Throughout history, human beings have demonstrated a seemingly innate desire to leave their mark on the world, with some experts suggesting that the same neurochemistry that drives animals to promote their genes also pushes people to want to leave their trace on the planet.
Perhaps that is why the human race appears so determined to leave behind so much plastic. After all, plastic can take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to degrade. As a result, nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form with the exception of the small share that has been incinerated out of existence.
I could run further with this theory, but, of course, I know that it is fundamentally flawed. If humans really wanted to leave their mark on the world, they probably wouldn’t be investing so much on a means that puts the earth itself—and the creatures that dwell on it—at so much risk.
So, why do we do it? Why do we keep using plastic when we know just how harmful it is for the planet? When I ask myself that same question, I simply cannot provide an answer; at least not one that would come close to justifying my use of the stuff.
That is why, when I heard about the Plastic-Free July challenge, a campaign led by the Plastic Free Foundation which sees millions sign up each year to help reduce their plastic waste by choosing to refuse to use single-use plastics, I knew I had to sign up.
However, like many others who take up the challenge, I didn’t just want to eliminate my use of single-use plastics; I wanted to see if I could give up plastic almost completely.
Giving up plastic—almost—completely
Now, I don’t usually like to trumpet my failures across the internet for all the world to see, but, I would be remiss, dear reader, if I did not tell you right off the bat that this was a challenge I failed.
Why did I fail? Well, the keyboard that I am currently typing on should provide one indication. Like many other products that play a role in my daily routine, from my bank cards to my hairdryer to integral parts of the subway system that I ride into work, my keyboard is made up of plastic.
Depending on where you are in the world, you will find that much of it is made up of plastic and every year, we are producing more than 300 million tons more, with 50 percent of that being for single-use purposes and more than 90 percent of it likely to never be recycled, according to Plastic Oceans International, a non-profit organization raising awareness around plastic pollution.
Do sweat the small stuff
While plastic makes up much of the big matter around us, it is also the small stuff that we should be sweating about, with Americans estimated to use around 500 billion plastic bags and 35 billion plastic water bottles per year, according to EcoWatch.
Long before I took on this challenge, I had been trying to avoid the use of single-use plastic, from plastic bags to water bottles to coffee cups and toiletries like shampoo and hair conditioner bottles that could easily be replaced by plastic-free bar products.
However, it wasn’t until I embarked on this campaign that I realized the full weight of the ways in which plastic appears to be thrust upon consumers in western society.
Hungry for change?
On my regular trips to the local grocery store, I saw with fresh eyes how widely plastic is used to wrap virtually every product, with even vegetables and fruits protected by their own natural exteriors covered in the material.
Even some of the seemingly innocuous fruits and vegetables that were not wrapped in plastic could not be trusted, with their skins almost imperceptibly stamped with a tiny plastic brand label, lest you forget who to thank for the fruits of their labor.
Meanwhile, the scores of containers of ready-made food, snacks, drinks and frozen goods simply overwhelmed, while having to rebuff offers to buy a plastic bag at the cash register only added insult to injury, despite the small relief of knowing there was a plastic tax.
One thing I did notice as a (very much) unintended benefit, was that by trying to give up plastic, my diet became significantly healthier, with the practice forcing me to cook at home more often and steer clear of unhealthy snack aisles thanks to the abundance of plastic packaging.
As a vegetarian, I found my already limited options at major grocery stores cut down by more than half, with the few unpackaged fruits and vegetables available at grocery store giants making a common appearance on my dinner plate, including eggplants, broccoli and tomatoes, to name a few. Even tofu, a common source of protein for vegetarians was ruled out as a possibility, with all of the products at the grocery shops I visited including some element of plastic in their wrapping.
Shops that sell package-free products in bulk offer one positive alternative to the barrage of plastic at major grocery shops. However, I did not have one nearby and often ended up having to rely on unpackaged foods at my local food market.
Overall, when it came to eating plastic-free, I found that the best way to avoid plastic was to prepare my own meals.
In one incident where I didn’t have enough time to pack a lunch, I accidentally purchased an item that I didn’t realize contained the same plastic coating used in most disposable coffee cups. After that, I decided I would simply have to dedicate more time to meal planning.
The cost of going plastic-free
Having time, I quickly realized during that month, however, is not the only thing that makes it easier to live a plastic-free life.
I soon discovered that money (and how much of it you have) can also play a key role in determining just how easy it is to live plastic-free.
From the ever-popular plastic-free shampoo, conditioner soap and moisturizer bars sold by handmade cosmetics company Lush to the bamboo toothbrushes and array of plastic-free cleaning products sold online, generally, plastic-free products tend to be higher-priced than their plastic counterparts.
While there are exceptions, the green marketplace tends not to be the cheapest one.
Why is that? Some eco-friendly entrepreneurs have argued that because demand for their products remains relatively low, pricing their stock at equally low costs would effectively put them out of business.
Meanwhile, eco-friendly giants, like Lush, have suggested that their products are more expensive because they use the “highest quality ingredients from ethical sources.”
“We do not waste money on excess packaging, advertising, expensive marketing, and storage facilities for large stock-holding to make profits through economies of scale,” Lush says on its website. “The Lush customer is paying for the highest quality ingredients from ethical sources—organic where possible—in expertly formulated products made with care by hand.”
As a result, I pay $10.95 for my 1.9 oz. Lush “Jason and the Argan Oil” shampoo bar, as I have yet to find a cheaper alternative that does the job just as well.
When it comes to bath and beauty products, I found that it was possible to replace most products with plastic-free (and cruelty-free) items. However, it was not easy.
The most difficult items to replace were my toothpaste, floss and deodorant.
While some toothpastes were available with minimal plastic packaging, it wasn’t until the month was nearly over that I tracked down a toothpaste that was 100 percent plastic-free: Ben & Anna’s natural toothpaste. This cruelty-free product came in plastic-free packaging and was also free of microplastics.
While I personally did not find it quite as refreshing as more traditional toothpaste brands, it does the job and I have managed to keep using it in the weeks following the challenge.
Meanwhile, Geoganics also offers toothpaste in plastic-free packaging, as well as plastic-free floss, which comes in a refillable glass jar.
Of course, dental care was not the only difficult part of my routine to turn plastic-free. There is one aspect of plastic-free living that I completely failed to pull off: having a plastic-free period.
When it comes to having a plastic-free cycle, there are options out there for women. The “Diva cup” is one such alternative, with the reusable silicone menstrual cup providing up to 12 hours of coverage, while companies like New-York based THINX offer reusable underwear that can be worn as a substitute to traditional hygiene products.
I hate to admit that I was not yet prepared to use either one of these products, despite being a fan of their efforts. Instead, I opted to use slightly more eco-friendly applicator-free tampons.
I admit, I could have done better and I do hope to eventually gather the courage to pursue the more sustainable options out there. As it stands, for much of my life, I have contributed to the weight sanitary items add to the plastic problem around the world, with the U.S. seeing as many as 5.8 billion tampons sold in 2018 alone, a third of the global total, according to Euromonitor data published by The National Geographic.
Finally, another aspect where I must admit I failed to live up to my ambitions of a plastic-free lifestyle was on travel.
Unfortunately, a trip I had booked with my family to the Caribbean coincided with Plastic-free July meaning that not only was I contributing to greenhouse gas emissions with my flight, but once I landed, I also faced many an offer of delicious cocktails poured into plastic cups with colorful plastic straws.
While I had handily packed my own stainless steel mug with a stainless steel straw, as well as a bamboo utensil kit to counteract such offers, it was yet another reminder of just how much plastic we consume every day.
I also ran into some turbulence on flights, where I tried to see what airplane food and pre-packed snacks I could eat that did not come packaged in plastic.
One small consolation, however, was the number of travelers that I saw throughout the course of my travels who had similarly come prepared with their own plastic-free reusable travel gear. Perhaps it was something I had simply missed before, when I was not looking for it, but their numbers seemed stronger than I had anticipated.
Overall, however, what this experience really showed me was that we still have a long way to go in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and in decreasing—or, dare I say, eliminating—our plastic consumption. But, if we truly care about leaving a legacy behind on this planet, then that should be our priority: ensuring there is a livable earth to leave that legacy on in the first place.
This story originally appeared in Newsweek. It is republished here as part of Maine Public’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. For more stories in the partnership, visit mainepublic.org/climatenow.