My So-Called Plastic-Free Life. I Tried For A Month. Here's What Happened
My family of four gave up single-use plastic for the month of January. I mean, our execution wasn't perfect, but we gave it a good shot.
Why did we do this? Because 450 years-to-never is the estimated time it takes for some plastics to break down in the environment. And because scientists estimate more than 18 billion pounds of plastic winds up in the ocean every year.
Microplastics have been found in the air we breathe and the water we drink. It's been found in the stomachs of deep sea creatures, birds and turtles. It pollutes beaches and rivers and, well, just about every ecosystem on earth.
And while recycling is great, as plastic waste researcher Jenna Jambeck says, "The most sustainable thing you can do is not generate the trash in the first place."
Plastic has many important uses, no doubt. But covering the plastic fork that I didn't need in the first place is not one of them, at least not for me.
So we tried going cold turkey on single-use plastic during the month of January. Here's how that went.
Jan. 1 | Good Morning, Plastic-Free 2019!
I headed out in the wee hours to report on the Rose Parade. I had to wake up a little earlier than usual to plan out my food for the day. Reusable water bottle, check. Travel coffee mug (with coffee), check.
Not many snack options in the house right now. I pulled out one of the cloth, reusable snack pouches I recently bought and poured in the remains of a bowl of mixed nuts we had out for a party on Sunday. I add a few bananas to my backpack, just in case.
3 p.m. Plastic-free parade reporting was a success. I ate the nuts for lunch, along with some holiday goodies laying around the office. Ordering food would've been nice but sounded complicated ... I survived.
Jan. 2 | Too Soon To Fail
It's been less than 48 hours since my family started this challenge and we've already failed — THREE TIMES. Wah!!
Fail #1: I came home from covering the Rose Bowl parade to an empty apartment. My husband texted me that he was out with the kids looking for a large needle so he could start teaching my daughter to sew.
After looking at several stores, he came back with a little, round sewing kit in a disposable plastic container. I suggested he could've borrowed one from a neighbor, or waited a day until more stores were open — maybe one selling a needle not bundled in plastic. But ... I guess it couldn't wait?
Fail #2: One of our neighbors invited us to his birthday party in the evening. Someone placed a steaming bowl of pork- and hominy-loaded pozole on the table in front of me. Styrofoam bowl.
My heart sank (but just a little because it looked SO good). What was I going to do, be the jerk that asks for a reusable bowl when the kitchen is full of cooks serving a couple dozen people?
No. I don't know these neighbors that well. I just ate. And then thanked them when they sent us home with two giant pieces of cake held between two more styrofoam plates each.
Some people have asked whether we're really going to hold ourselves responsible for plastic that we acquire from other people. Well, yes. Otherwise we could go to a fast food restaurant, eat out of plastic bowls with plastic forks, throw it all away and wash our hands of it.
I feel like we need to keep the rules for this experiment as tight as possible, otherwise we're vulnerable to falling down a slippery slope of plastic excuses. (There are so many!)
Fail #3: My husband bought milk in a glass jar so we could return the glass to the store for a deposit. It had a plastic top.
I thought maybe it could be reused but after some research, it seems unlikely that the tops do get reused or recycled. Plus, I had to remove one of those plastic zip ties to get the top open. That's trash. My daughter suggested instead we could turn it into a pair of headphones for her stuffed bear.
Cute, but how many pairs of headphones can a stuffed bear need?
New goal: Find milk in half gallon cartons without those plastic screw tops that most now have. Would certainly be cheaper than milk in glass bottles.
Jan. 3 | Being 'Those People'
We had another birthday to go to on the evening of Jan. 2, this time for a 4-year-old. I was hoping it'd be small enough that parents would serve cake and ice cream on regular kitchen plates with steel cutlery. If not, I planned to tell them about our no-plastic experiment and ask them if I could use a plate and fork from their kitchen and just wash it.
I spotted the stack of plastic plates and bag of plastic forks as the cake was being cut. I really wanted to go with the flow but if I can't even ask a friend not to serve me with disposable plastic, how are we ever going to make any progress here? So I asked.
A zero-waste campaigner I talked to earlier in the day suggested it might be a good conversation starter. Maybe it would help raise the partygoers' awareness about plastic use. But that didn't happen. The cake cutter essentially shrugged, said "sure," and went on serving cake.
I also made the birthday boy a gift card for a bounce house instead of buying him a plastic-wrapped gift. Not sure he was super excited about it, but hopefully he will be when he's bouncing. (Update: The bounce house was a hit.)
Jan. 4 | Zero Waste Ambition
I joined two "zero waste" Facebook groups, basically support groups with DIY tips and strategies for subverting the throw-away status quo. One is a 30-day, zero waste challenge for newbies like me. The other is an ongoing, Los Angeles-area group for people of all levels of waste-reducing expertise.
From the groups, I quickly picked up tips for food shopping, including bringing a pot to the grocery store for buying a whole chicken (I used to get my whole chickens from Costco, wrapped in several layers of plastic).
I also learned that "zero waste" doesn't really mean zero waste. It just means you're trying really hard to produce as little waste as possible. Whew. A layer of guilt has lifted.
