This week marks the end of two months of active reduction of plastic consumption. My grand summation? It’s really hard! I’ve actually come to the conclusion that we are doomed! OK, that’s extreme but the reality is truly disturbing. The impact of behavior change by a single individual versus the continual output of the larger plastic-coated machine is, well, like a micro-bead of plastic in a pile of ocean waste!
There are, of course, amazing efforts by individuals and companies to reduce their plastic footprint. There is the report of the Norwegian shipping baron building the largest yacht ever to clean up 5 tons of plastic per day. There are the companies working to develop plastic alternatives. There are scientists and researchers developing and analyzing biodegradable or compostable packaging. And there are individuals taking their small steps to reduce consumption and educate.
Which brings it back to my experience. The personal behavior of carrying a bag, refusing straws, not using disposable water bottles – that top level stuff was pretty easy. Not buying new clothing is pretty easy for me too because I’ve been a thrift shop girl for most of my life. And it’s definitely better to buy used than new if you’re buying any kind of synthetic fabric because your synthetic clothing continues to release billions of microfibers for the rest of its life. This was new to me and one of the depressing things I learned. I’ve always preferred cotton but the reality is that all natural fibers are pretty impractical in this day and age. Think fleece, yoga pants, bras, socks – even many basic pants and shirts have their share of plastic because they add shape and stretch to our clothes. Going back to a linen and cotton culture is unlikely to happen and they come with their own intense environmental impact anyway. Maybe an all bamboo wardrobe…
Which brings us to household products. Most everything comes packaged in plastic and it’s hard to avoid. Just cruise the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond and the amount of plastic packaging is enough to make your heart hurt! It’s hard to buy everything used so if you’re buying a shower curtain rod, a comforter, new sheets – it all comes in these horrible plastic, non-recyclable bags or that dense, finger-slicing packaging that is the bane of shoppers everywhere (partly because you need a hacksaw to open it!) There are some alternatives and they are generally harder to find, cost more money and offer fewer style choices. (Think the Abnegation people in Divergent – all grey, simple and no stuff…)So conscious consumption and not just mindless buying of the latest seasonal products seems to be the best approach here.
And then there’s food. I talked about bringing my own cutlery and stuff and that was fairly easy. I make some choices to not do take out if they serve in styrofoam. I accept plastic if it’s recyclable but it’s not ideal. I did not start carrying my own bento box for take out. I might still try that. I’m fortunate to live in the ATL where restaurants are abundant and I can frequent ones that reflect my environmental concerns.
And then there’s food for the home.
If we all just ate bananas and grains we could probably make this thing work. But that’s not who my family is. We don’t live off the grid growing our own food and I can’t make food a full-time effort. So this was the hardest and I’m not sure I made any progress here. Mostly I just added stress due to increased awareness.
As a public health person, I’m all about behavior change so it was interesting to observe and explore where I met my own internal resistance, where it was easy to change, the convenience factor and all the other variables. Like I said, top level stuff was easy. The next level stuff – here in privileged America – is harder. It truly has to become a life style choice and there can be impact when a person holds the line about their choices. We see and experience impact from lifestyle choices all around us – vegans experience it every day as they move about society trying to make it work for them. Plastic reduction really falls in to the same category. Each person has to take their own stand and draw their own lines and be willing to sacrifice comfort and convenience on their own terms.
I do think there is a baseline though and that includes pushing back against things like thoughtless water bottle, straw and plastic bag use because consumer pressure makes a difference. Being an educated consumer feels important to me and so I’ll keep working on it. The experiment really is a lifestyle choice and I am committed to it. Those small steps do make a difference and, at the end of the day, at the end of this experiment, small steps are all I’ve got to offer.