Re-Thinking Our Complicated Relationship With Plastic
odds & ends·
5 min read
by Toni Brannagan | April 25, 2019
Although most of us are doing basic eco-friendly things like recycling, and are aware of the harmful effects of pollution, it’s difficult to imagine our actions as individuals making any sort of difference.
Consider plastic waste, a huge contributor to climate change. Even the most eco-friendly people can’t completely avoid plastic bags, cups, and straws, but there are some preeetty simple options to reduce your own single-use plastic — doing a little (and figuring out what works for your lifestyle) is always better than doing nothing!
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t have the closest relationship with dear old Mother Earth myself. She’s like an old college friend who I liked well enough, but our lives just don’t really cross paths. Every once in a while I’ll think “Hey, we should really catch up,” we’ll meet up for a pitcher of beer I’ll pretend to like, and then we won’t speak again for another 6 months. Except remembering my Trader Joe’s tote every other time I go grocery shopping does not raze the burgeoning forest of straws that has surely spawned in a landfill somewhere from all my iced coffees and cocktails. Maybe this isn’t the best metaphor.
Point being: I’m really not in the position to be giving anyone advice about seeking a more sustainable lifestyle, so I hit up a bunch of kick-ass ladies who are definitely more attuned to nature than my plastic-toting, fast fashion-wearing self to help me out.
they paved paradise and put up a parking lot
Image courtesy Vanessa Boshoff
It’s one thing to vaguely hear statistics about how humans generate an absurd amount of trash (Americans specifically produce nearly double the global average), and another to witness firsthand how our waste is rapidly changing the world. New York City, where I live, might as well be one big trash can — NYC’s version of a tumbleweed is best described by Katy Perry’s evocative lyric, “A plastic bag floating through the wind.” The city is already completely saturated with garbage, and I barely notice it. But if you think all our debris is limited to areas with high population density, you should talk to the women of Homeward Bound, a leadership and science initiative for women that recently completed a two-week voyage to Antarctica.
“Plastic pollution is everywhere, including all of the places you least expect it — from the bottom of the deep ocean to the pristine environment of Antarctica,” says Justine Barrett, a post-grad student studying for a Masters in Antarctic and Marine Science.
Vanessa Boshoff, a wildlife and environmental film/TV producer at VisionHawk Films, can relate: “I was filming on remote islands of San Blas off the Atlantic coast of Panama, with an indigenous tribe, the Gunas. Such pristine turquoise waters, and then these white sand islands rimmed with plastic and trash, coming from all corners of the world. The Guna women gather every day to pick it up, and they told me, ‘Here we are — dealing with other people’s waste…and we have no place to put it.’ The Gunas are struggling not just with the trash, but with climate change: every year the ocean levels rise, their islands sink lower into the ocean. Scientists say they have about 20-30 years before they will be forced to the mainland. None of this is their fault, but they are suffering from this firsthand.”
starting a new cycle
Image courtesy Vanessa Boshoff
Just to see how many disclaimers I can fit into one post, I’m gonna repeat that I could stand to walk the walk a whooole lot more. There’s plenty of information about eco-friendliness out there, and I’m aware that while New York City is a literal dumpster, there are a million resources I could be relying on (farmers markets, composts, etc.) to be a more active friend to the Earth.
Tyrene Reidl, an interpretive naturalist with Yellowstone Forever, hit me up with a whole bunch of other easy, affordable suggestions, including shorter showers, turning off the tap while you brush your teeth, watering plants in the morning/evening for minimal evaporation, and arming yourself with the research you need to green-up your daily routine.
As an extra incentive, your break-up with plastic will actually save you $$$! Grocers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods offer rewards for visitors who bring their own bags, and let’s be real, bottled water is the biggest scam ever.
“Having a water bottle to refill rather than buying one is easy once you get into the habit. That part isn’t difficult unless you leave it at the house!” suggests a member of WOOT (Women Out On Trails), an international running group. “Just feeling guilty that we can't do more might be the hardest part. It's tough seeing the sea life wrapped in bags but we can all make a difference.”
making it personal
Image courtesy Vanessa Boshoff
If you’re truly committed to living a greener life, it’s worth taking a good, honest look at your day-to-day habits. (It’s also definitely worth acknowledging that we all lead different lives — what works for someone else might not fit for you, and that’s okay!)
For example, Caylee Reid, another explorer who is currently hiking the Appalachian trail, found that it’s actually more difficult to eliminate single-use plastic from her routine — but she has a game plan, “I try to reuse as much of the plastic as I can. I rinse my plastic bags and continue using them until they fall apart. Packing out trash makes you very aware of how much you're producing. Hikers were legitimately excited about passing roadside bathrooms to dump their waste.”
As a city dweller, I’m not particularly self-aware about how much waste I produce in a week, or even a day. Inspired, I started recording my own habits, and pinpointed two areas where I could stand to cut down.
One, like I’ve mentioned, I definitely buy waaaayyy too much iced coffee in plastic cups. This is a pretty easy fix, and mostly a result of laziness on my part — it’s really not that difficult to carry around a cup, and many of the women I spoke to also suggested investing in reusable straws made of stainless steel or bamboo. Elise says it best, “While recycle and reuse are nice, the key is reduce.”
the future is free-bleeding
Image courtesy Homeward Bound
Two on my wastefulness list was a little more complicated for me to confront — the ridiculous amount of trash I produce during my period. It kinda sucks that people with periods also have to consider sustainability, especially since our wastefulness isn’t simply a personal habit like using K-cups (side note: k-cups are terrible). The stigmatization of periods definitely contributes to how they’re managed.
For example, a lot of young people—and some of us older ones too!—hide their tampons, pads, and wrappers (even plastic applicators!) in excessive amounts of toilet paper. We’ve also been raised with such an aversion to periods that many people shy away from sustainable options like menstrual cups because they have yet to unlearn disgust at handling their own blood…slowly raises hand.
Not to preach to the choir, but using THINX (Have you peeped our new color celebrating Earth Day yet?) has been a game-changer. For me, there was nothing more irritating than wasting panty-liners on days I wasn’t sure if I would bleed or not.
Best thing about a sustainable period routine? “My cycle does not need to contribute to the plastic patch!” says Vanessa. Seriously, if you’re still not ready to hop on the plastic-free periods train, check out this cute story about “Jersey Beach Whistles.”
It can be preeetty difficult to discuss eco-friendly periods when no one wants to talk about bleeding in general. But making small changes will always be more useful than just doing nothing — that goes for environmentalism and activism. Elyse says it best: “Even if your actions are small, if everyone does the same thing it will become a large-scale problem. But this works the other way, too. I try my best to never take the attitude that just one person can’t change things, because they can.”
Have you kicked (or improved upon) any wasteful habits? Share your tips with us in the comments!
by Toni Brannagan