Straws and More Straws

In my growing bin of plastic items, I’ve started to notice trends in the ones I accumulate most often. I love giving greeting cards, and I’ve discovered that most of my favorite store-bought cards come in plastic sleeves, so I have stockpiled several of these already. I’ve also collected a large amount of bottle caps, which I plan to devote a full post to later this summer.

In addition to my growing collection of card sleeves and bottle caps, there’s another item that I’ve quickly accumulated, one that I didn’t even consider when I started this blog: that is the common drinking straw.

A few of the straws I've collected thus far

A few of the straws I’ve collected thus far

According to a 2013 document signed by Colorado’s Governor, John Hickenlooper, each day, Americans use approximately 500 million straws (Here’s a link: There are straws in juice boxes at schools, straws in fast-food sodas, straws used to stir cream and sugar into coffee, straws in water glasses at restaurants. Five-hundred million in one day. That means that in a year’s time more than 182 billion straws are used and thrown away in our country. That number really floors me—182 billion. That’s more than 22 times our world’s population. That’s a heck of a lot of straws.

And do we really need drinking straws at all? Sure, they protect our teeth from a cold shock when drinking icy beverages, but are they providing any other benefits?

It turns out that, yes, they do have some important functions: straws are especially good for the teeth because they help reduce staining as well as decay by keeping sticky substances like sodas from coating the enamel on our teeth. They also provide a hygienic function. When drinking from a straw, you avoid contact with the drinking glass itself, which could have germs on its surface.

Straws are important utensils when we eat or drink, but do they need to be plastic?

A big trend right now is paper straws, and these seem like easy replacements for the plastic alternatives. I’ve seen many comments online that critique paper straws for becoming gummy and soft when used. I agree that this can happen when using a paper straw, but I did an experiment: I used a paper straw while writing this post and waited to see how long it took for this straw to soften. It took about three hours of sipping frequently from my water glass for the straw to lose its firmness, but I still didn’t experience the gummy disintegration I was expecting.

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The paper straw I used while writing this post

It doesn’t seem to me that paper straws have many drawbacks—plus, the kinds I bought are quite pretty, which appeals to my girly side. If the paper variety isn’t a person’s preference though, there are also glass straws and metal straws that can be used time and time again. You can even carry one of these with you, but I’m already feeling so much like a packhorse these day that I’d prefer just not to use a straw rather than toting one around.

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I love these colorful paper straws

Thinking about our gargantuan consumption of straws, my question is this: can we try to give up straws used with certain beverages? For example, do we really need one when drinking a glass of water? With water, there’s actually a benefit in direct enamel contact. Also, I feel skeptical of a greater hygienic benefit when using straws. I have worked a couple of jobs in food service, and I was a little surprised by how difficult it is to control the amount of contact a server has with food and utensils.

One summer, I worked as a waitress in a popular Denver restaurant. We were instructed to never touch the top third of a drinking glass, so there was awareness of public health there. But while we were instructed to do this and frequently wash our hands, we often could not avoid touching a plate or a fork or knife. At this restaurant, we also served a complimentary basket of chips and breadsticks to every table. In the kitchen, servers were constantly scooping these snacks into baskets. Sometimes sneezes happened. Sometimes a crazy busy server used his or her hands to place the chips in a basket.

Dining out itself exposes us to greater levels of germs, even when servers use precaution. The straw, to me, feels a little unnecessary. It seems to provide us with a feeling of security, but perhaps no definitive health benefit. I could find no studies online to prove they make drinking safer.

These past few months, it has become somewhat comical as I try to avoid straws. Whenever I order an iced coffee, I try to catch the barista before I’m handed the requisite straw. At restaurants, I’ve started asking for “no straw with my water” before the water even arrives. This has raised a few eyebrows. I have become a little paranoid about one showing up in my glass.

The Colorado proclamation that I mentioned previously, the one signed by Governor Hickenlooper, declared July 11, 2013 to be a “straw-free” day. It suggested that on this day the public accept not getting a straw unless they ask for one. I wish this could be our normal practice everyday.

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Replacing Bath Products

Almost two months into this challenge, I’m still trying to find many suitable replacements for items I love and use daily that come in plastic.

One of the areas of my apartment where a plethora of plastic lives is in my bathroom. Shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes, lotion containers are all typically in plastic, and for good reason. Plastic is easy to transport and nicely holds in liquid materials. I’ve really been appreciating this while traveling this spring.  Turns out that tin isn’t as handy as plastic at preventing spills in your suitcase.

