The Anti-Plastic Challenge

I’m a sucker for challenges, especially ones they throw out on the radio. Admittedly, even the white-hot-hotness that is Jian Ghomeshi did not sucker me into reading Ulysses in the summer of 2006, but I did go around all summer feeling guilty for not reading Ulysses (which was much easier). On Friday, July 11, I clicked away from the summer edition of The Current as Jim Brown started what sounded like it was going to be a depressing interview about plastic and its environmental impact (you can only take so much).

But when I clicked back later, the interview was just ending and Jim was challenging us to try going a day, or three days, or a week without picking up any new disposable plastic, and report on our results. That’s the kind of challenge that intrigues me, since I am so interested in manageable ways to reduce consumption and waste. So, starting from that very moment, I began the challenge. Here’s my record of how it went.

DAY ONE: Friday, July 11 — Good start. Forestalled the check-out guy from giving me a bag at Shopper’s Drug Mart, and remembered to bring my own mug when I met Tina for coffee at Starbucks. In the afternoon, the kids and their friends went to Needs and came home with Slushees in big ugly plastic cups. I wondered if I should count those but decided I couldn’t be entirely responsible for their choices. It’s not like I would have chosen to buy Slushees!! With that rationalization made, I was guilt-free until after supper, when I went to Needs to pick up a few last-minute supplies for the weekend — milk, chocolate bars, and marshmallows. Curses! Marshmallows come in a plastic bag!! I brought my own shopping bag to Needs, but I couldn’t get marshmallows without their little plastic bag.

DAY TWO: Saturday, July 12 — Sabbathkeeping is a good practice for treading lightly on the earth. Because Saturday is normally a buy-nothing day for me, I was able to avoid obtaining any plastics.

DAY THREE: Sunday, July 13 — We stop at Subway for subs on the way to the beach. Jason and Emma come out of Subway swinging our four paper-wrapped subs stuck into — curses, foiled again!! — two plastic bags. I think Subway could easily switch to paper bags, but I don’t know how they’d react to people bringing in their own grocery bags to carry subs out in. Also, J&E picked up two plastic bottles of juice. The bottles are recyclable and I will put them in the recycling bin when we get home, but … will they actually ever be recycled? Does recyclable plastic count in this challenge??

At least, I think, that will be our only plastic for the day. But we eat supper at Jungle Jim’s and there are plastic straws in our glasses! They are just sneaking that stuff in everywhere …

DAY FOUR: Monday, July 14 — Along with all the stuff I cart along to the kids’ swimming lessons, I bring my reusable coffee mug and ask at Tim Hortons if they can make an Ice Capp in a reusable cup. The server doesn’t know, and goes to check with the manager. He comes back to say they can make it in a plastic cup and pour it into my mug. “There’s no point in that; that doesn’t save anything,” I point out to him. Then the manager herself appears and tells me they can’t do it because the metal mixing spoon on the Ice Capp machine damages the inside of the reusable mug.

I find I don’t have the nerve to say, “Forget it then! No Ice Capp for me!!” so I go ahead and get one in the plastic cup (FAIL!). I am punished for my wimpiness by the fact that in all the flurry I forgot to ask them to make it with chocolate milk. Ick … a PLAIN Ice Capp. So, no more Ice Capps for me till Our Nation’s Coffee Shop gets with the program and figures out how to make them in a reusable cup. Tim, you are driving me into the arms of Starbucks!! (Of course, even with the 10 cent discount Starbucks gives me for using a reusable cup, I’m still paying twice the price of an Ice Capp for my non-fat, no-whip Iced Raspberry Mocha!!)

I figure the Ice Capp cup and straw will be the last of my sins for the day, but later in the day two plastic bottles come into our possession by various means. Both recyclable, but one could have been avoided if I’d remembered to bring the reusable water bottle on our trip downtown.

The one piece of plastic that really irritates me today, though, is having to buy new swim goggles because Emma lost hers at the pool. Replacing cheap plastic things you already have has to be one of the worst abuses of plastic. Just sheer carelessness.

