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What I Learned From One Week of Documenting My Plastic Waste

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What I Learned From One Week of Documenting My Plastic Waste

By Emily Batdorf

We’ve all heard the statistics about plastic waste and pollution. We’ve seen pictures of sea birds with their beaks stuck in plastic bottle rings, or trash piling up on the beach of some beautiful, remote island. We know there’s plastic in our oceans, lakes, and streams.
 
But how much does a single person really contribute to this problem?
 
For one week, I tracked every piece of plastic waste I threw away and took a closer look at my consumer habits.

The Problem With Plastics

These days, plastic seems to be everywhere. From the packaging on your fresh produce to the lining of your to-go coffee cup, plastic has forced its way into many aspects of our lifestyles.
 
Plastic products are convenient, but they quickly become waste. And not the kind of waste that breaks down easily – plastics last for centuries after leaving our hands.

Single-Use Plastics

One big category of plastic waste is that of single-use plastics. These are items meant to be used once before being thrown out. Typically, they provide consumers with convenience, such as being light-weight, disposable, or sanitary.
 
Despite these benefits, single-use plastics have their faults. They’re part of more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic produced during the last seven decades. The use-and-dispose pattern of single-use plastic consumption is quite disturbing. For example, Americans throw out 2.5 million plastic water bottles each hour. You may even have heard scientists estimate there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Scientists estimate there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050

Microplastics
Rather than breaking down after leaving our hands, plastics break up into many tiny pieces known as microplastics. Microplastics can be found almost anywhere on the planet, including in the water that we drink.
 
The longevity of these plastics, even after they have broken up, is astounding. Remember, many plastic items are only used for a very short period of time. For example, I used my last disposable coffee cup for approximately 30 minutes before tossing it.
 
Even though we may not see them, microplastics can be harmful to humans and wildlife. When ingested, microplastics can cause organ damage in animals. Exposure to chemicals released as plastics break down can also be harmful to humans.

My Personal Plastic Problem

With these scary facts on my mind, I began an experiment to confront my own plastic consumption and waste. For one week, I counted each piece of plastic I threw away. I also categorized the plastic garbage into “packaging” and “single-use” categories. This helped me gain insight into how I was using these plastic products.

I didn’t count plastics I recycled – and I try to recycle as much as absolutely possible. But according to National Geographic, less than 10% of plastic is actually recycled – no matter how much we may send to the recycling facilities.
 
Learning this, I wish I had counted my recycled plastic as waste. I think doing so would paint a more accurate picture of what’s actually thrown away.

One Week of Plastic Waste, Day by Day

Day 1
2 – Pieces plastic packaging from office supplies (packaging)
1 – Plastic bag clip from a bag of apples (packaging)
1 – Floss (single-use)
 
Day 2
4 – Pieces plastic packaging from office supplies (packaging)
1 – Floss (single-use)
1 – Floss container (packaging)
 
Day 3
1 – Lid from disposable cup (single-use)
1 – Lid from drink carton (packaging)
1 – Produce bag (packaging)
1 – Floss (single-use)
 
Day 4
1 – Lid from disposable cup (single-use)
1 – Plastic wrap from newspaper (packaging)
1 – Disposable razor (single-use)
1 – Floss (single-use)
 
Day 5
2 – Milk gallon lids (packaging)
2 – Trash bags (single-use)
1 – Floss (single-use)
 
Day 6
2 – Pieces removable film from adhesive packaging (packaging)
1 – Coffee cup (single-use)
1 – Coffee cup lid (single-use)
1 – Produce bag (packaging)
1 – Plastic wrapping from packaged chicken thighs (packaging)
1 – Toothpaste tube (single-use)
1 – Floss (single-use)
 
Day 7
4 – Pieces removable film from adhesive packaging (packaging)
1 – Apple bag (packaging)
1 – Pasta bag with plastic lining (packaging)
1 – Floss (single-use)

Reflections on My Plastic Consumption

My week of documenting my plastic waste opened my eyes in a few different ways. It made me realize how much plastic I normally consume without even recognizing it.
 
For example, I really try to avoid plastic-lined disposable coffee cups, and I generally use an easy alternative. But the plastic handle of my razor? I’ve never really considered it as a wasteful item that gets tossed after a handful of uses.
 
As I looked back on my week in terms of the plastic waste I produced, I began to think more creatively about how I can slim down this amount of waste.

Single-Use Items and Plastic-Free Alternatives

Most of my single-use waste came from personal hygiene and grooming products – floss, toothpaste tubes, and razors. A majority of the rest was from disposable drinkware.
 
On Day 1, I did a double-take as I dropped my piece of floss into the trash can. Plastic flossers had definitely crossed my mind as wasteful in the past, but it never occurred to me that floss itself is made of plastic.
 
Alternative: After a quick search, I found that there are several plastic-free alternatives to the floss I’ve been using for years. Next time my floss runs out, I’ll be sure to shop around for a more eco-friendly option.
 
The same goes for toothpaste tubes and razors. These items often slip away without the plastic-inducing guilt due to the infrequency of disposal.
 
Alternative: Realistically, it would be easy to switch over to a non-disposable razor. And I’ve recently learned about toothpaste packaged in compostable or recyclable containers.
 
Disposable coffee cups, on the other hand, have been making me cringe for years. Typically I’m in the habit of carrying around a travel coffee mug all the time. In the middle of a global pandemic, this alternative isn’t practical.
 
Alternative: I’ll bring my own reusable travel mug when and where it’s appropriate. Otherwise, I can stick to making coffee at home (rather than getting it out) as much as possible.

Moving Forward: A Plastic-Free Future

If I had to sum up what I’ve learned from a week of counting my plastic waste, it’s that it is too easy to contribute to this problem, despite my good intentions. After all, this wasn’t the first time I’d done an experiment like this, and I was surprised (again) by how much plastic I threw away.
 
The good news: each time you stop and think when you throw away a piece of plastic, you become more aware. You start to think of alternative products and behaviors that can reduce your plastic footprint.
 
Try this experiment and some of your own research to brainstorm ways in which you can reduce your own plastic waste.

Start Here to Take Action

  • Check out the Ocean Blue Store for reusable water bottles to avoid plastic cups and bottles.
  • Have a conversation with a friend or family member. Get them thinking about daily changes they can make to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
  • Refuse single-use plastic items from restaurants, like forks and spoons that accompany takeout.
  • Join a cleanup project to help the downstream effects of plastic waste and plastic pollution facts.
  • Find out how plastic ends up on beaches and the best beaches in America to visit on coastal cleanup day.

If you’d like to stay informed so you can make better consumer decisions, sign up for the Ocean Blue Project Newsletter.

Author Bio: Emily Batdorf is a copywriter, educator, and artist who lives in Michigan. She enjoys the outdoors year-round, whether skiing, hiking, or swimming in the Great Lakes.

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