But while I’ve struggled to replace certain items, such as toothpaste, that come in plastic, I have also managed to find some great replacements for plastics in my bathroom. Here are some alternatives I’ve found that have really been working for me:

Tissue paper.


Since tissue is so often packaged in groups (say four packs), it usually comes in plastic. At Walgreens, I’ve found this brand called “ology” that sells tissue by the roll in a paper sleeve. The sleeve is made of bamboo instead of tree pulp, so it claims to be non-harmful to forests, and after doing a bit of research, I’m not finding any negatives about this producer. So, for the time being, I’m going to continue buying these rolls. They can be a little comical to carry (I’ve done some unexpected juggling on my way to the check out line), but they usually cost about $1/roll, so I’m not seeing much of a price difference between these and the tissue packed in groups.

Lip balm.


I have my lovely friend Lyndsay Gilman to thank for tipping me off to this stuff. It’s called “Rosebud Salve,” and it’s sold at Merz Apothecary in Chicago (and I think other like stores). It is truly delightful. I can give this salve my highest praise because, last month, when visiting Lyndsay in Indiana, I was having a terrible time with dry lips. I don’t know what was going on, but my lips felt like papier-mâché, they were so darn chapped. So Lyndsay suggested I try this balm, and it immediately helped. The product itself I love, but it also comes in a tin container, which doubled my excitement. It is expensive (about $6), but I usually only use it once a day, so I think the single container may last me several months. Thank you, Lyndsay!

Shampoo & conditioner.

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When I stopped at Merz to pick up the Rosebud lip balm, I asked about shampoos and conditioners not in plastic. The staff person recommended this bar shampoo, J.R. Liggett’s, which she said she uses (it was about $7/bar and is advertised to last about the same amount of time as a 24-oz. bottle of shampoo). I have actually not yet tried it (more on that in a moment), but the Merz lady said she loves this shampoo. Several friends have also suggested that I visit a Lush store to get hair products, and the green conditioner in the picture above is from there. I have yet to use this conditioner, too, but from the rave reviews I’ve heard, it feels promising.

The reason I have yet to use the pictured shampoo and conditioner is that I’ve been really slowly going through my current bottles of hair products. A month or two before Earth Day, I bought a shampoo/conditioner set from the French store L’Occitane. They were super expensive. I think it cost around $30 for the smallest container of shampoo, but both the shampoo and conditioner have lasted me a long time. Perhaps this is because they are a higher end product and more concentrated, or perhaps this is because I’m trying to ration my use, but I’m still not yet halfway through these containers.

Through this plastic challenge, I’ve realized that this is one significant way to limit plastic use: to do a little rationing. I don’t think I really considered how much shampoo I previously used to pour into my hand, but it was a generous handful. Now, with the thought of having to keep all my plastic, I use about half of that amount, and it seems to work just as well.

While I have found some successes, I’ve had a little trouble with the following replacements:


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I bought this bar of lotion from Lush, and I’ve been using it on a daily basis. Basically it’s an oily “massage” bar that you rub into your hands and then onto your legs, arms, etc. It’s great in theory (and actually very easy to transport), but it’s not very easy to spread and it was kind of pricey ($11 a bar). I find my hands slick with oil after trying to apply it, and my husband thinks I smell a little like Play-Doh. I find, though, that if my skin is still damp after the shower, I can rub it on a little better. I’m planning soon to try coconut oil, which several people have also suggested works well for lots of bath substitutes.

Face wash.


I’m very willing to experiment with lotions and lip balms, but I’m not as willing to turn my face into a test tube. For years I’ve used Cetaphil to wash and moisturize my face, and it works well for me. My last year in college I struggled with acne, and Cetaphil was a huge help. I’m nervous about trying a new product that could mean pimples or dry skin.

I decided to try the bar form of Cetaphil for washing my face, and so far, it’s working well, but it still comes in lots of plastic. Both the bar itself as well as the box surrounding it are sealed in plastic film. On the whole, this is less plastic than the giant tub of Cetaphil I used to buy, but it’s still plastic. The bar is also not very easy to pack for travel in a tin (which likes to pop open or leak suds). I also have yet to figure out how to replace Cetaphil face lotion. As with the face cleanser, the lotion works so well for me, and it has sunscreen in it. I don’t want to give up a product that is actually reducing my chance for skin cancer.