DAY FIVE: Tuesday, July 15 — This is where I knew the kicker would be: going to the supermarket. And I didn’t even have to get a whole load of groceries, just a few items. Of course I remembered to bring my reusable Sobey’s bags; I put my red and yellow peppers in loose instead of putting them in a plastic fruit bag, and I stopped the checker from putting my chicken breasts in a plastic bag BEFORE they went into my reusable bag. But what I couldn’t do anything about was packaging that’s already on things. Many of the items I bought were unpackaged (bananas) or in cardboard (milk, cereal, juice — although the juice cartons did have little plastic caps). But grapes, chicken, and household cleaners could not be bought without plastic wrap or plastic bottles — no greener alternatives available. So there’s no hope for today being a plastic-free day.

Also, I have to contend with plastic brought into the home by other members of the family — a real hazard when you have kids. Today’s tally included three pairs of 3D glasses, proudly brought home by Jason, Chris and Emma after they went to see Journey to the Centre of the Earth (“And we get to keep the glasses!!!” Me, in horror: “Why?!?!”) and two new toys — Lego for Chris, Littlest Pet Shop for Emma — given to them by loving grandparents.

Lego is pretty much my favourite kids’ toy in the world — Chris is so creative with his Legos — but it is absolutely and unavoidably plastic, and how the stuff proliferates around the house!! I think in the future there will be entire Lego landfills … at least when he finally outgrows it (will he ever?) we can pass it on to someone else, as the stuff is indestructible and can gladden the hearts of future generations before it goes off to not-decay in a landfill somewhere. Trendy up-to-the-minute stuff like Littlest Pet Shop (aren’t those little animals creepy?) doesn’t have nearly such a hopeful prognosis, I’m sad to say.

DAY SIX: Wednesday, July 16 — Another plastic-free day — my second of the week. Again, probably because I didn’t have occasion to buy much today. We had supper at a restaurant but I didn’t even get a straw in my glass, although the waitress spontaneously chose to give my kids their milkshakes in styrofoam take-out cups with straws because they were easier to drink from than the tall glass glasses. Oh well. No plastic for me personally though. I used the reusable mug at Starbucks, and when I picked up milk on the way home, I put it in my backpack. Good day. I’m getting the feeling that the only way to be plastic-free is to avoid buying things as much as possible.

DAY SEVEN: Thursday, July 17 — The week ends! I almost get away plastic-free today — the milk I buy for the kids at Tim Horton’s comes in a paper cup with a plastic lid and plastic straw. Other than that, I avoid plastic bags and other extraneous plastic. I drop in to Sobey’s to pick up two items on the way home and realize I’ve forgotten my reusable bags. No problem, I think, I need another one anyway — I’ll buy a bag. But Sobey’s is out of reusable bags, so I just go through the bag-your-own checkout and carry my milk and mushrooms (both in plastic-free packaging) out of the store IN MY BARE HANDS.

The kids pool their pocket money to buy a plastic light-up glow-wand at the circus in the evening. So another plastic toy comes into the house despite my best intentions. At least they didn’t have enough money to buy one each.

LESSONS LEARNED: Out of seven days, I managed only two completely plastic-free days. Generally, the more I shopped, the harder it was to avoid plastic. Using reusable bags and a reusable coffee mug (which I was doing anyway) avoids a lot of plastic as long as you remember to bring them with you. It was easier than I’d expected to avoid actually obtaining any new plastic objects — the real problem was packaging. And the issues with packaging go beyond what the individual consumer can control. Sure, we can vote with our wallets and buy products with less packaging, but when a working mom like me has to juggle cost, convenience, health benefits, and then environmentally friendly packaging on top of it, the fact is I won’t always make the most environmentally friendly choice. And the businesses who package and sell products (like Tim’s with their Ice Capps) won’t change unless it’s in their economic interest to. Which is why I think government needs to step in and pass some laws about plastics in packaging — force us to comply rather than relying on the better angels of our nature.

I also learned that as a mom, I am not in completely control of all the plastic that comes into our house. Some is given to our kids, and some they choose to acquire on their own. This will obviously get worse as they get older and have more buying power. The best I can do is teach them to make environmentally responsible choices — along with the other priorities I’m trying to teach them about how to use their money.

I can’t say I managed to avoid plastic for a week. But the experience of trying to do so made me much more aware of what passes through my hands and how much of it I can (and can’t) control.

