to a coworking space for a few hours, where I insisted on having coffee in a regular (albeit small) glass. I could have gotten a bigger drink in the takeaway plastic cup, but quality over quantity, right?
Day 2: Friday, June 30
With a whole day of working at home, I took a break to stretch my legs and pick up some food for dinner and the weekend. I didn’t need much since I was going away for the holiday on Sunday, but I brought my biggest reusable bag just in case. Pints of blueberries were on sale—and I love blueberries almost as much as I love sales—and yet they lived inside those ubiquitous plastic clam-homes. I reached out to take one but put it back on my way to check out, opting for package-less grapefruits instead. While I knew I could have made an awesome smoothie with those berries had I bought them, I justified the sacrifice with the idea that citrus is cooling and good for pitta season.
Day 3: Saturday, July 1
Laundry day (yes, I do the laundry before I go away…I know), and I’m struggling with the many bottles of detergent I juggle for my clothes. I recently tried to improve upon my store-bought bottle of detergent, which I find to be only okay in terms of getting out the mascara swipes on my white towels sans bleach. That meant buying more ingredients—a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap and baking soda, which I was transporting in an old take out container. Since I used all the powder in my loads (they came out whiter! score!!), and debated whether to toss it at the laundromat. I wound up doing so since I figured I’d make a better system for the next laundry day with a truly reusable container.
That night I stopped by Whole Foods to get some bulk items. I was coming from teaching and forgot to bring the bags I’d saved from my last stock-up–doh! Still, the three take away bags I consumed for this purchase felt better than the other packaging in the store; and I saved money overall.
Day 4: Sunday, July 2
Today was pretty much a success all around: I completed my Sunday ritual of cafe au lait with breakfast at Joe’s Coffee before my morning vinyasa class. I had my overnight oats in an old—really old—(BPA-free) coconut yogurt container, and part of me wanted to reduce the stuff I was carrying overall for the rest of the day and make an excuse to throw it out. Jiminy Cricket chimed in before I could, though, and I flowed through class with an open heart and clear third eye.
Day 5: Monday, July 3
I’m at my parents’ in New Jersey and standing in front of the refrigerator at breakfast. It’s chock-full of those blueberries I wouldn’t let myself buy, plus shells of strawberries and blackberries and an unopened plastic jar of peanut butter: the ingredients for my favorite meal. What to do? Does eating this food I didn’t technically buy count as “plastic consumption”? I put the whole situation in context: my mom tends to overbuy food, especially produce, so I knew that if I didn’t eat this good fruit she bought especially for me it would be not only insulting but doubly wasteful. It would only be three days of contraband plastic…
Day 6: Tuesday, July 4
Today’s the big challenge day, and I’m kicking myself for not starting this plan earlier to avoid the big BBQ day. I was going to my family’s annual shindig, and there was no way I could avoid plastic and throw-aways. I did my best, though, to make good choices when I could: I took a reusable mug of coffee on the trip rather than buying at Starbucks, I asked for a regular glass for water throughout the day instead of a Solo cup, and I used the same paper plate and plastic utensils throughout the multi-stage eat-a-thon that is the American way while others went through many rounds of dishware. I felt bad, but hey—what happens in the backyard on Long Island stays in the backyard, right?
Day 7: Wednesday, July 5
Hooray, almost done! To make up for yesterday, I turned down the berries for breakfast and chose unpackaged fruit instead. My mom and I had a nice day hanging out in the sun, reading and not consuming anything new. My only misdemeanors were eating some pretzels from an already opened bag and finishing hummus in an already-opened container. I’m glad that my parents are rather fastidious about recycling and that their town is responsible with their waste pick-up. When my mom insisted that I take home some food for the rest of the week, I asked her for a reusable bag instead of plastic—and even said no to the berries.
Like most detoxes, living a life without plastic would take a lot of diligence, especially if you live in a very urban place. It’s not impossible, but in the spirit of self-compassion, I didn’t go into this week expecting to be completely zero waste. But just like a few days without gluten can do wonders for a leaky gut, these days without plastic reminded me that I can make do without packaging, and whenever I pass it up, I’m making a small difference in our planet’s future.
How do you reduce your plastic consumption? Share your tips and tricks on our socials! #zerowaste #plasticfree
Also by Jennifer: The Earth Needs You For More Than 1 Day. 4 Ways to Keep Marching For Science
How To Heal Trauma & Manifest Your Dreams With Narrative Medicine
Related: Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Plastic Household Items
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Photo: Pexels, Jennifer Kurdyla