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!

Never Again

On the day of the student walkout to protest gun violence, I was scheduled to staff the reference desk at ten a.m., a responsibility I could not reasonably forego. Early in the morning, I huddled with other staff. What could we do in the library? Lakshmi suggested we use our new intercom system to ask for a moment of silence. This might sound oxymoronic in a library, but at ten in the morning the Foothill College library is bustling with students checking out books, asking questions at the reference desk, and chatting with each other. Nevertheless, we agreed to try it.

And so, as hundreds of students, faculty, and staff streamed out of their classrooms and offices and headed to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I heard my own trembling voice echo through the library, “In memory of those who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago, please join the library staff in standing for a moment of silence.” The names of the seventeen victims stood on a list at the reference desk, remembered now by strangers here on the other side of the country from where they fell. I looked around. Some students went on about their business, but many others took a break from their books, devices, friends, and together we all stood without speaking or doing. I let two minutes pass before I switched the intercom on again, thanked everyone, and reminded them of the gathering in the plaza.

Over and done, but outside was a different story. Not two minutes, but seventeen. One minute for each life lost on February 14th. A minute is nothing compared to a life, and yet, it is something. Those holding silence were not monks or hermits, but young people bursting with energy, community college students juggling classes with jobs and families; they were professors accustomed to lecturing, for whom every minute of class time is precious, needed for the knowledge they want to impart and the experiences they want to create for their students. Friends who were there later told me that a sociology professor tolled the minutes with a Tibetan singing bowl, and each minute more people streamed into the plaza. Wind blustered, footsteps fell on pavement, bodies shuffled, but no one spoke as the bell resounded across the crowd.

This had been happening since seven a.m. when the walkouts started on the east coast, a wave of silence sweeping across the entire country. Honor and protest and hope are the gifts of those seventeen minutes, multiplied ten thousand times. May the silence bear fruit.