Big resolutions are overrated. This year, we’re all about highly doable improvements we can pull off any day. In Small Change, Big Impact, we're making tiny tweaks and sharing the results. Follow along, join in, and let us know what other small changes you’re making this year.
As the clock struck 2020, I thought to myself: What are some things I want to cut out of my life this year? The obvious ones—negative thinking, processed sugar, socks with holes—came to mind. Then, with the impending demise of our planet on the brain, I began to think of ways in which I could, perhaps, at least in my own small way, minimize the environmental footprint of my existence.
Plastic seemed like the best place to start. When I think about my relationship to waste, plastic is always the first thing that springs to mind. Plastic rules my life. I rip it apart to access any purchased good and use it to carry all my things. It’s convenient and lightweight. It’s functional and easily manipulated. There’s a reason plastic is so, so popular.
I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and pointed a finger at my grubby reflection. You, sir, will try to use less plastic this year. I walked back out to my New Year’s party, blew into a plastic horn, and wrapped a plastic mask around my face. I thought, I guess I’ll start tomorrow ...
To help with my quest, I called my sister who has the most sustainable life of anyone I know. She lives on a farm and makes her own detergent, so I asked her to give me some pointers a bit more attuned to us city folk. Some were possible (which I’ve outlined below). Others, like heading to your local swap meet and stocking up on reusable bamboo toothbrushes, were less so.
Here’s what stuck:
And use it like you mean it. It takes at least 450 years for a plastic bottle to completely degrade. And in the US, only 30 percent of these bottles are actually recycled. Since I joined the reusable water bottle game seven years ago, I’ve gone through but two of them. My first one was a red Nalgene that I took backpacking through Europe with me, so when I left it in a classroom one day and lost it forever, I shed a literal tear. I’m now the proud owner of a S’well and it’s permanently attached to my hand (unsponsored).
Bottom line: Single-use plastics are—say it with me—POINTLESS. Besides maybe toilet paper and bad jokes, there’s nothing we have to use only one time and then throw away. I’ve been working hard to identify all of the places in my life where I use plastic just once, and water felt like an obvious place to start.
Shopping bags, another pernicious single-use plastic, may be a different story. I have reusable plastic shopping bags and I mean to use them, I really do. Some even have sweet little designs on them like cute tomatoes! But to say I have a 10/10 track record would be a violent overstatement. Here’s something that happens to me a lot: I get to the checkout station, am asked if I’d like a bag, violently pat my pockets, realize I have no reusable bags, ask for a plastic bag, and then continuously reassure the cashier that I swear I have some at home but just forgot them this time.
So, to make sure this is a habit I stick to, I’ve moved my reusable bag stash from under the sink and to the front door. Think about it: If they’re in plain sight as I’m leaving the house, I’ll be sure to grab one, right? In theory. I’ll be trying my best on this one. Let you know how it goes.
According to National Geographic, 40 percent of plastic produced is just packaging that we use once and discard. Youch! If that’s a fact that doesn’t rattle your bones, then … congrats! Your bones are unrattleable. I phoned a friend to see if there was something I could do to reduce the amount of packaging I consumed. Said friend was, again, my sister, who probably only throws away, like, seven pieces of plastic a year. She broke it down for me real slow: It’s all about buying in bulk.
I always knew that bulk bins were the best way to shop, but a surplus of laziness and lack of inventiveness kept me out of that region of the grocery store. But 2020 is all about change, change I can believe in (hey that’s catchy, someone should use that). The real perk of the bulk aisle, my sister told me, is that you bring your own reusable bags and thus eliminate almost half of the plastic from your supermarket haul.
She was right. I went to my local market billowing with pouches and bags and tiny sacs that I culled from around my house and was able to get most of my dry goods (cashews, brown rice, flour) as well as (almost!) all my produce without using plastic. I paid extra attention to the packaging of my produce and tried to pick options that didn’t use extra: This was easy when it came to, say, buying whole vegetables over precut ones, but proved more difficult in the case of buying my preferred greens. I couldn’t quite eliminate the bag of arugula and mixed designer salad leaves from my cart.
Here are some other useful tips I learned that are changing the way I grocery shop:
I realized that I could avoid using plastic if I just—like my Boy Scout troop leader always told me—came a little more prepared. Here’s the scene: I’m at a restaurant, it’s my lunch break, and I order a salad or sandwich or grain bowl, whatever, and they give me my food plus a disposable bowl and set of plastic cutlery.
What if, instead, we provided our own containers and brought our own cutlery, thus avoiding the needless throwing away of even more plastic just so we could properly enjoy our lunch? It seems weird. I know because I tried it. And at first it feels annoying, but like asking your roommate to turn down their music, it gets easier each time. You’ll find that people are actually receptive to your mission.
The first time I asked a server to box my leftovers in a plastic container that I pulled out of my bag like some eco-conscious Mary Poppins, they were more than happy to do so. And as for the silverware, it’s fortunately easy to carry around a reusable set. You don’t even have to buy any online. Grab a knife, spoon, and fork from your silverware drawer, tie them together with a rubber band, and put them in a glasses case or tiny bag.