For the month of July, in San Francisco, CA, I pledged to “avoid single-use plastic, reuse or recycle the plastic I did use, educate others about plastic waste, and take Citizen Muscle actions to make plastic a thing of the past.” I pledged because plastic production and its consumption has increased globally at an alarmingly high rate. And a majority of the plastic that is produced does not get recycled (the percent is much lower than you’d think — in the US only 9.5% of plastic was recycled in 2014). Instead, most plastic ends up in our water, landfills and oceans causing physical and environmental health issues. Consumers have been trained to rely on plastic, I wanted to see if it was possible to live without it.
Like all of the pledges I’ve participated in, I quickly advanced the call to action, flipping the pledge into a challenge — a personal attempt to not use or purchase single-use plastic at all for 31 consecutive days. I deemed it the “No Single-Use Plastic Challenge” (NSUPC). To accomplish this particular challenge, above all I knew I needed to be more conscious of how and what I consumed. Regularly, out of convenience, I purchase single-use plastic water bottles, use single-use plastic coffee lids and go through an obscene amount of single-use plastic straws (because I prefer drinking from a straw). Despite these consumption confessions, I knew if I could cut out these particular habits from my routine, I would be able to conquer NSUPC. Because honestly, “How difficult would it be to completely avoid single-use plastic in San Francisco?!”
Within the first week of NSUPC I started to understand just how difficult. My sincere optimism was courageously hopeless at best. Let me explain.
In the days leading up to July 1, the first official day of NSUPC, I mentally and physically prepared. I located and filled all of the reusable water bottles I had collected over the years – 18 total! I located and cleaned my coffee travel mug. I made self-promises: if I happened to forget a water bottle I would find the closest water fountain (or borrow a friend’s water bottle) instead of buying a single-use plastic bottle; or if I forgot my coffee travel mug, I would still allow myself the cup of coffee. I just wouldn’t reach for a single-use plastic lid. I promised that I would stop using plastic straws all together. (This part would be the real challenge.) And I actively started telling my friends and acquaintances about the pledge and how I was changing my consumption behavior to achieve success.
During the first week I focused on my consumption — everything from food to goods to gifts. I analyzed each item I wanted to purchase, the materials it took to create that item and any additional materials used to wrap or carry out the item post-purchase. If plastic was part of the item’s production in any way, I asked myself, “Is it single-use or multiple-use plastic?” There is a difference. Unfortunately for me, I found that most items I wanted to use or buy contained one, two or more types of single-use plastic. Either the item was made entirely of single-use plastic or single-use plastic was used to wrap, secure or seal the item I wanted inside. For example: single-use plastic wrapped around my favorite cheeses (and is used to package almost every single item at the grocery store); it is hidden inside cardboard boxes to keep my favorite cereals or crackers fresh; it is wrapped around the flowers I buy for my apartment; it is holding my fresh smoothie; it is lining the trash bins at work and at home. It is everywhere.
I knew I couldn’t physically survive the next 4 weeks without consumption — even if it was the barest of minimums — so instead of staying in, I changed my thinking and my actions. I got creative and persuasive. In weeks 2 and 3, some would have deemed my behavior pushy or rude, but I wanted to see just how far I could take NSUPC while still keeping as normal a lifestyle as possible. I wanted to see if non-plastic options were indeed available if you asked for them. Surprisingly, the answer I found more often than not was “yes, possible.” When a grocery clerk started to bag my groceries in a plastic bag, I asked for paper. When a server brought out a plastic box to go, I asked for a paper box (or for a piece of foil). When I really wanted a straw I asked for a paper straw. (Surprisingly lots of bars had paper ones in the back.) When my fresh flowers were being wrapped, I asked for paper wrapping only and a cloth ribbon. When my water bottle was empty, I asked coffee shops to fill it with tap water. The more I asked, the more non-plastic alternatives I was given.
It was not until the end of week 3 that I realized my clever system was not yet possible everywhere. On a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles I stopped for gas and my favorite drink concoction – a specific, yet random mix of raspberry ice tea, lemonade, 7Up and Mountain Dew. I would usually grab the largest store-provided plastic cup, fill it with ice and mix away but this time I brought my own large cup from the car. At checkout the clerk looked baffled, then unimpressed. At this particular gas convenience store (off the record, Extra Mile) personal cups were not OK. The reason? Each cup is individually barcoded for inventory. So, if a customer doesn’t use one of the store-provided individually-coded single-use plastic cups, the clerk cannot ring it up. And, once a cup has been barcoded, it cannot be used or coded again. Bummer. I told her about NSUPC and asked her if there were a secret generic barcode she could use or if she had any other option? The answer was — “No.” So, I reluctantly went back to the soda fountain and grabbed a single-use plastic cup for her to ring up. As I left the store she called behind me, “Do you want to keep it, or should I throw it away?”
I made it through the rest of the month with what I call 50/25/25 action success. There were times when I did succeed and was able to avoid single-use plastic altogether; there were times when single-use plastic was unavoidable (even if I really really tried to avoid it or not use it); and there were times I let my guard down and a plastic straw showed up in my drink or a plastic coffee lid snapped on my cup before I could say, “No, thank you.”
After witnessing and learning all that I did in 31 days, I ask myself, “Why is mass consumption of single-use plastic necessary?” Further, “Are their specific industries that require the use of single-use plastic? Are there potential health risks in not using single-use plastic?” Two industries that quickly come to mind are food service and healthcare. (I found many articles online discussing pros and cons of single-use plastic in healthcare, and pros in foodservice.)
As I took a deeper look at the pros of single-use and multi-use plastic, I adjusted my perception, “Maybe plastic is OK when it is produced in a mindful way and supports human health and well-being.” But I cannot find mindfulness in the current rate we are producing and consuming single-use plastics globally – especially within many industries that do not involve food service or healthcare. In these other industries I found the most common decision maker in support of single-use plastic to be, cheap cost. For business that may make sense, but for the longevity of human existence and the planet we live on, it is foolish.
In order to accelerate change, everyone needs to be a proactive leader. Corporations and businesses need to actively and financially commit to finding alternatives to plastic and decrease their reliance and consumption of all single-use plastic used in production. Consumers need to be vigilant and educated about what they buy, what that product is made of and who produces it. Consumers must be vocal. They must request single-use plastic and plastic-free products from the corporations and businesses they buy from. They should take action and speak to their local and state government leaders, policy makers and legislators about decreasing the production of single-use plastic in both the United States and globally. And consumers must remember, we have ultimate purchasing power over corporations and businesses. (If we don’t buy it, they won’t produce it.)
I am glad I took the pledge and created my own NSUPC. I will continue – and I encourage you – to avoid single-use plastic, reuse or recycle the plastic we do use, educate others about plastic waste, and take Citizen Muscle actions to make plastic a thing of the past. One day we will.