My personal anti-plastic mission is new to me. While it seemed to came on suddenly, it was a while in the making. In 2013, Austin put a plastic bag ban into place. I was annoyed, like many, but started bringing my bags. As I traveled outside of Austin, I began to see how grocery stores handed out plastic bags like they were some kind of prize. Two plastic bags for 5 oranges? And a separate double bagging for toothpaste and some toiletries? Clamshell for your few pieces of cut fruit? This new move toward stronger bags that wouldn’t break, or bags to separate food from household items that contained chemicals, was supposed to improve the lives of customers. At the time, it was easy to buy into—weren’t we all leading insanely busy lives and deserving of this convenience? As a result of the bag ban, I began to see how often I was partaking in plastic. Where would this plastic go when I was done with it? My recycling bin relieved me of much of my guilt and it certainly became fuller and fuller, while my trash bin got lighter, giving me a false sense of good citizenry. But I could not unsee plastic everywhere, even if it was not an instant change. I’d be shopping and grab a big, bright orange container of “value size” laundry detergent off the grocery shelf, then realize how much plastic the container was made from, put it back and seek out detergent in pods or cardboard instead. I began to select Perrier in glass bottles instead of plastic, especially at gas stations. I had a growing sense of responsibility to the plastic I brought into my home. I could put it in the recycling bin, but didn’t trust it would make the journey to becoming a recycled container. It seemed to me that the odds were that this bright orange plastic container would sit in a landfill or be carried off by the wind, littering a once-beautiful landscape. Or break up into pieces and get trapped in waterways or alongside freeways (not all roadside litter results from tossing trash out the window of a fast-moving car). Maybe a single straw wasn’t bad in the small picture, but when I thought of all the straws I’d used in my lifetime, I realized I need to think on a bigger scale. Enough was enough. What if one of the many toothbrushes I had thrown away in my lifetime wound up in the stomach of a dolphin searching for food and blocked its ability to digest food? I did not want to transfer the trappings of my fast-paced human life onto the wildlife I so envied. It may have been a slow awakening, but once awake, I could not go back to sleep.
The way I shop now is new to me. I used to look for the lowest-priced item or an item that had the best overall value. But value is subjective. Where once it was monetary, now it means doing as little harm as possible. When I shop today, the first criteria a product must meet is its packaging. If the item is in plastic, I look for another brand or alternative. If none are available, I ask myself if I really need the item. Sometimes, I do—and still walk away from the item in plastic. Occasionally, as I go from wandering to walking this new road, I buy something in plastic. Sometimes it’s because I can’t find an alternative and the product is still leading me around by the nose. Often I don’t even realize there is plastic until I get the product home. I’ve taken back many items for a refund when I realized it. The checkers at my main, big-brand grocer tolerate my basketful of loose fruit, veggies and bulk items. Some even seem impressed. I’ve also caught an eye roll or two.
I am always surprised at the limited options available at the big health foods store. The shelves are often stocked with small, hip brands that offer craft-style personal care products, makeup, foods and more—packaged in fat plastic. I understand that sustainable packaging options are still very limited for brands of all sizes, but this is an opportunity for big brands to step up. Yes, there are big brands that do sell products in 100% recycled packaging under a smaller label, and I support that. But big brands can do more. The opportunity exists to be a leader in sustainability and use their resources, R&D labs and technology to help create a new plastic or new solution—now, not by 2030. Although I do believe it’s the responsibility of all brands, individuals (and maybe governments), big brands can really set themselves apart here. Healing the planet, and including customers on that journey, might be the best customer experience ever created.
It’s also up to me and what I can do today. I can walk away. I can do one small thing to not contribute and hopefully drive a little change. There have to be alternatives to plastic, or, at the very least, a new plastic. No doubt scientists and innovators are racing to create new, sustainable materials at rapid pace—right? Please say yes.