February 07, 2013

My Month Without Plastic: I Survived

The plastic waste generated during my month without plastics.
I made it! I survived a month "without" plastic. I managed to mostly avoid purchasing new plastic but still left a small trail of plastic waste behind (see the photo to the right).

It’s less than I expected, which is somewhat of a relief, but I still cringe when I think about this waste still being around for decades after this challenge is over.

We forget about our trash rather quickly when we throw something “away,” but “away” is still somewhere. One of the walls in the Burke's Plastics Unwrapped exhibit is covered with 3,000 plastic bags–the number used every single second by people like me, who hadn’t thought about the consequences of common consumption. I believe as people who can make choices for ourselves, we have a duty to become more aware of our impact and to make a change.

It’s virtually impossible to live a life free of plastic, but is that the best goal? Regional co-director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition and a graduate student at New York University, Max Liboiron said in an article in the Harvard Gazette that we now live in a plastic planet and that, “we need to consider how to manage the problem rather than envision a return to pre-plastic days.”

It doesn't take much looking around to spot examples of "the problem." In the past month, I realized there are certain stores I can no longer shop at because virtually everything, down to the fresh garlic, is packaged in plastic. Items that I previously thought were free of plastic, like canned goods, are lined with plastic. Things like sporks at fast food restaurants, the pressure guard that keeps the lid of the pizza box from squishing the pizza, the thin wrap around new coffee table books, individual potato wrapping (for real, I've seen it) and six pack holders for soda and beer cans. All of these are made of materials that will last hundreds of years. Why?? I think that if the item inside the packaging has an expiration date, then the packaging on the outside should have one too.

More and more companies are beginning to adjust the engineering of their packaging to be more environmentally responsible. I'm encouraged to see prototypes of new products that use little or no plastic or are made from recycled plastic waste. Seventh Generation has adjusted their laundry detergent packaging to use 66% less plastic packaging than a typical detergent bottle. Method Soap recently came out with a soap bottle partially made from plastic trash found in the ocean and on beaches. I believe that if we, as consumers, support these positive changes in packaging design, then things will continue to head in the right direction.

I’m sure to fall off and get back on the anti-plastics wagon in the future, but I've learned a lot about plastics in our environment and my connection to it as a consumer. I also learned that, ultimately, no one can change you but you. You have to take it upon yourself to put forth the effort so bad things are less likely to happen. Slowly, habits can change and improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We need only consider the life before us (and generations beyond) to motivate this change.

I invite you to come to the Burke and learn more about the impacts and benefits of plastics at the Plastics Unwrapped exhibit. And, if you come during the week, you'll have to swing by the back desk to say hi!

Thanks for reading and I hope this project has been of some help to you.

All the best,

About Samantha:
Sam is a self-proclaimed minimalist who loves to take on new challenges - especially ones that relate to her love of the Burke Museum. She's worked at the Burke for two and a half years, currently as our Operations Assistant.