How Much Do I Care About the World’s Plastic Problem?

One week’s worth of one-time-use plastic in our home

One week’s worth of one-time-use plastic in our home

For whatever reason, plastic has been preying on my mind recently. It’s not that I haven’t known there’s a plastic problem. We’ve been recycling to the letter of the law since I can remember. I’ve taken reusable bags to the grocery store for a long time. And we gave up buying bottled water about five years ago. 

But a new place in my brain lit up a few months ago when I read about a woman who doesn’t buy or use any new plastic.[1 ] At all. To avoid plastic packaging, she shops for produce at farmers’ markets and buys things like sugar and rice in supermarket bulk sections using her own glass containers. She avoids take-out food. She doesn’t buy any products made of plastic or that come in plastic containers or wrapped in plastic, which means she makes a lot of her own stuff, like shampoo, toothpaste, and household cleaners. If there are no alternatives for a particular type of product—like a refrigerator, computer, or car—she buys a used one, so at least it’s not “virgin plastic.” Her goal is to create no demand for plastic, to have a net-zero plastic footprint.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I walked into the produce section and cringed at all the plastic packaging. I saw with new, guilty eyes all the clear clamshells for greens and berries, the pre-sealed plastic bags of mini peppers, carrots, and celery, and, of course, the rolls and rolls of plastic bags and ties for anything else you might want to bag. As I walked through the rest of the store, all I could see was aisle after aisle of plastic containers, with only an occasional section of glass jars for jam, metal cans for soup, or cardboard packages for breakfast cereal. 

At home I opened up my bathroom drawers and cupboards. I’d say about 90% plastic. Brushes, combs, first aid, all tooth-related products, cleaning supplies, and countless containers of face and hair products. And, to boot, most of them were stored neatly—Marie Condo would be proud—in plastic storage containers. 

To add insult to injury, I learned from a website that chewing gum is made mostly of plastic. Another innocent pleasure bites the dust. 

My sister and I with our vinyl-sided lunch boxes; inside the food was wrapped in wax paper

My sister and I with our vinyl-sided lunch boxes; inside the food was wrapped in wax paper

After these moments of painful epiphany, I decided to take action. My first step was to buy a supply of paper lunch sacks and small wax paper bags to replace the Ziplocks and Baggies in my kitchen. The wax paper bags arrived from Amazon two days later… in a plastic envelope. Doh. I realized that they’re exactly like what my mother used for our lunches when I was a girl.

The next three things I’m planning to try are shopping more at farmers markets, making some of my own cleaning products, and refusing any plastic bags offered at stores or restaurants.

But I find it overwhelming to think about going all the way to a plastic-free life. I’m not sure I have it in me. It would take so much time to learn about the alternatives, so much driving to places where items aren’t pre-wrapped, so much research to figure out alternatives to new plastic products (e.g., I just bought a Waterpik water flosser—what about that?) or find second-hand versions of every plastic product I need. And even if I go to all that effort, turning my life upside down for the cause, I can’t do anything about some of the globe’s biggest plastic problems: most of the plastic in the oceans, for example, gets there from other parts of the world, not the U.S.

Wait a minute. I think I just realized how some people must see veganism. For me, eating a plant-based diet is non-negotiable. It’s not hard. It’s about standing up for animals, period. But for many others, my excuses for not jumping onto the plastic-free bandwagon must sounds familiar to what goes through their heads when they think about veganism: too much time to learn how to do it, too much driving, too many new stores, too much research to come up with alternatives. And even if they went to all that trouble, it wouldn’t make much real difference, since in some countries people are eating more meat per person than they used to.

I’ve often felt like a failure because so few of my friends and family have gone vegan as a result of knowing me and my beliefs. But maybe I should think about it differently. Just as I’m committing to baby steps on the plastic front, many of my friends have told me about their small vegan victories, like “I hardly eat meat for lunch anymore.” Rather than thinking to myself, as I usually do, “Why not give it up for breakfast and dinner too?,” I should be thankful for what they’re doing. Even though it’s all or nothing to me, it’s not for them, just as plastic isn’t for me. 

Maybe each of us has a limit when it comes to radical commitments that demand emotional, social, and logistical effort. I wish I could dedicate myself to several “number 1” commitments. But for me, and probably most of us, there can be only one “number 1.” Mine’s veganism, that woman in the news piece has taken on plastic, someone else’s cause is justice inequity, someone else’s, human-trafficking, and the list of “number 1’s” goes on. 

Recent cooking demo

Recent cooking demo

The last three years I’ve thrown myself into my vegan website, volunteer writing and research on the subject, and cooking demos here in Portland. I’d love to see a direct line between my work and an increase in the number of vegans. But I suppose I need to consider my efforts more as clearing paths for those who want to take strides in the direction of animal-free eating. Better dozens of people decreasing their animal intake by, say, 25% than one or two people going 100% vegan. 

I’ll try to be much more grateful when I hear of a family member or friend’s small step toward more plant-based eating. Even though what I long to hear of is the giant leap. 

[1]Steven Kurutz, “Life Without Plastic is Possible. It’s Just Very Hard.” The New York Times, February 16, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/16/style/plastic-free-living.html