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Plastic Trash Talk

Diablo editors take a plastic challenge, discover a few surprises, and retell their tales.

Beth Terry during her first week of Myplasticfreelife.com.To piggy back on this year’s Eco Awards and in honor of Earth Day this weekend, some of the Diablo edit team took the Plastic Challenge devised by one of this year’s winners, Oakland resident Beth Terry. Plastic is all around us, and the scary part is that most of it can’t be recycled or broken down. Terry was shocked to learn that much of our plastic waste ends up miles out to sea, in the stomachs of birds and mammals, or polluting other countries like China. In 2007, she decided to try banning new plastic from her life, and she’s been blogging about her journey ever since.

The plastic challenge seemed simple enough: collect your plastic waste for one week, tally your items, photograph your pile, and analyze your consumption habits to see what changes you might make. But the hard part was escaping plastic as you’ll see in the stories below. Here's what we learned:

LeeAnne Jones, Managing Editor

I’m big on recycling soda cans, glass, plastic, paper, and cardboard in my home, but before the Plastic Challenge, I hadn’t considered how much plastic I actually consume. Unfortunately, the first day of this challenge included one of those pack-whatever-is-left-in-my-kitchen lunches, which was perhaps the most plastic-filled of all time. It contained two microwavable meal trays with plastic coverings, a string cheese wrapper, a fruit cup container, a snack baggie, and a plastic shopping bag to carry it all. Confession: The snack baggie was used only to transport my silverware. I’m kind of a germaphobe.

LeeAnne's plastic spreadAmong the largest contributors to my weekly plastic intake are: 1.) Food and beverages: cups and lids from sodas and Starbucks drinks and packaged cheese, tortillas, pasta, and snacks; 2.) Household items: toilet paper packaging, a used Listerine bottle, a completed prescription; and 3.) Mail: envelope windows, plastic wrap around magazines, packing “popcorn.”

The challenge was eye opening: I accumulated more plastic than I would have guessed. I may make some different choices in the future (like not taking a soda lid and straw when I don’t really need them), but I’m not ready to sacrifice convenience for any major reductions. I’m not interested in making my own mouthwash to save a bottle or haggling with magazine publishers over their use of shrink-wrap. But I will continue to recycle the plastic I do consume if possible, and I look forward to further innovations in non-plastic packaging (love that biodegradable cutlery!)

Ethan Fletcher, Associate Editor

What did I learn during my plastic challenge? That I collected enough to really annoy my wife.

I’m in my car a lot for work, so I stored a lot of my collected plastic there: to the point where it overflowed out of my side door pockets into the back seat. Whereupon my wife noticed and asked me why I was letting our car fill up with garbage. I explained the plastic challenge experiment to her, and her reaction was: “fine, but do you have to store it in the car?”

Well, no, actually, she had a pretty good point there, but it did serve nicely to illustrate just how much plastic I, relatively thoughtlessly, managed to collect over the course of one week. Plastic bottles, to-go food containers, plastic bags, the plastic lining in envelopes: I have no doubt that after a couple months, there wouldn’t have been any room in the car left for me. It was certainly a little disturbing to see how much plastic I accumulated—and even more disturbing when I thought about multiplying that by however many billion people there are in the world.

So, I’ve made an effort to do some little things like stop making so many to-go food orders and bringing my canvas tote when I go grocery shopping. And I’ve also gotten a little trash receptacle for my car to keep my wife happy.

Serena Renner, Associate Editor

Serena's Week AI heard about Beth Terry and her plastic crusade over a year ago, and I’ve been thinking more about plastic ever since. Now, there are some types of plastics that rarely enter my life, like water bottles and grocery bags, and shopping takes much longer now that I overanalyze everything I throw into my cart. I was a pretty good environmentalist, or so I thought.

I did the challenge on two non-consecutive weeks, and I’m surprised by how similar they looked. Both weeks involved events: During Week A, I attended a concert and a movie preview; and Week B also featured a concert as well as a small dinner party and a wedding. Both weeks also included road travel: Week A to Santa Barbara and Week B all the way to San Diego. I remember thinking my first challenge week was irregular because of such events, but I’m starting to think these things happen enough that I can't disregard them.

Week A’s tally was dominated by candy and mail, and during Week B, I binged on carbs (my enchilada party required A LOT of tortillas), coffee (I couldn’t find my mug and traveled 1,000 miles!), and electronics (I finally threw out two faulty tape-iPod adapters and bought a new one to keep me sane for those 1,000 miles). Other discoveries:

  • It’s hard to avoid plastic if you enjoy drinking a beer or two at concerts. I was pleased to learn that The Fox would refill my cup (which I held in my hand through the entire show), but I doubt most venues are that understanding.
  • My environmentalism is often compromised by social situations or my desire to be polite (e.g. going to events, accepting food and drinks from others, accepting a beer that someone buys for me at a concert, shopping with my boyfriend, even if he goes to Safeway, which only carries plastic bags.)
  • Avoiding plastic while traveling is difficult unless you plan ahead to bring reusable bottles, mugs, containers, utensils, and your own food.
  • You might stress out a Starbucks employee, and will probably get some laughs, if you ask for a chai latte in a large mason jar. Be patient if they ask for your order again; they couldn’t write your name or order on the cup for God's sake.
  • I really like Greek yogurt and haven’t found anything comparable that comes in glass (even glass yogurt jars still usually have plastic around the lid.)
  • There are some things I’m not yet willing to sacrifice that don’t, to my knowledge, have a plastic alternative (orange juice, tortillas, credit cards, electronics, junk mail without plastic windows—though I'm willing to sacrifice that.)

Serena's Week BThere are also a handful of changes I wish to make: I’m going to set up a car kit for reusable bags, containers, and utensils, to prepare for those road trips. I also plan to study up on what’s recyclable where I live and work and make an effort to cut down on non recyclable items. Most importantly, I'm going to hold myself accountable more to strengthen these habits.

Beth Terry told me a story about how she and her husband carried groceries home in their shirts once when they forgot their reusable bags. It's no wonder why she won an Eco Award.

For tips on living with less plastic, visit myplasticfreelife.com.