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We Went Plastic-Free for One Week—Here Are 6 Surprising Things We Learned

It was both easier and harder than we thought.

January  3, 2019

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.

And yet.

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.

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Top Comment:
“Then I stopped buying spinach in plastic and bought it in bunches, using my reusable produce bags. And of course, carrying a water bottle to refill on the other side of airport security and just having one in general. We can't be tap water snobs. If we do take out, I at least refuse the plastic cutlery, napkins and sauces they provide as I am just taking it home to eat. Next steps are keeping a reusable coffee mug with me and reducing items I buy in packaging. You're right, you end up eating fresher and healthier. These comments are so helpful, I'm looking into Zip toppie now! Hoping to use that for the bulk items I buy at the store. Keep em coming friends!”
— Jes A.
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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.

Photo by Kaitlin Bray

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!).

Photo by Kaitlin Bray

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.

Kaitlin and Eric sharing updates in our #plastic-free Slack channel.

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).

Photo by Suzanne D'Amato

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.

29 Comments

Monte W. January 19, 2019
Plastic in itself isn't bad. It's petroleum-based plastics. If customers insisted on hemp plastic, well then, it would be a completely different (bio-degradable) situation.
 
lplynch January 19, 2019
Like FrugalCat and Jean B, we also take our own containers for leftovers when we eat out. We also do that for takeout, which most places in our area (Berkeley, CA) are ok with. That makes takeout a little less convenient, b/c you can't just call and then show up, and you do have to think about what container you have that will work for the food you're buying. But I kind of like my minutes at the sushi bar, reading or catching up on email while they put our sushi on a platter. Bonus points, at least for the sushi, is that it's all beautifully arranged and we feel like we're having a party instead of just dinner. Other places have been happy to use any containers we've brought in too.
 
FrugalCat January 19, 2019
I forgot to mention I also use glass baby food jars to hold sauces, etc. along with my food. I tuck a couple of empty jars in one of the boxes I bring along. You don't need to have a baby for baby food- most of my jars are from when I bought pureed peaches to make Bellinis with! Most manufacturers (Gerber, Beeh-nut) have lids that fit 3, 4, or 6 ounce jars. For teeny-tiny portions of sauces, I have a few Bonne Mamman jam jars from room service breakfast wehn we stayed at a fancy hotel.
 
cisco January 13, 2019
Great article... I would love to know what I could place a bbq chicken i am purchasing as I’m afraid that the local grocery stores in my area only use that horrible black plastic that contributes to bad phytoestrogens. <br />Any thoughts? Anyone?
 
penelope January 13, 2019
I'm kind of amazed (and excited! I get to be first!) that no one has pointed out yet how easy and cheap it is to make your own yogurt, which you can then keep in your own reusable glass containers. Fans of the Instant Pot already know that it has a yogurt setting.
 
ulla January 14, 2019
I was going to say the same thing :-)
 
YUKYUNG January 19, 2019
Even we don't need to have an instant pot to make yogurt! :) I put some yogurt drink like little bottle of probiotic drinks into the 1 liter of soy milk, and I let it in warm place for overnight. I have soy yogurt in the morning then :)) So easy!
 
Julie January 8, 2019
We have several lovely cheese shops in our area of South Bend and Goshen that sell waxed cheeses. You could bring your own beeswax wrap to carry home.
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 11, 2019
Love this idea! Thank you.
 
penelope January 13, 2019
Any self-respecting cheesemonger will wrap your purchase in paper, not plastic. This does mean you have to build in a separate trip to the cheese shop which may mean driving an additional distance ... more balancing of environmental impacts.
 
Barbara L. January 7, 2019
What a great article. I’ve been trying to do minimal plastic for 3 years or so and it’s challenging but so worth it. Also, my maiden name is Barbara Suzzanne D’Amato!!!! How crazy is that....we could be related 💕
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 11, 2019
Whoa...what a coincidence!! Well, thanks for the nice words about my story.
 
Jes A. January 5, 2019
I was just travelling in Northern Africa and was shocked to see ancient sites strewn about with plastic and cigarette butts. These ancient civilizations left us the pyramids and great tombs, and what is our legacy? Our legacy is plastic and it's choking our planet. So glad to see others aware of this and making strides to reducing. <br />A big first step for us was the obvious, bring your own grocery bags.<br />Then, stainless steel straws for our coffee and shakes in the morning. I carry one on my purse.<br />Then I stopped buying spinach in plastic and bought it in bunches, using my reusable produce bags.<br />And of course, carrying a water bottle to refill on the other side of airport security and just having one in general. We can't be tap water snobs. <br />If we do take out, I at least refuse the plastic cutlery, napkins and sauces they provide as I am just taking it home to eat.<br />Next steps are keeping a reusable coffee mug with me and reducing items I buy in packaging.<br />You're right, you end up eating fresher and healthier. <br /><br />These comments are so helpful, I'm looking into Zip toppie now! Hoping to use that for the bulk items I buy at the store. Keep em coming friends!
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 11, 2019
So many good ideas in here—thanks for sharing them.
 
