no more plastic

My Highly Virtuous Week Without Plastic

It turns out entirely avoiding single-use plastic is just as hard as it sounds.

Photo: MONTY_RAKUSEN/Getty Images/Cultura RF
Photo: MONTY_RAKUSEN/Getty Images/Cultura RF

One average afternoon on this cursed earth, after my friend Celina told me she’d met an elegant doctor who wasn’t buying any plastic for a whole month, I surprised us all by saying: oh yes, I too will do that.

Probably wanton use of plastic is not even my gravest environmental sin. I live in Los Angeles, where I take showers and drive. I love steak. But disposable plastic (1) is unpleasurable (2) filters through my life unconsciously. And I’m a graduate student at an art school. If an elegant doctor can de-plastic, I certainly can.

So as it’s time to radically restructure human behavior on a global scale or enter the inferno, I became monomaniacal about solving one small specific error in one small specific life. I decide to go cold turkey, for one week.

The hard boundary is that I won’t buy any plastic. Not a takeout order, not a birthday card sold in a protective sheaf. My broader, softer (and harder) goal is: entirely avoiding plastic that’s designed to be worn out or replaced. No mascara tubes, no showy spandex pants, no Teflon pans. Still, I will be reasonable. I’m not hauling my own wooden chair to class. I also refuse jangle up anyone else’s plans or life. If someone, say, gives me a little plastic sculpture they made for me, I will probably tell them: Thank you.

Welcome to Wednesday: Day One of My Heroic Purity

7:15 a.m. Before leaving for a work trip, my boo brings me a delicious surprise coffee in bed. I look at my person and the plastic coffee lid and think: ffffuuuuuuggghhhhcckk. Yesterday, I learned that even the inside of these cups are coated in plastic.

By now I’ve already started this experiment like six times —  I’ll be fumbling along, avoiding all plastic, then it’s like the jolt in Russian Doll and I’m at the sink holding a plastic tube of toothpaste, starting from scratch again.

I could make excuses for months. So I take the coffee, I say good-bye, I drink the coffee, and I decide to deal with the toothpaste later.

My logical mind resists buying a ton of new supplies in order to produce less waste, but I assemble a very small Decent Zero-Waste Starting Kit:
A to-go set of bamboo cutlery
Reusable wax wraps
Reusable zipper bags

8:15 For my first shower, I’m prepared to use a bar of soap. I brush my teeth with baking soda. My toothbrush has been Non-Plastic since Christmas, when my dad excitedly gave me one designed specifically for left-handed people (there’s a slight curve to suit the left palm). As with left-handed scissors, it’s not hard for us to use your tools, but we do feel very considered when you think about us.

11:00 a.m. Teeth-cleaning appointment! I ask the dentist about alternatives to plastic floss. She recommends silk floss or a water pik. Did you know that regular citizens are allowed to own those? Our consumer rights are expansive.

12:45 p.m. I write notes with a plastic pen, like a cheat.

2:15 p.m. I have late class Wednesday, so I usually cook a delicious big dinner to cheer myself when I’m pouty later. I gotta use some nearly sad parsnips and carrots today. Coconut milk comes in a can; ginger has no packaging! What an amazing coincidence. I carefully splat the leftovers into their own jars. Jars are a very tidy, secure food-storage system.

4:00 p.m. Library time. I’m reading a used copy of Clarice Lispector stories, and my predecessor has made little delicate notes in the margin with a pencil. I can tell from the underlines we have nothing in common.

8:15 p.m. I forget my leftovers and bamboo cutlery at home. I need to find a meal in the school café that doesn’t require utensils. I am relegated to big slices of pizza. Cool!

Thursday: Day Two of Heroic Purity

7:45 a.m. Bar soap lather is so rich, yet its residue, so icky.

Today, I wash my hair with bars of shampoo and conditioner. I can feel that the conditioner bar is not working, like I knew it wouldn’t. I have wild curls that need to be really moisturized. I miss my regular goos.

One day in, the areas of my life that seem most affected by disposable plastic are: meals, clothes, and showers. These are true joys of my day-to-day operations.

In the scheme of climate change, I know that plastic is a red herring. My personal eradication of plastic is but one fleck of glitter (a micro-plastic, of course) at the rave: it’s extremely tiny, negligible, and maybe misdirecting attention away from The Main Concern. But we are people capable of many things at once. I can deal with my glitter speck and also have plenty of time to get furious at some Congressfolk, which I am all the time anyway.

8 a.m. I use: organic hair ties (they have a really good spring); a deodorant that’s plastic-neutral (you’re meant to keep the canister and buy replacements); lotion from a recyclable bin; and a hair butter sold in a tin.

