Against the Current in a Plastic Society

By Katie Keil

I watched the video, dumbfounded, as the marine biologist continued to pull the seemingly never-ending straw out of the sea turtle’s nose. Anyone who has seen this (or the multitude of similar videos on the Internet) can attest to the cringe-worthiness of plastic pollution in our oceans. Over 267 marine species are impacted by oceanic plastic pollution through ingestion, strangulation, entanglement, and poisoning by toxic chemicals, leading to over 100,000 animal deaths each year.

Although 80% of marine debris comes from urban runoff, the impacts are not restricted to urban areas. Midway Island, 2000 miles away from the reaches of civilization, is home to albatross nesting grounds. One would think this to be a beautiful, pristine place. However, in reality, it’s like something out of a horror film. Albatross chicks writhe in pain from plastic ingestion while various plastics litter the beach. Plastic is so pervasive that “every single albatross on the island will likely die with a stomach full of it”.

Plastic pollution is also impacting the deepest depths of our ocean: researchers recently found “extraordinary” levels of PCBs in crustaceans in both the Kermadec Trench and the Marianas Trench, 10 kilometers below the surface. It appears that nowhere is safe from the reaches of this horror.

The problem is ubiquitous, but is plastic really that bad? Unfortunately, yes. Although decomposition time varies for different types of plastic, it takes a plastic bottle approximately 450 years to degrade. Some plastic bottles can take over 1,000 years, while others made with PET will never biodegrade.

But what about recycling? Today, only about 6.5% of all plastic is recycled. When done properly, recycling is a step in the right direction, although widely misunderstood. Plastics actually undergo a process called “downcycling”, where the integrity of the material is degraded and made into a lower-value product. For example, when a plastic water bottle is recycled, it cannot be made into another water bottle, but rather a lower quality product such as carpet. Once the plastic’s second life is over, the item typically makes its way to the landfill.

So, we know single-use plastic is an issue, but exactly how “doable” is it to go plastic-free in today’s society? I decided to find out, and embarked on a week-long journey devoid of any single-use plastics.

Day 1:

I laughed when I woke up and the first task of my day involved plastic. As the tube of toothpaste stared back at me, I realized that all of my hygiene products were encapsulated in plastic. I did some research online and found ways to make my own toothpaste, deodorant, and conditioner using items like baking soda, essential oils, and coconut oil that can be purchased in non-plastic packaging. Not only was the process of making each product enjoyable and highly customizable, but I also was excited by how much money I was saving.

With the hygiene situation taken care of, I moved on to other aspects of day-to-day life. I thought the most appropriate way to begin my plastic-free week was to attend my local farmers market, where I bought kale, potatoes, bread, and a goat’s milk shampoo bar. I snagged some lunch accompanied with a compostable plate and fork, and thought to myself that this challenge may be easier than expected.

Day 2:

I was wrong. Since the vast majority of the food at my house was in plastic containers, I went to two different stores to get my remaining provisions for the week. I was discouraged to find my favorite grocery store unnecessarily wraps their produce in plastic, when it could easily be sold loose. Do zucchini really need three layers of the pesky material? The store’s walls were lined with plastic.

I bought a myriad of snacks from the second store’s bulk section, which came with a startling price tag. Why was my granola three times the price of the same product in plastic packaging? I only bought about half the items on my list due to unavailability or price.

Day 3:

By day three, I had come to the conclusion that my shortage of snacks would result in a state of constant hunger. I made oatmeal for breakfast and stared longingly at the dried fruit in plastic packaging I wouldn’t be able to indulge in.

I decided on pasta for dinner, until I realized my little cardboard box of noodles had a plastic “window”, and thus didn’t fit the bill. I went to the store only to find that all the traditional pasta options contained some level of plastic, and opted for bulk tortellini. Although delicious, they were uncomfortably pricey at $5.50/pound, whereas I typically spend less than $3 for an entire package of pasta.

Day 4:

All I saw was plastic everywhere. This experiment had given me plastic vision: my mail was wrapped in plastic, the samples at the supermarket were accompanied with plastic forks, and all my friends were eating out of disposable lunch containers.

After a long day of teaching, I was ready to come home and relax but unfortunately, every quick meal was either frozen or wrapped in plastic and I was required to cook once again… this challenge would certainly make a good diet plan.