FrugalCat January 5, 2019
I am a glass straw devotee. I also bring my own containers to restaurants for my leftovers(some of them are plastic, but at least they are reusable and washable). For a half of a fruit or veg, try silicone FoodHuggers. For chopsticks, I use them as kindling in my fireplace. It's so difficult, but little steps. My town has a good recycling program and I hope that makes a difference.
 
Jean B. January 7, 2019
FrugalCat, my sister and I both take our own containers to restaurants, too. I knew that we couldn't be the only ones who do this.
 
colleen January 4, 2019
One thing I would suggest is to leave your produce face down on a plate or bowl if you're trying to save remaining lemons/limes, apples, avocados. such a waste sealing up one piece of fruit in a plastic bag!
 
Allie January 8, 2019
Abeego wraps are great for this too! They keep food fresh for so much longer than plastic bags or plastic wrap
 
tia January 4, 2019
I'd forgotten how many things California has banned that other states still have. Single use plastic grocery bags, gone (with some exceptions). Plastic straws (with some exceptions), banned. I don't usually see plastic takeout containers anymore, either. Still, stuff like deodorant, toothpaste, chips, pasta and milk come in plastic. And, sorry, but there is NO WAY, I am trying to make my own deodorant or toothpaste.<br /><br />For what it's worth, it is possible to buy bags to replace the plastic ones for greens at the grocery store. Or you can just reuse the plastic ones; I wash them, dry them and shove them into the folds of my nylon reusable bag so I have them with me. I also have a glass straw at work, and a foldable steel one (given to me by my parents this Christmas) that lives in a case in my purse. None of it is huge, but I have to believe that it helps.<br /><br />Eric, you could use a seltzer maker. That's what I have to support my seltzer habit. It's not plastic-free, but it's reusable and it's lower waste/energy than cans. Now if I could just kick my diet coke habit.
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 4, 2019
In researching this story, I was fascinated to learn about the many changes happening at the state and county levels. <br /><br />Thank you for sharing these tips! Sounds like we need to get Eric a seltzer maker...
 
ET January 4, 2019
Thank you everyone and anyone who endeavors to be a conscientious conserver, with all the good bad and ugly that can come alongside that task. <br />Reading about the plastic-free week at Food52 inspired a perusal for new plastic alternative totes and storage ideas. <br />I found ziptoppie.com and am solidly impressed by the attention to detail and design. I’m ordering some, I’ll be thrilled if these fit the bill and I’ll be hoping they’re not delivered wrapped in plastic.<br />
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 4, 2019
I'm so glad our team's experiment inspired you. And thanks for the rec!
 
KitchenBeard January 3, 2019
I did something similar a few years ago. Like you, I went a week without buying anything with plastic in it. It was incredibly hard. Everything these days has plastic. I had to stop the deli lady from using scotch tape to hold my morning bagel in place. I couldn't have a juice because the plastic shrink wrap on the cap. I couldn't pick up my shirts from the dry cleaner. I couldn't have sex because condoms come in plastic. I was horrified to see how prevalent it is. The take away though is much like yours. I started being deliberate abut what I was eating and buying. I started shopping at a butcher who wrapped things in paper instead of getting meat from a grocery. I ironed my own shirts. Simple changes that actually ended up making my lif eaiser.
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 4, 2019
I had some similar experiences—like trying to buy peanut butter in a glass jar, only to realize the lid was wrapped in plastic. Your point about dry-cleaning is well-taken, too. Even machine-washable clothing can be tricky—all the laundry detergents at my corner store come in plastic bottles or pouches, for example.
 
Katherine D. January 3, 2019
The thing about plastic is that it takes forever to break down. Metal will rust and crumble up and paper will disintegrate a lot faster, so I personally have no qualms about paper bakery bags (though bakery prices have compelled me to just bake my own) or aluminum cans. Also, I have not been able to give up cheese- too big a step for me!
 
Momof2 January 3, 2019
Thank you for sharing, I’ve been inspired to give it a try! Cheese is a hard one though, I wonder if the deli would ever slice it and package in the paper meat wrap instead of plastic bags?<br /><br /> We do a lot of up cycling in our home. For example all our yogurt, cottage cheese containers,etc get used as planters to start the garden. And we compost all our organic matter. This alone cuts our family of four down to one trash bag a week, sometimes less. But it still makes me sick to see how much we waste. <br /><br />Thanks again for the read! Look forward to reading other hacks people come up with!
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 4, 2019
Thanks so much for sharing these tips—very helpful!
 
Eric K. January 3, 2019
Potato chips... I'll never give you up again.
 
Author Comment
Suzanne D. January 4, 2019
:)