Christina Cilento is an associate policy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. She was a 2021 fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute and previously worked on sustainable development in Vientiane, Laos.
Last year, I resolved to reduce my consumption of plastic in every way I could. I’ve been an environmental advocate for many years, but after living and traveling across Southeast Asia, inhaling fumes from burning plastic in Laos and witnessing heaps of trash choking Manila Bay, plastic pollution was no longer an “out of sight, out of mind” problem for me. I learned that the United States generates the most plastic waste of any country, that less than 10 percent of it is successfully recycled, and that much of it gets offloaded overseas for other nations to deal with. Inspired by the Malaysian and Philippine governments, both of which famously rejected barges of plastic trash sent to them by wealthier nations, I decided it was time to treat this glut of disposables as my problem, not someone else’s. So I supercharged my efforts back home in 2021.
I very nearly eliminated online shopping. I stopped eating things that I could only find in plastic (goodbye tofu) or made my own instead (hello homemade yogurt). I got a deodorant wrapped in paper (it does little to control pit odor but makes me feel good). And I drove myself and my family crazy sourcing groceries, which, in suburban Pennsylvania, meant shopping for milk in glass bottles from one store, loose mushrooms from another, and bulk grains from a third. (I know, I know, not great for gas consumption.)
Despite my efforts, I still ended up consuming way more plastic than I wanted to. Eco-guilt washed over me with every unnecessary wrapper, utensil, and container, tightening my chest and dampening my mood. But what I realized is that most of the time it was not my fault. Our culture has become one of quick consumption and disposability, in which plastic is often equated with convenience — and thanks to COVID-19, safety — making it virtually impossible for me to succeed at my resolution.
For example, I once called ahead to a local restaurant to ask if I could bring reusable containers for a takeout order. My mom and I drove there with Pyrex for our sandwiches and fries and reusable lidded cups for milkshakes. As we transferred our food from the restaurant’s plates to our containers, my heart sank as I saw our milkshakes had been blended in Styrofoam cups, not metal. We poured the shakes in our reusable cups; the Styrofoam went in the trash.
The one time I got food delivered was worse. A friend wanted to order cookies à la mode — she insisted it would come in a cardboard box like pizza. This was true, but three scoops of ice cream were packaged in their own individual containers with plastic lids, and each topping came in even smaller individual plastic containers: one for a dollop of whipped cream, one for a spoonful of mini chocolate chips, one for a single maraschino cherry. I was so baffled by the waste that I couldn’t focus on the taste.
Plastic was inescapable even when sitting down at a restaurant, as pandemic protocols have prompted more wrap and disposables even long after fears of surface transmission were allayed. At one place, I accepted an offer of hot sauce and instead of a bottle got two single-portion containers of chili flakes and Sriracha. It bothered me for the rest of the night.
The most frustrating thing about this year was that my success depended a lot on others, and I couldn’t always control what they did. Even when I brought my own containers to a restaurant for takeout, explaining that I didn’t want to use plastic, sauces packaged in vehicles of marine death were thrown in with my order. When I assured a well-meaning retail cashier that I could stuff all my purchases in an already bulging canvas tote, they still insisted on putting my items in an inordinately large plastic bag.
Sure, there were times I willingly relented — like when a friend treated me to dinner at a vegan restaurant that exclusively used plastic disposables, and I couldn’t just up and leave. But what I’ve realized is that, regardless of how hard we try, we as individual consumers do not have full control over our polymer consumption. Systems are simply not set up to allow us to opt out.
Everywhere I went this year, I made people’s lives difficult by asking for things that were outside the ordinary. At the farmer’s market: “If I took these green beans out of this bag and gave it back to you, would you reuse it?” On the phone with the grocery store deli: “If I want two roasted chickens but I don’t want them packaged, could you set them aside for me and then put them in a gigantic pot that I’ll bring with me when I get there?” Our society has favored quick, convenient transactions that are enabled by disposability, and challenging that norm took an inordinate amount of foreplanning, time, and energy. It is absurd to ask an average person to expend that effort.
What we need are systems that make plastic the exception, not the rule. Grocery chains in South Africa, New Zealand, and elsewhere have done away with most plastic packaging in their produce aisles. Several cities in Northern California are requiring restaurants to provide proper plates, cups, and utensils for on-site dining. And a wealth of businesses are starting to offer reuse services, like equipping cafes with to-go mugs that customers can use and return to any participating location, without having to remember to bring their own. The possibilities for a future that doesn’t depend on plastic are endless, but one thing is clear: Without this kind of systemic change, my resolution will remain virtually unattainable.
It would be justifiable to give up after this year, knowing the odds are stacked against conscious consumers, but I’m determined to keep going. Because every oddball thing I manage to get unpackaged is a piece of ocean litter avoided. Every incredibly accommodating grocery worker who gives a thoughtful nod when I explain why I’m asking them to stuff pieces of cod in a Tupperware for me is another person who might think more critically about the role of plastic in their own lives. In 2022, I resolve to think bigger than myself and work harder to change the single-use systems around me, in addition to my own behavior. I might be destined to fail again, but I strongly believe there’s power in trying.
The views expressed here reflect those of the authors.
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