Day 5:

By day 5 I was really missing peanut butter. When I went to pick up one of the glass jars of peanut butter at the store, I was disappointed to discover a ring of plastic around the aluminum lid. Even peanut butter wasn’t safe. Defeated, I made enough of my favorite dish of various canned and fresh vegetables to sustain me for a month.

Day 6:

I broke down, and got some fast food. Bless McDonalds and their plastic-free packaging for saving me from the bean-corn-tomato mixture I had been eating for the past few meals. I ordered a filet-o-fish, fries, and a drink (no lid or straw, of course), and had to begrudgingly forgo getting sweet and sour sauce to dip my fries in. The sweet taste of junk food made me forget all my worries….  only to later experience regret because I almost never eat fast food.

Day 7:

I just wanted to eat some Greek yogurt for breakfast, but opted instead for an egg scramble with salsa. I felt like I had finally gotten into the rhythm of navigating a plastic-free world as I packed my kale chips and black bean and rice lunch, and headed out the door. Although feeling accomplished by my successful week, I kept catching myself daydreaming about the cheese and fresh fruit that I was going to eat the next day. If I made a habit of choosing plastic-free food, I believe this lifestyle would become second nature… but it certainly hadn’t yet.

My Reflections:

Overall, I made five trips to the grocery store, spent more money than expected, and lost two pounds. Rather than opting for processed snacks in plastic packaging, I had to instead invest in healthy options such as apples, carrots, and bulk trail mix. I was dumbfounded by the lack of plastic-free options, since almost every item contains a plastic lid, sticker, or safety seal. I was also disappointed to find that going plastic free is not only incredibly difficult, but comes with a larger price tag than I anticipated. My grocery store receipts were shorter, but the total at the bottom was bigger due to the specialty food items I had to purchase. It is beyond me that in 2017 we haven’t implemented a widespread plastic alternative that biodegrades in less than 450 years; this really shouldn’t be this difficult.

Although challenging in today’s society, I highly recommend taking on a plastic free-lifestyle because it not only makes a positive impact on the environment, but also yourself. This weeklong process opened my eyes to the absurdity of our disposable culture, and will continue to influence my consumer decisions in the future. However, if you aren’t ready to commit to your own weeklong (or lifelong) journey without plastic, you can start to phase plastics out of your life in small steps. The easiest and most attainable plastic-free strides that I found in this journey are:

  1. Use a reusable water bottle and coffee mug (bonus: you get a discount at most coffee shops for bringing your own mug)
  2. Bring canvas bags whenever you go shopping and avoid plastic produce bags (pro tip: leave bags in your car in case you spontaneously decide to pick up groceries while out)
  3. Choose non-plastic packaging whenever provided the option (i.e., eggs in cardboard packaging, loose produce) and purchase some Bee’s Wrap, a reusable plastic-wrap alternative for leftovers
  4. Support local businesses and visit your local farmers market, where there are sustainable options with little to no plastic packaging
  5. Make your own personal hygiene products (also a great option for your wallet)
  6. Remember the sea turtle video, and refuse straws.
  7. Bring your own reusable container to restaurants to avoid the disposable take-out-box.
  8. Make your own hot sauce, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll crack without it.

These steps, although small, can make a difference over time, educate others, and influence your own perspective.

If you hold your plastic lifestyle too dear to your heart, there are other actions you can take to curb plastic pollution. You can enroll in online courses to further educate yourself about the consequences of plastic pollution, methods of eradicating it, and effective communication techniques to teach others about its harmful impacts. I personally recommend Open Universiteit’s free Marine Litter Course. You can also donate your time or money to organizations such as COASST that monitor marine debris, providing scientists and policy-makers with data on plastic pollution. Finally, and arguably most importantly, you can participate in politics and fight for legislation that impacts society as a whole. In Seattle, the plastic bag ban has prevented millions of plastic bags from entering the marine environment, and sets a precedent for green legislation across the country. Recently, a bill was passed to ban microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic typically found in personal care products, and will take effect in July of this year. Through activism, you are able to attack the root of this systemic issue and promote widespread change.

And maybe instead of saying “reduce, reuse, recycle”, we should instead adhere to “reduce, reuse, and refuse”.