We hadn't really planned to reduce our waste completely, just plastic. But it turns out plastic is a huge part of our waste anyway. Plastic is the second-biggest category of waste in our landfills, comprising about one-fifth (19 percent) of all waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food waste is the biggest category, at 22 percent. (Unfortunately, we do not have compost service at our apartment building, but we are looking for a neighbor who might want our compost. Yes, this is a thing.)
Also, thanks to a reader, I discovered BYO Long Beach where you can bring your own bottles and fill up on shampoo, hand and dish soap, laundry detergent and more. They even sell sunscreen in a tin container and lip balm in paper tubes.
Jan. 5 | Coaxing Out My Inner Planner
We took our first big grocery shopping trip of the new year. I tried to plan out our meals and kids' lunches for the week so we'd know what to get. But who am I kidding, I'm a terrible planner. I did make a list, though, and we packed the trunk with just about every unused bag and container we could find.
We hit two grocery stores: one for the Mexican cheese my kids love that you can't get from the counter at most standard chains; and one for its big bulk section. We'd get most of our fruits and veggies from the farmer's market the following day — hopefully without spending my whole paycheck — to avoid plastic produce stickers.
I was dreading asking an employee to pre-weigh my containers ("tare" them) so I could fill them with bulk items, and instructing a potentially busy deli worker not to package my purchase the way they always do. I'm shy. I don't like to inconvenience people.
To my relief, the guy at the deli counter was fully supportive when I asked if he could give me the cheese directly in my container. He even said I wasn't the first person who had made such a request.
We also picked up bread rolls from a bin and two quart-sized cartons of milk. I later found out that milk cartons are lined with plastic. Whoops.
Next we stopped at Sprouts to fill up on dried fruit, nuts and other snacks from the bulk section. We also stopped at the deli to get some lunch meat for the kids. The deli took a little longer than usual, and my husband had to clearly specify that we did not want plastic wrap around the meat, but here, too, the deli worker was extremely nice and accommodating and applauded our efforts to reduce waste.
The whole trip took us about two hours. Not exactly speedy, but I'm hoping we get faster as we get into a routine.
Jan. 8 | Back To The Store — So Soon!
Out of milk. Just three days after our last shopping trip. Out of bread, too. Snacks are running low. Sigh. Missin' roasted seaweed. And rice cakes.
In my previous life, a mass Costco buy would've made our food supply last longer. And also would've come with a lot of unnecessary packaging.
It's exasperating to have to try so hard to make good decisions for the planet. Packaged food is so easy and ubiquitous and cheap!
But, buckling down here. A pledge is a pledge.
Jan. 9 | Taking Out The Trash
We definitely have less trash than we did last month. But we still have trash. A paper bag worked for the first week but we don't have many of them. So we decided to go back to a technique that we used while living together in Guatemala City in our pre-kid years.
We would line our trash bin with newspaper and then bundle it up when full. We bagged our recyclables separately so that no one would have to pick through our trash to get them.
Now trying the same thing here. Will report back.
Jan. 11 | Why Not Just Recycle?
I toured the Republic Services recycling plant in Anaheim, which takes in 13,000 tons of curbside recycling every month from 30 cities in Los Angeles and Orange County. I specifically did not say they recycle that amount of trash because only 65 percent of it actually gets recovered for recycling. The rest gets sent to the landfill.
Recognition is growing among environmental groups and waste management firms that recycling isn't the answer to our ever-growing consumption of plastic. Not even close. Only about 9 percent of plastic produced in the U.S. gets recycled, according to EPA figures.
Up until 2017, China was taking 60 to 80 percent of our recyclable materials. Then they quit in order to deal with their own increasing volume of waste. Now we have to deal with our own. What a concept.
After the recycling tour, it was back to shopping. I found a specialty chicken shop nearby that I figured was a good bet for buying a non-plastic wrapped chicken. I'd brought along a big stock pot to transport it home. It worked! Chicken soup for dinner.
Jan. 13 | Breakdown In The Milk Aisle
Bought milk in a plastic jug. I know, I know. I needed a lot of milk because I'm planning to make yogurt. And I just couldn't see dropping $10 for a gallon of milk that would still yield some hard-to-recycle plastic lids and tabs. Plus, I learned from my Republic tour that milk jugs — plastic type #2 HDPE — are among the highest valued and easiest to recycle of household plastic items.
Jan. 22 | Beyond The Kitchen
We're running out of laundry detergent. I went to BYO Long Beach to fill up and check out the store. We decided early on that we would use up whatever we had in the house before looking for non-plastic alternatives, so we hadn't had to plan much beyond food. (We did make toothpaste at the start of our plastic-free experiment.)
But toiletries and cleaning items are starting to run low, and the list of items to replace is long: dish soap, deodorant, chapstick, sponges and probably a bunch of other things I'm not thinking of.
It turns out, with a little searching, all of this stuff is available in non-plastic format. BYO Long Beach and Sustain LA offer much of it without going online (deliveries often come with lots of packaging).
