The unpackaged life
Reducing use of disposable items is possible; eliminating them completely is an uphill battle. MNN's two-week challenge sparked my desire to be more vigilant about my personal practices.
Monday, August 23, 2010 - 21:37
PRODUCE: To bag or not to bag? Reducing my use of "recyclable" plastics begins with reusable canvas sacks. (Photo:laverrue/Flickr)
Two weeks ago, MNN editors presented all local correspondents with a challenge. Actually, there were a few challenge options, and we were free to choose one (or more). I chose to attempt to get through two weeks without using any disposable water bottles or coffee cups, or plastic shopping bags.
As chronicled in my previous post on this topic, I ran into a little trouble my first week. After that, though, it was relatively smooth sailing. During the second week, I did accept a small plastic water bottle from the AAA tow truck driver who jump started my car battery (thank you, Joseph!), and drank a bottle of water while backstage during a weekend theatre performance (it was either that or risk cottonmouth and inability to enunciate).
My tally for the two-week challenge period: one compostable to-go container, with compostable utensils; one paper coffee cup (no lid); one plastic to-go bowl; two plastic water bottles. Ironically, that's more disposable items than I normally use.
The challenge spurred me to think more constructively about how I can further reduce my use of disposable, and even recyclable, items. I already consider the issue often — sometimes to the point of agonizing over packaging at the market or drug store and driving myself a little crazy.
For example, I prefer glass packaging to plastic for liquids: olive oil, juice and so forth. But glass is heavier, so it follows that the carbon footprint of transporting glass packaging is larger, right? If I go with plastic in that situation and recycle the containers, do I "break even" on the environmental impact? Furthermore, does the plastic I recycle even truly get recycled?
According to the Ecology Center in Berkeley's list of "Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling" — no and no (see Misconceptions #1, #2 and #6). The conundrum of recycling, which is nonetheless a necessary component of any waste reduction effort, is that it creates the illusion of low environmental impact. (Some people would argue the same for carbon offsets, but we'll save that discussion for another day.) Though it's important to recycle, I've always been uneasy about the amount of recyclable items I contribute to the waste stream. Just because I put it in my recycling bin and it gets collected, that doesn't mean it won't end up in a landfill or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic is plastic, and once it's created, it's part of the environment — and it doesn't break down easily. So what's an ecologically-minded person living an urban lifestyle in the 21st century to do?
My new challenge, to myself, is to reduce even further the amount of packaging and recyclable items I use. Since I don't buy a lot of prepackaged foods, choosing to eat mostly fruits and vegetables, I'm a little ahead of the game. (Though fruit and veggie shopping at Trader Joe's will unfortunately send you home with a wide assortment of plastic containers.)
Step one: I purchased reusable produce bags and look forward to giving them a whirl on my next trip to the grocery store. Further steps are less clearly defined at this point - please bear with me, as I'm still groping my way toward minimizing my impact. It seems to me I can start by experimenting with setting limits on the number of packaged items I purchase in any one trip to the market. Suggestions in the form of comments on this piece are welcome — I'd love to hear how others have changed their habits and what kind of results you've achieved.
Thanks to the MNN editors for throwing down the gauntlet!
"Complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospective: it has to be shattered before being ascertained."