We’re a little less than a week into our plastic-free month and I find myself waffling between two general states of mind: “Wait, do I really need this? Can I make it myself?” and “Screw this, this is ridiculous!” It turns out living without plastic is a lot more difficult than I realized. While I’m surrounded by plastic all day long, I never really noticed how much of my life comes packaged in it until I tried to do without it.
Once I recruited my family to attempt a plastic-free month, we needed to prepare. I started following zero-waste Instagrammers and Facebook pages where I found inspiring ideas, as well as some really beautiful feeds that gave me the same thrill as I get when flipping through a cooking or design magazine.
Full disclosure: I’m a teacher and on vacation for a few more weeks, so I have the time to dedicate to this kind of a project. But I wondered how sustainable this would be once I went back to work. Day one involved a trip to my local grocery store with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I normally do my weekly grocery shopping at Stop and Shop, however, Cronig’s Market, one of the locally owned stores, has a large bulk section that I was going to need. Luckily many others who shop at Cronig’s are way more advanced in this plastic-free endeavor, so the store is already set up with a weigh station at the front door. I brought my own Pyrex containers and at the deli, they cheerfully filled them up with my sliced turkey and cheese. I also purchased a set of 12-ounce mason jars and several muslin sacks for future use. I’m already in the habit of not using many plastic bags when filling my cart with produce, but I took it to a new level, and my fruits and veggies rolled around free. Yet even in a store that has many environmentally conscious shoppers, I was still shocked by how many items had at least some plastic in them. I spent a ridiculous amount on a small container of farmhouse mayonnaise and organic ketchup because they were the only options packaged in glass rather than plastic. I had to skip some items regularly on my shopping list like sandwich bread, yogurt, hummus, and crackers and instead tried out new brands and purchased ingredients to make some staples myself. While my shopping bill was lower than I expected and close to my typical weekly average, I also left unsure what exactly we were eating that week.
Luckily, I enjoy cooking, so part of this adventure was about trying out new recipes and shopping in different stores. Later in the week I bought milk at Morning Glory Farm in returnable glass bottles, something I didn’t even know was an option (though they have a plastic cap). I made my own yogurt (yum, and surprisingly easy), corn tortilla wraps and microwave potato chips (delicious), bread, hummus, and crackers (all good), and toothpaste (yes, toothpaste. Thumbs down from my family, so I broke down a bought a package of Colgate after my daughters begged me.) I used apple cider vinegar in place of conditioner, which worked surprisingly well and didn’t leave me smelling like a Greek salad, as I’d feared. A few lows from this week: battling August traffic in Martha’s Vineyard in order to hit multiple grocery stores, breaking down and buying feta and blue cheese in plastic in plastic, getting the apple cider vinegar in my eyes while conditioning my hair (ouch), using the toothpaste that no one wanted as a facial scrub instead then panicking that my skin would break out because of the peppermint oil.
This project started out as research for a novel, but it’s turned into something else. Everyone in my household is newly aware of all of the plastic in our lives, something I’ve never paid much attention to before. I’m learning about the health risks linked to plastic use, in addition to its impact on the environment. While I’m amazed by some of the people I’ve discovered who manage to fit their monthly or yearly waste into a single jar, I can’t imagine we’ll make it that far. I’ve had to remind myself multiple times that while eliminating plastic is the goal, it’s okay if I can’t do it 100%. Reduction is also a reasonable and worthy goal, better than burning out and scrapping the endeavor altogether. Once the month ends, I think we’ll come away with some long- term changes and new habits—though probably not a new toothpaste.
Next up, attempting plastic-free during the busiest week of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard and while having houseguests and hosting dinner parties.
Most writers will tell you that they research. This is obviously true of nonfiction writers, but it’s also true of novelists. For This Bright Beauty, I learned about bipolar disorder and being a twin. For another (unpublished) manuscript, I researched the opioid epidemic. My current work in progress centers around two women and their families who move to a rural community in Massachusetts. One of the families is living off the grid, in a house without electricity or running water and they’re working to be entirely self-sufficient and zero waste.
Last year my family started composting for the first time, and I began paying more attention to what went into my trash and recycling bins. I started buying a few items in glass rather than plastic, freezing leftover fruit rather than chucking it, and using paper sandwich bags, parchment or wax paper rather than plastic bags, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil. Last Christmas, as Amazon boxes with their excess of cardboard and plastic packaging were delivered to my door on a daily basis for the month of December, I felt a kind of sick guilt about how much ended up in my trash and recycling, not to mention the feeling that somehow, we’d lost sight of the meaning of the holiday.
All of this is to say that recently I’ve been thinking about my family’s carbon footprint. However, I also live on an island where many goods are either expensive or difficult to find, so I frequently shop online. I’ve become an Amazon Prime addict and impulse buyer, craving the one minute thrill of adding items to my cart and clicking buy before I can question whether I really need the item. Living on an island means I shop infrequently and regularly go to my local consignment store for new clothes. Yet when I go off-island, I become a frenzied maniac, stockpiling food from Trader Joe’s and hitting every TJ Max, Target, and Old Navy in sight, as if I live hundreds of miles from civilization rather than a 45 boat-ride from the mainland. When I get my coffee to go, I try to forgo the plastic straw and lid, but I often forget to bring my own mug. I rarely shop at farms, I don’t buy much organic, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I usually lean toward convenience and cost over what is quality or ethically prepared. I’m no prairie girl. Who am I to write about a family being self-sufficient?
The more I wrote, the more questions I had. How do you host a dinner party without using a single piece of plastic? How much time does it actually take to make from scratch all those items that are suddenly off limits because of the packaging? Can a milk carton be composted? What exactly happens to my recyclables? What steps would we need to take to minimize the amount of daily waste we created? How expensive would it be? How time consuming? I realized that in order to write authentically about my characters’ experience living zero waste, I needed to do some research. And some of that research needed to be more than what I could find in a book or online. Part of it needed to be first hand.
So, with the (mostly enthusiastic) support of my family, we decided to do our version of a zero-waste month. Unlike my characters, I’m not living without electricity or running water. We’re not using a compostable outhouse. I have no well from which to haul my water and no woodstove to use as an oven. I don’t even have a garden, other than the half-dead basil plant from Stop and Shop whose leaves have grown small and yellow. We’re attempting a very mild version of zero waste. More specifically, we’re attempting a month without (or with minimal) plastic. Difficult? Probably. Impossible? Stay tuned.