The Journey to Minimize Plastics

Something that I’ve become more conscious of during the past few years is the sheer amount of waste that comes with living a modern existence. You buy a thing on Amazon and have it shipped to your house, and you end up with a huge box and some bubble wrap because going to Target or Home Depot would have been inconvenient. You drive to McDonald’s for breakfast on the way to work because making breakfast at home would be a pain. You buy a Funko Pop for your current-favorite show until the next cool thing shows up.

I’ve already made the decision to not give my money and data to “evil companies” whenever possible, so I’m not Prime 2-day shipping an item or buying silly things from Instagram ads. With the onset of covid and being forced to live closer to home, I shopped locally, I planned my trips to be as efficient as possible, I didn’t have a soda or sugary Starbucks drink every day anymore. I ended up losing weight because I was eating healthier, because grabbing fast food was no longer convenient.

As things have begun re-opening and I’ve returned to the office, I’m noticing these habits again…but in other people. The desire for a fast, convenient lifestyle is no longer there; I was finding myself making eco-conscious options more and more. I’m biking to the farmer’s market, might as well bring my own produce bags, right? I can preserve these veggies, that’ll be fun! Might as well bring my own water, bottled is so expensive and I won’t have to worry about leaving my bike unattended when I run into a store.

Which leads me to today, where I’ve made the decision to reduce my use of plastics whenever possible. And me writing this post, both to sort out my own thoughts and, well, content is content, right? Maybe it can help out other people, too.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (In That Order)

It’s a phrase we all know, but don’t usually understand. Recycling is good and all, but not everything can be recycled, not all communities can accept all types…and some communities don’t actually recycle anything, due to costs. Recycling takes energy and is rarely efficient, so it’s not an ideal solution.

Reusing is good because it’s keeping something from going into the trash as well as you buying something. The plastic takeout containers from Thai places are surprisingly robust, so they’re good for food storage; I won’t have to buy Tupperware. If I lend it out to a friend and it doesn’t get back to me, well, no biggie! I didn’t buy it, so I don’t feel bad. And now they have a new container to use!

Reducing consumption in the first place is the best thing you can do. For every object you buy or use, there are countless steps in the supply chain to get it to you. A plastic soda cup starts as petroleum (oil), which has to be extracted, which causes ecological damage. It’s then shipped and processed in multiple steps into a form that can be used at the plastic cup factory. Now it gets to be shipped and shuffled around warehouses before it’s finally distributed to your local fast food restaurant, where you use it once and then throw it out. The amount of energy and by-products from making and transporting it is immense. But if there was no need to buy that cup in the first place, all of those steps are cut out. It also saves the labor and energy that goes into recycling it into something else.

But You’re One Person! It’s The Companies That Are Doing All The Damage!

True! But companies are only making and selling these products because people want to buy them. A soda at a ye olde soda fountain was mixed by a trained worker in front of you and served in a glass that was cleaned and used by someone else, like any sitdown restaurant. The syrup was made in house, too. The real inefficiency was delivering ice to keep the water and syrup cold, but we figured that out with mechanical refrigeration.

But with bottled soda, you didn’t have to sit at the counter and wait to be served! You could grab a cold drink at so many locations, and the store didn’t need specialized staff to sell it. Soda is so much more convenient now! Let’s buy glass-bottled soda!

Ah, but glass is heavy and breakable and the cap can be tricky to get off. Aluminum cans are much more efficient uses of space! And you can put branding all over it! But wait! Plastic is even cheaper than aluminum! We can make bottles in all sorts of sizes now!

Each step made soda a more convenient product, and people like soda, so they kept buying the newer options, so companies had all the more reason to keep making them. But if there was a demand for soda fountains and the jerks to run them again, businesses would supply that, because they like making money. We’ve seen that with records and even CDs, and even canning supplies and baking yeast, since making things at home is now more convenient for some.

When I’m choosing different shopping habits, I’m voting with my dollar. The more people do this, the more businesses will notice, and they’ll change the products they offer to meet demand.

The Law Already Does Half the Hard Work, Anyways

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where single-use plastic bags have been banned for quite a while. Styrofoam cups/take-out containers, too. When I visited South Carolina a few years back, everything was styrofoam, and I was thinking…why? What does this accomplish? What benefit does this have over other materials?

I actually do not know if plastic straws are banned here, or if take-out containers and silverware are to be compostable. But most places I go have these products on offer anyways. They’ve improved over time, too, with “plastic” cups and cutlery that look and feel just like plastic. When paper straws were first in vogue, they lasted maybe an hour, but now that’s rarely an issue. The increased demand created the need for better options.

It also removes the stigma of doing these things. The concept that caring for the environment is a bad thing is silly, but unfortunately, it is that way in some places.

