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Able to reduce plastic in my life – but not completely…

ZeroPlasticWeek 2014 is over, so it’s time to look back at my results and learnings. Overall, it was an effective way to make me aware how much plastic is used in our daily lives – and how much of that only is used for a few days or even hours.

weekly pasticsPlastic Recycling

A few years ago, my city added plastic to the materials to separate from our household waste. It is picked up from my street every other week, making it very easy to participate. Separating plastic from the rest of the waste already made my family very aware how much plastic we use. On average we fill one large bag a week, about equal in volume with the non-recyclable waste.

According to the city website, the recycled plastic is reused as raw material to make plastic packaging, but also other items like carpet, tennis balls, car materials, golf balls and fleece for clothing. Since we’ve had this system, I’ve felt less bad about the amount of plastic we used, but ZeroPlasticWeek has made me rethink that – especially the plastic that only has a real purpose for less than an hour! And frankly, how many tennis and golf balls do we need? There is so much opportunity to reduce the plastic we use.

Plastic Free Grocery Challenge

This week’s trip to the supermarket generated a much lower amount of plastic than usual. The easiest switch to make was to reuse the baggies for fruits and vegetables. I even found some nice reusable cotton bags online, which I am considering to buy. And the juices in glas bottles are delicious! But some parts were very hard to avoid, without having to extend my grocery trip to various other places.

The picture below shows all the plastic I took home for a week of groceries. Not bad compared to the usual yield, but still more than I expected. Here are the items I found most challenging:

ZeroPlasticWeek yield

  • Bread and bread rolls: which I freeze immediately after I get the groceries get home. I could make an extra trip to a bakery, but their paper bags are not suitable for freezing, and their bread rolls also come in plastic.
  • Soft and grated cheeses: really do not know how I could buy and store them otherwise. It might work for feta and soft goat cheese at a nearby cheese specialty store if I bring my own containers, but I doubt I could buy cream cheese anywhere that way. Of course, I could consider grating the cheese myself…..
  • Vegetarian protein: tofu and vegetarian burgers/sausages/etc are all packed in plastic. The packaging does serve an important role to keep the product fresh until consumption, which on average is 3-4 days. Better than the 1 hour usage of baggies for fruits and vegetables, but still….
  • Pre-cut vegetables: Of course I can cut my own, but most nights in this busy household, the convenience factor wins. There is a deli nearby that also sells cut veggies – perhaps I can go there with my own containers. Something to investigate!
  • Cookies: There were no cookies or other treats without plastic to be had in the supermarket… my next (completely unrelated) behavior change experiment is to try to not eat refined sugar for a month, so I can do without cookies, but I am sure my family would be quite mad if I made then all stick to the same sugarless diet because of the plastic. Homemade cookies are of course much better-tasting, but there are other issues with those, like energy use and calories…..

Some items seemed to have completely unnecessary plastic:

  • Veggies: almost all vegetables were wrapped in plastic. The organic ones mostly in the biodegradable kind, but most really do not need to be wrapped. Most surprising? The bell peppers! When Albert Heijn first started selling organic bell peppers, only those were wrapped in plastic, to differentiate them from the regular one. Counter-intuitive to wrap the organic ones, but as those sales were much lower, in terms of total plastic used, this was better than wrapping the regular ones. After some time, they did switch to the biodegradable plastic for the organic bell peppers. Because of ZeroPlasticWeek, I noticed that now all the bell peppers are wrapped in plastic! Time to write to my supermarket’s Albert Heijn sustainability team!
  •  Teabags: most brands have plastic wrap around the carton box. I can see this potentially serves a purpose for freshness and perhaps safety, but I’ll be on the lookout for brands of tea without plastic.
Plastic Cups and Straws

On the last day of ZeroPlasticWeek, I enjoyed a fruit and veggie smoothie at juicebar VitaminBoost. plastic bekersEven if you want to consume your juice or smoothie on site, they serve it in plastic cups. Because of ZeroPlasticWeek, I asked whether we could have ours in a glass, which was of course possible. While one of the servers prepared our drinks, another came to compliment me on the question. She mentioned that she felt bad about the large number of plastic cups, and had already suggested to management to at least start separating the plastic waste and recycling it, but her suggestion was not implemented. Perhaps time for me to write them as well, in support of her plea for recycling bins and to push them to always offer in glass first, rather than making plastic the default. And to ask people whether they want a (plastic) straw. Our server must not have given our request a second thought. The “small” size did not fit their quite large Latte glass, so we each ended up with two glasses – and each with two straws. An acute example that we still have a long way to go!

ZeroPlasticFuture?

ZeroPlasticWeek is now asking me to join to ZeroPlasticJuly. Honestly, I am afraid I am not going to sign up, as I am too addicted to the convenience of some plastic packaging – and an upcoming holiday trip will make it even harder to cut it out completely. But, I will read the tips on their website and this week has had a profound impact – and I look forward to feeling good about carrying far less plastic out to the street for recycling every other week.

My call to action for you? Try reducing your plastic consumption for at least a week. Not an easy task, but mind-opening! Let me know how it goes!

Written by: Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis)