Plastic is one of the ubiquitous pieces of this century, and the idea of being fully “plastic free” even for a single week isn’t something that can really be done for those of us who live fully ingrained in our society. Our cars and transportation options are full of plastic. Most of our shoes and parts of our homes and our phone cases and endless other pieces of our lives are enmeshed in plastic.
That said, just because something is all around us and all around normal doesn’t mean that it’s good. Plastic – and single use plastic in particular – is anything but. When I’ve tracked my trash for a week at a time in the past, almost all of my waste came in the form of plastic. And my recycling – which I haven’t tracked – was often plastic as well.
Since the marketing focus during the holiday season tends to be all about stuff, I decided that I wanted to kick off the season a bit differently with a challenge to myself. For the first week of December, I am going to attempt to use no new plastic. Clearly, I will still use the plastic I already own, but the goal will be to get as close to 100% free of any new plastic during that week.
Already, I’m starting to be hyper aware of how pervasive plastic is, even before embarking on this plastic free week. My goal is not to make a visible week of this a special one time thing, but as a kick off to doubling down on reducing waste in my own life. Oftentimes we trick ourselves into thinking as long as we’re using the recycling bin that we’re doing enough, but as most of that recycling cannot and will not be reused – and shouldn’t have even been made in the first place – it’s time do do better.
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In some ways, I think recycling can actually be a detrimental thing because it allows us not to really think about the materials and resources we are using. That if we don’t see things going into the waste stream, then it feels like it isn’t happening. But those recyclables still had to be made, sold, and shipped, and then they require energy and materials to recycle them – if they even are.
And as so often happens, what’s good for the environment is good for the wallet – it will mean no take out and no prepackaged stuff – and less “stuff” in general. I expect this week will be a reduction of cost as well as a reduction of waste.
I’ll be tracking my successes and failures on Instagram each day during that week to stay accountable, and I’d love for you to follow along to help me stay on track. Better yet, I’d love for you to join me. I’ll be sharing wins -and fails – through the week from others on that platform as well, and I hope that doing this together will give us the energy needed to see it through.
When I announced on Instagram that I would be tackling this plastic free week, Kathy from Baby Boomer Super Saver reached out to me to let me know that she had gone plastic free for Lent. I was thrilled when she agreed to write down her experience for me here, as inspiration as we go into that first week of December. I hope you enjoy her reflection on those forty days as much as I do – and now I’m wondering if I can keep this up for longer. No matter what, I expect this week to be eye opening and a place for long term improvement when it comes to my plastic use and waste.
Plastic-Free for Lent: How I Survived & Saved Money, Too!
My daughter and my husband both agree, the time I gave up nagging for Lent was their favorite. Yes, I once gave up nagging for Lent! It was much harder than giving up sugar.
But not quite as hard as going plastic-free for Lent!
Last year, my daughter suggested that our family consider giving up single-use plastic for Lent. I think she was surprised when I immediately embraced this idea. However, going plastic-free turned out to be much harder than I anticipated!
We Made Positive Changes & Saved Money
We already had portable bamboo silverware in their own carrying cases, stainless steel reusable water bottles, travel coffee mugs, and even a few glass straws. (Angela: I’ve linked to some of my favorites) But we weren’t using them when we went hiking or traveling.
Well, my husband and I weren’t using them. I must give my daughter credit – she takes her reusable water bottle with her everywhere! We have learned to do the same, inspired by her example.
During our plastic-free Lent, I packed my lunch for work “most of the time”. I used glass containers or jars we already had. No need to buy new & expensive eco-friendly containers! My renewed commitment to packing my lunch helped us save money, too. I had been paying $10 for take-out lunch way too often.
Other ways we saved money during our plastic-free Lent:
• Buying items in bulk reduced packaging & product costs.
• We bought mostly local, less processed food, which usually cost less.
• If a product we wanted wasn’t available without plastic, we didn’t buy it.
• I had to create homemade substitutes for some items, which saved money.
There Were Challenges
I’m the primary shopper for our family, so it fell on me to avoid buying things wrapped in single-use plastic at the grocery store. Sometimes this resulted in a more expensive shopping trip. I tried to balance the spending, but I did buy some pricier items once in a while.
It was challenging to grocery shop. Produce, cheese and meat are either wrapped in single-use plastic or you’re expected to drop it in a plastic bag. My store did have small paper bags in the produce area, but I had to hunt for them. Sometimes I brought my own cloth bags for produce.
