ST. PETERSBURG — Pushing my wobbly shopping cart down the aisles of Trader Joe’s, all I saw was the slippery sheen of plastic.
Glistening on the ground beef. Hugging the curves of lettuce. Strangling the peppers.
It was the evening before I would embark on a weeklong challenge to avoid single-use plastic, and everything felt tainted. Even items in cardboard boxes — cereal, Earl Grey tea and frozen turkey burgers — hid plastic bags within.
Trying to find a plastic-free dinner, I was filled with sinking guilt.
I was also hungry.
“I haven’t technically started yet,” I told myself as I eyed wedges of Gouda, encased in a cursed film. “Tomorrow, I will be a different woman,” I thought as I dropped a bag of pork buns in my cart.
My trash fascination began earlier this summer, after I toured the local recycling plant to report on what what can and can’t be recycled. I couldn’t stop thinking about the thick layer of plastic bags tangled around the arms of the machines … or how workers had to crawl inside those machines to slice out the snags at least eight times a day.
People try to recycle products like cups and utensils with good intentions, but brittle plastics like this often don’t get made into new items. These plastics, plus items like dirty containers that can’t be recycled at all, end up festering in a landfill or floating in our waters.
I pictured a highlight reel of my own waste: Each time I’d “forgotten” my reusable bags at Publix. Hunting for plastic utensils because I’d been too lazy to throw a fork in my lunch box. Enjoying boba teas from a plastic cup through a thick plastic straw pierced through a flimsy plastic sheet.
For one week, I committed to shunning single-use plastic products. If I could reuse or recycle an item, it was okay to buy. Otherwise, I had to figure out a way around it. My goal was to become aware of just how much plastic I was wasting, and to figure out how to live with less waste.
I set five challenges for myself:
- Stop using plastic utensils.
- Use a reusable mug at a coffee shop.
- Take my leftovers home in a reusable container instead of a to-go box.
- Swap plastic disposable razors for a metal safety razor with recyclable aluminum blades.
- Shop for groceries at a bulk store and bring my own containers.
Some things seemed simple. I already use metal straws instead of plastic ones, so how hard would it be to make the same swap with forks and knives?
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Others seemed more daunting. How many containers should I bring to a bulk store? How much would this endeavor cost? And ultimately, how apparent would it be that I had no idea what I was doing?
One week. No plastic (mostly).
Determined not to repeat my Trader Joe’s shame spiral, I created a plastic-free survival kit. I scavenged for containers around my apartment, stuffing reusable plastic containers, old paper bags and glass jars into a giant reusable bag. This would live in the trunk of my car, and I would be prepared.
Some things were easy. I brought metal cutlery to my newsroom desk. My glass water bottle and metal coffee thermos came everywhere with me. I resisted the instinct of grabbing a solo cup at a party and instead borrowed a glass from the host’s cupboard.
Meal planning, however, felt impossible. Pretty much everything in my freezer was tainted, encased in disposable wrappers, bags or tubs. It felt wrong toasting sliced bread from a plastic bag or munching on the granola bars at my desk. At the store, I left meat off my shopping list, since it’s better for the environment and I didn’t have time to find a butcher that offered sustainable packaging. Most processed foods in the center aisles have plastic packaging, so I stuck to vegetarian recipes like sweet potato carrot soup and lemon lentil curry soup.
On a Saturday afternoon, I hit Kenwood Organic Produce in St. Petersburg. The zero-waste store sells items free of plastic packaging, like shampoo bars and metal straws, as well as local vegetables, fruits and honey. I bought two reusable bags and filled them with onions, garlic and sweet potatoes. My purchase was just $7. Had I come earlier in the day, I could have conquered my entire shopping list. But a juicer had beat me to the carrots and lemons. Away I went to Publix, where the only carrots free from plastic were smaller ... and about twice as expensive. At least I didn’t make any impulse purchases in the snack aisles.
My meals for the week, like overnight oats with fresh peaches, took longer to put together since I didn’t have the convenience of any pre-packaged items, but I felt healthier.
Eating out posed its own challenges. Bringing my own thermos to a coffee shop was easy. Resisting the urge to order Uber Eats during a rainstorm when I got hungry was harder. I waited for the bullets of rain to slow to a drizzle, feeling guilty just thinking about Styrofoam and utensil packets that would come inside a plastic bag. When I finally walked to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant I ordered pho, knowing the leftovers would come in a thick to-go cylinder that I could repurpose.
Everything unraveled later that week in a sticky Waffle House booth sometime after midnight. Ravenous after a night out with some friends, I wasn’t even thinking about my challenge when I placed an order. Then the waffles arrived, each topped with a tiny plastic cup of whipped spread. I watched in horror as every other person at the table slathered salty, creamy spread across their waffles without hesitation. Never had I wanted butter so badly, but there wasn’t an alternative to the single serve cups. No one answered my pleas to share.
My toast also came with an individual serving of jelly, so I didn’t eat it. It would be a waste to toss the bread, but getting a to-go box was out of the question. Sleepy after my syrupy carb bomb, the reusable container sitting in the trunk of my car seemed miles away. So I swaddled the toast in a napkin.
“Are you going to feed those to the squirrels?” our waitress asked.
