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What I Learned From A Week Of Reducing My Plastic Use And Trying To Be A More Conscientious Consumer


Last week, I participated in the Tread Lightly, Retire Early Plastic Free December Challenge. The general goal of the challenge was to find ways to reduce plastic use, something I'm on board with one thousand percent. My family has developed and maintained a solid collection of environmentally-friendly habits over the years, but this is one area where I've long felt we should be able to do better.

Right away, I knew we probably wouldn't be able to go all-in on the challenge because plastic is so omnipresent at the one place we visit on a regular basis: the grocery store. There, plastic is everywhere. Plastic fruit cartons. Plastic bread bags. Plastic hummus containers. Plastic-wrapped lunch box snacks and cheese sticks. Meat in plastic. Cheese in plastic. Cereal in plastic. Yogurt in plastic. Inexplicably, sometimes even canned goods are bundled together in plastic.

It would be almost impossible to avoid plastic entirely unless every single person in the family was on board and willing to make major sacrifices - and I didn't want to ask them to do that, especially during a busy work and school week, and especially because I'm not the one who does the grocery shopping in our household. My partner does.

So instead, I decided to modify the rules and develop my own goals for the week while still maintaining the spirit of the challenge.

Here's what I came up with:

1. Continue implementing the environmentally-friendly actions that are already regular habits in our family (see below)
2. Buy milk in cartons instead of plastic bottles
3. Purchase dry goods from bulk bins, using plastic-free, reusable bags
4. Make more homemade food (such as bread, granola bars, and yogurt) to reduce packaged, processed stuff
5. Avoid all animal products


Current Enviro-Friendly Habits


As a family, we already make the following planet-friendly choices:

1. We drink water from the tap and use reusable water bottles. The water where we live is regularly monitored, safe to drink, and tastes great, so we don't see a point in buying it. Each family member has their own designated water bottle, and we've gotten accustomed to carting them around with us.

(Sidenote: I have a real problem with the bottled water industry because it takes a limited natural resource that should be available to everyone and commodifies it. Bottled water is absolutely necessary in some cases - for instance, in areas where drinking water is polluted - but for the most part, it's a total racket. Clean, safe water should be a right, not something that is transformed into corporate profits.)

2. We bring cloth bags to the grocery store. We have about 10 bags that we cycle through on a regular basis. At this point, it's a habit. If the occasional plastic bag sneaks into the mix at checkout, we don't sweat it, but cloth bags are so much more durable and so much better for the environment (assuming you're actually using them and not, you know, dumping boxes and boxes of them into a landfill).

3. We own only one car and fill the tank only about once a month. We can do this because (a) we live in a small town, so all of our usual destinations are close by, (b) my partner walks to work, and (c) I work from home.

4. I'm a vegetarian, and my partner and son have cut back on meat. Meat is an energy- and water-intensive product, so to us, limiting our consumption makes sense.


So How Did The Week Go?


I succeeded in maintaining my current habits and avoiding animal products. The only non-plant based food I consumed was half of a cheese pizza on Friday night. (I was really hungry and pizza is my favorite food.) We also met our milk container goal: my partner opted for cartons this week. They still contain plastic, but as far as I know, they contain less plastic than traditional plastic jugs. So... yay?

I completely bombed, however, at bulk binning. I visited a local organic grocery store that frequently boasts about its reduction in single-use plastics. It seemed like the perfect place to deploy my reusable cloth bags for items like beans, rice, and nuts. Turns out that the store has completely done away with its bulk bins and now sells - and I quote - "prepackaged bulk bin items." In other words, they wrap all of their products in plastic and sell them in pre-measured portions, just like every other grocery store in town. The produce section was tiny, and the rest of the establishment was pretty much a sea of processed goods. There was something extra depressing about shopping at an all-natural grocery store that's failing so hard at being good to the environment.

Not worth it. I won't be back.

I didn't get around to making bread or granola bars, though I'm hoping to do so this week. I did, however, try my hand at making cashew yogurt. This recipe turned out to be a smashing success! You just soak some cashews, blend them up with a little water, mix in a tablespoon of yogurt starter, and then let the nutty concoction sit in a low-temperature oven for 12 to 24 hours while the fermentation gets rolling. The yogurt is tart, tangy, and delicious, and it takes almost no time to mix up the ingredients. Best part: not having to spend $6 on a plastic tub of vegan yogurt.


What I Learned


1. I already knew this, but the Plastic Free Challenge underlined the fact that the grocery store is a minefield of single-use plastic. Even if you arrive at the store fully outfitted with your own bags and containers, you'd be hard-pressed to avoid plastic entirely. Berries? In plastic. Salad? In plastic. Cereal, rice, and other dry goods? Plastic (unless your store is still on board with "unsanitary" bulk bins). We could probably curate a wider array of non-plastic-packaged options if we were willing to visit multiple stores every week, but... we're not.

2. We're already making some excellent, easy-to-implement consumer choices. Obviously, there's always MORE one could do, but at the very least, we're grabbing the lower-hanging enviro-friendly fruit on a consistent basis, and that's something.

3. Consumers could make more environmentally-friendly choices if corporate entities offered more and better options. How often are we told that we as consumers are the ones holding the power when it comes to improving the health of our planet? How many times are we told that if we just use less water and less plastic, buy less stuff, drive less, etc. etc., the Earth will be a healthier place? How many times are we told that it's up to us? (Thanks for this link, Done by Forty.)

