I fancy myself a conscientious consumer. I almost always remember to bring my reusable tote to the grocery store, I compost my food scraps at the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings and I even purchased a supply of 600 Earth Rated dog poop bags that come without an inner cardboard roll in an attempt to waste a little less.
Still, in the age of straw wars and convenience food packaged for an on-the-go lifestyle (remember when Whole Foods packaged peeled oranges?), I know I’m contributing to the world’s gargantuan garbage problem. In an effort to understand more about my personal consumption, I tracked my plastic usage for a week. To be clear, I recorded only the plastic items that are considered single-use: A plastic straw, for example, is typically tossed once the drink is finished. A plastic scalp massager, on the other hand, lasts (ideally) a lifetime.
My plastic log
• Jet-lagged and desperate, I drank cold brew from a plastic cup with a plastic straw.
• I ate a single-serving container of Fage yogurt.
• I picked up a salad for dinner at my favorite Japanese vegan spot. It came in a plastic container in a plastic bag — I declined the plastic cutlery.
• I met my friend at her place for dinner on the roof. It was 85 degrees and humid, and I drank a refrigerated bottle of Poland Spring.
• This same friend gave me a belated birthday gift for my dog — a ball wrapped in some plastic netting.
• I brought last night’s leftovers for lunch in the same plastic container I purchased it in.
• I drank two bottles of plastic water while helping my parents move.
• I ate a single-serving container of Quaker Oats overnight oats.
• I went grocery shopping, reusable tote bag in tow. Then I examined my haul: two plastic bags for produce, a plastic container of tomatoes and a hunk of cheese protected in plastic wrap.
• I used a plastic cup for a serving of popcorn.
• I bought a smoothie that came with a plastic straw, and, even worse, a styrofoam cup.
• I drank three drinks out of plastic cups at an outdoor bar.
• I purchased a water bottle for my dog, who was panting in the heat.
• At an outdoor brunch, the waiter kindly brought out a plastic takeaway container filled with water for my dog.
• I purchased lettuce at the supermarket that came packaged in a plastic box.
• I bought an iced coffee, using both a plastic cup and straw.
• I drank water from a plastic cup at the doctor’s office.
• I got suckered into Amazon’s Prime Day and bought a scalp massager for $10 — it came packaged with a little piece of plastic.
My plastic analysis
Despite the hubris I sport at the supermarket when I tell the cashier to hold the bag, I was surprised by my findings; taking stock of the plastic I used over seven days was an eye-opening exercise.
While I could have done without some of the items I tracked — I definitely didn’t need to drink all of those Poland Spring water bottles — some of my consumption habits feel unavoidable. What does a conscience consumer do if a barista stabs a straw into their cold brew before they have the chance to decline? Is one meant to rob themselves of the joy and sustenance of the free Greek yogurt supplied in the office kitchen? Do people forgo plastic produce bags altogether? To answer these burning questions, I reviewed my list of shame with Kathryn Kellogg, blogger behind Going Zero Waste. She walked me through some small tweaks and bigger lifestyle changes I could introduce to my daily routine.
“There is really no such thing as ‘zero waste’ unless you’re living off-grid,” Kellogg told me over the phone. In a society very set in its ways — and one that often values convenience over, perhaps, the “right” thing — using and repurposing what you’ve got can be challenging and maybe even daunting. Fortunately, Kellogg shared some pretty simple tips that prove that truly anyone — even me — can cut back on waste.
How to be better with your plastic usage
Preparedness is key
“Being prepared is definitely the ticket — and, honestly, practice,” Kellogg told me. “No one goes zero waste within a week. It takes a long time to build habits and to build your systems and routines.” The pro recommends that everyone start with “the big four,” as she put it: plastic straws, water bottles, coffee cups and plastic bags.
I was surprised at her mention of paper coffee cups, but it turns out most conventional types are lined with plastic; very few recycling facilities in the U.S. are able to sort these. News to me — I probably used a couple of these throughout the week I tracked, so here’s me admitting my data might not be pristine.
When it comes to using single-use items less often, half the battle is remembering to bring your sustainable solution. Kellogg had a bunch of ideas for overcoming this particular obstacle:
• Keep at least two reusable bags attached to your key ring at all times. You may already have some that have a nifty ring attachment. (Amazon sells a three-pack for $10.) With these bags secured to your keys, you’ll have totes with you virtually ever place you go.
