I started my new job with Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) in early March 2022. At the time, my wife and I, spurred on by the growing concerns of plastics in the environment, had been thinking about ways to further reduce plastics in our waste stream. We had long since adopted strategies such as re-using plastic Ziplock bags and, prior to the ban on single-use plastic bags ushered in by NRCM, re-using grocery bags for kitty litter and dog waste disposal, but we had the feeling that we could, and should, be doing more. Especially if I was to be working for NRCM. Then we watched Plastic Wars, a Frontline documentary on the pervasiveness of plastics and the social and environmental impacts of the false notion that plastics are recyclable when, in fact, less than 10 percent of plastic that enters the waste stream is recycled. This was our call to action.
Without much real thought or pre-planning, we decided to try living plastic-free for the month of June. For the entire month we endeavored to bring no new plastic into our home, the vast majority of which came from the grocery store. We had no idea what we were in for, and we had to develop the rules as we went along. This proved challenging. For instance, we could find some glass jar alternatives to items more readily available in plastic, but what to do about the plastic lids? And what about the labels? Did these qualify as plastic-free in our endeavor? We decided that yes, it was as close as we could get.
The next challenge was somewhat unexpected and came during an early summer visit to Gifford’s, a Maine ice cream shop. While we would not be bringing our plastic spoons back home, we were still contributing to unrecyclable plastic waste. Our solution? Keep silverware in the car for those spontaneous trips for ice cream. We could have opted for a delicious waffle cone — we love an edible solution to packaging, too!
We had no trouble buying fruit and vegetables without using plastic, as we already had mesh bags for that purpose. Well, for the most part. I love grapes but had to go without for the month because they were not available at our local grocery store in bulk. They were only available pre-packaged in plastic bags. “But what if I leave the plastic bag at the store,” I pleaded with my wife. “That would count, right?”
“No,” came the answer, and back went the grapes.
Since we did not think it right for our pets to suffer the consequences of their humans’ indiscretions, we decided to turn a blind eye when buying their food in plastic-lined paper bags.
Bread. Bread and plastic bags go together like peanut butter and jelly. My wife, bless her, stepped up to bake fresh bread weekly (though there wasn’t much for me to make a sandwich with, as cheese and the vegetarian deli “meat” I enjoy both come only in plastic). The fresh-baked bread was, indeed, a treat, though my wife explained that if we were to continue there would have to be sharing of the labor-intensive process of baking the bread, so I’m not sure how sustainable that was.
I did, in fact, ask the person at the deli counter if I could have my sliced cheese wrapped in paper instead of plastic. They looked at me as if I had two heads. So, cheese and fake meat was out for the month. As was snack food, like chips, pretzels, and tortilla chips, and breakfast items like cereal and yogurt (though we did make granola).
There were some substitutions and solutions that were easier to accommodate. One can find shampoo and conditioners in bars, much like soap, and we found water-free laundry soap strips, which come in a cardboard package. For packing snacks and sandwiches for lunch and outings, we found sealable and reusable paper bags. We were also able to find solutions such as beeswax wrap for storing food and wrapping sandwiches.
What we learned from this endeavor is that a trip to the grocery store when trying to go plastic-free is a cause for anxiety and stress. It means going without, going out of the way, and paying more. Doing the right thing or, at least, trying to do the right thing should not cost more. Substantially more in most cases. And shopping with an eye toward reducing plastic waste should not turn into a hunt for some elusive and mythical ideal.
We challenge you to try going plastic-free for a week, and let us know how it went for you. Also, consider contacting your favorite brands to ask them to begin working on plastic-free alternatives and reduced packaging for their products.
—by Marc Edwards, NRCM Regional Outreach Coordinator
Richard B. Gorence says
I’ve been recycling for 34 years and I am sorry, but most plastic is recyclable. Plastics are a necessary evil. They don’t break like glass, easier all the way around. These are just uptopian ideas and that’s understandable. Just like trying to do without oil. Not going to happen!
Sarah Nichols, NRCM Sustainable Maine Director says
Thank you for your perspective. Unfortunately, though, the U.S. has a dismal plastic recycling rate of about 5%. Most plastic is not valuable as a recycled commodity. On the whole, people have been very irresponsible with our use of plastic, and we need more policies in place that reduce unnecessary uses of plastic and better manage the plastic waste that we already have to protect our health and environment.
Kim Howlett-Phillips says
We are in the same mind frame. I applaud your efforts and recognize the difficulties encountered but assure you it is becoming easier. The ability to avoid processed food and it’s packaging rarely makes it to our home so we are eating healthier as well. At least some staples are making the way to non-plastic packaging but this is not feasible for all “wet” products. Glass weighs much more so this increases costs. Laundry soap sheets have not performed as well as liquid soaps. Proctor and Gamble’s Eco3 roll out has some great paper packaging but is a bit over the top when individual soap for shampoo and bath soap are being manufactured into 2x2squares which melt when exposed to water. I recall bar soap being wrapped in a waxed paper and shampoo bars work well.
We have a long way to go but every little bit helps!