I have been traveling in countries where the problem of plastic waste is much more visible than it is in the U.S. Here, we put our throw-away plastic in recycling bins and walk away from it, literally and figuratively. But in many countries, the real impact of trash plastic is unavoidable: you see it everywhere. Plastic floats across open expanses of the Sahara desert outside Ourzazate; it chokes the culverts around Ho Chi Minh City; it sits in festering piles on the streets of Kathmandu. The water and soda bottles, the plastic packaging we take off of every product we buy -- it has a lifespan we can't imagine and it's all just piling up.
So when National Geographic launched its multi-year Planet or Plastic? project with its June issue, I was in. All in.
Yesterday, as I traveled around Vermont for an easy but busy day of reunions with friends, I tried to avoid single-use disposable plastic. There were some obvious things I knew to look out for (lids on take-away coffee cups, drinking straws) but I was curious what else I would encounter that I'm not usually aware of.
Here's what I noticed:
6:30 a.m. Since I'm traveling, some of my toiletries are in a quart-size Ziploc bag. I've been using the same bag for weeks so it's not single-use, but still. I brush my teeth with a plastic toothbrush and think, "Not a great start, Daniels."
8:05 a.m. Uncommon Grounds in Burlington, Vt. I presented my travel mug for coffee and got a bagel with cream cheese for here, thinking that I would also avoid paper waste. The toasted bagel was given to me on a ceramic plate, and the cream cheese was in a pre-packaged plastic cup. Didn't see that coming.
9:00 a.m. Took an Uber across town to pick up the car a friend is loaning me. He left the keys in a mailbox in a paper envelope. An entire hour without disposable plastic!
10:16 a.m. Grocery store, the worst. Nutrition-oriented people talk about the interior aisles of grocery stores being full of processed foods that they imagine as huge piles of sugar and salt, rather than 'food'. I am starting see the entire grocery store as a temporary warehouse for the plastic that will live forever in landfills. I wanted to buy flowers, lip balm and some kind of cleaning product to detail the interior of my friend's car.
- I thought this particular store would have buckets of loose cut flowers in addition to the cellophane-wrapped bouquets, but no. I bought the plastic-shrouded flowers anyway because I wanted them as a thank you gift and didn't have time to make another stop. At the checkout, the cashier asked if I wanted a flower bag. A second plastic bag to hold the already plastic-covered flowers.
- I examined the lip balm choices and debated this trade-off: all but one were in plastic tubes, but the one that was in a small metal tin was shrink-wrapped in plastic. I went for plastic tube of lip balm that was sold in a cardboard sleeve. (The two best choices were both twice as expensive as the worst choice: a plastic tube of Chapstick that was also encased in a plastic packaging.)
- Next, the cleaning aisle. I took in the neat, endless rows of plastic-bottled cleaning solutions and abandoned that item on the list.
12:18 p.m. Drove to Montpelier for lunch with friends, and this went well! We ate in a proper restaurant (JP Morgans), with food on ceramic plates and drinks in glasses. Kudos to the restaurant for not putting straws in the glasses, I didn't even have to ask!
1:30 p.m. Crashed a press conference at the Vermont Statehouse by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Phil Scott. No plastic was used in the reporting of a story on dairy farm aid.
2:10 p.m. Visited a friend for coffee at the National Life insurance headquarters. I brought my travel coffee mug with me, avoiding a carry-out cup with a plastic lid from the cafeteria. The security protocols required me to wear a name tag; at least the plastic card holder gets reused.
3:15 p.m. Met another friend for coffee. (My god, I drink I lot of coffee.) I ordered an iced coffee, requesting it in a glass with no straw. My friend immediately agreed, 'Good point - no straw for me either.' The guy put the coffee in front me accompanied by a plastic straw.
5:00 p.m. Drove back to the Burlington area and met a friend in Winooski for a beer. (Note to self: exactly how much of my daily caloric intake is in beverages?!) Then I ordered a craft ginger beer, because in Vermont people say precious phrases like 'craft ginger beer' without flinching, and requested no straw. "Oh, I saw you posted something about straws," my friend says. "I'm on a mission," I reply.
6:07 p.m. Another friend and I were hosting game night for an really fun mix of people who don't know each other. On my way to her house, she requests that I pick up name tags, ice and bug repellent. Ice and bug repellent left very few options in terms of plastic. I could have purchased the metal spray bottle of bug repellent but I wasn't sure if that container was an equal or worse waste problem to the plastic bottle.
For name tags, I stopped at Staples and was determined to avoid buying the plastic packages of name tags that I knew would be displayed. Instead, I opted for adhesive shipping labels sold in a cardstock paper envelope, nearly three times as expensive. Bonus, I noticed that Staples sells a cardboard package of cleaning wipes for car interiors, so resurrected my morning idea of cleaning my friend's car. (Bonus negated: the wipes are of course in a plastic pouch, and the cardboard packaging is doubly superfluous waste.) I also bought a pad of paper for score keeping, noticing only one option wasn't shrink-wrapped in plastic. I declined the plastic bag the cashier offered me, and while taking a picture of the three easy-to-carry-in-my-own-damn-hands purchases I explained, "I'm trying not to use plastic today."
I arrived at game night feeling a little defeated and annoyed that my one-day effort to avoid plastic was not a triumph. Most of the disposable plastic I used or purchased was optional, and I still opted in. And a few of my plastic-avoidance tactics were noticeably more expensive than cheap, disposable plastic. (THAT's the nub of the problem, right?)
Here are a few things I could have done differently:
- Handed the cream cheese back to the barista and eaten a dry bagel
- Called around to stores and farmstands until I found one that sold loose flowers
- Cleaned my friend's car with a bucket of soapy water instead of specialized cleaning products
And, I could have refused to eat the food at game night. Nearly everything we had was prepared food, sold and served in disposable plastic containers.
I'll try again tomorrow.