Plastic straws have gotten a lot of bad press lately. Seattle and San Francisco recently passed plastic straw bans, and companies like Starbucks are transitioning to straw-free lids.
However, research shows straws are only a small part of our plastic problem. One study estimates that at least 46 percent of the plastic waste in oceans actually comes from fishing nets. And during the 2017 Great British Beach Clean, straws and utensils were only the tenth most common item found littering beaches. The top offenders were plastic and polystyrene pieces and food packaging.
There’s no denying we have a much larger problem with plastic waste. So last month, I decided to see what I could do about it as a consumer. As part of Plastic Free July, I chose to refuse all single-use plastic for a week.
How much plastic do we use?
First, I saved all my plastic waste for a week without changing my habits. I wanted to get a sense of how much plastic my two-person (and three-cat) household uses.
At the end of the week, I had collected just over 13 ounces of plastic waste. Most was from food packaging. There was one plastic straw, and a screen protector I had decided to remove from my tablet. The screen protector had gotten a good two years of use, but everything else was used once before getting thrown out or recycled.
It turns out a large portion of plastic is destined for waste streams after a single use. According to National Geographic, “40 percent of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and then discarded.”
And out of all plastic ever produced, a 2017 Science Advances report estimates only 30 percent is still in use today. 60 percent has been discarded, and is “accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment.”
Out of my week’s worth of plastic waste, almost half (by weight) went to the recycle bin. But that’s much more than national and global averages: Worldwide, less than 20 percent of all plastic is recycled. In the United States, that number drops to just nine percent.
Lastly, there was a small amount of plastic trash I would reuse before sending to the landfill. Whenever I get produce bags from my CSA or finish a loaf of bread, I save the bags to reuse when I scoop my cats’ litter boxes.
A week of no plastic
Looking at all the plastic food packaging I had saved, I realized going plastic-free was going to take a lot of meal prep. I already cook often, and most of my summer produce comes from a CSA. But a lot of my food still comes in plastic: chips and other snacks, tofu, frozen vegetables.
So I spent most of my first plastic-free day in the kitchen. I brewed iced tea using loose tea leaves. I made hummus with canned garbanzo beans and CSA herbs. I cut carrots into matchsticks to eat with the hummus. I made tabbouleh using bulk farro since my grocery store doesn’t carry bulgur in bulk.
Over the past year, I’ve dabbled in bringing my own containers to stores to buy from their bulk bins. But going completely plastic-free meant getting more serious about bulk shopping.
This took me to Pittsburgh’s Strip District, home to international grocery stores, independent shops, and unique restaurants. An Internet search told me I could find fresh tofu at WFH Oriental Market, one of the Strip’s Asian food stores. Plus, it would be a fraction of the price I usually pay at Trader Joes.
I found the tofu, but couldn’t find a way to transfer it into my container—except by plastic bag. At least I could reuse the bag for cat litter, and I knew to plan better next time.
Pasta was another food I had trouble with. Every box of pasta I’ve seen at the supermarket has a little plastic window in it. On the rare occasions that I see pasta in bulk, it’s five times more expensive than what I usually buy.
I hoped I would have luck in the Strip District. I stopped at Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a store I knew carried bulk goods. Plus, its name sounded promising. Unfortunately, I didn’t find bulk dry pasta, but I did find bulk olive oil and refillable glass bottles.
Once home, since pasta was off the table, I decided to spiralize some zucchini noodles. I topped them with marinara sauce from a glass jar and homemade vegan meatballs. Other meals throughout the week included seitan-topped pizza with homemade dough, homemade cinnamon rolls, and Ethiopian lentil stew over bulk rice. My husband even made pancakes for breakfast one morning.
Despite all the time I spent in the kitchen, there were still times I was hungry and couldn’t think of anything to eat that wouldn’t create plastic waste. Planning my dinners helped tremendously, but I failed to plan any other meals. A lot of days, when lunchtime rolled around, I realized I had no idea what I was going to eat and ended up making a sandwich with store-bought (read: plastic-bagged) bread.
There was also the time my husband and I went to Rita’s. I had planned ahead and brought a spoon from home. I even asked for no spoon when we ordered our Italian ice. However, that’s probably not a request Rita’s workers hear often—if ever. When she handed us our Italian ice, she reached over out of habit and put the spoon in before I had a chance to protest. That spoon ended up in the trash.
And when there was a vegan bake sale to raise money for immigrant families, I decided that supporting the cause was worth adding a recyclable plastic container to my waste collection for the week.
After all, this challenge wasn’t about me being perfect. It was about trying to be better. The plastic waste I collected while attempting to be plastic-free reflected that. While I hadn’t completely succeeded in refusing single-use plastic for a week, I ended up using less than a quarter of what I’d collected the previous week.
It’s not me, it’s you
Overall, this challenge helped me find ways to further reduce my environmental impact. I’ve made some new lasting habits, like buying bulk olive oil. I’m generally more mindful about what I buy and how it’s packaged. I even finally got around to opting out of mail I don’t need, after having to rip the plastic windows out of envelopes.
But going completely plastic-free is hard. And it turns out, that’s the way plastic producers want it. For as long as single-use plastic has been around, manufacturers have lobbied against efforts to reduce it, according to Scientific American. So while European countries have bottle deposits and plastic bag taxes, the United States is lagging behind in efforts to reduce plastic waste.
Straw bans have the right idea, but they fail to consider disabled people who rely on readily available plastic straws for drinking. We need a solution to plastic waste that includes options for disabled people and other underserved groups.
One Pacific Standard writer suggests restaurants “simply shift from an opt-out to an opt-in model” to solve this problem: “Instead of providing a straw to everyone, only provide straws—and other forms of disposable plastics—to people who ask.”
Additionally, grocery stores can expand their bulk sections and encourage customers to bring their own containers—without shaming those who don’t. I know I would buy in bulk more often if it didn’t mean going to three different grocery stores across the city to find everything I needed.
Of course, we need much larger cultural shifts to prevent ourselves from drowning in plastic. But if we want to make sure there isn’t more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, we need to start somewhere. I’m starting at the grocery store with my reusable bags, filling mason jars from bulk bins.