Greater Greater Washington

Can you live without disposable plastic?

What would it be like to live without using any disposable plastic items? Recently, I tried doing just this for one week.


Photo by katerha.

In this age of green awareness, there has been a renewed emphasis on how personal choices impact the environment. Sometimes we need a little encouragement to be better environmental shoppers, which is part of the reason behind the five-cent bag fee in DC.

But it's not just bags. While I am pretty consistent about bringing my own reusable bag when I shop, I still use a lot of plastic for everyday things. I'm a coffee junkie, but my morning coffee comes with a plastic coffee lid. I don't usually carry water with me, instead opting for bottle water from the store.

If I grab a salad for lunch, I usually end up using a plastic container. While a lot of the plastic items I use daily are recyclable, there was really no need for me to be using this much plastic in my daily routine in the first place. Therefore, I decided to go plastic-free for one week.

To truly go plastic-free would mean a complete lifestyle change, one that I am not sure is entirely possible or desirable. While plastic has a lot of harmful properties, it also has it benefits. It is light and cheaper to ship, which means less fuel used to transport items. Plastic helps keep things sanitary, thus reducing the spread of germs.

There are already many items that I use every day that are in plastic: shampoo bottles, storage/food containers, credit/debit cards, smart trip card. My goal was to simply avoid plastic where I could find a suitable alternative.

Overall, by consciously trying to use less plastic, I reinforced some of my current behaviors. I consistently turned down disposal bags in favor or my of reusable canvas bags or I just simply used my backpack. I planned better about packing my lunch for work to avoid buying lunch at work, where most items come in plastic containers.

I was also much better about bringing coffee with me to work in a reusable mug. My own coffee is much better and much better for my pocketbook. On the day I forgot to bring my reusable mug, I went without the plastic lid on my coffee. Also instead of buying snacks that would have come in a plastic bag or container I focused on eating fruit.

I also realized how I could reuse other types of plastic items that I hadn't considered before. The plastic bag that my tortillas came in served as a handy kitty litter bag.

For a couple of days, I reverted back to my old ways. These were usually days where I didn't plan ahead or felt that I was too busy. The bag fee encouraged me to reduce my use of plastic bags, but I still bought a bottle of water when I could have brought my own or that bottle of soda I got with my Chinese food after a long day at work and a night of teaching.

What else can we do? Has the bag fee lead to other non-bag conservation efforts on your part? For my part, I intend to keep trying to avoid generating plastic waste where possible, by planning ahead more so more wasteful options don't seem so convenient.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own. 

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The question is a little bit loaded because there's little purpose to living without disposable plastics, if you are going to substitute disposable paper products for them sometimes, since paper is actually much worse for the environment from an end-to-end lifecycle perspective. Also, if you end up running your dishwasher twice as often to achieve this goal, is it really a net win?

So the test should really be, how much disposable packing can you really eliminate (not just replace)? I think the answer is not obvious for most people. In some cases using disposable items may be relatively practical and clearly be better than the alternative, but this is definitely not true for everything.

I try to re-use every bit of packaging that comes into my house if possible before it gets thrown away. This means plastic bags, plastic liners from things, boxes, all get used for trash, dog poop, and other unsanitary/hazardous waste like broken glass. I still end up buying dog-poop bags, though - even before the bag tax, I never threw away a plastic bag before it was used for some other purpose.

This is an easy way to "recycle" or at least get two uses for the price of one. But it's much harder to not use this stuff in the first place.

I think most people can at least improve the utility of the energy and oil that goes into packaging that passes through their hands without major lifestyle changes.

But to eliminate it in any substantial way is probably not very practical -- nor it is likely the way that most people can effect the greatest benefit in their overall environmental footprint. That is, turning down the heat in your house, shutting it off in rarely used rooms, using window sealers in the winter, and so on will do much more good than saving a couple hundred plastic bags would each year.

by Jamie on May 5, 2010 3:46 pm • linkreport

I did a calculation a few years ago, and I figured the average american uses the equlivalent of half a gallon of gasoline a year for plastic groceries bag. Something like the energy we use to drive 10 miles.

The numbers are hideously imprecise; for one thing we use natural gas, not oil, to make those bags, and the numbers on bag use are all over the place. But it does give you an idea of scale; the average american uses around 700 gallons of gas a year driving around.

