By Fran Silverman
Earlier this month a friend shared a link online that invited me to refuse to use any single-use plastic items as part of a challenge from Plastic-Free July.
The initiative was started by an Australian-nonprofit group, WMRC Earth Carers in Perth that formed the Plastic Free July Foundation. The foundation’s goal is a world without waste and toward that end, it’s promoting a global movement to reduce plastic use and improve recycle efforts. More than 2 million people from 159 countries have joined the challenge, according to the foundation.
More than five trillion particles of plastic clog our world’s oceans, choking and strangle marine life and making coral reefs more susceptible to disease. It’s estimated that the debris adversely affects at least 257 species globally, including 86% of sea turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals, as our Summer Action Line story “Become a Watchdog of Waterways” detailed. And Americans are doing their share to contribute to the problem, tossing out more than 33 million tons of plastic – including 175 million straws each day.
So, it was a no-brainer. Of course, I told my friend, I’ll take the challenge. I signed up to go plastic-free for one full week. Plastic Free July lays out for specific goals when you take the challenge:
Avoid products in plastic packaging
Reduce waste where possible (opt for refills etc.)
Refuse plastics that end up in litter such as straws, cups, utensils, balloons.
Recycle what cannot be avoided
I figured I was well prepared, considering I’m pretty informed about the dangers of plastics to our environment. After all, I have my reusable tote bags for grocery shopping, a thermos, a glass water bottle and reusable lunch containers.
But on Day One, right out of the gate, I realized I was already in trouble when I stopped at Rite Aid, my local pharmacy, and noticed I had forgotten my tote bag. Rite Aid and CVS may be one of the worst places to forget a reusable tote. The cashiers in my local stores maddening like to put just one or two items in each single-use plastic bag (as opposed to Trader Joe’s, which stuffs recyclable paper bags to the point where I fall over to one side trying to carry the items to my car if I ever forget my reusable Trader Joe’s tote bags.)
Anyway, back to Monday. I am at the cash register at CVS and there’s no way I can abandon my mission to get some items because they are crucial items, like toilet paper. What to do. I shake my head as the cashier tries to start putting my items in bags and instead I stuff the items into my vegan handbag, which is more like a roomy pouch.The cashier gave me a bewildered look and I explained I am trying to save marine mammals and the earth. I made a mental note tweet at and write to Rite Aid and CVS about their horrible single-use plastic bags.
Day 2 went a little better. I made sure to take my thermos for my tea instead of stopping at the local coffee shop for tea in a paper cup that has a single-use plastic lid. But on the way home, when I was jonesing for a little pick-me-up I had to walk out of Starbucks because not only was an iced mocha going to be served in a paper cup with a plastic lid but there’d be a straw and I was already committed to the #GiveaSip and #StopSucking anti-single-use plastic straw movement. Starbuck single-use straws account for a significant portion of the plastic waste clogging waterways. And while I was heartened by its announcement earlier in July that it would be ridding its stores of the straws by 2020, it hasn’t done it yet. So, I was stuck because for some reason I couldn’t find the reusable stainless-steel straw my co-worker had given me to help our plastic free efforts. I went home that night and ordered a dozen glass reusable straws for myself and family so I could enjoy an afternoon iced mocha anytime.
By Day 3, I had packed my thermos and found my stainless-steel straw. I went to Whole Foods for lunch and used their recyclable forks and knives (though which of the three waste bins to throw them in was an issue, as the directions aren’t clear). What also tripped me up was the plastic packaging for the pita bread I bought to each with my lunch. Worse, when I got home, our Blue Apron meal my husband had signed up for as a birthday present was a hot mess of horrible packaging. Every last ingredient was packed separately in plastic and their gigantic cold packs would not fit in my fridge to use again. So I added Blue Apron, which has made some strides in reusable packaging but it’s certainly not easy, to my list of companies to Tweet at.
By Friday, I was in full swing of avoiding single-use plastic. My glass straws had arrived (though they came wrapped in plastic, sign…) and I now had packed my stainless-steel forks and knives for lunch, my thermos, water bottle, my reusable tote bags and lunch container for the day ahead. I had tweeted at Blue Apron and my favorite podcasts that advertise for Blue Apron, some of which responded to me with likes, though Blue Apron still hasn’t. But I got tripped up again as I sat in a restaurant after work sipping water out of a plastic straw. I just plum forgot to use my new glass straw. I popped it in when my husband reminded me and felt better. But then I walked out of the restaurant leaving my glass straw in my water cup. I ran back in and retrieved it.
Still, by the end of the week, I had accomplished so much. I had the gear I needed to go plastic free. I had the awareness of companies that need to do better in this area (Just in, a cheer to Disney who announced it is ditching plastic straws and stirrers by mid-2019). And I had the desire and will power to keep going with the challenge for the rest of the month—and years ahead.
Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions and contributing writer for The New York Times.