We tried going zero-waste for and — here’s how it went
BY AMANDA GRIFFITHS & MARIA VIRGINIA OLANO
As we were brainstorming new ways to celebrate Earth Day this year, we stumbled upon the idea of a zero-waste week. While we have explored the concept of a circular economy through an event we hosted last fall, and researched the amount of plastic accumulating in our oceans for a recent podcast episode, we wanted to transform our knowledge into action by finding ways to reduce the waste we create each week. So knowing the problem, we set out to eliminate our plastic waste, and reduce all other types of waste, beginning with a guide we created.
So, how difficult was it to quit plastic? Turns out very.
It’s not until you make a truly mindful effort to analyze all of the products you consume and how they are packaged, that the full picture of how truly omnipresent plastic is, becomes clear. Almost everything — our shampoo, deodorant, cleaning products, produce, candy, etc — comes packaged in plastic, much of which cannot be recycled. Avoiding plastic packaging was truly a struggle in the office this week.
There were some struggles…
Snacking was a big problem for all of us this week, as we realized most of our favourite snacks came, indeed, in plastic packaging. One in our staff could not get through the week without his favourite Sour Patch Kids — and he got called out for it.
Another area that hit hard for staff this week was take-out food containers. While cooking can help reduce waste, it also takes time. As several of our staff noted, some days we don’t have the time to prepare food and it’s easy to turn to take-out. A common container used by restaurants is made from #5 plastic, which can be recycled in Boston, but creating and recycling a rigid plastic container for a single use is still not ideal. One staffer reuses these take-out containers to transport lunches to the office and then transfers her food to ceramic dishes in the kitchen when she eats. This at least expands the life of the plastic before it’s recycled.
After reflecting on her week, another staffer pointed out, “everything was going smoothly and I had really prepared for this week to not use anything wrapped in plastic––until I got a headache. I realized there really are no alternatives for zero-plastic medicine.”
We found some groceries were very difficult to get completely waste free. Most dairy products come in plastic containers, and they are hard to avoid. Pre-made tea bags and coffee packaging can also create waste and are difficult to buy in bulk without becoming stale. It’s also difficult to find some produce without plastic packaging. Mixed salad greens come in plastic tubs or bags in traditional grocery stores, which can be difficult to avoid.
An unexpected problem we ran into this week came with the delivery an office supply order. In addition to the packaging surrounding each product we purchased, the entire order came in larger plastic bags or boxes. It’s a common issue that most people face when receiving online purchases, but we became even more aware of the impact when examining our office waste this week.
Paper waste was a large concern for one of our staffers as she reflected on her week “When I’m designing materials for work or the classes I take at night, I need to print a number of drafts to make sure sizes, spacing, and colors look right. In a lot of cases, projects need to be trimmed, which creates even more paper waste. I try to only print when necessary and the paper I print on is recyclable, but I haven’t come up with a great solution for making large reductions in my the amount of paper I use.”
There were a few successes…
There is a growing trend in companies offering more sustainable packaging and opting for zero-plastic business models, which made it somewhat easier to purchase alternatives this week. Two of our staff decided to get rid of dish sponges, and invest in bamboo brushes, as they are more durable and don’t create plastic waste. One staffer made the switch to shampoo and conditioner bars, as well as soap bars — eliminating most plastic from her shower routine and our Programs Director found a local food market where she got all of her produce for the week completely waste free. Another staffer invested in beeswax, which is a sustainable alternative to plastic wrap and aluminum foil. And another opted for tampons without plastic applicators to reduce her plastic waste: “Most women use 11,000 tampons in their lifetime. Collectively, takes a huge toll on the environment. While I’m not ready to make the move entirely away from tampons, I can at least lessen my impact by eliminating the plastic waste I produce with them.”
While going completely plastic free did prove to be a big challenge, there were some easy choices that significantly reduced the amount of plastic we used. The easiest one was cutting out plastic and grocery and produce bags. Another easy switch was not buying plastic bottles — water, soda, energy drinks, iced tea — these tend to come in single-use plastic bottles that we can definitely avoid!
Another key takeaway from the week was how much waste we reduce when we cook our own food. Cooking unprocessed food at home, if and when you have the time to do so, significantly cuts back on the amount of waste you produce. Some of us started making our own zero waste snacks too! Stove-popped popcorn was a great substitute for wrapped snacks. We also had a lot of fruit and veggie snacking this week and our Executive Director led by example, bringing his own lunches and snacks in mason jars all week!
This week was definitely challenging, but there are some habits we hope to keep for the future. One of the biggest selling points of plastic is convenience after all, so making the effort to produce less plastic waste entailed some effort. But understanding the ways plastic is ever-present in our daily lives and doing the best we can to avoid it, is a lesson that will stay with us all.