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Damn, there is a lot of plastic

By Dan Pool, Editor

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Last week, we had a few days of the Progress Plastic Elimination Challenge. We didn’t create a hashtag or make t-shirts, but our staff did decide to be conscious of our plastic usage for a few days as an experiment.

There are some pretty interesting ways groups promote reduction of plastic with consumers, including several where people piled up all the plastic they wound up with for a period of time.

We made mental notes.

And the one conclusion we all agreed upon is there is a lot of plastic waste out there and you end up with more of it than you realize no matter how much you try to avoid it.

Among some of our small staff’s observations:

• Chances are if you get something to drink on the go, it comes in plastic – though several members of the staff sought out aluminum cans (which are easily recycled and efficient) plastic dominates drink containers - except beer. At several stores, major Coke/Pepsi soft drinks are only offered in plastic bottles. 

• If you eat fast food, you wind up with all kinds of plastic – from packets of sauce, to containers for food and again with the drinks, cups, lids and straws. It’s hard to imagine anything other than plastic or Styrofoam (just as bad or worse chemically) in which you could get a shrimp plate home from a drive-thru. In our discussions, we generally agreed we would pay slightly more or dine elsewhere if a chain offered a non-plastic substitute like corn starch containers that do biodegrade in less than a century.

• A wide variety of purchases, particularly toiletries and small electronics, come in ridiculously thick plastic packaging that is not only an environmental problem but a pain in the rear to open. Do so many products really need to come in a safety sealed cocoon that requires a sharp knife to open?

• Plastic sneaks up on you – Only one member of our staff regularly uses totes in place of plastic bags at the grocery store for big shopping trips. But we all ended up with plastic bags when picking up just an item or two with efficient clerks who bagged purchase before we could say “no bag, please.” Some of us did pull some purchases back out of the bags, but that ends up messing up the clerk’s line and holding up other shoppers.

Taking stock of our habits really made two points: consumers can make a difference with their personal choices that would be significant if a new less-is-better mood became a nationwide norm. It’s not farfetched that people might carry re-useable shopping bags or re-useable water bottles/cups/straws with them one day, as who would have thought every living person would carry a phone with them everywhere they went 10 years ago?

Second, personal choices make a difference, but much of the plastic is unavoidable unless corporations step up with decisions regarding packaging. Is there something less harmful that groceries and other household supplies can come in that consumers will support? 

If you are wondering why we are worrying about a bunch of cups, straws and bags we’ll leave you with this: (numbers compiled from a variety of different internet sources)

• 500 million plastic straws are used in the US every day. 

• The average American family takes home around 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year.

• Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. 

Every little reduction will help, particularly if it’s a small action by many consumers. Just think about the impact over the course of a year if everyone started by  eliminating one straw, one bottle and one bag a day?