Overall, it’s actually been fun to seek alternatives to the products I’ve always used. There have been some frustrations, but finding these few replacements has already helped make a sizable difference in the amount of plastic I use, and I discovered my all-time favorite lip balm in the process!

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One Month Down

This week started with a delivery of my “cheese of the month club” package, signaling that a full month has passed since the start of my plastic challenge. From this delivery, I added three delicious blocks of cheese to my refrigerator. I also added a large cube of Styrofoam to my plastic collection.

It’s honestly a little astonishing to look at my plastic horde up until this point. I’ve almost completely filled my storage container in one month, and it’s about to grow significantly as I’ve come to the end of several products that come in plastic containers: an enormous bottle of lotion, my Cetaphil face wash, a bottle of Dawn. (My next stage in this adventure is finding suitable replacements for these items.)

 My already dangerously full storage bin.

My already dangerously full storage bin.



I’ve learned this month that it’s not only as hard as I initially feared to avoid plastic, even for a single day; it’s also exhausting and sometimes lunatic.

Whenever I leave the house, I’m trying to remember my red reusable bag, my traveling coffee mug, my collapsible leftover food container. Often, I forget one of these items, and then I’m left with a choice: do I say “no” to something that comes in plastic, or do I just accumulate more?

I’ve gone to several functions the past month—a work event with appetizers and drinks, a couple of barbeques, a bar party—and I’ve had to make a choice: do I have that glass of wine or plate of food and accept the use of plastic? I have. Mainly because I have really wanted that glass of wine or that plate of fried ravioli, but also because it would look a little strange to not partake. I don’t feel like explaining my weird experiment to work acquaintances, nor do I want to make anyone around me feel bad for using plastic. We all use it.

So, I’ve started developing some rather strange behaviors: I’ve found myself stuffing empty plastic cups and plates into my purse (hoping no one notices) to keep to my promise of saving all the plastic I use, and yesterday at work, I ate a piece of cheesecake with my fingers to avoid using a plastic fork. In rapidly chowing down the piece of dessert, I was reminded of a line from a David Sedaris essay where he was caught as a boy stuffing extreme amounts of Halloween candy into his mouth. His mom, upon finding him, said to him, “You should look at yourself…I mean, really look at yourself.”

I felt, scarfing the cheesecake with sticky fingers, that I needed a good look at myself. Is this plastic challenge turning me weird? Honestly—yes, a little bit.

Plastic is the standby in our culture. It’s our “norm.” Trying not to use plastic not only makes me slightly eccentric, it makes me far divergent from the standard. Our society depends on items we can use once and throw away. I’ve heard the term “throw away culture,” but I didn’t embrace the truth of this description until starting this challenge.

It seems that concurrently, as we’ve grown to be a society that wants constant access to technology, speed in transactions, and shortcuts in time and travel, we’ve also turned to plastic, the cheapest, lightest, quickest material of them all. Our society asks for immediacy and convenience. We don’t want to make return trips anymore to refill the same glass milk carton. We don’t want to be weighed down by carting along lots of packaging for the things we consume. As I’m discovering, it truly is a bother.

I’m already trying to fight the inertia I feel about this experiment. I’m getting tired of feeling like a pack horse, I’m tired of going against the cultural grain. I’m starting to feel like a broken record when I ask for deli items in “just paper,” and most of all, I’m feeling unwilling to give up some social pleasures where plastic is concerned. And I don’t want to turn into a complete weirdo.

I hope that in the month ahead, simply in forming these no-plastic habits, my challenge starts to feel less like a burden, and I hope it gets easier to accept the eccentricities of sticking to it.

Also, I hope I can start to slow the rapid growth of plastic in my storage bin.

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Evolving Grocery Visits

Since starting this challenge, I’ve started to feel a lot of negative emotions when I go to the grocery store. My first week, after I failed to find any plastic-free cheese, I felt genuine panic about my no-plastic commitment. On visits since, I’ve not only felt that same anxiety, but I’ve also started to feel some anger about the lack of choices I have about whether or not I’ll be served up some unexpected plastic with my purchases.

