In less than two weeks, on April 22nd, 2016, the plastic challenge that I’ve committed to for the past year will come to an end. I will stop having to collect and store and stress over a growing hoard of plastic debris filling the nooks and crannies of my apartment.
I’m so relieved—I can’t wait to be liberated from it. I’m also strangely excited to lay all of my plastic out, inventory exactly what I’ve collected in 365 (well, 366 this leap year) days. I’m curious to see just how many plastic straws I’ve used, and how many plastic forks. I’m interested to know how many plastic cheese wrappers I’ve tucked away, and how many plastic-windowed envelopes.
But already, before I take an official inventory and count the like items in my stash, I know what the single biggest plastic offender will be. I know this because I’m constantly cleaning and nesting them together to fit them in my growing collection.
That great offender is plastic food containers.
These include Styrofoam boxes for restaurant leftovers, and plastic containers for take-out food. This includes the giant plastic platter and lid from Evan’s Dairy Queen birthday cake, and the tiny plastic ramekins that transport salsas and chutneys and salad dressings from restaurants to my home. It includes containers from Whole Foods’ sushi and cellophane from deli sandwiches. The list goes on. And on.
During the first few months of my challenge, I was very aware of the plastic bomb of take-out or delivery food orders, and I worked hard to cull my addiction to restaurant eating. But recently, especially with the addition of our dog, I’ve grown lazy. The second week we had our puppy, I think my husband and I ordered food every single night—we didn’t have the energy or the time to cook dinner.
That embarrassment of a week, (when we actually started to get a little sick of our favorite restaurants), I watched a mountain of washed plastic containers grow in my drying rack, stacked so high that they showered down like a card castle when even barely disturbed. I was astonished with just how much plastic I accrued in a single week.
Ordering food is not only a financial drain, but also a massive waste of plastic. I knew this already of course, but it hadn’t registered as potently for me as it has in recent weeks when my ordering of food reached an apex.
Yet, while it’s genuinely astonishing to see how much plastic comes with a single food order, there’s also so much plastic attached to food from grocery stores. In previous posts, I’ve talked about my struggle to buy cheese and meat without plastic, but it’s even challenging to buy pasta, spices, beverages, condiments, and breads that come plastic-free. Sliced bread is sold exclusively in plastic bags, and there’s good reason: it stays soft.
Whether from a restaurant or grocery, buying food means an accumulation of plastic. And what is additionally problematic is how much food we waste every day in America—a problem as equally gargantuan as the environmental concern.
I read a really fascinating study conducted in 2012 by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) about the food that Americans throw out. The author, Dana Gunders, found that each year we throw away about 40% of our food. And into the garbage with that 40% goes not only food (which could feed many, many hungry people) but also wasted time, water, energy, and packaging—much of it plastic.
Have you noticed the growing trend of wrapping cucumbers in saran wrap at supermarkets? What about the pre-cut fruits in plastic cubes, or the plastic bags of grapes or apples or carrots? I think this plastic-wrapping is a technique by food sellers to encourage shoppers to buy more produce (perhaps making them look more sanitary or ready-to-eat?), and thus it might decrease some food waste. But even wrapped in plastic, fruits and veggies still spoil quickly, meaning we throw out not only produce in devastating quantities, but also the packaging that goes with it. The NRDC study found that, at a loss of 52%, fruits and vegetables are the overall largest wasted food group.
With the rate we throw away food, it’s not a wonder that our landfills and beaches and bodies of water are clogged with plastic. And this article made me really appreciate the additional losses—fresh water, labor, all those fruits and veggies that aren’t attractive enough to sell.
Many years ago, when I was going through a rough period of life, my mom gave me a self-help book called “When Am I Going To Be Happy?” I still remember a piece of advice that I read in that book about how to cope when you feel like you’re facing so many coexisting personal problems—stress, sadness, anger, dissatisfaction—that these problems seem insurmountable. How can you address them all? How could you ever get better?
The author, Penelope Russianoff, tells readers to imagine all of their problems as a can of worms—squiggling, unattractive, gross worms. She says to focus mentally on one worm, just one, and to visualize extracting that particular worm from the overstuffed can. Deal with that one worm first, she advises. One at a time. Strangely, in dealing with that single issue, other problems also seem to lessen. You gain confidence in the possibility of change.
I can’t help but think of this book as I consider the seemingly insurmountable environmental issues we face in our world—pollution, water shortages, methane-exhaling landfills, plastic in our oceans—which are also interconnected to problems of animal cruelty and labor inequality and yearly dumps of uneaten food.
If we could focus on one “worm”—genuinely take steps to end the harm we’re inflicting in one area, collectively acknowledge the need for change—it seems our attention would naturally turn to other problems, and we might gain confidence.
This idea brings me hope—that once we’re ready to more sincerely tackle our wasteful practices, ready to surmount political, religious, and social differences and ideologies, we could slowly begin to change this planet for the better, we could gently start to upend our sinking ship.