Over the course of this month, I've been much more aware of single-use plastic in my life than usual. Every time I bought something packed in plastic, or otherwise ended up acquiring a disposable plastic item, I felt bad about it—but in most cases, the only alternative was going without the item the plastic was wrapped around, and that felt even worse. So I'd say my overall plastic use in the past four weeks has altered little, if at all.
Here's a rough listing of all the items that brought plastic waste into our home during our not-so-plastic-free July, along with the few relatively trivial plastic items we've managed to avoid.
In theory, this should have been an easy one, right? After all, we're getting a lot of produce out of the garden right now—zucchini, the last of the lettuce, some early tomatoes—and our local farmers' market is open every Friday, so I should have been able to pick up everything from there. Right?
Well, in theory, we could have managed that. What we didn't grow ourselves came mostly from the H-Mart and the Whole Earth Center, where most produce is sold loose in bins, so we could use our mesh produce bags or reused plastic ones. When I bought peaches at the farmers' market, I deliberately chose the smaller basket that didn't come lined with a plastic bag, even though the peaches cost more that way per pound; when we picked out cabbage at H-Mart, we went for the slightly pricier white cabbage, rather than the green cabbage that came wrapped in cling-film.
Compounding our sin, we also picked up a bag of Brussels sprouts at Trader Joe's—and that one wasn't even recyclable. But they weren't selling the sprouts on the stalk the way they sometimes do, and how could we pass up the chance of having our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts?
The only meat we bought during July was some free-range chicken drumsticks from Trader Joe's. These come on a Styrofoam tray, covered in a plastic wrapper—but so does chicken pretty much everywhere else. I guess if we'd gone to the Amish market instead, we could have avoided the foam tray, but they'd still have been in a plastic bag—and we'd have had to make a special trip for the purpose. Isn't it likely that the gas burned for that trip would have caused more environmental harm than one little foam tray?
Most of the other protein foods we bought in July were plastic-wrapped, as well. For instance, we bought a pound of shredded mozzarella at Aldi, which came in a plastic bag—but again, I've never seen any cheese for sale that didn't have some form of plastic wrapping. And while we actually tried making our own mozzarella once, it didn't come out very well, and it cost a lot more than buying it.
Eggs are a different matter. They're available in both plastic cartons and cardboard ones, so in theory we should have chosen cardboard—but for us, it's a much higher priority to buy eggs that are Certified Humane. We find the best prices for these at H-Mart, where the eggs invariably come in plastic cartons. So for us, humane trumps sustainably packaged—assuming that cardboard even is more sustainable than lighter-weight, recyclable plastic.
We also bought some tofu at H-Mart, where it's sold in plastic cartons with a peel-off plastic top. The carton is recyclable, but the top is not. I guess if we'd really been on the ball, we could have planned ahead and gotten the tofu at the Whole Earth Center, where blocks of it are stored in a big vat of water—but we'd still have had to use a plastic bag to get it home.
Even dry chick peas, which would normally be an ecofrugal no-brainer as protein sources go, were a problem for this challenge, packed as they were in a plastic bag. We could have chosen canned beans instead, but when you consider the added cost and shipping weight of the cans, the dry beans looked more ecofrugal to me, bag and all. Again, I suppose if we'd been really dedicated we could have bought them from the bulk bins at Whole Earth, but they'd probably have cost us more than the canned ones.
The biggest item in our plastic recycling bin these days is milk jugs. The Plastic Free July site suggested avoiding these by buying milk in "waxed card" cartons, but that's not really an option around here, where the cardboard cartons are lined with plastic and non-recyclable. We could have relied on powdered milk for the month of July, but these days it comes in a non-recyclable plastic bag rather than a cardboard box—and it's more expensive than fresh. The only way to avoid plastic altogether, short of giving up milk, would have been to buy outrageously expensive, full-fat milk in a glass bottle from Whole Earth—and even that comes with a plastic top. So we stuck with our trusty, recyclable plastic jugs.
We applied the same logic with orange juice. The plastic bottles we buy OJ in are recyclable, while frozen OJ comes in non-recyclable, plastic-lined cardboard tubes. The frozen stuff is also pricier and not as tasty. So to avoid plastic, we would have had to either go without OJ for a month or squeeze our own, at considerable cost and effort, from out-of-season fruit shipped halfway around the world.