8:09 a.m. I don’t trust how that hair butter is drying on my curls at all! I use my old stuff from it’s big round plastic tub. Is this what makes me a modern hero, that I falter?

10:15 a.m. Skulking around the kitchen, I have Terminator Vision for plastics. The drawers in the fridge. The tops of glass bottles of sauce! Nothing is pure. The wrapper around unopened turmeric. The trash cans (though I’m using Public Goods’ semi-biodegradable bags). I’ve entered myself into a plastic-is-lava game with the world. My hand recoils.

Things I Look Up to See If They Are Plastic:
· Rubber (yes/no)
· Chip bags (usually aluminum but laminated with plastic)
· Styrofoam (yes)
· Book covers (pages of unhelpful results)
· Latex (no, but it’s not great)
· Mattresses (partially)
· Sneakers (unintelligible results, but the vibe was yes)
· Umbrellas (probably yes)
· Wax paper (clearly it is not)

I am all over this extremely helpful website, Plastic Free Life run by Beth Terry. Almost every time I look up “plastic free alternative for EVERY LITTLE THING,” I’m led to Beth. She has a book and she is resourceful.

2:30 p.m. With the natural deodorants, it’s always fingers crossed that it works, so here’s my update. A chill friend said: Yeah you smell good.

7:30 p.m. It took all my early 20s to become loyal to an eyeliner. Regrettably, this perfect eyeliner has plastic all around it. Deciding that it’s too wasteful feels like a breakup. I use a tin of eye coal from Fat & The Moon and it’s pretty fun. How cruelly and quickly I move on!

7:45 p.m. Dinner at Ma’am Sir. We order a feast and I worry: how will I transport the leftovers? I resolve to keep vessels in my car. I imagine the spectacle of running back into the restaurant with two glass jars and sheepishly pressing them in the server’s hands. But then, we eat everything!

11:30 p.m. A dreaded nadir: facing my big plastic floss picks. I hated flossing until I found this big boys. Also silk floss, in the words of my friend Martha: “the bougiest thing I could imagine.” It seems even more wasteful, in a royal way, to have single-use silk product. Also it’s hard to get floss to land in a trash can? It has a different relationship to gravity, I think?

Photo: Chris Ryan/Getty Images/Caiaimage

Friday: Day 3 of My Plucky Lark of Ethical Consumption in Late-Capitalism

7:45 a.m. I look at the bar of soap when I get into a shower and feel unthrilled.

8:30 a.m. Jars jars jar jars, I love jars. I have leftover stew for breakfast because I am my own captain. I learn a favorite shop in L.A., Otherwild, is opening a lo-waste general store to help with plastic-avoidance responsible shopping.

Things I Am So Thankful Do Not Involve Plastic:
· My dry shampoo
· Butter
· The water filter my roommate has
· Pickle jars
· Q-tips

6:00 p.m. My mesh produce bags arrive! They’re strong, finely knit mesh and I have a plan to grocery shop on Saturday morning, the first time since my No Plastic Vow. I promised two friends that I’d make them chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. I think about all of the plastic-wrapped chicken thighs I’ve bought before and strategize about containers I should bring to the butcher.

10:22 Before my friend Vanessa’s birthday party, I brush my teeth with my old real toothpaste because, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s no anxiety like wondering if your toothpaste alternative isn’t working. These past few days I’ve been trying all sorts of tooth-cleansing serums, powdered toothpaste, and charcoal tooth polish (black zombie spit!!) all comes in glass vials.

11:45 p.m. Trying my hardest to light a cigarette with the matches on a windy patio, someone with bold earrings and cool hair actively intervenes with her plastic lighter. I tell her I’m not doing that this week and she says, “Your cigarette is made out of plastic!”

Is it?

She shrugs and says, “Everything is made out of plastic. Clothes, whatever. It’s like sex, where do you draw the line? We were fucked and it’s never going to go away.”

I lit my cigarette from a cigarette held by her cute Hannah Arendt–looking friend.

1 a.m. I realize I have been drinking out of a plastic cup for an hour. Oh well! More please!

1:45 a.m. I leave. My informative cigarette pal wishes me “good luck with your plastic!” Then she grabs my arm firmly, intently stares at me and sings: “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world. It’s made of plastic. It’s fantastic.” Our hymn from a simpler time.

UGRGH It’s Saturday: Day 4 of Battling the American Supply Chain

7:15 a.m. It’s raining in L.A. My newspaper is wrapped in two plastic sheaths.

9:45 a.m. There’s a piece of floss outside of my car door. It’s not mine, but it proves my point from earlier re: gravity.

10:15 a.m. This is my first grocery trip. Important advice I got was to not go to Trader Joe’s. There’s nothing for me there. Even the things in boxes are in bags inside the boxes.