One major example is this: I’ve started asking for my meat to be wrapped in paper when I visit the deli counter, and every person who has helped me has willingly obliged my odd request. However, when the deli person actually picks up the chicken breast or smoked turkey to slice and weigh it, he or she uses plastic sheets: one to lift the meat from the case, and a second to keep the meat from touching the metal scale. This is a sanitary step—I understand the necessity here. It would be a huge time-suck to wipe off the scale every time after weighing a hunk of meat. But even though I understand the practicality, it still makes me a little frustrated. Am I really avoiding plastic if it’s used to help me obtain my purchases, even if I don’t bring that plastic home with me? No, I’m not, I guess. This makes me feel helpless. I could try to stop buying fresh meat altogether, but then my carnivore husband might divorce me.

So, visits to the grocery of late have been a little unpleasant. That was until this past Monday afternoon. After work, I headed over to Gene’s Deli, a local grocer in my neighborhood, my dorky red canvas bag swinging at my side. I entered the store with no grocery list and no set agenda. Typically, when I make a visit to the grocery store I haven’t been in several days, so I feel pressure to buy a week’s worth of food. Since beginning this challenge though, I’ve been better about going to the grocery store more often. I realize even as I type this that I’ve been more committed to planning my meals and cooking at home these past three weeks.

Certainly, the lack of pressure to fill a cart contributed to the happier feeling I had when going to Gene’s this week, but something else sort of unexpected happened. I just sort of “browsed” around, sort of like I was shopping for clothes, not merely going aisle to aisle to check items off of a list. I walked to the upstairs level of the store (that’s actually quite a happy place with lots of light and airiness) and wove through the aisles. I stopped and picked up products just to look at them, seeking those not in any plastic. I started considering foods I might buy in the future, many I haven’t tried before like jams and canned fishes and boxes of enclosed pastas.

I came across some mustard in a glass jar that genuinely looked delicious, and I decided to buy it even though it was $5, an amount I’d never before been willing to spend on mustard. Because I now can’t freely buy anything that tempts me, such as yogurts and plastic-sealed raviolis, I’m feeling more adventurous—seeking out alternatives for my diet and stepping outside of my normal eating routine. But our food budget also has a little wiggle room because I haven’t been buying as much at the store…I’ve been trying harder to buy less meat (that often winds up in the freezer ) and fewer vegetables (that will wilt in the crisping bin). Buying a little less food also seems to mean buying less plastic overall.

As I continued to tour the store, I started to feel like I was playing a game—seeking out the hidden plastic-free foods, building new future meal ideas. I actually smiled to myself when I found a glass container of Giardiniera…a condiment I love on sandwiches, but have never thought to buy for my daily use. So, I put that in my cart, and slowly ventured on.

The mustard and Giardiniera I bought this week at Gene's

The mustard and Giardiniera I bought this week at Gene’s

Instead of getting cheese from the pre-packed section, I decided to order some from the deli. Sure, I had the plastic-sheet predicament, but I picked out some jalapeno cheddar that the kind Gene’s lady wrapped in paper without judgment, and I’ve loved this cheese all week. I really feel like I wouldn’t have ventured out to try it had I not been forced to look elsewhere, for food options free of plastic away from the refrigerated section.

These revelations have brought me back to my childhood. I remember my Grandpa, who lived in a small town in Colorado called Pueblo, visiting the grocery store at least once a day. Sometimes in one sun-up-to-sun-down period, he would drive to the grocery store three times. He loved going, and my brother and I loved going with him. He would take his time, often just grabbing one item that my Grandma had requested, and he would chit-chat with anyone willing to give him the attention. It was fun—hearing him tell bad jokes to strangers or store clerks whose names he knew without checking their nametags. There wasn’t a rush or massive pressure. There were lots of trips for small-quantity purchases.

My grandpa’s father, my great-grandfather, owned his own grocery store in Nebraska, and he instilled in my grandpa a deep love and respect for good food. I still remember how proud my grandpa was one Christmas to buy my parents a really expensive package of orange roughy. He was so excited Christmas morning to reveal the fish, I expected he’d gotten my parents a new car.

I suppose, aside from the socializing, my grandpa loved going to the grocery to revel in the possibilities of food, survey the colorful produce, smell the roasted meats. He appreciated being near food. I felt a little of that same feeling this past week during my visit—more attentive to what was around me, pausing to pick up a jar of rhubarb-apricot jam, feeling honest-to-god excitement to be buying Giardiniera, actually attuned to the incredible cornucopia surrounding me in Gene’s.

