Lessons from Week One

Things were going pretty well last Wednesday morning when I began this plastic challenge.

I left to go teach my classes with my reusable red bag and Whole Foods gift card in tow, feeling all jazzed up. On NPR that morning, voices speaking about Earth Day and ways to fight environmental decline made me feel validated in this adventure and connected to the hundreds and thousands of people who are also passionate about cleaning up our planet. In my class, my students were interested to hear about my experiment, curiosity lighting up their faces.

Then, that afternoon, I went to Whole Foods to try and buy cheese. My mood slipped. Granted, the store I visited is a small version of the chain, built into a busy and tight intersection within DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, but I couldn’t find a single package of cheese to buy there that wasn’t sold in plastic wrapping. I tried the deli first, but saw a hanging dispenser of plastic bags sitting on the counter. I watched a customer collect his sliced meat in one of the plastic bags.

I ventured over to the pre-packaged dairy section only to be met with a wall of plastic. Cheddar, Swiss, Mozzarella—shredded or block, crumbled or sliced—all in plastic (see picture below). I left the store without buying anything, realizing that I’m either going to have to accept accumulating plastic whenever I want to eat cheese, or learn to summon the gumption to ask the deli store folks if they can use packaging I bring to wrap up my food. This will also mean that I need more forethought when I visit the grocery store. I’m not only going to need to bring my own bags for carrying items, I’m also going to need to bring wax paper or tin foil.

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The feelings of dejection grew when I got home and saw a package waiting on my doorstep. It was my monthly delivery of cheese from the cheese-of-the-month club. You may be sensing a trend here with cheese. If push came to shove, I think I could give up meat, I could give up wine, I think I could even (maybe this is a stretch) give up chocolate. But I really don’t think I could eliminate cheese. I love the stuff so much. So, knowing this obsession, my thoughtful husband bought me a sixth-month membership to the “Pursuit of Cheese” club this past Christmas.

I opened the package to find three blocks of cheese, each one wrapped in paper, but housed and kept cool in a giant Styrofoam block. A plastic cool pack accompanied the cheese, and the three blocks were also enclosed in a clear plastic bag. This year, to keep track of my consumption, I will be storing all of the plastic I accumulate in a giant green bin outside of my kitchen. The Styrofoam cube from the cheese delivery now takes up nearly a third of the space within the green bin. I knew I would fill up this bin at some point, but instead of it filling within four months, I fear it might be full in the next several weeks. I’m going to have to find more storage.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for this gift. I will love every tangy and creamy bite of my cheese this month in spite of the plastic I’ve gained because of it. And, I of course understand that the company who packs and delivers the cheese wants it to arrive fresh and edible. I just wish there was another way they could do so that didn’t involve so much plastic.

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Moving into the weekend, I encountered more difficulties. I had to fill a prescription for my thyroid medication, a drug I have to take everyday, so I took my empty pill bottle with me to the pharmacy. I asked the pharmacist if she could reuse my same bottle for the new prescription. “I’m really sorry,” she said. “I have to follow health code.” I understand her concern—my old bottle could be unsanitary. It isn’t, but it could be. So, I left Walgreens with a new plastic bottle of medication—I’ll be adding 11 more of those to my stash this year.

Add to these things a plastic container for iced coffee (I’d ordered it “for here” at the coffee shop, not knowing it would be served in plastic instead of glass—oops), a fake plastic American Express card that came inside of a mass solicitation mailing, and a few other random items (a straw, a plastic liner for a greeting card, some saran wrap), and by Sunday I honestly felt like giving up.

I’m starting to notice it everywhere: in the “window” part of envelopes, in the lining of my packages of coffee grounds. I already don’t want to hoard it all over the next twelve months. But I’m stubbornly going to try.

So, the big take-aways from this week have been these: first, foresight. I’m going to have to think more before I leave the house, especially if I plan to stop at the grocery store or the drug store so that I bring with me the containers I need. And a second realization was this: this past weekend, a dear friend of ours, John, came to Chicago and stayed with Evan and me. As a thank you, John got me a brownie from my favorite Chicago candy store, Amy’s. If you live in Chicago and have not been to Amy’s Candy Bar, you need to go. Right now. Anyway, John handed me the dense, salted-caramel brownie, and as he did, his face fell. “I’m sorry it’s in plastic,” he said.

I realized in this moment that this “challenge” is going to have some ripple effects on my loved ones. My husband apologized for giving me the cheese club gift. John felt guilty that he’d given me a brownie—one of my favorites.

It occurred to me that I’m entering territory where I will undoubtedly make others feel bad about using plastic. I might even be perceived as being (or, heaven forbid, might actually start to feel) a little sanctimonious. But this is not what I want, and isn’t the reason why I’m doing this experiment. I don’t want to critique others use of plastic or make them feel bad for using it. I realized that my real purpose and motivation this year is not to shame or scrutinize others; it is to show how even a person trying very hard NOT to use plastic still struggles to avoid it. Already I’ve had to go to unusual lengths to steer clear, and that still isn’t enough.

There’s a reason we turned to plastic as a society—sanitation, cost, ingenuity—but can we now start to dream up ways to make it less ubiquitous? Make it so that we can give the gifts we want, buy the foods we like, fill the prescriptions we need with alternatives to always plastic? In our world today, we just don’t have that choice.

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4 Responses to Lessons from Week One

  1. Karen Correa says:

    You are so very brave!!!

    P.S.: I had asked WF about bringing my own Tupperware for the counter prepared foods. They said I could. Can’t imagine why they wouldn’t accommodate paper or tim foil. They just weight it empty first.

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  2. Marlys Ferrill says:

    Hi Sweetie–
    I am so impressed by your determination, and I have a question. Have you done any shopping at Natural Grocers? When I shop there, I’ve noticed several items normally wrapped in plastic in other stores are wrapped in paper at Natural Grocers. And they supply customers with boxes to take home groceries. But I’ll need to check out the cheese the next time I am there! 🙂

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    • Hi Mom! I have checked out both Whole Foods (two different locations) as well as an independent market in Lincoln Square called Gene’s Deli. I was able to buy some chicken at Gene’s that didn’t come in plastic, and they have paper bags that I used to collect some brussel sprouts. I’ll have to keep searching out these smaller natural stores! Thanks for getting me thinking more about that option, Mom!

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