I highly recommend the mesh nets! I learn the tare weight of my jars for dried goods. The butcher puts the chicken in a paper thing and I don’t need the canister I had brought. I’m excited to get boxes of pasta, and then see that all of them have these little plastic windows so we can see what we’re getting. I’m infuriated about this. Vice is everywhere.

I stare at the counter of cheese so longingly. There are no options. “Figure Out Cheese” becomes an unresolved note on my phone.

7:15 p.m. My boo is getting back from Chicago tonight and I want to feed them. Really, I want to order Thai from Night Market Song. Instead, I scavenge the pantry and use pasta (grandfathered-in), lemon, parsley, half a summer sausage I forgot about. It’s fine. We put leftovers in jars.

8:45 p.m. I’ve been using Rose Salve as lip balm, because it comes in a tin. I know I’ve had this one since high school. Is this unhygienic? God, probably, but waste not want not. My boo does not like flavored lip balm. I ask them to make sure so we kiss. The review is: “It’s … fine.” Nice!

Later, I get their review of my new toothpaste potion. “It’s nutmeg,” they say, “it’s not off-putting, but it’s not that crisp.” A haunting breath critique.

Photo: Armstrong Studios/Getty Images

Sunday: Day 5 of Trying

11:30 a.m. It’s time for running the dishwasher and laundry and lounging. Powder dish and laundry detergent are two of the easiest switches.

Here’s the thing about clothes though: every single time you wash clothes that contain polyester or elastic, thousands of micro-plastic fibers will enter the ocean. About a third of the micro-plastic in the ocean come from laundry waste. I was aware about clothes-plastic only enough to stop buying new garments, but I was avoiding learning that even washing ones I have is harmful even if it’s micro-harmful. It’s really that hardest sometimes to micro-admit to things you really already micro-knew.

1:15 p.m. I keep remembering a homemade flax lube recipe I saw in a zine (where else), and think: Ah, it’s always a little comforting to find your personal bridge too far.

7:15 p.m. Without even telling them about my vow, my friends bring zero-plastic offerings to dinner: wine, baguettes, and chocolate. Garlic dinner is great!

10 p.m. I sleep at my boo’s house and have to use the plastic toothbrush I left there. I find some baking soda as my paste. It tastes like it’s been in the fridge though I’m promised it was just in the spice cabinet. I’m not ecstatic.

Monday: Almost the Last Day of My Life As an Ethical Role Model

8:00 a.m. I confront my bralettes about their material makeup. They don’t fare well.

10:15 a.m. I confront my pens. I remember that in my box of things that are “too nice to use” I have a nice metal pen that my parents’ generous friends gave me for Christmas. Am I responsible enough to own just one thing?

The List of Things I Will Start to Acquire When My Current Plastic Versions Fail:
· Stainless-steel lunch boxes
· Q-tips in cardboard cases
· Phone case
· Biodegradable Band-Aids
· Cleaning tools
· Bamboo razor handle

Things That Are Very Hard to Find in Plastic-Free Alternatives:
· Mascara
· Plastic-free sunscreen

8:45 p.m. My boo and I go for treat oysters because of some stressful emailing one of us endured that morning. I go early with my book and then almost leave the book and my nice pen on the counter by the bar.

Tuesday: The Final Day, Bless the Good Sweet Passing of Time

11:45 a.m. I figure out cheese. A very patient person at the cheese counter tells me that I should come on the days when they cut the wheels and bring my own container. Soft cheese are cut Tuesday and Saturday, and Friday the hard cheeses are cut. Knowing this makes me feel French.

4 p.m. In the library, my friend brings me amazing leftover dumplings from her lunch. I have my bamboo cutlery ready to go!

10:30 p.m. Sprinkling a powder on my toothbrush, I truly can’t wait to use my big plastic bottle of nurturing hair conditioner tomorrow.

I’m actually into all the toothpaste alternatives. If I am not (1) about to be kissing, (2) talking to people with our faces close, or (3) in a new social environment, I’m happy to use the powders and serums. I could use the shampoo bar half the time I wash my hair; I’m happy to use the bar soap two-thirds of the time. In conclusion: I think I could actually give up plastic a week at a time every month.

And have I changed? I am certainly more super-attuned to plastic. Even better, I’ve gained a big twitchy aversion to it. But indulging can feel like a true treat. A couple nights after this week ended, I went to a friend’s friend’s plush, wonderful art installation. She’d sewn this enormous blue cushion the size of a room to lie on outside, and she served warming soups in little disposable cups with plastic spoons, and I felt lucky to be so flexible.

A Week Without Plastic