Some things are undoubtedly more expensive than their plastic-contained counterparts. I asked Julie Darrell from BYO Long Beach about this. She agreed, but also said that, for example, the price of her bulk laundry detergent is ultimately cheaper than a bottled equivalent because less is required for each load.
I had hoped to do a full cost comparison of our plastic-free month, but I'm realizing that it's unrealistic to do when it comes to non-food household items. We'd have to compare our costs over a longer time period.
Jan. 24. | Zero Waste Going Mainstream?
Big news! A group of major food and personal care companies like Procter & Gamble and Nestlé are launching a pilot project to popularize reusable, refillable containers. You'll be able to order shampoo and ice cream online, get them delivered and then send back the containers for refills when you're done.
Loop, as the project is called, will be available for a limited number of consumers in Paris and New York. But it seems like a promising effort to bring refill culture into the mainstream.
I was struck by a comment about the initiative from the president of PepsiCo's global snacks group, Simon Lowden, in the Wall Street Journal: "People talk about recyclability and reuse and say they'd like to be involved in helping the environment, so let's see if it's true."
Let's see, indeed. That same WSJ story noted that Unilever tried out a similar pilot with laundry detergent in 2010 but discontinued it because it didn't catch on with customers.
Also, P&G announced that it's piloting diaper and feminine hygiene pad recycling for consumers in France. What??? Yes!!!
Jan. 28 | The Trash Bag Dilemma
Lining our trash bin with newspaper has worked fine, for the most part. But I started wondering about throwing my unbagged trash into the mixed waste bin at my apartment building.
Like many apartments, we don't have separate trash and recycling service. In theory, at least, recyclable materials thrown in the mixed waste bin get separated out and recycled. I say "in theory," because in reality, it has to be clean and relatively high value to make it worth the effort to pick it out.
If I'm dumping my unbagged trash into the bin, it seems likely that recyclable materials would get contaminated. Plus, the bin could get nasty, especially in the hot summer months.
I need to solve my trash dilemma quick because the banana peels and eggshells from breakfast are now stacked precariously on top of the pile of waste filling the little bucket next to my sink. Maybe we still have some paper bags laying around.
Jan. 30 | Plastic-Free Confidence
I went grocery shopping today and I'm proud to say that there were major improvements over my first plastic-free shopping trip this month. Thanks to some coaching from Julie Darrell of BYO Long Beach, this time I marched confidently up to the deli to order raw chicken to be placed directly in my container. I did the same with cheese. I got several containers tared, filled up on trail mix and other snacks. All without any single-use plastic.
I was in and out in about 35 minutes (that's good for me).
Jan. 31 | Final Thoughts, Final Costs
It's the end of the month and ... we made it. Not perfectly, but I'd like to think we did a pretty damn good job. Here's a list of single-use plastic we did acquire this month:
- fruit and vegetable stickers (many are made of plastic)
- milk jugs (recyclable)
- candy wrappers from a birthday party
- some snack food bags from my daughter's childcare
- a few product safety tabs and sleeves
- a plastic fork and napkin in plastic bag that my husband accidentally acquired at a restaurant
We also, as I mentioned earlier, kept using plastic-wrapped things that we had already purchased. Among them were shampoo, cleaning products, sunscreen and chicken nuggets that come in a big bag from Costco, which my kids love and eat for lunch at least once a week.
When this all runs out, though, we plan to move to plastic-free alternatives (with the likely exception of the chicken nuggets. Unless I can figure out how to make a reasonably analogous alternative, which seems hard because kids are shrewd and the nuggets are shaped like dinosaurs. Googling now: there are like 100 recipes for homemade chicken nuggets so maybe?)
In the end, we found store-bought equivalents for:
- cleaning and beauty products
We also made from scratch (with varying degrees of difficulty, time commitment and family acceptance):
- cashew milk
It was fun, but time-consuming.
At times, this whole thing has been stressful, like earlier this week when I realized my husband had left for work in the car that I had packed for grocery shopping with produce bags and plastic containers. We were mostly out of food and I worried that I'd have to wait yet another day to go shopping.
I agonized over what kind of milk to buy; whether I was a coward for not forcing my kids to switch to cashew milk; and, ultimately, a failure for buying milk in a plastic jug.
Wow, that sounds privileged. And it is. Which is why it's promising to hear that some companies, like those involved in the Loop project, are starting to make better decisions before products get to the consumer.
And governments are also making some of those decisions for companies and consumers, by banning plastic straws and grocery bags, and considering extended producer responsibility measures, which make companies responsible for the end waste of their product.
TL;DR | Tips & Takeaways
What my family did may sound, to zero waste gurus, like not enough. Or it may sound like way more than you and your family could reasonably take on.
But the vast majority of us could do a few things to reduce our collective plastic waste:
- Get reusable produce bags, in addition to your grocery bags. Just make sure you wash them regularly to avoid food-borne pathogens.
- Carry a reusable water bottle and travel mug
- And a reusable set of utensils
- Just say "no" when offered an unneeded plastic bag, fork, etc.
- Before you buy, think about the packaging.
My family will inevitably consume single-use plastic in the future — but it'll be way less than it was in 2018.