But how are we supposed to make better choices if our only options are mediocre ones?

Take the organic grocery store: I don't want to buy my almonds in a package. I want to pour some raw almonds into a cloth bag that I can take home, wash, and use again. That shouldn't be hard. But most stores where I live give me no way to do that. I'm practically forced to purchase all of my dry goods in plastic.

4. We need to stop pretending that consumers are entirely responsible for our environmental problems. I know this is going to sound totally depressing and defeatist, but the week made me feel a little less hopeful about the future. There's only so much that individuals can do. We need government involvement and legislation (especially for environmental issues that don't care about arbitrary, human-crafted boundaries), and we need corporate buy-in. We need the entities with the real power to use their power in a positive way and stop passing the buck to the little guys (us).

It's unfair and disingenuous for corporate and government giants to put all environmental responsibility on consumers. They need to take action and make changes, too. From a big-picture perspective, it's imperative they get involved.

In other words, we need systemic environmental change.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that you shouldn't make good environmental choices as an individual. You absolutely should, especially because your choices have positive impacts in your community. The less waste we create and the less plastic we use, the less crap that will end up in local watersheds. The more we walk or bike or bus instead of drive (if/when that's an option), the better our local air quality will be.

But unless the ginormous companies and corporations that are most responsible for this mess start cleaning up their processes and/or make it easier for us to create less waste, on a broad scale, I don't see how we're going to move the needle in a meaningful way.

I worry that the danger in putting all responsibility on the consumer is that it sets us up for complete and utter failure in the long run. It lulls us into thinking we're making progress when in fact, if we zoom out, we find we're being driven in the opposite direction. We must force the government and corporations to take just as much responsibility as we do. We need to change the narrative if we want to heal our planet.


Habits I'll Maintain


Aside from the long-term habits we've already cultivated, I can see myself making three changes after this week:

1. Eat an almost-vegan diet from here on out. I've never loved meat (the one good thing that comes from growing up with a parent who regularly served undercooked chicken and pork), so vegetarianism is pretty easy for me. However, I was surprised by how little I missed eggs and cheese this week (except on my beloved pizza). I plan to continue transitioning to a mostly vegan way of eating.

2. Make my own yogurt and make more of my own bread. The yogurt-making process is so easy and the savings are so obvious that it's worth it. As for bread, the only trouble with homemade is that my kid loves it and can eat half a loaf in one sitting. But flour is relatively affordable, so okay.

3. Pay close attention to the environmental platforms of political candidates and vote for those who have clear, actionable, meaningful plans to help the environment and mitigate climate change. If the environment is truly a priority for me and if I truly care about the well being of the planet for future generations, then the environment has to be a top consideration when I'm deciding how to vote.

What about you? Did you participate in plastic-free week? How did it go for you?

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8 comments:

  1. Thanks for an awesome read! And I completly agree with you that producers and retailers need to make more effort to reduce single-use plastic and weave out other non-environmental practices!

    I use my own coffee cup, recycle, don't eat red meat, use my own bags, and catch the bus where possible. But sometimes, I feel everything I do won't make a difference in the grand scheme of things with all these large companies doing nothing! But like you said, there are more environmental consumer choices nowadays so I can only hope things will slowly get better.

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    1. Thank you for reminding me of how much HAS changed. For example, even 15 years ago, it was hard to find good vegan/vegetarian options. Now, there ARE good options, and they're fairly ubiquitous.

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  2. Fantastic! I'm so glad you joined Angela's plastic-free challenge with us! It's wonderful to hear how it went for you and what lessons you learned from it. Thanks for sharing your experience!
    Even though my family went plastic-free for 40 days during Lent, I still caught myself about to purchase some things in plastic without even realizing it. Plastic has become invisible, it's so ubiquitous!

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    1. So impressed that you went plastic-free for 40 days!

      One additional thing we'll do is purchase cloth bags for produce. That's another easy consumer modification.

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  3. I didn't do the full challenge but I did try to reduce as much as possible. It really highlighted HOW MUCH plastic there is out there. It's pretty ridiculous!

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    1. RIGHT?!? I mean, I knew there's a lot of plastic out there... What I didn't realize is how hard it is to find non-plastic options. I thought we were just being lazy.

      That said, we WILL be investing in some additional cloth bags for produce.

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  4. Thank you for your really thoughtful post. You really bring into focus the "Greenwashing" - making it appear that companies are doing The Right Thing and the problematic idea that if we all take Small Steps the problem will be solved. My younger son just finished college and started a job, going from Portland OR to a govt lab in deepest suburban Maryland. He tried every which way to avoid getting a car, but came to the realization that it was unavoidable, and he felt bad about this. We tried to convey to him that it is not his fault that the situation is structured in such a way that cycling to work is just not feasible. (He was willing to take public transport and then ride his bike 45 minutes, but dangerous roads, shifts at odd hours, no place to clean up, and inevitable weather issues made it untenable.) Your third point is key I think.

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    1. One person can only do so much! It sounds like your son made the best possible choice... Safety is important, too. And it sounds like he's very conscientious. I'm sure he's making environmentally friendly choices in other aspects of his life.

      Thank you for the comment! I appreciate it.

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