By Lynn Mignola
“NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! You shouldn’t do that! It is so bad for you.” To me, this wasn’t an overreaction. At lunch, a co-worker asked if I thought it would be okay for her to microwave her soup in the styrofoam container she had bought it in. I was horrified. “Please, don’t. Just use this coffee mug as your bowl.”
Later, I saw her spooning her soup from the reusable mug, and I apologized for the intensity of my reaction. I explained that I don’t like plastic. She said, “Yes, so I’ve heard.” So there it was; my reputation precedes me. My family thinks I am a wacko for trying to eliminate plastic from my life. Now I know that my coworkers do, too!
I’m not the person who says anything to others about their packaging choices, unless, what they are about to do could harm their health. But I am that person who pulls the single-use plastic bag out of the trash; the bag that held my coworker’s store-bought-plastic-clam-shell boxed-lunch for the eight minutes it took him to get from the store to the office. I will add it to my collection of plastic to be brought back to said store for recycling. I am also that person who asks the dry cleaning service to return my clothes in a reusable bag instead of a plastic bag wrapping each individual garment (it’s an ongoing battle as they continually forget to do that).
And I am that person who picks up plastic trash on my lunchtime walks so that it can be disposed of properly. As low-key as I try to be, I guess it is hard for people not to notice.
Washing my lunch dishes at work, I am asked about the brush. “It’s wood,” I say, “I don’t like plastic.” “Why not?” I answer them that it is insidious: it’s in our water, our soil, our fish, and our salt. It’s harming our health, contributing to the warming of our planet, and littering our outdoor spaces. “But plastic is recycled into other things,” I am told. “Maybe. But only about 9% of it actually is,” I counter. Some people look at me funny and then move on with their day. But occasionally I notice that people I have these discussions with end up making small changes in their routines, and that gives me hope. In the fight against plastic, I have learned that awareness makes all the difference.
I started trying to reduce waste in 2009 after cleaning out my parents’ home when they moved. There was so much stuff and no one who wanted it. Some of it went to my siblings, some to charity, and some was sold at a garage sale and on Craig’s List. But it sickened me that a lot of it ended up in a landfill. That experience changed me. I started seeing that the choices I make as a consumer have an impact on others and on the world. I wanted that impact to be positive, so I made some changes. I decided I was going to be just like Bea Johnson and go zero-waste!
I have a confession to make: nine years later and no one would mistake me for Bea Johnson. Zero-waste is really hard. But reducing plastic waste is surprisingly easy. It just requires awareness.
Once I started looking at the waste I produced, I very quickly came to the conclusion that the majority of it was packaging, and most of that is plastic. So after I took care of my big single-use culprits (plastic water bottles, Starbucks® “paper” coffee cups, and plastic grocery bags) I started to look at other areas where I could make a change.
The first place I looked was my bathroom. Shampoo and conditioner bottles, liquid body wash, toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, and all of the potions which make me beautiful―I was astounded by how much plastic surrounded me. It was overwhelming. So I broke it down into something manageable. I made a list of everything I used and one item at a time I eliminated the plastic-packaged product entirely or found alternatives which were not packaged in plastic; ideally with no packaging at all. I did research and tested a lot of options including some which were homemade. It’s still ongoing as my habits and my tolerance for wrinkles change. (The bane of my existence is mascara, as I have not been able to find a perfect solution and my vanity and my skinny little lashes won’t let me go without. I did find one packaged in bamboo but the liner and the wand are still plastic so I have to send the empties to TerraCycle ©.) All those shampoo bottles that I used to put in the recycling bin? Gone - bar shampoo works better. I have also found that I use less of the products themselves so I don’t need to shop as often.
The other area I needed to change was my lunch routine. I am pretty lazy and like to get out of the office at lunchtime so during the week my lunches consist of either the soup or salad bar from Whole Foods. In the past, my containers would go straight into the trash or recycling. Now, I use reusable stainless containers that I keep in my car and bring to the grocery with me. Of course, it isn’t perfect. I have learned that the soup arrives at the store in a massive amount of plastic so I try to limit these excursions to only once or twice a week. I can’t tell you how many people have noticed my containers and said “that’s a good idea.” That includes my husband.
When I started on this journey, I told my husband that this was my issue. I was determined to not contribute to landfills, but I didn’t expect him to follow along. But with each change, he noticed that it wasn’t that difficult. He started looking around when he was grocery shopping and has made changes too. He saw my lunch containers and asked me to buy a couple of larger ones. Now, if he goes to the fish counter or the deli counter, he brings a reusable container with him. It’s true, awareness makes all the difference.
In April I volunteered to give a presentation on plastic to my coworkers for Health and Wellness Week. I didn’t expect a turnout and I didn’t get one. But one of the attendees recommended that I give the talk again for Earth Day, and this time about 25 people attended. I was surprised at how engaged people were, asking questions about things that they could do. It was also heartening to find out that a handful of people do similar things in their own lives. Since that presentation, I get emails from them with “good news on the plastic front” or photos of cardboard straws, or plastic grocery bags left on my chair (I tell myself it’s a sign of love).
The main point of my talk was awareness. I told them to look around them as they drive to and from work―most of the litter alongside the road is plastic. I asked them to open their refrigerator or medicine cabinet and look at how the products they use are packaged. Many people don’t really see all of the plastic that they are confronted with on a daily basis. But once their eyes are opened, they start to pay attention to their own behavior and hopefully will make changes that benefit us all.
Lynn Mignola is a Strategic Facilities Planner who is interested in good design, reducing waste, and protecting the environment.