This story is part of a series on ocean plastics.
Clacking away at my laptop on a rainy morning last month, while working on a story about how plastic trash is choking our oceans, I became suddenly aware of the object that I had been chewing on mindlessly: a plastic straw punched through the plastic lid of a plastic cup holding my daily iced coffee.
Through my reporting, I had learned some staggering facts about single-use plastic packaging, things made to be used once and thrown away. Experts say these items are the leading source of trash found in or near bodies of water worldwide. Plastic drinking straws and cups ― like the ones I get at the coffee shop before work ― rank among the top 10 most common types of beach and marine litter.
Versatile, inexpensive and used to make everything from electronics to medical equipment to airplane components, plastics are an essential part of modern life. And for most of us, it’s not feasible to give them up entirely, said environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck, whose research last year concluded that our oceans are being inundated with 19 billion pounds of plastic garbage annually. This barrage is mostly due to inadequate or mismanaged waste disposal systems and littering.
Plastics don’t biodegrade and could exist in the environment for centuries or more. While the industries that make plastic products should work toward mitigating this crisis, people should take action too. Cutting back on the use of single-use plastic products is the number one step individuals can take, several experts told me.
As I chewed on my plastic straw, my conscience nagging at me, I made a decision. Inspired by the fast-food documentary “Super Size Me,” in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food for 30 days, I decided to embark on a similar personal experiment — only, instead of embracing consumption, I’d be shunning it.
For a month, I vowed to refuse any and all single-use plastic products offered to me at shops. I couldn’t purchase these items either.
To my surprise, the challenge wasn’t insurmountable. Sure, I struggled at times; but overall, I found it doable and liberating. I also saved some money and might’ve even inspired some friends in the process.
Here are the guidelines I set for myself:
Carry a reusable coffee tumbler for that daily cup of java. (Bonus: The insulated container keeps coffee icy for hours!)
Bring a reusable water bottle to the gym.
Stuff reusable tote bags into purses, briefcases, desk drawers and the car, so there’ll always be one handy for shopping.
Carry snacks and other food in reusable steel containers. Bye-bye, plastic zipper bags!
Keep a set of metal cutlery — fork, spoon, knife and chopsticks — at work.
Reuse plastic takeout containers at eateries. Since I eat lunch virtually every day at the same salad shop across the street, I’ve begun reusing the plastic bowl they give customers. I wash the bowl every day after eating, and return with it to the salad bar the next day.
At restaurants, tell your waiter to please hold the drinking straw.
Bring your own garment bag and hanger to the dry cleaner.
Hold back on online shopping. E-commerce packaging is a major — and growing — source of waste. A single tube of lipstick or a single battery often arrives in an absurdly large box stuffed with an unnecessary amount plastic, paper and foam peanuts.
After a month, I was both aghast and encouraged by the amount of personal waste I’d reduced, either from bringing my own containers and bags with me, or reusing items:
- 34 plastic cups
- 38 plastic straws
- 24 plastic bags*
- 19 plastic to-go containers
- 30 plastic bottles
*I’ve also saved about 14 paper bags over the same period. It turns out that choosing paper or even biodegradable plastic over regular plastic isn’t necessarily better. The best practice is to reduce the usage of all single-use items, no matter what they’re made of.
My breakup with throwaway plastics didn’t always go smoothly. I failed to fulfill the basic criteria of the experiment on at least three occasions.
Once, I accidentally (I swear!) opened and started drinking a bottle of mineral water offered to me at a concert. It reminded me of how mindlessly and instinctively I use plastic products. The second time was when I went to an Indian restaurant to order takeaway for lunch and forgot to bring my own container — and that sambar rice was too enticing to pass up. (Full disclosure: I have no regrets. it was delicious). The third instance occurred when I went to the supermarket without my own bag (d’oh!) and, faced with way too much to carry, I accepted the smallest possible plastic sack and refused the double-bagging.
There have also been days when I’ve been annoyed at the (admittedly minuscule) additional weight that my tumbler, water bottle, reusable tupperware or bag has added to my daily baggage. I’ve also lost count of the many times I’ve accidentally thrown away my plastic salad bowl, before sheepishly fishing it out of the trash, and the many occasions I’ve mechanically accepted a plastic bag from a store before hastily returning it to the shopkeep.
But though this challenge has required a bit more thought on my part, on the whole I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how easy the transition has been and how readily the people around me have accepted and, in some cases, even emulated my new plastics practice.
The first time I returned to the salad place with my washed plastic bowl, I remember feeling nervous about what the staff would think of me: Would they scoff? Would they refuse to reuse the container? But my anxiety was unfounded. They accepted the bowl without question or comment, and nowadays before I can even proffer the bowl, they ask if I’ve brought it.
At my usual coffee stop, I felt similarly timid that first day as I offered up my coffee tumbler. But the baristas didn’t bat an eyelid. In fact, they gave me 20 cents back for bringing my own cup. Double win!
During the first weekend, two encouraging moments: My boyfriend stopped himself from buying bottled water of his own volition. “Plastic,” he said solemnly, looking at me with a knowing glance. A day before that, a friend had witnessed me refusing a plastic straw, a move that prompted a conversation about ocean pollution and her vowing to reduce her own plastic consumption.
Ultimately, “no silver bullet solution” exists to the massive plastic waste problem we’re facing globally, but Nick Mallos of Ocean Conservancy said individuals should not underestimate the impact their personal choices can have.
People “need to be making those better decisions on a personal basis: skipping the plastic straw, not using plastic bags, making better choices when it comes to food packaging,” he said. “We’re not going to become a completely reusable society overnight, but if each individual reduces their personal footprint, the returns of these choices will absolutely pay off.”
I challenge you to try quitting single-use plastics for a month (or even a week if that seems too long). It may not always be possible and may take some getting used to, but you’ll probably be amazed at how much personal waste you’ll cut down and how quickly you’ll adapt to this new way of doing things.
Personally, it’s hard to imagine going back to my old consumption habits.
I don’t think I’ll ever look at a plastic bottle in the same way again.
For more tips and tricks on how you can reduce your plastic footprint, explore the slideshow below: