Breaking the Habit: 40 days of breaking free from single-use plastic
For years I have toyed with creating less waste. We do the easy good things, the reusable shopping bags, the cloth napkins. But I have always relied on recycling to responsibly handle our waste. I never questioned a different option – I just bought whatever we liked best and then recycled what I could. Job done.
But then came China’s waste ban: they don’t want our garbage anymore. Bales of recyclables with nowhere to go, and more collecting by the day. And those collections are meager compared to the tsunami of recyclable waste that ends up elsewhere: the landfill, the roadside, the creeks, rivers, oceans, trees, you name it- or more easily, you see it. Everywhere.
Here’s how my plastic-free experiment began:
It all started with a local Science Fair.
Our daughter and her friend created a project highlighting the problem of single-use plastic, offering alternatives with their experimental biodegradable spoons.
In true Ingram fashion, our other kids wanted to explore this experience by having a “home science fair.” On that Saturday afternoon, I jumped on board, and chose “Reducing Single-Use Plastic in the Home,” inspired by the girls.
In true Mary Liz fashion, I researched a lot. I counted the single-use plastic in our home, and stopped when I passed 620 items, knowing there was a huge bag of plastic utensils, medicine and more to go. Whoa. That’s a lot of one-time-use plastic.
After discovering the statistics that 40% of produced plastic is single-use, destined to be fast garbage, and that out of 6.9 million tons of waste, 6.4 billion tons is never recycled, it hit me like a smack in the face that something has to change. Our habits must change. Our disposable culture must change, or we (and the rest of the planet) will be buried in trash.
While I believe long-term solutions and alternatives are needed ASAP- in the form of more sustainable packaging and products, better and more effective (and local) recycling facilities, and some serious community education- we can’t just wait for companies to change. Change starts now. Change starts in my home, and in yours.
Like many, I’ve always loved Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s no good lamenting the world’s problems and not doing anything about it. There’s something everyone can do, steps everyone can take. A few days after our home science fair, I began contemplating the practice of Lent, the 40 days before Easter where many Christians give something up as a spiritual practice. The only choice in my mind was to give up single-use plastic.
The journey began slowly and gently. Each day I noticed plastic and tried to make different choices. It’s as easy as that. One step at a time. I toured our grocery store to get an idea of what plastic-free options were available, and what products I would have to avoid (cheese, my precious cheese! Why are you almost always in plastic???).
I made easy substitutes first: bamboo toothbrushes in place of plastic, shampoo bars in place of bottles, grabbing cardboard cartons instead of plastic milk, juice, eggs, laundry detergent and the like.
I experimented with some DIY, thanks to the magic of Google: homemade deodorant, translucent face powder, lip balm, yogurt, granola, ricotta, icing, bread. All. Easy. I do not lie.
I equipped myself for eating out plastic-free: reusable coffee mug, utensils and water bottle in my bag at all times. (I failed at this a lot at the beginning…4thtime was a charm at Starbucks!)
We searched out the easiest way to shop plastic-free: no surprise, it’s Whole Foods. You can bring, weigh and fill your own containers with flours, nuts, oats, coffee, spices, peanut butter and more. You can get almost any fruit or veggie plastic free. (Berries and grapes…you guys need to find your way out of plastic, please. I’ve missed you) You can buy bread and baked goods plastic-bag free. You can buy plastic-free gum. They have a lot of the plastic-free stuff that I had ordered, like shampoo bars and toothbrushes. And nobody makes you feel like a weirdo when you’re filling your own jars. Sweet.
I connected with others over the plastic-free journey, and that kept me going on those evenings when I felt defeated and tired. Sometimes it was hard. We are used to comfort – buying easy, ready-made options, grabbing take-out when we’re busy, choosing what we are used to without a second thought. But the lifestyle transformation I just experienced was so worth it. Our lives have literally been changed.
Now that the 40 days has passed, I have new habits. My whole family has new habits. We are eating healthier (packaged foods? Off limits. Fresh produce? As much as you want.). We feel more connected and grounded to our food and the products we use on our bodies. We feel much more responsible about the way we view and understand consumption. We feel more proactive and energized when it comes to the environment. We are creating waaaaaay less waste. And I’m not even close to finished. We plan to keep breaking the plastic habit and learning how to do better and live better.
What can you do? Just start by noticing plastic when you see it, when you grab it, when you use it. Awareness is key. You will start seeing it everywhere.
When you’re ready to move on, make some easy choices, like grabbing the broccoli that’s not in a plastic bag instead of the one well-wrapped. Choose milk in a carton instead of the plastic bottle, or eggs in the cardboard carton instead of foam or plastic. Browse options when you shop and see what is plastic-free.
Start working on building new habits: Get some reusable shopping bags and keep them in your front seat until you remember to take them inside. Put some reusable produce bags in them, and if you want to go big, some containers for filling with bulk items. They will weigh (tare) and mark them at stores like Whole Foods and you can fill them with oats, rice, beans, nuts, you name it. Keep a set or two of silverware and a reusable coffee cup with you in your bag or car. Don’t get discouraged if you forget…habits take awhile to form, but you will break through! Figure out what works best for you.
Make some substitutions: shampoo and conditioner bars instead of bottles, bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic, reusable sandwich bags. Get adventurous on Amazon and type in “plastic free” or “zero waste” and you can find all sorts of things.
The important thing is to take steps, big or small. No step is wasted in trying to live more responsibly.