Not sure if consumer level choice is the best example here. The best thing you can do for trash is not buy newspapers or magazines. I don't like waste either, but the materials are cheap and disposal also cheap.

Props to groups like the Sierra Club for pressuring companies (and wal-mart) to reduce the size of their packaging. That has far larger effects than consumer choice.

That being said, I did my monthly run to drop off recycling yesterday.,,,

by charlie on May 5, 2010 4:41 pm • linkreport

I think it has reinforced a lot of behaviors I already had but it's a good reminder because I see other people doing it. The biggest thing for me, is that retailer now ask about giving you a bag instead of automatically putting something in it. At places I get lunch, I see almost everyone just carry out their wrapped sandwich since their office is likely nearby. At CVS, small purchases generally go in purses or messenger bags.I think people who normally took a bag for those small items without a second thought, now regularly pass on them now that they are being asked (and charged). I think that has been the most positive impact of the bag fee.

by Katie on May 5, 2010 4:47 pm • linkreport

I'm glad you realize how unpractical and undesirable it would be to go completely without using disposable plastic. For example, most Western medical treatments, tests and the like use disposable plastic quite often.

Nonetheless, I applaud your experiment. I think it's good to go to the extreme for a bit in order to really find a good medium. That's one of the reasons why I see the value in, say, Super Size Me, even though no one really eats McDonald's for three meals a day for 30 days.

I think my worst offense is using Ziploc bags. Between lunch, leftovers and various other uses, I probably consume five to seven a day. I should be using containers more or buy some washable bags for my lunch.

by Tim on May 5, 2010 4:54 pm • linkreport

Tim: Try the small freezer bags instead of the sandwich bags. They hold up better to multiple washing. I do not recommend reusing them if you used them to defrost raw meat/chicken. The regular sandwich bags can easily be reused for ready-to-eat snacks like crackers, cookies, chips.

Or check out reusablebags.com for packing lunches, etc. They carry the wrap'n'mat which is basically a cloth & vinyl version of the paper wrapper a burger comes in. It seals with velcro. They're also a great source for lunch boxes or bento boxes, shopping bags, etc.

by stacey2545 on May 5, 2010 5:38 pm • linkreport

Check out my friend Ben and Alexis' 'plastic challenge'. They're currently working in Haiti where virtually all goods are sold in plastic, creating an incredible amount of recyclable waste. They tried living one month completely free of using any new plastic. While not 100% successful, it really made one think about how much of our lives are filled with disposable (and indisposable) plastic.

The story is posted at http://blexi.blogspot.com/2009/06/take-plastic-challenge.html

by S on May 5, 2010 5:41 pm • linkreport

Great post! I rarely use plastic bags anymore, but you reminded me that I need to keep looking for other things to cut back on and/or take into account. One of my favorite things with the new bag tax is people running around with EXPOSED six packs of beer, etc. So scandalous! (Yet all they're trying to do is save 5 cents!)

Off topic here, but is anyone OUTRAGED (I am!) at the electronic traffic sign that has been blocking thousands of pedestrians every day at Dupont Circle for the last TWO WEEKS? It's NEVER on, and it takes the entire pedestrian island on the south CT Ave. side of the circle. How is this okay?

People already have to deal with dangerous speeding around the circle and now an oversized traffic sign is pushing them all back into these dangerous streets! Talk about a bias for cars/"gotta keep that traffic moving".

Here's a photo of it when no pedestrians are around: http://lh4.ggpht.com/_3vS3CUPo4p4/S-ID8TxA-UI/AAAAAAAAB-U/8NIQQPEk4qM/s912/IMG_7011.JPG

by David on May 5, 2010 7:55 pm • linkreport

I hear you all. Too much waste is too much waste, but not using plastic at all is a bit extreme. Plastic is not completely evil - it does save tons of food from going to waste.

by ed on May 5, 2010 8:57 pm • linkreport

@ charlie: While you are correct that the amount of oil used for plastic grocery bags is insignificant compared to the pollution caused by our gas use, this does not mean that conservation is silly.

Disposal is cheap only until the next trash dump has to be created and everybody shoots into NIMBY behavior.

In Switzerland, people have the right to leave unwanted superfluous packaging in stores, leaving stores with the clean-up bill. In the Netherlands double packaging is forbidden. That means you can't put a tube of tooth paste in a little box with no other goal than nice stacking on the supermarket shelf.

