I Went Plastic-Free for a Week
I ditched straws, plastic bags and even my regular toothbrush.
I’m a fun, exciting twenty-something with a zest for life and adventure—so on Friday nights you can typically find me curled up in the fetal position, squinting into the beam of light shooting out from my television.
“Are you still watching The Office?” Netflix asks me, and I almost hear my mother’s voice. Rather than binge-watch another season of a show I’ve already seen, I click back to the home screen where I see a promotion for a documentary: A Plastic Ocean.
The film—which originally set out to spotlight the blue whale—chronicles the threat that plastic poses to our seas. Filmmakers switched gears when they discovered a mass of garbage floating in the Indian Ocean with one deadly standout ingredient: plastic. The documentary shows marine life’s interactions with (and in many cases, consumption of) plastic in its many forms. Sea turtles consume plastic bags thinking they’re jellyfish. Dolphins suffocate when plastic particles clog their blowholes. To illustrate the insidious variety of what’s out there, the documentary’s scientists dissected a dead pelican, which revealed more than 40 particles of plastic in its belly. With that image burned into my brain, I decided to see just how hard it would be to abstain from plastic for one week.
I decide I can’t cut out prescription pill bottles or my credit card, but other than that, I’ll live completely plastic-free. I enter my first day with unwavering confidence: I’m environmentally conscious; I probably don’t even use that much plastic! So I thought.
Within just 10 minutes of waking up, I discover I’m dependent on a number of plastic products, including my toothbrush, toothpaste tube, and shampoo and conditioner bottles. So I’m forced to skip my morning routine, to the dismay of my roommates. I grab a piece of gum for the sake of everyone around me and opt for a rather tragic low-ponytail that makes me look like a Founding Father. After breakfast (on a ceramic plate), I pack my lunch. Damnit, no Ziplocs allowed. I wrap my sandwich in a paper towel and pack it in a re-usable lunchbox.
On my way out, I stop by The Stand in Crystal City for a coffee to-go. The cashier cringes when I say, “No lid please,” and with good reason. By the time I’ve reached my car, half of my coffee has sloshed out of the to-go cup. I make a mental note to bring a re-usable thermos for my coffee tomorrow. When I get to my accounting lecture at GMU I pull out a gel pen so I can pretend to take notes (I’m a gold-star student). I begrudgingly divert to a classic No. 2 pencil when I realize that pens, too are made of plastic.
On my way home, feeling frustrated and unprepared for this self-imposed adventure, I crave an iced-coffee from Starbucks, but resist succumbing to that little green straw. Instead, I start a mental list of plastic necessities I need to replace. I make a stop at Lather in the Mosaic District to search for bar shampoo and conditioner. I don’t find any, but I do find a “charcoal tea tree cleansing bar” (in a cardboard package) for my face, which I purchase upon realizing that my usual face wash also comes in a plastic bottle. Not only that, but the store clerk tells me the tiny beads in my usual facial cleanser are actually pieces of microplastic that go straight down the sink drain and into the ocean. Whoops. I find bar shampoo and conditioner and tablet toothpaste at Lush (yes, it’s a thing), then grab a wooden toothbrush at CVS for $6.
I shower with my new bar toiletries in the morning and remember to bring my re-usable travel cup for coffee. Sipping from its eco-friendly, stainless-steel lid, I think about what an environmental hero I am (I’ve gone an entire day without plastic, after all). But then it’s time to hit the grocery store. I’ve come prepared with canvas bags for my groceries, dedicating one to fruits and veggies so I don’t have to put them in plastic bags, but I quickly realize I can’t buy half of the goods I normally would. Hummus, pita chips, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, chicken, bread and granola bars are all foods I enjoy that, to my dismay, are packaged with plastic. Since I have to eat and a farmer’s market isn’t immediately accessible (this isn’t quite Portlandia), I decide that as a compromise, I will only purchase groceries packaged in recyclable plastics. At Whole Foods, it’s honestly not that difficult. I have to ditch a few of my usual brands, but I am able to find replacements for all of the aforementioned goods with packaging that’s 100% recyclable.
I have my morning routine down now: my new bar toiletries don’t even phase me (and they don’t seem to have any negative side-effects on the texture of my hair or skin either). But later in the evening I make a big dinner with plenty of leftovers. That’s when it dawns on me that all of my Tupperware is made of plastic. That’s okay, I’ll just put it in a regular bowl and cover it in plastic wra… never mind. My roommate tells me she’s seen non-plastic wrap for food at Whole Foods, so I make the trip back. As it turns out, she’s right. Bee’s Wrap is a non-plastic, reusable and washable food wrap made from bee’s wax and cloth (and it actually seals food even tighter than plastic wrap).
Day four presents a new challenge because it’s the weekend and I go out to eat. I’m careful to ask my server at Highline RxR to leave the little black stir stick out of my ginger whiskey, but when I’m given a box for my leftovers, it’s plastic. Ugh. I ask her if they happen to have any cardboard to-go boxes. She offers to bring out two paper plates for me to sandwich my leftovers. I accept.
The first four days of this week were a steep learning curve; I had no idea how much plastic I was using and throwing away every single day, between toiletries and food. But by day five, I’ve hit my stride. I’ve identified the unnecessary plastic I was using and replaced it with more sustainable options (and it really is that easy). I’m no longer viewing sustainable and biodegradable products as annoying or inconvenient; they’re just part of my routine.
Now what? While it might not be feasible to go completely plastic-free forever, I’ll continue to use bar toiletries and reusable beverage containers to reduce my environmental footprint.
Want to make your own difference? Certain plastics may be unavoidable in your life, but you can probably think of two or three single-use products that you use routinely (which are the most wasteful since they’re used once and then tossed) and swap them for more reusable containers. Skip the straw when you go out to eat. Invest in canvas grocery bags. Treat yourself to a stylish, re-usable water bottle. Accumulated over a lifetime, these small changes can make a huge impact.
For more ways you can make a positive contribution to our local environment, visit Eco Action Arlington for sustainability tips, volunteer opportunities and more.
Holly Rhue is Arlington Magazine’s digital editor.