11 Replies to “The Anti-Plastic Challenge”

  1. Great effort! I’m constantly frustrated at the amount of plastic we seem to need for a normal life. We’ve gotten good at the grocery-bag thing, but packaging – created to be disposed of – fills up our garbage. The city’s recycling plan can’t come soon enough, but I suspect that won’t be all it’s cracked up to be, either. Got a couple of blogs to make you feel really really inadequate, er, inspired:

  2. Very commendable of you to even try. More than I would have done, probably. You had mentioned cereal as being in cardboard… depending on what you bought, it was likely in a plastic bag inside that cardboard.

    Recently, at Costco, the teller asked me if I wanted a couple of boxes for all my sh-tuff. When I refused, I explained that I had large Rubbermaid containers in my van for that and I’d been doing it for years. She was impressed that I was so environmentally conscious even before it was “popular”. I confessed that it had more to do with the fact that they didn’t provide bags and the fact that I didn’t want to take their garbage (the boxes) home with me for me to throw away!

  3. eliminating plastics such as the grocery bags is easy. even an old guy like myself now take the canvas bags to the supermarket when i go.

  4. But it’s amazing how many people don’t, Wayne!

    Steve, I’d always thought the bags inside the cereal boxes were waxed paper (we burn them). Now I have to go obsessively check all my cereal boxes.

    Heather, I’m pretty sure they’ll make me feel inadequate rather than inspired, but I’ll check them out!

  5. You can at least reduce the packaging of cleaning products by making your own cleaning products. I use vinegar/distilled water (so that’s 2 plastic gallon jugs, but they last a LONG time) to clean the bathroom, windows, counters, floor . . . carpet/furniture stain remover (or straight vinegar depending on the stain). Vinegar for fabric softener. Make my own laundry detergent. Vinegar, baking soda (bought in the big bags from Sam’s) or hydrogen peroxide (or some combination of the 3) to clean the toilet depending on my mood (and whether I think it needs the scrubbing power of baking soda or the disinfecting power of the other 2, or all of the above). . . and bonus, you’re not sending chemicals down your drain to poison the earth’s water 🙂

    And yeah, Legos don’t count, I still have mine from when I was a kid & I fully expect them to last through my kids and I’ll keep them for my grandkids so I don’t think they’ll be making it into the landfill anytime soon.

  6. My problem with making my own cleaning products is that I am at long last able to afford a once-a-week cleaning lady which has reduced my stress unimaginably … and she is pretty particular about wanting Mr. Clean and Comet. I don’ tknow what she’d do if I presented her with vinegar (I did used to sometimes clean with vinegar back when I cleaned the floors myself). Maybe I should advertise for an environmentally friendly cleaning lady?

    Re Legos: my kids are the second generation to have used my Fisher Price house, barn, school etc., and I fully expect them to go to my grandkids someday, so maybe the forty million Legos will go along with them!

  7. Hi I have been boycotting disposable plastic products for 18 months . Started cos I hated what plastic pollution was doing to the environment – as I learnt more I began to worry what it might be doing to me. As you found, it’s really hard to give up plastic all at once so each month I give a few things and source sutsainable or biodegradable alternatives- you might find them usefull see for details.

  8. The city’s recycling plan can’t come soon enough, but I suspect that won’t be all it’s cracked up to be, either. It’s great that you are trying.

  9. I love your account of this challenge. It just shows how hard it is to avoid something that is so prolific in our lives. One-time use disposable plastic products are the worst. I am trying to encourage members of our local community to switch to reusable products where possible, even at school fetes.

  10. @Heather, I hope Fake Plastic Fish leaves folks inspired rather than inadequate. I’m not entirely plastic-free yet but almost.

    I don’t have kids, so that makes it a bit easier for me to avoid plastic, although I do have cats. And right now, most of the plastic I accumulate is related to the cats — cat litter in a big plastic bag and cases of canned food that come shrink-wrapped in plastic.

    The main way that I avoid plastic packaging is to shop stores that have bulk bins where you can bring your own container to fill up. Do you have stores like this where you live?

    Feel free to check out my list of plastic-free changes and see if any of them are helpful to you:

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