My personal experience is that I create about twice the volume of trash living in the US, as compared to when I was in the Netherlands. This is weird. The standard is living is comparable.

In many cities citizen's don't pay for trash disposal through their HOA or an annual tax, but per trash bag. This puts an enormous financial incentive on citizens to not create too much trash and recycle as much material as possible. And it works. Trash volumes are down. Way down. Products get cheaper as well, because they come in less material that does not need to be made, colored, and transported.

Around the world, there are also many examples where companies recycle all forms of organic trash into ethanol or compost. This is a little bit more expensive, but makes a lot more sense than burning food (corn) for the same purpose. This saves dump sites, and food, while still producing renewable energy.

As with so many things: people will not change their behavior until you put a clear price on things. Carbon, trash, water. Only when people can take action and see that action back in their monthly bill, they will change their behavior.

Conservation is a sensible thing to do. For environmental, economical, NIMBY, moral and financial reasons.

PS: Your trash bag guestimation can be found in: "Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin" by Lawrence Weinstein & John A. Adam. This is a fantastic book, that everybody that deals with numbers should read. Check it via: http://books.google.com/books?id=NZ_ClCi6VZEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=guesstimation+weinstein+adam

by Jasper on May 5, 2010 9:06 pm • linkreport

We don't have to wait long for the can you live without plastic to be a reality.

Most plastic are made out of oil; and when it gets to a real low point I guarantee people will be pissed.

The society of most developed countries has become to use to the one time use philosophy or make everything out of plastic by using oil.

Look at places in the Oceania (excluding Australia & New Zealand), Africa (excluding 2 or 3 countries), Asia (excluding about 10 countries), and about half the countries in North & South America. They use plastics until they are not capable of being used take a soda bottle it will be used for something until liquids can not be held in it.

Take a real look at the packaging of most products or the actual products people use daily.

plastic totes
plastic cups, plates & bowls,
plastic spoons/forks/knives
furniture
all electronics
clothing (nylon)
medicine (coatings on all pills)
most kitchen equipment
soap (Tide is made out of oil)

Humans are way too dependent on oil, trees and some other things the rest being a group of animals (chickens, bovine, pigs/hogs, sheep, goats and almost every creature in the oceans)we just waste to much crap for no need except for greed.

by kk on May 5, 2010 10:14 pm • linkreport

I simply respond to the price signals. If plastic becomes more expensive, I'll shift my consumption. For now, I'm more than happy to consume plastic-based products.

Every good in the world is scarce. Should we stop consuming anything at all?

by MPC on May 5, 2010 11:26 pm • linkreport

What MPC said. Well, the first part at least.

Guilt-based environmental strategies are not a resilient means of making our lifestyle more sustainable - something I feel is too important to lie to ourselves about. Recycling is only really worthwhile if you reduce trash to a small fraction of what it was before (in addition to some other requirements), and you can't do that on a purely voluntary, individual basis. I'll "Do my part" when I am offered a good, rational reason to do it that is shared with everyone else, because until then it's just a futile feel-good gesture.

It's important to have advocacy and education, so long as you understand what you're advocating for. I think it's more appropriate to simply lobby for things like the bag tax, pigouvian energy/carbon taxes, a realistic affirmative energy/transportation policy, et cetera, than to make a painful personal example out of my reduced convenience in order to 'raise awareness'. People that live their lives that way can get a bit egotistical, in my opinion.

by Squalish on May 6, 2010 2:28 am • linkreport

It is ineffective to attempt to reassure us about the treaty process. We have already seen how outrageous treaties such as NAFTA can get passed quite legally, especially by left-leaning administrations. So to reassure us, you'd need to provide information not about the process which we already don't trust, but about the treaty itself.

by Air Jordan Six Rings on May 6, 2010 2:55 am • linkreport

So much to say about this topic. But quickly, I don't get take out if the take out containers are plastic. I might bring my own, but I don't generate new plastic by using the restaurant's. It's a waste, and trying to tell anyone this makes me feel like a crazy person. People don't get it and/or don't care. Also, the only way plastic has usefulness is to reuse it forever. It would be extremely difficult for one person to never generate new plastic, and I don't claim to. I wish I could and did do more. But we have to try and we also have to take the opportunities we have to raise the issue with each other, leaders, and commercial establishments, hardly any of which in DC recycle.

by Jazzy on May 6, 2010 6:40 am • linkreport

@ MPC: I simply respond to the price signals. If plastic becomes more expensive, I'll shift my consumption.

