What I’ve Learned About Giving Up Plastic

It’s hard! I confess, dear reader, that right off the bat, on just the second day of Lent, I blew it. A friend and I went out for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Monterey, and neither of us finished our meal. Not wanting to waste food (that’s virtuous, right?) we accepted the waiter’s offer to box our leftovers. But before I knew it, two large plastic bags appeared on the table. 

At least the bags were “made with Post Industrial Recycled (PIR) materials and contain environmentally friendly EPI Bio-Film additives.” As encouragement, they have the words “Reusable Bag” printed in large letters across the center. If my goal is to reduce single-use plastics, I could meet it by using this as a garbage bag, but realistically, what else would I do with it? So should I have taken the food boxes out and returned the bags to the waiter? But once they’d been used, could the restaurant give them to another customer? And what about those boxes? They were cardboard, not plastic or Styrofoam, but they have a waxy coating to prevent moisture seeping through, and guess what it’s made of? More on this later, but hint: it’s not wax. (Note: I did save my bag for reuse!)

Over the last year, ever since I read about the Church of England’s Lenten challenge to give up single-use plastics, I’ve become more diligent about taking my reusable mugs, bottles, and bags with me wherever I go. I even gave my sweetheart a Soda Stream for his birthday, so we could enjoy sparkling water without having to buy and recycle bottles. As this Lent approached, though, the hard reality of life without plastic began to set in.

Text from my sister

I didn’t roll around in bubble wrap on Fat Tuesday, but in the last few weeks before Ash Wednesday, I savored fresh grapes and started to practice by giving up pre-packaged salads from Trader Joe’s and instant oatmeal cups while I contemplated the other conveniences soon to disappear from my kitchen: pre-made pie dough, microwave popcorn, Amy’s frozen pot pies … With suggestions from my sisters, I bought re-usable mesh bags for produce and learned how to make my own yogurt. Yogurt making presented a dilemma, though. The recipe calls for a half gallon of milk, but remember that waxy coating I mentioned earlier? Like the takeout boxes at the restaurant, milk cartons are coated with polyethylene. So I found milk in a glass bottle that I could return to the store, but guess what it’s sealed with? A plastic cap!

Plastic is pervasive, but the good news is that positive changes are already entering our culture. Witness the ubiquitous Kleen Kanteen, Hydro Flask, and Contigo coffee mug. At Foothill College, where I’m a librarian, drinking fountains are equipped with bottle filling stations, and the coffee kiosks and cafeteria stopped selling bottled water two years ago. (Students, by the way drove this change!) Many California cities, including Santa Cruz, have banned Styrofoam from food service and require that all food takeout containers be compostable or recyclable. In response to a Greenpeace petition, Trader Joe’s is phasing out single-use plastics. Will Field Fresh Chopped Salad with Grilled Chicken return to my lunch bag one day?

water fountain with bottle filling station on cliffs overlooking ocean
Water fountain on West Cliff Drive

Wondering how you can join this bandwagon? Reduce, reuse, recyle is the mantra here. With appreciation to the Church of England, here are some specific tips:

  • Treat yourself to a travel mug and a water bottle. (Then remember to take them with you!) Bonus points if you also get a metal or bamboo straw.
  • Bring your own shopping bags, and consider buying reusable mesh bags for produce.
  • Shop at the farmer’s market.
  • Get acquainted with the bulk bins at your health food store.
  • Avoid processed foods.
  • Join a local food co-op or CSA (community supported agriculture). In Santa Cruz, the Live Earth Farm CSA uses no plastic in their weekly boxes of fresh organic produce. 
  • Rinse and re-use ziplock bags.
  • Planning a picnic, party, or potluck? Consider compostable plates and utensils. Bonus points, though, if you can figure out a way to use real dishes!

Of course, only consider practices that you can afford and have time for. Dwelling in the Kingdom of Enough means caring for our common home, but also living your life in a way that’s sustainable for you.

To circle back to the story at the beginning, picture me at an elegant restaurant on Cannery Row. Would it be embarrassing to pull a reusable plastic container out of my purse when the waiter asks if he can box my leftovers? What do you think? When it comes to food and drink in general, how do you avoid single-use plastics? Please comment!

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Mary Camille Thomas

Mary Camille Thomas is a native of Santa Cruz, California who considers herself lucky to be back after living in Davis, Germany, Los Angeles, Holland, and on the road in a motorhome. She is a librarian by profession, and her poetry has appeared in Sisters Singing: Blessings, Prayers, Art, Songs and Sacred Stories by Women. She is is currently working on a novel called Schatz and a collection of poems of the spirit.

3 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Giving Up Plastic”

  1. You can add “Repair” to reduce, reuse, recyle. There’s a movement to support companies which continue making parts for their products long after the “good till” date. Last year we celebrated a “plastic-free” Christmas, giving our family cotton mesh produce bags and silicone covers to replace plastic bags and plastic wrap. About leftovers at restaurants, we used to laugh at my mother-in-law who took plastic boxes and bags to restaurants and one time asked for leftover soup to be put in her bag! She lived through the depression and knew how to save. Obviously, she was before her time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If not Mardi Gras, what about St. Patrick’s Day? The image of you basking in bubble wrap is too good to miss. Continue the good word and keep us posted.

    Like

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