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.

Complacent that this is the only “trash” we make

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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.

When I make homemade salads for lunch, they are always delicious & I save money!

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! 

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).

Sadly, much of the single-use plastic we use is not really recyclable, even when it says it is. There’s no place to take it.

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.

Kathy

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.

39 thoughts on “The Plastic Free December Challenge (12/1-12/7)

    1. So. Many. Things.

      If only we could go back to pre single use plastic and figure out a better way forward.

    1. Buy from a cheese shop that has it in bulk? There are some grocery stores near here with big cheese wheels you can buy portions of.

      But yeah. Meat and dairy are definitely extra tough – I may have more vegan meals that week.

  1. I absolutely love this idea! And I am going to make an attempt. As I was reading I was running through my weekly plastic usage. Since I typically have a very similar grocery list every week I think I could manage to avoid plastic almost completely except for our weekly meat purchases that typically come wrapped in plastic. Not sure how to get around that one just yet, but I’m going to continue brainstorming.

    Also- totally stealing this bulk TP idea!

  2. I switched peanut butter brands so I could get it in a glass jar with a metal lid, but there’s still a band of plastic showing that the jar is sealed. I’ve also gotten a lot better about reusing bags for produce and bulk purchases.

    the areas I’m having trouble ditching plastic:
    toilet paper (glad to see that bulk option, do you have a link?)
    yogurt – I buy the larger containers rather than single use but it’s still a very regular way plastic enters my grocery cart. Must I give it up completely?
    meat – I buy chicken at the meat counter, and they put it in a plastic bag and then wrap that in paper. I could have them just put it in the paper, but I think that is plastic-coated anyway, and I’m a bit paranoid about raw chicken. I don’t even wash and reuse that bag, I throw it out. I’m glad I don’t have to get it on a plastic tray wrapped in plastic, but still. I suppose I could buy larger volumes of chicken and freeze it either raw or cooked, to at least cut down.

  3. Since we started collecting food waste separately (after we moved to somewhere where the town collects it), I’ve noticed how much of our bin is made up of non-recyclable plastic (the plastic films and so on). It drives me mad.

    Inspired by your challenge, I’m going to collect all of my single use plastic this week. I’m not going to try to go zero plastic, though I will try to cut down. But I anticipate being horrified on Sunday when I look at the pile of bits of plastic… So far today: one kit kat wrapper (is it even plastic? I think it is), plastic packaging around dental floss.

    1. SO much non-recyclable plastic! And unfortunately, even the stuff that is technically recyclable isn’t so great. Glad to have you join the challenge – totally makes sense to tweak what works for you.

  4. Recycling is just a big mess right now, until we actually create a system that values our used materials then it will end up being burned, buried or find itself sitting in piles somewhere.
    Reduce Reduce Reduce is our only real option and we need to lean into these companies that produce, sell and distribute products with grocery stores and the food system being the worst.
    Also, when sourcing paper products try to find ones that are from recycling material and not new wood fibre production.
    Lastly lobby your local communities and higher levels of government, that is where change will come via regulation and bans.
    This challenge of yours hopefully brings awareness to more people.

    1. You and I are very much on the same page here, unsurprisingly.

      Recycling can be such a sneaky barrier to true sustainability because it makes you feel like you’re doing well.

  5. I’m going to give it a try! Reducing the amount of single-use plastic in my life is something I have been trying to do — this is a little more motivation.

    Although I have to admit: I did not think about the packaging on cheese and now I am like hmmm, how would one get plastic-free cheese…

    1. Deli section in bulk! But really, even if not 100% perfect, just paying attention and making better choices will mean this challenge is successful in my opinion 🙂

  6. Great job and great post. I try to minimize as much as I can but as you clearly show, it’s friggin hard. It’s everywhere. And let’s face it, sometimes plastic is the best way to keep food fresh and safe, as much as it’s a less-than-ideal solution. Hopefully some genius will invent a better material in the future.

  7. My New Year Resolution for 2019 has been to try to make less trash and use less plastic. It has been far from perfect, but I feel like we have made some improvements (metal straws and lunch containers… we have used cloth napkins for a very long time). I used to pack a juice box, cheese stick, yogurt tube in every lunch for both my children. We now use Klean Kanteen thermoses for water and do not buy the yogurt tubes or cheese sticks anymore. It is t perfect, but we are more aware and better in a few ways and looking for more ways to improve.

    1. Oh I love that!! What a good clear focus for a year. And it’s amazing how many things that seemed like a big deal originally just become second nature with time.

  8. I’m excited and kind of stoked for the challenge. I think I’m going to uncover a few places it’s sneaking in without me paying attention unfortunately.

  9. Wow! This is amazing! Really impressed by how you went all-in. I am working on trying to reduce my single-use plastic but it had been really hard. I do use my reusable water bottle and I just bought reusable straws so its small steps for me!

    1. Definitely a step in the right direction! Though there are definitely problems with the compostable cups (starting with depending if there’s access to composting or if they just end up in the trash).

  10. This is good food for thought. I might have to modify the challenge to find durable replacements for disposable stuff. Buying new alternatives for food storage or shopping at different stores is not a great option for us as far as carbon footprint. I will be following along with interest, though!

  11. I absolutely love this! I’m trying to use less plastic for years now, it’s so hard!! I remember when they first started charging money for plastic bags at stores in the Netherlands (around 5 years ago), I was forgetting my own bag every time. Now I’m so used to it I refuse all the plastic bags every time and bring my own bag.

    We’re currently in Central America, where they don’t care at all. They literally throw the plastic OUT OF THE WINDOW on a bus. I was so so shocked when I first saw that, awareness there is still very very far away. It’s extremely funny the looks that we get when we don’t want our eggs, fruits, or veggies in a plastic bag. Sometimes they still do it and I literally take it out lol.

    Great challenge and great lessons – plastic is everywhere!

    1. It is SO hard! And our environmental bubbles make it easy to forget sometimes how far behind most of the world is in terms of sustainability.

  12. Great points on limiting single plastic use! It is true that recycling plastics can make us not think about how we use lots of single use plastics. There is a hidden environmental cost to recycling. The example of packing your own lunch is an excellent one for saving lots of money. My spouse and I do that most of the time.

    When buying takeaways, we avoid their single use containers by supplying our own stainless steel pots. It always feels so good to not have to throw out the single use packaging. Owner operator stores are happy when you don’t use their plastic bags or plastic containers, as they save money (while we help save the earth). This is a win-win situation 🙂

    1. I absolutely need to get better about bringing my own containers for leftovers and take out. This challenge will definitely force me to focus on that.

  13. I’m looking forward to following your plastic free week! While I won’t join this time around, in 2020 I’m planning on focusing on reducing the waste in my life.

    Kathy’s experience is inspiring while also informative for me as the primary shopper for our family. Preparing for the challenges linked to grocery shop while aiming to lower our waste is one of the reasons I am giving myself a timeline to slowly build up on this focus on reducing our waste. It feels like there is a lot of information to absorb, organization to plan and special products/containers to select so I really want to take my time to plan it out well.

    Awesome insight to see all those little details we can easily miss (also sad we are so used to these single-use plastic items in our everyday lives).

    Thanks for the inspiration Angela & Kathy!

    1. Slow but steady means it will likely mean long lasting changes versus an intense month and then going back to the status quo 🙂

  14. This is a great idea! We don’t produce a lot of garbage at our house but our recycling is always full. I don’t know how much of that is plastic though but we could definitely cut back in that area.

    1. The recycling bin is so sneaky because you feel like you’re doing fine as long as the trash is tiny!

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