Plastic waste

This photo shows most (but not all) the plastic I consumed during the month of October, enough to fill two garbage bags.

You don’t realize how much plastic you’re consuming until you start saving it.

After October, I’m now acutely aware of how much plastic I’m tearing through.

As an experiment, I decided that I was going to set aside every piece of plastic I personally consumed during the month of October to see how much accumulated.

Plastic waste is a growing environmental concern lately. While plastic has been a great invention for humanity, creating an easily moldable, durable, low-cost material for just about everything, the negative is that plastic is a chemical compound, one that is not particularly biodegradable.

There’s no one-size-fits-all number, but most sources will tell you durable plastics like those in bottles can take upwards of 400 years to degrade, while some types of extremely durable products may take thousands of years to break down.

We’ve heard of giant plastic patches junking up the ocean and it’s not too hard to find plastic junk littered on the roadside that will be there forever unless someone picks it up. Recycling can certainly help, but some types of plastic aren’t able to be recycled by putting it in your bin and many people just throw away items that could be recycled.

So, to raise my awareness (and hopefully yours too), I embarked on this journey.

The rules

I only set aside plastic items that I personally consumed. I wasn’t saving things my wife used. Basically the rule was, if I touched it and used it last and was ready to dispose of it, I had to count it.

That meant when I killed the bottle of cold medicine, it was mine to count. We got Chinese food one day and my wife ate half. I took the leftovers to work and then realized, dang it, I just bought myself another plastic container.

One thing I did not save, for sanitary reasons, were the disposable diapers we use for Luke. Those, I recognize, are also a huge environmental issue, but I wasn’t going to save a month of diapers. Also, I applaud anyone who uses cloth diapers, but I just don’t think I’m capable of dealing with that mess ...

A few notes

I have a drawer full of plastic at work that’s not included in the photo. I’ve been out sick this last week, so I couldn’t collect that stuff. It included several plastic bags, drink lids and straws from take out, a few containers and a few bottles.

Also, I know there was stuff I missed. I found myself just instinctively throwing out stuff and then going back and looking in the garbage and going, “Crap, that bag of broccoli is made of plastic” and picking it out. I’m sure there was more that I pitched without thinking.

The results

The stuff pictured is approximately two garbage bags full of plastic items. Luke’s formula containers, which are plastic and have a plastic spoon and plastic ring on the seal, accounted for a major amount of plastic waste this past month.

There are numerous Gatorade bottles that I really regret. I’ve been sick on and off and trying to hydrate and since I hate plain water (I know, I’m a child), I was drinking more Gatorade than usual.

One thing that hurt my soul was the Vietnamese pho that my wife and I usually order on weekends. We love it and eat it nearly every weekend. But getting it to go has a major trash footprint — a plastic container for noodles, plastic spoons, plastic forks, a plastic lid on the broth on a styrofoam container, plastic sauce containers, plastic baggies for meat and veggies. And all of that comes in a plastic grocery bag.

Changes

It didn’t take long for me to make adjustments because I was ashamed of how much plastic I was collecting early on.

• After consuming some bottles of sports drink, I made a pitcher of lemonade to put in the fridge, so I could drink something without using bottles.

• I passed up plastic utensils when getting take out in favor of using a metal fork or spoon at home that I could just wash.

• I took cloth bags with me grocery shopping a couple times because I didn’t want to add to the more than 15 plastic grocery bags I had banked.

• We continued to buy baby food in glass jars instead of those that came in plastic containers or pouches, so I could be sure I could recycle them.

But really, the biggest thing was I just felt bad every time I caught myself consuming plastic. Did I really need to drink this? Was there an alternative I could have bought? Why didn’t I cook dinner instead of getting this take out?

Conclusion

I’m glad I did this, because I became almost instantly aware of how much plastic I’m using. And I remember it and I think about it a lot more.

I’m never going to eliminate plastic entirely — it’s too pervasive in daily use. But I’ve already found there are ways to reduce my consumption without assuming more cost or major inconvenience if I just think a little more.

And while my one family consuming even 25% less plastic isn’t going to save the world on its own, a million households or 100 million households consuming 25% less would make a big impact.

You don’t have to save all your plastic for a month like I did (you can, and if you do, let me know how it went for you), but let my experience be a lesson for you.

Just stop and think about it a little more. Get out of the habit of just tossing that plastic in the trash. Look at it. Think about it. Recycle it if you can. Consider whether you needed to use it or not.

Having that awareness and making those small changes in your life can eventually lead to a big environmental benefit for our planet.

Steve Garbacz is executive editor of KPC Media Group and editor of The News Sun. He tossed as much of the plastic in his recycling bin as he could. Email him at sgarbacz@kpcmedia.com.

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