There was one beverage item we bought, however, that I did consider to be an example of "stupid plastic." My favorite herbal tea is Bengal Spice from Celestial Seasonings, which is in most respects a very eco-conscious brand. They boast in their FAQ that their herbs are sustainably sourced, their boxes are recyclable cardboard, the tea bags are compostable, and they eschew wasteful strings, tags, and staples. So tell me why, exactly, does this otherwise exemplary product come wrapped in a non-recyclable plastic wrapper? Grr. I've actually written to the company about this, but given that they've been at it for at least eight years, I don't expect them to stop now. Unfortunately, even if I could find another brand that was completely plastic-free, there's no other herbal tea blend I've found that tastes anything like Bengal Spice. I would try making my own, but the ingredients include roasted chicory and roasted carob, and I don't know where I'd get those.
Produce, protein, and beverage items were far from the only offenders in our grocery cart. In fact, at pretty much every time we went to the store, we ended up with at least one item in a plastic wrapper. But once again, going through the list, I'm not convinced that going out of our way to avoid these items would actually have been the ecofrugal choice in most cases.
- Whipped Cream. We now know how to recycle whipped cream cans, but not the little plastic nozzle and valve in the top. But even so, we consider buying whipped cream in this form less wasteful than buying a (non-recyclable) pint carton of fresh cream and whipping our own, since it all has to be used within a week or two before it goes bad (and costs more to boot).
- Popcorn. We picked up three bags of organic popcorn in bags at Trader Joe's. In theory, we could have bought some from the bulk bins at the Whole Earth Center instead, even though it's much more expensive; the problem is, they don't always have it, so taking a chance on it could have meant going without my regular afternoon snack.
- Peanuts. Just as my snack of choice is popcorn, Brian's is peanuts. We buy these in plastic jars at Aldi, and we recycle the jars. I have actually seen peanuts sold in bulk bins, with the skin on, at H-Mart, but they're not roasted, so we'd have to toast them at home, which would make them a lot less convenient as a snack. And there are roasted organic peanuts in the bulk bins at Whole Earth, but as with most things, they're more expensive.
- Chocolate Chips. The only place I've seen chocolate chips that weren't sold in plastic bags was in the bulk bins at Whole Earth, and those weren't just expensive, they were ludicrously expensive—over $12 a pound. It would be cheaper to buy foil-wrapped chocolate bars and just chip off pieces, but a lot more work.
- Marshmallows. My impulse purchase at Trader Joe's was a bag of marshmallows, since TJ's is the only place I've seen that has vegetarian ones at a decent price. I've never seen any marshmallows, vegetarian or otherwise, that weren't sold in plastic bags, so if we hadn't bought these, we'd have had to try making our own—a messy and uncertain process—or go without s'mores.
- Gnocchi. This was another plastic-wrapped TJ's item that, in theory, we could have made at home. However, doing that would have defeated the main purpose of buying it, which is to have a quick meal ready to hand for emergencies. We could have just skipped it until July was over, but really, what's the point if all you're doing is delaying a plastic purchase rather than avoiding it?
- Pita Bread. Although Brian bakes most of our bread at home, he wanted pita bread to go with some falafel he was making. He's tried baking his own pita without success, so if we couldn't buy the pitas, we probably wouldn't have been able to have this low-carbon, vegetarian meal.
- Toilet Paper. We buy this by the dozen at TJ's because it's both cheaper than any other brand and made from recycled paper. I know it's possible to buy individual rolls of toilet paper packaged in paper wrappers, but it costs a lot more, and it's not recycled. Is that really better for the environment?
- Ginger Mints. The Organic Ginger Mints from Newman's Own, another allegedly eco-conscious company, had the same problem as the herbal tea. They're made of all organic ingredients and packaged in a recyclable (or reusable) metal tin—which is then wrapped in plastic. Why? I'm actually annoyed enough about this that I might venture to try making my own mints at some point, if I can find a suitable recipe. (I've got plenty of tins to store them in, since they're so cute I can't bear to throw them out.)
We had mixed success with avoiding plastic while eating out. For instance, on our anniversary, we had lunch at The Salad and Smoothie Market in Princeton, which is very strong on sustainability. Our salad (we just shared one, since the portions are so generous) was served in a cardboard box, and we reused a plastic fork that I was carrying in my purse. So we produced no plastic waste on that occasion.
