A Year of Unwanted Plastic

For a year, from April 22, 2015 to April 22, 2016, I was at war with plastic. I was trying to avoid all use of it. No straws, no to-go coffee cups, no plastic grocery bags. You get the idea. I decided to do this, to “dump plastic,” based on my fears about how this material devastates our environment (for more on what inspired me, see my post, Why Give Up Plastic?).

Yet as I schemed and drew up plans for this no-plastic experiment, I started to feel that simply giving up plastic was not enough. I realized I needed a strong incentive to keep from cheating. This led me to a second challenge: during my year of plastic-free life, any time I caved and did use plastic—either because I couldn’t avoid it or just chose not to—I would keep that plastic. For 365 days, unwanted plastic would take residence in my home.

To prepare for becoming a plastic hoarder, in the spring of 2015, I emptied out a large green storage bin and set it on the back steps of my apartment. I thought I might have a chance of keeping all of my plastic contained to this green bin over the course of the year. I was so wonderfully optimistic at first.

For all of one month, this bin held my accumulated plastic. Once I entered month two, then months three and five and eight and beyond, my green bin became one meager receptacle in a growing mountain of trash.

By the end of my year-long challenge, I had accrued a full room of plastic garbage. Here it is, over-taking the front room of my apartment:


A year’s collection of plastic

In May of 2016, I started sorting through this heap. I created piles of like items, and then I counted my plastic. I created an inventory of all the plastic I’d used in a year. Here is that complete list: Plastic Inventory April 2015 to April 2016.

In just one year, I used 79 straws. 45 plastic garbage bags. 15 prescription bottles. 170 plastic-windowed envelopes. I wrote about my specific plastic usage in this post, My Inventory: A Year of Hoarded Plastic. In total, that year, I used 1,441 pieces of plastic. So almost 1,500 when I wanted to use none at all.

Still, years later, after recycling what I could, some of this plastic remains with me. There’s a storage bin in my garage with random plastic items like mascara containers, broken sunglasses, and plastic bubble wrap that I didn’t know how to recycle but feel too guilty to throw away. After having kept all this junk for a year, simply throwing it out feels like cheating, like giving up. So, instead, I just don’t face that remaining trash. I keep it tucked away, out of sight.

This is how we have been dealing with this problem on a world scale. Most of us don’t see the problem. We don’t sail through the waters of the Pacific to see the soupy mess of floating bags and bottle caps. We don’t visit landfills to see swollen peaks of plastic garbage.

But we see it now when we walk down the street. The next time you’re walking along the sidewalk, look down. Look in the curb or in the grass or in the flowerbeds next to you. You see plastic, don’t you? Wrappers, lids, flattened water bottles, small colorful plastic bits. It’s there, living silently alongside us. Everywhere.