How is your trash doing? Odds are you threw away something made of plastic today. Versatile, durable, cheap—plastic is everywhere. The average American throws away 185 lbs of plastic per year, 40% of which is single–use. Less than 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. Most of it ends up in the ocean, choking turtles and forming giant islands of trash.

Of course I care about the environment, but how much of that belief translates to my every–day actions? I walk to most of my destinations, eat vegetarian and carry a trendy metal water bottle. Nevertheless, my compulsive Amazon orders and restaurant take–out boxes negate the minimal effort I put into being “green.” That changed this week. I decided to live plastic–free for seven days to reduce my ecological footprint—or at least, try to.

The Challenge: Eliminate all single–use plastic. This means no plastic cutlery, cups, straws, plastic bags, food containers or any other form of plastic that gets used once before getting tossed into the landfill. 

Armed with a 24 oz coffee thermos and my canvas lunch bag, I set out to live a greener life (and kept the thought of turtles struggling for air at the forefront of my mind).

Day 1: 

8:20 am: I plan accordingly, knowing that lunch and coffee were the main culprits behind my use of plastic. Bright and early, I carefully pack a glass pyrex dish with leftovers from last night’s dinner, being sure to grab a metal fork. (Meal prep is life.) I arm myself with my coffee thermos and head to Metropolitan Bakery, where I receive a discount for bringing my own mug.

12:10 pm: I pick up the 5 textbooks that I panic–ordered at Penn Bookstore. “Two bags good?” Before I can say anything, the man behind the register stuffs the books into two plastic bags.  Each book is already individually wrapped in plastic. Great. I've failed the challenge before lunch. I'm careful for the rest of the day, focusing on doing better tomorrow.

Day 2

9:35 am: “Brought your own? Let me fill it up!” The smiling woman at the Saxbys counter tops up my thermos with piping hot Sumatra coffee. Caffeine in hand, I’m invigorated for a new plastic–free day.

1:40 pm: Sitting on a bench outside Huntsman, I scarf down the measly amount of eggplant and hummus I had packed for lunch. I’m pleased that I’m using a glass container and metal fork, despite my weak meal prep attempt. 

3:05 pm: I pass by the farmer’s market outside the Penn Bookstore and purchase a cardboard punnet of juicy red plums, locally sourced and free of plastic wrap. An environmentally savvy treat.

5:20 pm: Hungry but high on plastic–free moral superiority I head back home. At the entrance, I trip over two massive cardboard boxes from Amazon. My duvet cover, foam mattress pad, towel set and toiletries are finally here. (Yikes.. I ordered this stuff last week—does it count?) I open my box to find two bottles of face wash encased in mounds of bubble wrap. 

Day 3: 

1:15 pm: Didn't learn yesterday's lesson—lunch was too small again. The quinoa and eggplant wasn’t cutting it. Tummy rumbling, I cave and get a vanilla yogurt. The barista hands me my yogurt and plastic spoon, wrapped in—you guessed it—more plastic. 

8:40 pm: Checking out at Frogro, I try to figure out how to stuff black beans, pasta, bell peppers, peanut butter, cereal and carton of milk in my overflowing tote bag. Not gonna happen. I sheepishly accept the double–bagged groceries and head home. Those 4 bags are then sadly stuffed into my cupboard of plastic bags within plastic bags.

Day 4: 

8:27: "Are you sure about that?" The cashier at CVS asks, a touch concerned, as I attempt to balance shampoo, conditioner,  and a box of tampons atop the bulky bundle of toilet paper rolls wedged between my arms.  "All good," I manage, waddling out the store, head held high—we're saving plastic bags and the whales today. There's not much I can do about the single–use plastic that makes up the tampons, though.

7:20: Working after dinner in Stommons. So far so good, not a shred of plastic sent to the landfill. Then I realize I forgot my metal water bottle... and there isn’t a single water fountain in sight. I resign myself to a plastic bottle from Gourmet Grocer. Alright. It's time to call it quits, I think to myself. 

Takeaways

  1. Plastic is everywhere and can sometimes be unavoidable.

A single grocery store trip can add up to 5 plastic bags, or 10 if they’re double bagged. Food packaging makes avoiding single–use plastics impossible. Even though I pretty much failed to live plastic–free, the challenge made me more aware of what I was consuming.

2. Plastic is so damn convenient. 

Farah Contractor (C‘19), president of Penn Vegan Society, sees waste as a major issue for Penn. "It's student culture," she says, "Everything is made for being on the go.” Rushing to class, the library, club meetings, and more, there's little time to sit down and eat, let alone meal prep and worry about minimizing plastic waste. As awful for the environment as it is, it's certainly more convenient for students, especially for those who don't have a kitchen in their dorms, to buy a plastic food container, scarf down the contents, and toss it.

3. Small easy changes have a big impact.

Going cold-turkey with plastic just wasn’t feasible. I’d be stranded in Van Pelt, hungry with Mark’s plastic wrapped sandwiches or a plastic container of yogurt as my only options. However, there are easy steps Penn students can take to reduce their plastic consumption. Carrying a reusable cup for coffee is a big one.

Faran Savitz (C'19), former co–director of Penn Green, agrees: “Bring your own reusable coffee cups. A lot of coffee shops use number 6 plastics [AKA styrofoam], which can’t be recycled.”  My metal coffee thermos helped me save 7 coffee cups, lids, and straws from the landfill in just 4 days. Carrying a lunchbox, a coffee canister, and a metal water bottle require more planning and clean–up, but it's worth it. 

4. Recycle your damn trash.

Hannah Sanders (C’19), former president of Penn Environmental Group, sees student negligence as the problem. She explains, “The reason Penn doesn’t have good recycling is because students don’t stop to separate their recycling. They throw trash in whatever bin. If recycling is contaminated, it all goes into the landfill.”

Penn as a whole is fairly green with energy efficient buildings, recycling and composting initiatives. However, there are a few steps the Penn administration could take to encourage greener student behavior, as simple as making it easier for students to throw trash out into the right receptacles. For some of the recycling bins, the holes aren't even large enough to fit a salad container.

Here's how my week ended up looking in terms of amount of plastic I saved.

How much plastic I used:

  • 2 plastic bags
  • 1 plastic bottle
  • 1 plastic fork
  • 1 grape cup
  • 1 salad bowl
  • 1 yogurt container 
  • Shit ton of Amazon packaging—yikes

How much plastic I saved:

  • 7 coffee cups + 7 plastic lids
  • 14 forks, 
  • 4 spoons 
  • 10 knifes
  • 5 food containers
  • 10 plastic bags

And next week, maybe I'll do even better.


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