I hope I start to make my grandpa’s sort of shopping a habit, going more frequently and buying less. I want to keep cultivating that happy, excited feeling. I feel some renewed positivity that, in shopping this way, I can start to accumulate fun condiments and unique dry goods over the next year that will make my panty at home more exciting—and I can start to stockpile those that don’t come in plastic.

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Doggie Bags

The other morning, I came across an advertisement for a refrigerator in my “Bon Appétit” magazine. The ad shows a beautiful display of fruits and vegetables, refreshing juices and tantalizing cheeses. The refrigerator is so welcoming and luminous it almost resembles a garden. Here’s the picture:

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I stared at this photo for a minute before realizing that this refrigerator featured not a single piece plastic. Well—not any easily identifiable plastic. The meat is entirely in butcher paper, the fruits are in glass bowls, even the cheeses appear free from their typical plastic skin. After studying it closely, I can find only three lids that appear to be plastic-made: the one on the glass milk jug, and two on the salad dressing bottles.

Here’s a closer view:

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What I find fascinating is that this is the picture of an ideal refrigerator. This is what advertisers believe Americans want to see when they open the fridge door with a growling stomach. They know this view will captivate us, make us desire to own this fridge, live this healthy life. Here’s not only a wealth of rainbow-colored fruits and kelly-green spears of asparagus and rosemary, but also a refrigerator that’s almost completely plastic-free.

Do the advertisers believe that we find plastic ugly—dingy and cheap-looking? Yes, I think that’s part of it. But this photo made me wonder if we also, on a more subconscious level, don’t like the looks of plastic because we know what it signifies—chemicals. Refuse, even. Glass jars and paper-wrapped meat seem to signify higher quality, fresher, safer, purer foods. The irony is that plastic containers do keep foods really fresh—at least fresher than paper, which I experienced this week when I bought some chicken breasts wrapped only in paper (they were still good, but before cooking them, I had to slice off several hardened bits that had glued themselves to the paper).

Regardless, it seems so strange to me that this ad shows us what we wish our refrigerators’ interiors looked like—foods displayed attractively, none wrapped in plastic. Yet, how many real fridges are anywhere close to this image?

Here is a photo of my own refrigerator. Undoctored. A little picked over. Honestly, embarrassing. Plastic where I wish there wasn’t. Nothing at all like the advertisement’s view:


This is my refrigerator two weeks into trying hard to rid myself of plastic. My husband’s food shares this space (I’m not forcing him to give up plastic, though he’s been making an effort to join me in my challenge wherever he can), so there will continue to be some plastic yogurt containers and the like for him in the months ahead, but still there’s plastic in my fridge that’s mine, too: plastic that existed before my experiment started, as well as plastic for food storage. (I’m allowing myself to use any plastic that I owned prior to April 22nd, just trying not to accumulate any new plastics.)

Don’t the hypothetical people who own the perfectly stocked refrigerator in the advertisement have any leftovers? Don’t they have to marinate their meat in Tupperware, or for heaven’s sake, keep their cheddar from molding by sealing it in a Ziplock?

This picture got me thinking about not only how much we rely on plastic for food storage after we cook meals at home, but also how much we need it for take-out deliveries and for leftovers from restaurants. Plastic goes hand-in-hand with food packaging.

This past week, I went to a Mexican restaurant and was served a gigantic (and delicious) portion of enchiladas. When I asked to take the remainder home, the server carried my plate away and returned with a plastic sack wrapped around a Styrofoam box. My stomach dropped. It was my fault. I should have remembered my leftovers would almost certainly involve plastic wrapping.

But I love leftovers. Doggie bags signify a treat for me because I get to savor a meal twice. I think for us all, it is so hard to steer clear of plastic if it means not getting to have the leftovers we want or not getting to order our favorite foods. I’ve been trying painfully hard this week to avoid ordering Tom Yum soup from my favorite Thai place—it is delivered in a plastic container that’s also wrapped inside of a plastic bag to keep from spilling—so last night, in spite of feeling tired and not wanting to leave the house in the rain, Evan and I went to the restaurant instead. I’m going to try to go more to restaurants when I can. I’m going to try, too, to split portions with friends or my husband to avoid leftovers, and will also be trying to remember to pack this little handy container with me when I go out to eat:

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It’s a collapsible Tupperware that, on Earth Day, volunteers from an organization called Green is Universal were handing out. It appears to be a plastic, which is a bit of a bummer (though I can’t decipher what kind of plastic as it has no symbol on it—so maybe it’s another kind of material), but plastic or not, this container does make it much likelier that I will be spared several more Styrofoam-box-in-a-plastic-bag situations when I have some restaurant leftovers.

