In C'mon, It's Just 7 Days, members of the Food52 team share what it was like to take on a personal challenge for one week: skipping caffeine, going plastic-free, and more. (Spoiler alert: We all survived.)
Why ditch plastic? Let us count the reasons. Roughly one million plastic bottles are sold in the world per minute, and by 2050, it’s estimated that there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Those are just two in a veritable sea of urgent statistics—study after study shows we’re basically drowning the planet in plastic, whether you’re talking bottles, bags, or straws.
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Giving it up completely is harder than you may think. Plastic is lightweight, convenient, and everywhere: in our takeout containers and our shampoo bottles, our children’s toys and our pets’ gear, not to mention sneakier places, like the insides of paper coffee cups and the microbeads in some face soaps and body washes.
Still, a bunch of us at Food52 had been talking about ways to waste less in everyday life, and plastic seemed like a good place to start. Our experiment: Cut out single-use plastics for 7 days. According to registered dietician and sustainability advocate Abby K. Cannon, single-use plastic reduction focuses on not purchasing anything that includes plastic, and not taking any free items that include plastic. “Disposability is the real problem,” she noted.
So, one week—easy, right? Well...let’s just say we were in for some surprises.
Here are some of the things we learned:
1. Using less plastic is easy. Sort of.
We kicked things off, full of determination, can-do spirit, and not a little magical thinking. I hit up the grocery store, then toted home a canvas bag brimming with loose produce.
Kaitlin Bray, our social media director, brewed coffee at home and brought it to work in a new reusable tumbler...which didn’t go exactly as she’d planned.
But she also started carrying a reusable, foldable shopping bag with her at all times. “It’s so easy to do—and starting my day with the coffee tumbler makes me feel inexplicably put-together,” she said.
So far, so good. But eliminating single-use plastic sometimes meant we wasted other things. My grocery-store shelves stocked only bagged-up, sliced loaves of bread, so I turned to fresh baguettes in paper bags. For the purposes of this challenge, I was checking the right box, but really, I was just subbing one type of waste (plastic) for another (paper).
2. Prep is everything.
Basically, you need to know before you go—to the grocery store, to the airport, to a restaurant...pretty much anywhere outside of your own house. Does your grocery store have bulk bins? (If so, do you know how much your glass jars weigh?) Will you eat your full restaurant meal? (If not, better bring your own non-plastic to-go container.) And does your restaurant of choice plop a plastic straw in every drink?
Abby helpfully shared five things she carries with her to game a variety of situations: bamboo silverware, a water bottle, a tote bag, a tea towel (to sub in for a napkin), and “some kind of container: a coffee cup or a glass jar so I can fill it up with coffee, tea, or leftover food.”
Some of us also wondered about impromptu snacks (which are very important!).
As for flying, “forget it. There is so much waste,” said Sarah Yaffa, our data analyst, who happened to be traveling for part of the challenge. “I was on a long flight and two meals were offered. I think there was more plastic than food.” Sarah did bring her own water bottle, though: “The flight attendants happily let me fill it over and over again instead of taking the cups.”
Some plastic-free fans get into more unusual prep experiments. Would you ever make your own shampoo or toothpaste? There are resources online if you’re game to try it, but projects like these were a little too advanced for our group.
3. Going plastic-free helped us save money.
No surprise here: Toting your own coffee, water, and lunches is a smart way to spend less. We spent a lot of time in the produce aisle, but even the fancy organic stuff ended up costing way less than meats, cheeses, and packaged snacks—not to mention takeout. Still, “takeout was a big one I missed,” senior editor Eric Kim admitted. “I don’t think it comes in anything other than plastic.” Eric stayed up late one night to work on an ambitious cooking experiment (turning butternut squash risotto into arancini—the kind of project most Food52ers love). But as he remembered it, “all I wanted was to have takeout and go to bed.”
4. But we ended up spending more, too.
Let’s take a single example: yogurt. We love it on its own, in soups, and as a sour cream understudy—but how many brands can you think of that don't use plastic? "I miss yogurt and fruits that come in plastic," Victoria Maynard, our director of finance, lamented.
Kaitlin bought a tub that she thought was plastic-free, until she realized it wasn’t (the top was plastic). It also cost $10 and had the names of the cows printed on the glass jar.
Anna Billingskog, our test kitchen stylist, noted that she was “struggling a little with the idea of buying another thing to replace something (i.e. reusable mug vs. paper cup) in order to be more eco-conscious.”
Sarah agreed. “Going plastic-free can be expensive,” she said. “Start slow and make goals for yourself based on your budget. You can start with the small things first, while saving to replace those pricier items later down the road.”
Is it worth it, if you’re budget-minded? “I think in the end, you end up on top,” Anna said.
5. We sometimes got hungry.
It was surprising for many of us to realize just how much food comes wrapped in plastic (looking at you, cheese, meat, and snacks—but even cardboard boxes of pasta have see-through plastic windows).
For my part, I sometimes felt like I was on a diet I hadn’t signed up for: broccoli, peppers, bulk-bin grains, and so many apples. Kaitlin’s sunnier take: “It turns out it's an accidental health/environment win-win.”
6. Still, we’d do it again—and in fact, we are.
While we’re not ready to declare ourselves eco-warriors quite yet, we’ve managed to keep up with the challenge in different ways.
Most of us have stopped using plastic bags, whether that means packing reusable canvas totes or just not bagging greens when we buy them (we’re going to wash that spinach when we get home anyway, so what’s the point?). And we’re keeping reusable water bottles and coffee tumblers at the ready in our bags, so we’re always prepared.
Eric took the idea of cutting down on consumption beyond plastic. “I made an effort, while going plastic-free, to kick my daily 2-3 seltzer can habit, too,” he said. “I mean, how good could all those cans be for the environment?”
Nevertheless, perfection is not the goal here. “With the environment we live in, you could try your hardest, and some plastic will still end up with your fingerprints on it,” Abby said. Or, as video editor Dave Katz put it: “We all do what we can in a plastic-dominated world.”
Any tips or tricks for cutting back on waste? Please share them in the comments below.