Reducing Plastics Takes All of Us
In mid-January 2020, I read a blog post challenging readers to set a “plastic cap” for the month of February. Participants would do everything possible to limit the amount of plastic they use during the month and charge a plastic fee for each piece used, donating the funds at the end of the month.
Our family was already on the path toward limiting our plastic use so I figured it was worth a shot. I didn’t force my family to participate and I made a simple rule for myself: I had to count every piece of single use plastic that I disposed of, regardless of whether it ended up in the trash or the recycling bin.
Armed with my reusable bags, a handful of RTIC cups with reusable straws, and my purchased Starbucks cup, I believed I was prepared for a month of not using plastic. Our family already avoided eating out as much as possible and I could use my refillable cups anywhere with a drink station. I had an extra incentive to always carry reusable bags and I could hold small purchases in my hands.
I really thought it would be easy.
Have you ever noticed how much plastic packaging covers food products? Meat, frozen vegetables, and even pasta: wrapped in plastic. We use plastic to prepare our meals ahead of time and freeze them. Many of the home products we purchase have plastic and Styrofoam packaging to protect it from damage. While our family thought we’d been limiting our plastic consumption, we hadn’t truly realized how much plastic pervaded every aspect of our lives.
Not deterred, I tracked every single piece of plastic on my Instagram stories, in the end counting 146 pieces. I charged myself $.50 per piece, rounding up to $75 to donate to an animal rescue organization.
Then March 2020 happened. A global pandemic suddenly challenged the lessons I had worked so hard to learn in a single month.
We continued to eat at home, but when we decided we didn’t want to cook, we found ourselves with piles of plastic and styrofoam trash from our favorite restaurants. Plastic dinnerware wrapped in plastic sat at the bottom of plastic carry out bags. Stores stopped letting us use our reusable bags or reusable cups for fear of contamination. Instead of continuing to find ways to reduce our plastic usage, we found that our trash accumulated more. I knew the environmental cost of disposable goods and yet getting through the pandemic without getting sick took precedence over everything else.
It hasn’t gotten much better in 2021.
In 2018, the United States generated 35.7 million tons of plastic trash. That trash isn’t just going to our landfills, which are already overflowing. It’s being left on the side of the road, floating into our waterways and making it into our food sources in the form of microplastics. Our plastic is causing significant troubles for less economically developed countries that are finding themselves the dumping ground for the plastic trash and recyclable goods that more developed countries have decided they cannot handle anymore.
While recycling certainly makes a difference (I am notoriously focused on making sure everything that can be put in our recycling bin gets placed in there), that isn’t enough. We need to do better. Plastic is easy. It is such a natural part of our lives that we don’t even think about it. But we need to be paying attention. We need to cut down on our own usage if we are going to see a decrease in both plastic production and plastic trash. It’s not just about aesthetics; our very health could depend on it.
It is a challenging proposal, this idea that we need to significantly decrease our plastic usage. It requires a significant change of habits and an overhaul of an entire industry dependent on our blissful ignorance.
But if we see this as a way to live better, healthier, and more sustainable lives, then maybe it won’t seem like we’re sacrificing anything; we’ll actually be gaining a cleaner and less toxic world.