My weakest moment came two weeks in. We’d just gotten out of the movie theater, I was starving, and no one else was interested in a sit-down restaurant. Due to my poor planning at the grocery store last week, my options at home were limited to an ear of corn, an aging potato and a few slices of deli turkey.
So I caved and called my favorite Mexican takeout place. Fifteen minutes later, I walked out the door with a container of styrofoam wrapped in a plastic bag. In a single instant, I used more plastic than I had for days — although it was not the only time a participant in the plastic challenge would cave to modern convenience in our battle to reduce plastic waste.
Inspired by plastic bag bans and evidence that recycled plastic often lands in the trash, six NJ Advance Media reporters agreed to a five-week experiment: Measure our everyday plastic use, then try to reduce it. Along the way, we struggled with the constant presence of plastic in food, makeup, home goods, entertainment, and in one person’s case, dozens of little blue bags for their daily newspaper delivery.
But we kept trying, and today, we have the results of how each of us held up, and what we learned along the way.
Plastic is everywhere in New Jersey. We estimate that more than a million tons of plastic is tossed each year in the Garden State, while only 9 percent is ever recycled. From the beginning, many participants realized it would be hard to find plastic-free options.
“It’s a lifestyle adjustment, but lot of it is out of our control,” said Karen Yi, a local government reporter.
The trickiest category? Food, both at home and on the road. Yi and Enrique Lavin, editor of NJ Cannabis Insider, tested a few tips to avoid plastic at the market like packing veggies in reusable produce bags and asking for meat wrapped in paper. “At Whole Foods they’ll wrap it in wax paper for you, but their instinct is to then drop it in a bag,” Lavin said.
I found some success in bringing my own containers to the bulk food section of stores or to local restaurants, but I came to first expect confused looks from cashiers as I explained the situation.
Beauty and hygiene proved another ordeal. Local government reporter Olivia Rizzo admitted she “was barely wearing makeup at first” because her typical routine had so much plastic. But she found plastic-free bamboo mascara and plans to get machine-washable face-cleaning pads.
Of course, we couldn’t sit in our living rooms all of July, either. Michael Warren, our environmental reporter, found out most beach activities rely on single-use plastic. And John Shabe discovered ways to avoid plastic in his own garden.
For the first week of the challenge, participants threw away plastic like they normally would, but saved the trash to create a comparison point for the next four weeks. Our question: Were we really able to reduce the amount of plastic week-to-week? The results varied.
We voted Karen Yi as the unofficial victor for her excellent work both in how little plastic she used and how much she reduced her load throughout the month. Here are all the weeks of her challenge:
Yi said she ran into two unexpected hard-to-cut sources of plastic: Her daily contacts, and the plastic bags wrapped around her daily newspaper delivery. She found herself scrambling to find new uses for them, like giving them to relatives for their dog’s waste.
Along with holding onto the trash, she also logged the individual items she used.
- “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” Shabe said. Even if you can’t try a drastic step like the no-plastic challenge, any plastic you can cut will still be another product that didn’t end up in a landfill.
- Start by being more conscious of what you’re using, Yi said. You don’t have to log and photograph every item like we did, but take a second to notice when you’re tossing an item in the trash. Lavin said by the end of the challenge, his “disdain for plastic has grown. It approximated the sense I had when I quit smoking cigarettes. Now the smell of the smoke is disgusting,” he said. “If my disgust for plastic was the same as for tobacco, maybe I could get somewhere.”
- Ask your local business: Can you skip the plastic fork, or hand me the sandwich without the bag? Make your request polite and patient, and you’ll be surprised at how many restaurants will accommodate you.
- A few investments go a long way. Consider buying a soda maker, a reusable sponge or extra Tupperware to replace single-use plastic in your life.
- If you can’t replace, reuse. Transportation reporter Larry Higgs has found some ways to give second life to single-use plastic.
Warren said over the month, he realized a decent chunk of his plastic was “stuff I didn’t need” in the first place, like his daily fix of candy from the office vending machine.
“It made me reflect on my consumption habits,” Yi said. “Do I really need that iced tea?”
Lavin said that our consumer culture has made us all “guilty participants.”
“There’s no way around that unless there’s a cultural shift,” he said.
Sometimes we dealt with our suffering with a touch of humor — and some venting to our Twitter followers.
Enrique Lavin is editor of NJ Cannabis Insider. Follow him on Twitter at @EnriqueLavin.
Olivia Rizzo is a local government reporter covering Trenton and Mercer County. Follow her on Twitter at @LizRizz.
Karen Yi is a local government reporter covering Newark and Essex County. Follow her on Twitter at @karen_yi.
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