Then there are all the personal care and cleaning products that come in plastic. You can’t even buy paper towels or packages of toilet paper that aren’t wrapped in plastic! Our family has used cloth napkins for years, but we were going to need TP. Luckily, I found a source for bulk toilet paper online.
Buying toilet paper in bulk was a real money-saver, and the 80 rolls were wrapped in paper, not plastic. Price per roll for bulk toilet paper was 61 cents. The average cost of toilet paper is 84 cents per roll. I saved over $18.00!
*ETA thanks to questions from all of you: this is the bulk toilet paper she bought*
Single Use Plastic Failures
Allow me to share some of my failures with you – it may help you avoid the same mistakes if you decide to go plastic-free, too. I took pictures of my failures because I couldn’t believe how unaware I’d become of the plastic around me.
These are the things I went out of my way to buy, thinking that I was avoiding plastic. Usually, I didn’t realize the mistakes I’d made until I got home with the groceries. Sometimes I would not even catch my own mistakes, and I’d have to suffer the embarrassment of having my daughter point them out to me.
When I bought this bag of lemons, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, good, a mesh bag. It’s not plastic.” But it was!
It was a plastic mesh bag!
The only way to save face on that one would have been to turn the mesh bag into a home-made pot scrubber for washing dishes. I wish I would have thought of doing that at the time!
During a lunch break, I searched the cold case at my local market for a drink that wasn’t in a single-use plastic bottle. I was happy to finally find something in a glass bottle with a metal lid. After sitting down to eat lunch, I realized I’d just bought & opened a glass bottle that was wrapped in plastic! Why do companies do this?!
I made that same mistake over and over. I would congratulate myself for selecting a product that was packaged in glass, paper or cardboard and completely miss the plastic lid! How did I not see the plastic lid on this cup of instant oatmeal or on my cup of hot tea?
Because I’d become so desensitized to how much single-use plastic surrounds us, I made this same mistake repeatedly! Going plastic-free for Lent really opened my eyes to the amount of plastic our family was using (and discarding).
The Ugly & Embarrassing Truth
China used to process much of the world’s plastic trash and recyclables, but not anymore. According to WasteDive, this has negatively impacted every US state. Some cities have ended curbside recycling or increased collection fees, and recycling centers are closing. You can get an update on your state, along with proposed solutions here.
I may have gone a little overboard when we went plastic-free for Lent.
Like that time I handed the butcher two small wax paper bags & asked him to put a fresh, raw tuna steak in each bag. I hadn’t come prepared with reusable containers so I grabbed some paper bags from the bulk bin area. My intention was to avoid the plastic bag that’s usually used for meat before it’s wrapped in paper.
The butcher gave me a look of disgust, but he put the tuna steaks in the small wax paper bags & handed them back to me without wrapping them in butcher paper! I was too embarrassed to speak up due to the glaring look he gave me, so I slunk away to the checkout as quickly as I could with my drippy bags of fish.
My Final Thoughts on Going Single Use Plastic Free
Even though there were some challenges and a few embarrassing moments during our “Plastic-Free for Lent” experiment, we learned a lot about reducing our plastic consumption. We also discovered new ways to save. I would do it again!
I’m always looking for creative ways to save money to help us to catch-up our retirement savings. But what will our world look like when it’s time for us to retire? Or time for our children and grandchildren to retire?
It is my dream that we will all have a clean, safe, and healthy planet to enjoy now and in the future. Going plastic-free alone may seem insignificant in light of the climate crisis, but once we engage in collective action, I believe we can have a positive impact.
Plastic Free December (1-7): The Challenge
Clearly, ditching plastic isn’t going to solve the climate crisis, and my day job makes a bigger difference than skipping plastic in my personal life ever will, but it all counts. And if I’m going to talk about this stuff, I should be living it too, at least to the best of my ability within the constraints of the society we live in.
Big, society level change is going to be key in combating the climate crisis we are currently living in. We need the biggest polluters – the international companies – to fundamentally change the way they create and dispose of things. Even so, if we all started to live differently, we could make a serious impact.
And while I can hope for big change at the high level, I’m much more hopeful that grassroots changes could grow into something that forces bigger change. So, for starters, I will continue to tread lightly on this earth and continue to push the envelope to make change in my personal life, though I will never be perfect.
But now, what I want to know today is – who’s in? Will you join me? If you will, what can I do to support you through this challenge? I want us all to succeed to the best of our abilities, and I hope we can make some long term, permanent changes in our lives through the start of a single, focused week.