One Word: Plastics

Like me, you may have noticed lately that “plastic” is becoming a dirty word. We are now, apparently, supposed to feel bad if we use a plastic straw to drink a beverage. Cities, including the District of Columbia, are banning them. National Geographic reports that 500 million straws are used every day in the US, and eight million tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year. While straws are just a small fraction of that, they represent the much larger issue of the prevalence of single-use plastic items. We have no idea how many years it could take for plastic to break down – hundreds, probably – but in the meantime, so much ends up in the ocean, threatening its ecosystem and marine life.

None of this was on anyone’s radar when Benjamin received that unsolicited advice in 1967.

When I was elbow-deep in the phase of my life where I was tasked with keeping three small humans alive, I didn’t have time to feel guilty about disposable diapers, wipe containers, plastic bags, or any of the other conveniences that made my life easier. Now that those tiny people are grown, I’m somewhat appalled to think about my significant contributions to our country’s waste problem. But, while I can’t do anything about my past consumption and habits, I can do things differently from now on.

Here are some small changes I’ve made:

  • I purchased a set of these glass storage containers (alas, with plastic lids). Instead of using those semi-reusable plastic storage containers for a few times and then discarding them, I’ll reuse the glass ones and carry them back and forth instead of trashing the plastic ones at work. And instead of wrapping, say, half a bell pepper or an onion in plastic wrap for refrigerator storage, I can use these containers.
  • I’ve brought two sets of our old stainless flatware in to my office to use and reuse for work lunches. All I have to do is wash them, and we have facilities for that here. That saves me from throwing away plastic cutlery. (We do have compostable, disposable plates here, but perhaps I would do well to bring in a real plate, too.)
  • I intend to give up Diet Coke soon, really I do, but until then I’m trying to buy it in cans instead of in plastic bottles or fountain cups with a lid and straw. I know, I know, I should just refill a water bottle. Baby steps.
  • If I do end up with a plastic straw or plastic cup (such as when I buy the occasional iced tea at Starbucks), I rinse and reuse it at least few times. This saves one straw (and/or cup) each time. I wish Starbucks would allow refillable cups.
  • I bought these brown paper bags that are the size of a zipper sandwich bag (and around the same per-unit cost of the brand-name plastic equivalent): CaptureThey are a fine substitute in most cases (but not all) where you might reach for a Ziploc. They’re chlorine-free, unbleached, and not waxed (conventional wax paper is coated with paraffin wax, which is petroleum-based).
  • If we do use a large plastic Ziploc or other plastic bag at home, we reuse them if possible, mainly to scoop cat litter. But it occurred to me, why can’t we just scoop cat litter into brown paper lunch bags, instead? So that’s on the horizon.
  • My son take a Gatorade each day in his school lunch. I have asked him to bring his bottles home, and I hope one day soon he remembers… at which point, I will mix up Gatorade from a big can of powdered mix and refill his bottles each day.
  • I’ve been trying to remember my own reusable grocery bags since Montgomery County implemented its $0.05 per bag tax a few years ago. I’m not always successful, and the tax is not large enough to be a deterrent. I do like paper bags, especially the ones with handles, because they’re reusable for collecting and carrying recyclables to our disposal container. We noticed in Germany, there were no plastic bags offered to us at grocery stores – we had to buy reusables.

I am realizing, how ubiquitous plastic is, especially the single-use kind. Shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, lotions, cosmetics, condiments and food packaging – red Solo cups – packaging of all kinds (office supplies, toys, hardware supplies) – I could go on and on. Once you start noticing it, you can’t stop.

Sometimes, plastic is the best or only option. For example, we like to cook steak via sous-vide, wherein you place the meat inside a sealed plastic bag in a warm, temperature-controlled water bath. It’s a great way to make a tender, delicious steak at home. But in my kitchen, wherever I can find a way to not use plastic, I’ll try it.

I don’t believe it’s practical or even possible to completely eliminate all use of plastic, but I do think it’s possible to increase awareness and start making changes to reduce individual consumption. If everyone skipped the straw, for example, or used fewer zip-top plastic bags, we’d have a lot less plastic ending up in landfills and waterways.

Filed under: Food for thought.



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