• Before leaving the house, many people remind themselves to check for their phone, wallet and keys (Full disclosure: I’m not one of these people and often forget things). Kellogg has an addition to this saying: Phone, wallet, water, keys. “I always make sure to leave with a fully filled water bottle,” she explained. She suggests investing in one that’s double-insulated to keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold. The same vessel you use for water drinking can be repurposed at the cafe for coffee or tea.
I was concerned about having a lingering coffee taste in my water bottle. But Kellogg said rinsing the bottle before it dries will keep any flavored liquid from hanging around. Using just one water bottle for all of your liquids helps you from feeling like a pack mule, she said.
• Don’t be afraid to get creative. “Very rarely do we have waste problems — we have creative thinking problems,” Kellogg said. Do you have no other option at the cafe but a plastic stirrer, or are there metal spoons across the room just a few feet away from the takeout station? Why can’t you bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store instead of using those wasteful, plastic produce bags that showed up on my list so often?
Get things to go, your way
Kellogg orders takeout and picks up lunch during the workday just like any other regular human. She will bring her own plate to the restaurant across her building and say, “I would like this to go on my plate, thank you,” smiles and wastes one less to-go box. Even if it feels weird to be the only person in line with their own plate or container, your server will usually comply.
But it’s all about phrasing here. “You smile and you’re really polite and they’re Jedi-mind-tricked into saying ‘yes,’” Kellogg said. It’s important not to ask, but to tell whoever it is that’s serving you that you’ll be using your own container or plate. “Confidence is everything,” Kellogg said, explaining she’s only been turned down three times, which was in the beginning when she asked if she could use her own vessel, rather than stating that she would be.
Buy your produce naked
I am big into boxed arugula and I actually loathe the process of washing lettuce. I think Kellogg has convinced me to grow up. “The prewashed lettuce really kind of freaks me out,” she said. Prewashed lettuce is actually more susceptible to gross things like E. coli and Kellogg said some companies run their greens through a chlorine bath, which is not an ingredient I care for in my salad.
You don’t need to put loose fruit and vegetables into a plastic bag — you’re going to go home and wash it anyway. Maybe, like me, you find the grocery cart repulsive or the check out conveyor belt gives you the creeps. To create a “protective” barrier with a plastic bag is not really rational: As Kellogg pointed out, produce doesn’t grow in a sterile environment, it grows in literal dirt. It is the definition of dirty: Animals probably pooped on it and it came from the ground. “A little more dirt is probably not going to hurt it — or you,” she said. “I think we need to reframe peoples’ thought process.”
Do some recycling research
Even if you’ve integrated greener habits into your life, there are going to be cases where you purchase or use something that doesn’t fall under a sustainability halo.
There are ways around this. Amazon, for instance, offers a service called “frustration-free packaging.” Certain brands, like Fisher-Price, allow customers to opt into the service to receive less packaging, which is more recyclable.
Beyond the big box retailer, Kellogg said you can ask online sellers to ship things plastic free; they’ll usually oblige. We’re not going to end shipping, Kellogg said, because it’s way too convenient. It’s all about asking yourself, “How can I do this better?” she said.
You don’t necessarily have to give up your favorite products for their hippy, organic counterparts. (I, for one, have never found natural deodorant to stand up to the test of the New York City transit system.) A service called TerraCycle will recycle those items you never before knew how to take care of: empty makeup cases, toothpaste tubes, old electronics.
The company even offers a shipping label, so you don’t have to spend a dime on their process. Fill your empty shipping boxes with items you’re done with but don’t know how to discard and TerraCycle with take those items and your guilt away at once.
Some final expert tips
I didn’t ask, but Kellogg is sure readers will be curious about the kind of toilet paper she buys. “I buy it wrapped in paper and we have a bidet attachment on our toilet which has cut down usage dramatically,” she offered. She said she couldn’t recommend a bidet attachment more. (I will report back.)
For those with a menstrual cycle, a menstrual cup or a product like Thinx reusable underwear are smart alternatives to conventional period products. “The average pad contains something like four plastic bags worth of plastic,” she said, which totally blew my mind.
There’s something else I’d be remiss not to mention. I didn’t include this in my log, but I did write earlier in this piece that I use plastic bags to pick up my dog’s poop. To my relief, Kellogg said this plastic waste is “inevitable waste.” Depending on your environment, these plastic bags may not be a necessity. If you have a yard, for example, you might be able to use newspaper or tissue to pick up after your dog. I don’t see a lawn in my Manhattan dog’s near future, however, so until my city has a composting dog poop program, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.
As Kellogg put it, “It’s not about perfection. It’s about making better choices.” Even she, a seemingly pious consumer, has sipped from a plastic water bottle in her lifetime. “Life happens,” she said.