But then, two days later, we went to the annual Birthday Show at the Minstrel concert series, and instead of its usual paper plates and cups, the venue had switched to Styrofoam. Maybe if I'd known about this ahead of time, I would have brought my own mug for my tea (though it's not so easy to carry a big thing like that around), but the birthday cake had already been dished out onto the Styrofoam plates, so the only way to avoid this plastic waste would have been to skip the cake—which was clearly not an acceptable option.
Likewise, when we went shopping at the H-Mart, we could not bring ourselves to pass up all the tasty free samples just because many of them were dished up in little plastic cups. (We did, at least, bring the cups home for recycling instead of tossing them in the trash.)
As for my nifty new DIY straw sleeve, I still haven't had a chance to try it. Every time I thought about going out for a to-go drink, I remembered that I was supposed to be avoiding to-go cups as well as straws, so I ended up heading sadly home without one. The one time I actually thought ahead and brought a reusable cup with me, I ended up not using it because it was so hot out that I decided to head straight home rather than walking a little further to pick up a drink. So I only managed to avoid to-go cups by completely eschewing to-go drinks, which isn't something I'd want to do all year long.
Medicine and Personal Care Items
Plastic also came into our house by way of the drugstore. For instance, I brought home two medications—clindamycin lotion for my face and lansoprazole for my tummy—that were only available in (recyclable) plastic containers. The only way to avoid them would have been to go without the medications, against my doctor's orders, and I didn't think that was a good idea.
We also bought a couple of personal care items packaged in plastic: shampoo for Brian and conditioner for me. In theory, we could have found alternatives to these, but not good ones. For instance, instead of a pump bottom of shampoo, we could have bought Dr. Bronner's liquid soap from the bulk bins at Whole Earth. However, Brian's tried washing his hair with this before, and it made his head itch, so it's not a very satisfactory option.
Likewise, I've tried various homemade alternatives to conditioner over the years, such as vinegar rinses, baking soda, and straight coconut oil, and none of them worked at all well. I did a little additional research on the subject this month and found an article proposing coconut milk as a good conditioner for curls, so I tried some, but it left my hair limp and slightly greasy. (It did make a nice shaving balm, though.) So once again, the only alternative would have been to go without, and that would have made my hair, and me, miserable.
The Bottom Line
My takeaway from this experience: for most people, avoiding single-use plastic simply isn't practical. If a moderately hard-core environmentalist like me—someone who writes a whole blog about living green, for crying out loud—found this to be too much work, there's pretty much no hope that the average consumer can be convinced to do it.
In short, I simply don't think it's fair or reasonable to put the burden on individual consumers to solve the problem of plastic waste. Dealing with the problem is going to require changing the system that's made these plastics so pervasive.
Scientific American came to much the same conclusion in a July 6 blog entry, saying, "It’s true that plastic pollution is a huge problem, of planetary proportions. And it’s true we could all do more to reduce our plastic footprint. The lie is that blame for the plastic problem is wasteful consumers and that changing our individual habits will fix it."
The piece also argues that efforts to get consumers to recycle plastic are little more than a smokescreen, once again shifting the focus toward consumer behavior and away from manufacturers' responsibility to make their products and packaging sustainable. Real change, the author posits, will take the form of laws that either ban or discourage the use of single-use plastics (bags, straws, etc.) and promote recycling and reuse.
None of this is to say that we consumers shouldn't reduce our plastic use when we can, and recycle when we can't. Choices like passing up plastic straws and opting for minimally packaged products, if enough people make them, can actually have an impact on the market as a whole, driving more manufacturers toward sustainable production. But driving ourselves nuts trying to live a zero-waste lifestyle isn't likely to do as much good, in the long run, as pushing our lawmakers—local, state, and national—for changes that will actually have a broad impact.
Speaking for myself, I'm planning to carry on reusing my drinking straws, taking reusable to-go containers to restaurants when I can, and opting for products with less packaging when all other things are truly equal. But beyond this low-hanging fruit, I'm not going to beat myself up about the amount of waste I "produce" when it's really the structure of our society that's at fault. Instead, I'm going to focus more on trying to change the system—writing to legislators, talking to friends, and making as much noise as this small-scale blog will allow.
True, if I write an article here about something that may be a tiny piece of the solution—a new bill to reduce packaging waste, for instance, or a company that's shifting toward sustainability, or a new technique that could make plastic recycling more practical—maybe only 50 people will see it. But if every one of those 50 people tells 10 more, and each of them tells 10 more, and so on, then maybe we'll actually start to get somewhere.