The problem with your statement is that it is non-committal. Most likely, you will oppose any legislation that would actually put a price on carbon. You would stagger if the gas tax in the US would change to European levels.

by Jasper on May 6, 2010 7:02 am • linkreport

In a heart beat. I saw this great video that confirmed what I've been thinking for years. Plastics are killing us. I'm not talking about medical or other critical uses where one can't dispute their utility. See Toxic Garbage Island @ http://vimeo.com/8912868 and you'll realize once again that human animals weren't made for the plastic world. Thinking like this...

"I simply respond to the price signals. If plastic becomes more expensive, I'll shift my consumption."

...is part of the problem. People can't see beyond their noses. When the unquantifiable costs associated with our life style are tabulated, we "pay" in ways we can never imagine. Drill baby, drill!!!

by Thayer-D on May 6, 2010 7:19 am • linkreport

This post begins with an assumption that it's really important to cut down consumer use of plastic. I'd be convinced with more stats. For me, I know the biggest reason to bring my own lunch instead of buying it at work is that I can save about 70-90% of the cost. That's great for me, but I really don't give a damn about the plastic a take out place uses, since the cost of the food does the biggest harm there on a personal level. And of course it also saves me money to get the reusable containers, which fits with what the author cares about.

I would like some more stats to convince me of the original premise. How much harm would the amount of plastic you saved actually cause the environment? Is it a big amount? How does it compare to industrial use of resources?

by Nathan on May 6, 2010 7:21 am • linkreport

80% of people will always do whatever the Default option is. This is called the Nudge Effect. When I was in Berlin, the barista at the starbucks gave me coffee in a ceramic cup automatically, and I took it without even thinking. if you wanted a paper cup you had to pay a few cents extra for it. And guess what, I was feeling cheap, so I didn't want to buy a disposable cup. It wasn't a tax, it's just what the paper cup costed them. paper cups do actually cost something, and most people will try to avoid paying for all those paper cups and plastic bags if you didn't give it to them for free by default.

Here in the US, retailers give the cup out for free by default, so people are used to just taking it without thinking. We just factor the cost of the cup into the cost of the coffee, weather you actually want one or not. It's social conditioning. It's the retailers that need to change their default options, not the consumer. Coffee is cheaper when unecessary costs have not been automatically factored in - saves you money in the long run.

I've been using the same burlap sacks for all my shopping for like 10 years now, picked them up at a coffee shop for 5 cents each. what's wrong with burlap sacks? Nothing at all! they don't break when you put heavy loads in them, even in the rain. you can ball them up in a basket or in the trunk of your car, etc.

Anyway I don't know why people go to the stores without any bags. I mean really, you know you're going to buy something, so obviously your are going to need a bag on the way back. A woven fabric sack, basket, milk crate, etc. would clearly be a better choice than the plastic bag.

And if you drink coffee, bring a travel mug with you. it's not like you don't know your going to buy some coffee. your addicted to coffee! of course you are going to buy some. so bring the cup then already. a travel mug is clearly going to be better than the paper cup.

it's not rocket science. it's just thinking ahead. We've been conditioned to not think ahead most of the time about a lot of things. which is a pretty stupid way to go though life - unprepared.

by Lee on May 6, 2010 7:35 am • linkreport

@Jasper; I agree about the level of trash we create vs. when we are in Europe. I have noticed the same thing. But that is my point: it isn't just a personal choice issue in Europe, there are government and other regulations controlling it.

Landfills, in the US, are cheap, and the transport (trucks) to get the trash there is also cheap. This is such a big county there will be places (VA) where there is no NIMBY. We could try and raise the costs there, but the S.Ct has said it is a free and open market, so there are limits on what a state can do. Take Arlington's incinerator, which was built on the expectation the county could mandate all private trash collection could go there.

Another problem is the mandatory recycling targets. They have been good to push the start of a program. But now, local governments have an incentive to continue and make HEAVY things go into the waste stream and meet those targets rather than pushing re-use.

I'm sure charging for those things, much like the bag tax, will reduce use of a commodity that was free. But remember a lot of that rhetoric is being driven by the need to raise revenues for local and state governments, rather than a real analysis of the costs and benefits. Regulation may be a more effective tool than taxing.