Yes, I can avoid more plastic while dining out by using this container, but still, when I arrive home, leftovers in tow, this bit of plastic will go in my refrigerator. It will add to a view inside my fridge that is painfully unlike what I saw in that ad, depressingly far from the ideal.

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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.


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.


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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And so it begins…

Today is the day that my plastic challenge officially begins.

I woke up this morning feeling excited to start this battle, yet I also have this murky, suspicious feeling that I really don’t know what I’m in for. This is probably going to be way harder than I expect. I’m already so curious to jump ahead in time and see what’s in store for me and for the giant green storage container in my kitchen that will be the receptacle for all of the plastic I accumulate this year.

I’ve started this experiment with a very paltry arsenal of items to help me fight the plastic accrual: a traveling coffee mug (that, ironically, is made of plastic, though it was advertised to be previously recycled and 100% recyclable), a red fabric reusable bag, and a Whole Foods gift card that my parents gave to me earlier this year. I’ve hoarded this gift card to use exclusively for my plastic experiment–I’m hoping Whole Foods will have some cheese, oatmeal, and deli meat that I can buy packaged in paper or tin, anything other than plastic.

And so starts this adventure…


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Why give up plastic?

Before even sitting down for breakfast today, I had touched at least ten pieces of plastic.

My shampoo and conditioner bottles are both made of plastic; I squeezed out some toothpaste from a plastic Crest tube; I pumped some lotion into my hands from a giant container of Eucerin, and you guessed it, that was plastic.

In the past few weeks and months, I’ve started to notice how populated my apartment is with this seemingly harmless, even ingenious material. It’s not just in the bathroom (where even my plastic deodorant lives beside my plastic Sonicare toothbrush, where my plastic pink cylinder of mascara stands next to an amber-colored bottle of medication that is, yes, also plastic)–it’s in the kitchen, too.

Every block of cheese in my fridge is packed in a thin seal of the stuff. My bottle of yogurt stands proud in its plastic shell. My deli-sliced turkey is airtight in its plastic bag. This is just in the refrigerator. Think about the nested take-out containers, the food storage lids, the plastic baggies, all hidden in shelves. There are the caps to my spices and the knobs on my stove. There’s the head of the spatula and the handle of the whisk. It boggles the mind when you start to consider that our world runs on plastic. It houses most of the products we use to make ourselves beautiful. It turns on our switches and keeps our food fresh. It manages all of its jobs remarkably well. But a little too well, it turns out.

Plastic doesn’t really go away.

About ten years ago, I first heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I remember hearing the term and then immediately doing a Google search. The images I saw were disorienting. How could I have not heard about something that, at the time, was estimated to be about the size of Texas floating in our world’s largest ocean?

I saw clear plastic bags drifting in the midst of schools of yellow fish. I saw bottle caps lodged in the stomachs of dead, decomposing seabirds. The pictures more than startled me–they obsessed me. So I started to research this “patch,” and I quickly learned that most of the garbage floating out there and sinking to the depths is made of plastic that does not decompose. It breaks into smaller and smaller particles, but this inorganic material is infiltrating the ocean food chain. It’s not just unsightly; it’s toxic.

In classes that I teach on writing research papers, I show my students pictures of the Pacific Garbage Patch, and tell them a little about its genesis. It’s always surprising to me to see how few hands go up in the air when I ask if they’ve heard about this garbage patch. The number of hands has been increasing year by year, but still many of my students, like me a decade ago, have no idea how clogged our oceans and seas and lakes are becoming with trash, especially of the plastic variety.

So, this experiment, and this blog that will follow it, has been brewing in my mind for several years. Finally in April of this year, I’ve decided to try and put my “money” where my mouth is, and give up as much plastic as I can for a full year. I know it’s going to be hard. I know I’m going to encounter plastic when I least expect it, because I already do. But for 365 days, I’m going to see just how much I’m able to replace plastics with materials that are more Earth-friendly, including plastic that can be recycled, attempting to break my crazy addiction to this stuff.

My official journey will begin this Wednesday, April 22nd in honor of Earth Day. I hope you’ll join me this year to see how well I succeed at “dumping plastic.”

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