…But Being Totally Plastic Free Is Impossible

This slots into the concept that it is (currently) impossible to go to an oil-free society. Modern living necessitates plastic in many ways, and there aren’t any other options.

Examples:

  • Medication and medical supplies. I do injections of testosterone for HRT. While syringes used to be made of glass, that is no longer the case, and there isn’t much I can do about that. Single-use plastics “make sense” when items need to be sterilized and can only be used on a single person for a single time. I don’t think Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug is going to be doing glass/metal containers anytime soon, nor will CVS, but I can recycle the plastic ones they give me.
  • Electronics. Computers, phones, lightbulbs, appliances…there aren’t many alternatives, unless I want to only use candles and cook with a fire, which would be extremely difficult to do in my apartment (and I am sure my roommate would not like that, either).
  • Infrastructure. I use electricity, of course, and wires are insulated with plastic. Pipes carrying water can be made out of plastic. Traffic cones and temporary bollards are made of plastic. Emergency exit signs are made of plastic. But these tend not to be things that are used once and then tossed, they are used for a very long time until they need to be replaced.

Plastic is also cheap and…I am not made of money. I bought some re-usable/sustainable things today and it was over $50, which sure did hurt! There is definitely the economics of buying something expensive that lasts a very long time vs buying something cheap that needs to be replaced frequently. But I do not have that upfront capital to replace everything. Which brings me to my next point…

I’m Keeping (Most of) the Plastic I Already Have

I already have a bunch of plastic Tupperware, plastic fountain pens, a plastic phone case, a plastic fidget cube, a plastic watch…and they all work perfectly fine. Throwing them out and replacing them with sustainable versions is putting plastic into the waste stream that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I want to reduce the waste I’m making, so this wouldn’t be wise to do.

My decision to reduce my plastic usage has nothing to do with health reasons. I do not believe that various chemicals are leeching out and giving me various diseases or causing problems. I mean, I’m sure eating microplastics and having that in my blood is not good for me, but it’s not happening from putting cookies in Tupperware. I’m not going to have any biological kids, so things like potential birth defects are irrelevant to me. Besides, all the water and soil where I grew up was full of heavy metals and other nasty stuff, and both my sister and I have messed up thyroids, so I don’t imagine what I’m doing now will be much worse than what I’ll end up having.

Changes I’ll Make to Reduce Plastic Usage

  • Bring reusable utensils with me (if I’m not going to eat at home or in the office). Both have silverware, plates, and cups, so using disposables would be wasteful. If I’m eating at a full-service restaurant that uses real cutlery, this won’t be an issue, but this usually isn’t the case for quick-serve locations. Of course, if I only eat tacos and pizza, I won’t have to worry about this at all! And I do have a travel reusable straw now, so I can avoid those, too.
  • Be mindful of what I purchase, use, and dispose of and find ways to do better. There’s no way I can do this overnight, and I’m sure there are things I’m not even thinking of. But by paying attention to what I do in my day-to-day life, I’ll notice what plastics and non-recyclable items I’m using. I can then make a note of that and look up alternatives.
  • Take the time to keep things out of the trash. If I clean a plastic yogurt cup, it can go into the recycling instead of the trash. Yes, it takes a little bit of time and effort, but it’s the right thing to do. It’ll also remind me of the plastic I am using and incentivize me to find a better option next time.
  • Shop local whenever I can. Not only does this cut down on transportation waste, it supports the local economy and connects me to the space and people around me. Plus, Arizmendi’s English muffins are way better than what they have at the store! I get to bike around and find cool new places! It’s something I always enjoy doing and look forward to doing more.
  • Be choosy when buying new things, choose used when possible. I already buy a lot of used books and movies, I can expand this to other things, too. Clothes, for one! And since I’m not made of money, I’m already used to restraining buying every new, shiny thing I find online. I would like to get a new set of markers, for example, but the ones I have are perfectly fine. I definitely do not need any more pens. One of my hobbies is plastic models, and there are definitely some that I have not touched in a very long time, and I do feel bad for buying them. Buying any new ones will have to be something I really, really want, not something that would just be neat to have.
  • Get others to join in. The biggest one being my roommate. She throws out her single-use cups, for example, which drives me up the wall…but also I haven’t said anything about it. I can’t make her (or anyone else) stop buying silly things on Amazon, but I can request she recycles what she can. At least she already uses metal straws!
  • Realize this is a process and accept that I might make mistakes. There might be a time I absolutely need to buy bottled water, and that is okay. Getting heat stroke is not worth making a point. I might forget my reusable bags, or I have to buy something that has a large amount of plastic (looking at you, Logitech clamshell packaging). Castigating myself won’t do anything besides make me feel bad, and this choice shouldn’t be one of guilt. It should be one of doing good and feeling good about it.

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