What I learned during No Plastic September

Hello Simple Year friends! This is Trisha — my Simple Year project was a zero waste year, which you can find under the Year 5 tab above. Alex still appears to be MIA, but we are holding out hope that she will pick back up … eventually.

Once upon a time, like in 2016, I was ON IT on the zero waste front. And I’m still pretty on it as far as all that goes. I take my reusable bags to the grocery store, my Klean Kanteen travel mug continues to serve my coffee needs (that thing is 7 years old!) and I’m not interested in keeping up with the Joneses so I don’t require new stuff all the time.

I like my old stuff, actually. It’s fine.

But there has been, shall we say, some slippage since our family’s zero waste year ended. Some of that is beyond my control: I have A LOT of food sensitivities and that requires me to purchase special items so I can, like, live and stuff. (Hello, favorite rice cracker!) But a lot of it is well within my control and I’ve just gotten lazy. (No jars for bulk? Eh, let’s just grab this paper bag.)

I was scrolling through the internets in early September and came across a blog post on one woman’s plans for No Plastic September. And I was like, Wait a minute, that’s a thing? What is this about? Because this kind of challenge is right up my alley … and also perhaps needed to get me back on my previous track.

Searches revealed that No Plastic September might be about not buying anything in plastic for a month … or it might be about refusing straws … or it might be about using reusables instead of to-go items. I couldn’t find any definitive answers, which was great because that meant I could make it whatever I needed it to be.

I decided to focus on the following:

Eliminating single use plastics. I took this to mean things like paper coffee cups (which are coated on the inside with plastic) and their corresponding plastic paraphanelia (lids, straws), plastic bags at the market, to-go containers, plastic silverware, and products that are wrapped in, lined with or are entirely made of plastic (yogurt containers, potato chip bags, cereal). I don’t generally use these items, so the goal was to simply notice when these situations came up so I could do better next time — or refuse on the spot if possible.

And that worked pretty well. I may not have been able to forgo boxes of rice crackers, but I could pass up the potato chips.

Using my own silverware, napkins and cups. I do a lot of this anyway — it became a habit after our zero waste year. So I have a reusable water bottle, coffee canteen and even a glass to-go cup for iced coffee emergencies.

I am not always great about planning ahead. I mean, yes, I am fantastic about that when I’m packing a lunch in my reusable containers. I am not so great about it when I get snacky and end up at the store. I’m also not great at making sure Johanna has her reusables — she’s also got cups and straws and the whole works … at home.

I had one system breakdown — I had planned to take a lunch break one afternoon at a favorite café and ended up having to get food to go (newspaper deadline that day was a nightmare and I wasn’t able to leave the office). I got the plastic-lined paper box, but I have silverware wrapped in a cloth napkin in my desk, so I saved that bit, at least.

Oh, wait, two system breakdowns: Johanna visited my office a couple of times and walked down to the coffee shop for an iced Americano. In a to-go cup. Twice. Rats.

Focus on food storage. I don’t have many plastic containers left in the house — there are a few that have survived years of being packed in the girls’ lunches, and Eric has a set that he packs his lunches in every day. Most of our leftovers are stored in jars (Abby said her college friends who visited this summer were fascinated by all of our jars. That made me laugh. Apparently that’s not typical storage behavior?), and I’m not above putting a plate over a bowl and sticking that in the fridge. But because these behaviors are automated, I don’t tend to notice when plastic sneaks in. So for this one, the goal was to take notice.

The points of entry here were other people being generous. I have a hard time feeling bad about that.

Mostly what I learned after a month on high alert is that paying attention is key because it’s when I don’t that plastic leaks in. There is much I am proud of … and much I can still work on. Eh, we’ll just continue with No Plastic October.

For those also intrigued but maybe don’t have the running start that we do,* some ideas:

Refuse straws. Just say no to plastic straws. Why? READ THIS.

Avoid fast food. It’s all single use containers, and all coated in plastic.

BYOC. Bring your own cup. Or mug. It’s astounding how much waste goes into that daily cup of coffee (HERE). Bottled water is also a scam and is also dripping in plastic (HERE). This is actually a fairly easy habit to get into — and honestly, just doing this all September if it’s not something you’ve ever done before would be amazing.

BYOB. Bring your own bag. I’ve been jacked to see more people with cloth produce bags lately — but just bringing a cloth bag to the grocery store and eliminating all of that plastic? That would also be amazing (HERE).

And just to get it out there, I realize that sometimes, you really do need plastic, like with patient care. I am pro plastic in these instances. It’s for the safety of everyone. What I’m talking about eliminating here are household plastics, coffee shop plastics, that kind of thing. We don’t need to be perfect; we just need to be better. I’ve talked with a lot of people who get caught up on doing things perfectly and then, when they mess up (as we all do), they get discouraged and just quit.

Did you learn to walk in a day? No.

From mistakes comes growth. That’s cheesy as hell, you guys, but it’s so true: Every failure is a learning experience. You’ll do better next time.

*We did a zero waste year, for crying out loud. I’ve eliminated most disposables and replaced them already with reusables — over time. The point of this exercise is NOT to toss all your plastic, run to the store and purchase new stuff. DO NOT BUY NEW STUFF. Or rather, yeah, you might need to buy new stuff (may I recommend a travel mug?) but you won’t know what you need for a while. I made the mistake of buying into the idea that to be zero waste — to eliminate the plastic — I needed to get “zero waste stuff.” What I really should have done was waited; I’d have made much better purchases if I had. Or not purchased items at all.

Learn from my mistakes!