June 22, 2009

Kathryn McGrath: One Week of Plastic Waste

I work for the NRDC in New York and often write stories about making more sustainable choices on NRDC’s green living site. As you’d expect, I avoid disposable packaging and buying plastic items, or so I thought until I started dragging all my plastic trash home with me.

I stayed true to the spirit of scientific inquiry and didn’t avoid plastic despite my growing dismay at the pile accumulating in the kitchen. Once you begin setting aside your plastic trash you being to see plastic everywhere. Because it IS everywhere. My bag of plastic trash was larger than the week’s other garbage, which doesn’t include food scraps.

At the end of the week my plastic refuse covered the dining table, filled two bags and filled me with dread.

I was surprised at the amount of plastic that came from food purchases. In the photo below, most of the plastic on the right is food-related. And I’ll admit, sometimes it’s just far easier to accept a plastic bag. I let the bagger at the grocery store put my Marcal recycled toilet paper, wrapped in paper, in a plastic bag to keep it from getting wet in the rain. But looking critically at this list there’s a lot more I could do fairly easily to reduce my pile of plastic. (The cat thought this was all great fun.)


Why is plastic so bad? It pollutes from its production to its demise. Even when it can be recycled, it’s downgraded to other products, unlike metal or paper which can be used again and again to make the same products. And recycling plastic can be difficult and costly because it has to be carefully sorted by type. New York City’s sanitation department only accepts plastic bottles and jugs, PET #1 and HDPE #2, for recycling. Other cities may collect more types of plastic but that doesn’t necessarily mean they actually recycle all of it. Usually they’re just trying to maximize the amount of HDPE and PET plastics by making it easier. So even the small amount of my weekly plastic that is recyclable in New York didn’t make me feel any better.

At NRDC’s office, we collect plastic containers and lids numbers 1-6 so I was able to recycle more of my plastic than the average New Yorker. But I’m still trying to figure out whether all of that plastic actually gets recycled.

Here’s the lengthy list.

#2 gallon jug of water – this was the emergency jug stored under the sink that expired last month
#5 container of prunes – I didn’t even notice this was plastic and not cardboard when I bought it, why do the apricots come in cardboard and the prunes in plastic?
#2 quart of grapefruit juice
#1 bottle of conditioner

Recyclable at the office
3 contact lens cases #5
packaging for frozen shumai – #5 molded tray and outside packaging
#6 container of hot sprouts

5 plastic bags from Associated Supermarket – I brought my cart and canvas bag to the supermarket but not everything fit and of course, they double bagged it
1 plastic bag from Paragon Sports – Not taking a bag at Paragon leads to a ridiculous amount of explanations with the security staff
1 plastic bag from H&M – felt lazy and didn’t want to get dirt from the canvas bag on the new duds
1 plastic mailing bag that contained my new bike helmet
1 12 year old bike helmet
1 plastic bag from my lunch
2 plastic bags from Bed Beth and Beyond – again, the security people
2 plastic newspaper bags
1 temporary ATM card
5 paper envelopes with plastic windows
2 plastic screw things from kitchen faucet – if they were metal they wouldn’t have broken!
Molded plastic packaging from Dr. Glove foam glove conditioner
4 plastic ties from clothing hang tags
plastic bag that contained a softball (inside a cardboard box, no less)
#6 clamshell packaging for electric toothbrush
extra foam padding for bike helmet
plastic bag wrapping bike helmet
molded plastic packaging from toothbrush (manual)
stickers for bike helmet
plastic ice bag – left over from a party
plastic wrap from frozen pizza
wrapper from a Luna bar
2 chip bags
tofu container
plastic packaging for wasabi rice crackers – #6 molded tray and outside packaging
bag of pearled barley
plastic wrap from cheese
molded plastic tray and saran wrap from chicken thighs
4 plastic produce bags
1 plastic sealer from soybean container
plastic insert from glass bottle of olive oil
2 Ziploc bags
1 plastic straw
2 plastic beer cups and 1 clear plastic plate – from dinner out with friends
3 plastic forks – I’m not sure where 2 of these forks came from, usually I won’t hand over my lunch to the cashier to avoid the automatic bagging

I could easily stop accepting plastic shopping bags but I do use them for my trash. My local Associated grocery store doesn’t have paper bags, like many neighborhood stores in New York. In fact, I often run out of plastic bags and have to bring some home from work. (Even at NRDC, where over a hundred committed enviros work everyday, the plastic bags pile up in the kitchen. The difference is that we collect them rather than toss them.) Next week I’ll try saying no to all plastic bags.

I’ll forgo my Lambeth Groves grapefruit juice and I’ll certainly miss my fresh-squeezed cherry juice from the farmer’s market which comes in an unwelcome plastic bottle. I go to the farmer’s market a couple times a week which makes it easy to avoid packaging but I also order from the grocery delivery service Fresh Direct about once a month. The groceries are delivered in recycled cardboard boxes but all the produce comes in plastic bags. Sadly, bulk bins are few and far between in New York. I should give up chips for any number of reasons.

In a normal week there might be more plastic cups from going out for dinner and drinks. I could start drinking bottled beer more when the gin and tonic is coming in a plastic cup. There were a few unusual purchases this week — sports equipment and toothbrushes. I suppose I could have shopped around and looked for cardboard packaging.

But I am keeping my contacts, frozen pizza and tonic water. The pizza, from Fresh Direct, is pretty minimally packaged. I bought a home seltzer maker last year and love it but seltzer and gin don’t work well together. Eradicating each and every bit of plastic seems nearly impossible but I will try to keep it down to scraps rather than piles. Check back next week to see how I do.

In the meantime, in honor of our oceans, which inspired Beth to start this whole saga, take a minute to voice your support for national legislation to reduce pollution, protect ocean habitats and coordinate efforts to manage the coasts and oceans wisely.

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