What I have seen in Europe is charging $1 for a "cup deposit" on the spot, and I always thought that would be a good way to stop the use of paper coffee cups.

by charlie on May 6, 2010 8:45 am • linkreport

I don't know if they'll ever make things like plastic bags out of it, but something called PLA is being used to make plastic cups. You'll find that the beer cups at Nationals Park are made from this material. It has its drawbacks, like being unable to withstand temperatures over 114° and being more difficult to recycle than petroleum-based plastic cups, but it's made entirely from corn, thus reducing dependency on oil. These products are also biodegradable.

by Ron on May 6, 2010 8:51 am • linkreport

@ Lee: +1

You are right. Back home, stores were convinced to not by default pack purchases in bags and hand them to customers, but ask whether the customer needs a bag first. Bag usage plummeted. The problem is how to get large industries to do the right thing. Even freaking Wholefoods triple bags ever bottle of wine you buy. If they don't get it, how can you expect any changes from Walmart and Target?

@ charlie: As long as people only change their behavior when there is a financial incentive regulation means putting a prince on it. Or, making the price more visible. As they do when you pay for trash removal per bag. And the 5ct fee on grocery bags.

Tooth paste companies screamed murder when the government outlawed the double packaging. Tooth paste sales were going to plummet. Obviously this is nonsense, because however packaged, people will brush their teeth. However, the tooth paste packagers, quickly figured out that tooth paste can be packaged very well in standing tubes, like many many lotions are already. The change to those tubes (which cost money, but probably saved money in the long run) and nobody ever thought anything of it.

by Jasper on May 6, 2010 9:56 am • linkreport

@Ron - Actually, considering the huge dependence of Big Ag on petroleum-based fertilizers, corn-based plastics don't reduce dependency on oil. The only benefit is that they are biodegradable, which regular plastics are not.

by stacey2545 on May 6, 2010 10:36 am • linkreport

I find it a bit odd when people start comparing the relative environmental impacts of various behaviors as if it was all one big variable. Plastic trash is one problem, climate change is another. Sure there are some connections between the two but just because climate change is now the big issue doesn't mean things like seabirds choking to death on plastic trash are no longer real or important.

For me, I just have a visceral reaction against WASTE. When someone wraps take-out food that I'm going to eat immediately in a box, then a plastic bag, and that plastic bag is thrown away in just a few seconds because it served no real need in the first place - it really bothers me. I think about the mining of petroleum, the workers who made the bag, the electricity to run the machines, the truck that brought it to the store - all that effort and energy invested for no reason, just out of habit to be instantly discarded.

So if someone is getting an actual benefit out of the plastic, OK - we can discuss how to add pricing to account for the cost side of the equation. But it's the mindless, pointless, zero-benefit consumption that sets my teeth on edge.

by Erica on May 6, 2010 2:01 pm • linkreport

I think my worst offense is using Ziploc bags. Between lunch, leftovers and various other uses, I probably consume five to seven a day. I should be using containers more or buy some washable bags for my lunch.

by Tim on May 5, 2010 4:54 pm

You actually do use a reuseable bag. Ziploc bags. They are reusable. Wash them out. Use them again. Simple!

by Jazzy on May 6, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

When we at Just Haiti first began importing fair-trade-plus coffee grown by subsistence farmers in Haiti, we packaged it in those fancy superthick everlasting plastic bags. You know the ones. It took a couple of months for us to collectively gasp, "What's wrong with this picture?! We have a shade-grown, organic, high-value cash crop that requires saving the trees -- and we package it in freaking plastic???" We quickly switched to 100% compostable (well, except the tin tie) recycled kraft paper, with an inner liner made from a vegetable-starch polymer, not petroleum, and labels made of recycled paper and vegetable-oil based inks. Some other coffee and food retailers are doing this, but not enough. Vote with your dollars.

by jim de quattro on May 7, 2010 7:59 pm • linkreport

Good for Just Haiti!

by Jazzy on May 7, 2010 10:14 pm • linkreport

If you're a dog owner, try 100% biodegradable poop bags from PoopBags.com. That will save at least 365 plastic bags a year! Yay! Great article. Its not easy, but every little bit helps.

by Patricia Concordia on May 12, 2010 9:56 am • linkreport

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