Personal hygiene posed another challenge. I skipped drug stores in favor of Sans Market, a zero waste pop-up store in downtown St. Pete’s Baum Avenue market. Shoppers can refill containers with liquid items like sunscreen and laundry detergent. I picked up a $7 compostable bamboo toothbrush because my plastic one was looking rough around the bristles. I also bought a brick of shaving soap, since I needed a thick paste to shave with an aluminum safety razor.
As a Lebanese-Italian person living in Florida, I go through plastic disposable razors pretty fast. A metal double-edge safety razor is more sustainable, and the recyclable razor blades cost less than 30 cents each.
However, the industrial-looking handle and lack of moisture strip made me terrified of flaying my shins. I stress-watched YouTube videos before gathering the strength to try it out for myself. I was able to master the short, slow strokes without major blood loss. Success.
My cold sweats returned later in the week as I fumbled through bulk shopping. I loaded up my car with jars before driving to Lucky’s. I weighed all of the containers so that the cashier could subtract their weight. When I finally found the first item I wanted — oatmeal — I could not figure out how to pull the lever. I felt like a bad actor in an infomercial as I finally sprayed oats all over the floor.
It was hard to get a feel for exactly how much I was buying, especially since my misfit collection of containers were all different sizes. I ran out of tall containers and had to stuff organic carrots in the plastic to-go tub from the Vietnamese restaurant. The carrots jutted out and the tub kept tipping over in my cart.
Tall containers of lentils and oats came out to just a few dollars each. Coffee was cheaper, too. Cashews were about what I expected. But a tiny jar of chocolate-covered pistachios came out to $12. I felt so stupid watching the number pop on the screen.
“Those were a lot more than I thought,” I said. “Could I put them back?”
The cashier stared at me blankly. “You already touched them. Legally, we’d have to throw them out.”
“It’s fine, sorry,” I said. I was too embarrassed to look her in the eye as I punched in my pin number and dragged my bags out of the store.
I welcomed the end of the week. I was tired of feeling guilty for slipping up and getting thwarted by surprise plastic. The taste and texture of my $7 bamboo toothbrush reminded me of a soggy popsicle stick.
I was also sick of shaving with a safety razor. My sensitive skin missed the moisture strips on my old disposable razors. I rushed through, ending up with little bloody pricks up and down my legs.
It had been a frustrating experiment. But it had helped, in my week without plastic, to remember a certain jar of Q-tips I’d seen at Sans Market.
The store had accidentally ordered from a company that packaged the cotton, biodegradable, plastic-free Q-tips ... in small plastic bags.
“Oops! Plastic has struck again,” read a sign by the Q-tips. “Mistakes happen, though.”
I’m a single person with no kids or pets, so I didn’t have to worry about feeding a family, using cloth diapers or cleaning up after a dog. I also had all of my purchases reimbursed by the Tampa Bay Times. I have a car and live in a city with a wide variety of stores and restaurants. People who live in a food desert, have limited transportation or buy groceries with public assistance will have fewer options and likely a tougher time tackling waste.
Still, this week was hard. Everything took more time and thought. I may not keep all of these changes, but this gave me a better idea of what habits I could fold into my lifestyle.
I wasted less food, but enjoyed my meals more. I had to plan my meals ahead because I couldn’t rely on grabbing a pre-packaged meal or snack. When every ingredient mattered, I found that I wasn’t buying things that I didn’t have a plan for. The fresh produce was delicious, and I ate all of my leftovers instead of letting them rot in the back of my fridge.
Even when I was trying my hardest, single-use items popped out of nowhere. I brought a resuable container to an Indian restaurant in case I had leftovers, but my dinner came out in a cardboard box. I had to tell the server that I didn’t want a plastic bag to carry my leftovers three times before he left me alone. And when a friend offered me iced coffee early on a Sunday, I wasn’t even thinking about plastic. I felt like an idiot when she showed up with Starbucks in a plastic cup.
People try to give you plastic products all the time. Well-meaning cashiers reached for plastic bags before I even pulled out my wallet. Helpful waiters tried to force to-go boxes on me. A barista poured my tea in a plastic cup even though I said that I said it was “for here.” (Luckily it was at zero-waste coffee shop Black Crow, so the cup was compostable).
Tips to reduce single-use plastic consumption
- Anticipate plastic use, and prepare accordingly. Keep reusable items in your desk, backpack or car to cut down on plastic.
- Don’t try to do it all at once. Going cold turkey can be discouraging. Instead, focus on going plastic-free incrementally. “Make more conscious buying decisions but start one room at a time,” said Rachel Clemtson, a Sans Market employee.
- Learn what actually can and can’t be recycled. Every municipality is different, but we made a simple guide for Tampa Bay residents.
- You don’t need to drop a ton of $ to get started. Bamboo cutlery kits, fancy reusable paper towels and other zero-waste items look cute, but you can achieve the same effect by repurposing items you already have.
- Stay away from the center aisles at grocery stores. Processed foods are likely going to be packaged in plastic.
- Shop local. Items like sliced bread are hard to find outside plastic bags in supermarkets, but you can find them at local markets and local bakers. You’ll have better luck getting meat wrapped in paper if you go to a local butcher.
- Have plastic items you can’t live without? Substitute an eco-friendly version. You have to collect trash or scoop up dog poop with something. If using plastic seems unavoidable, opt for a version that is compostable or made of recycled plastic. Backing products like this with your money supports businesses that share this mission.
- Be kind to yourself. This is an imperfect process. You don’t have to cut out all of your favorites. Plastic will pop up even if you are doing everything in your power to avoid it. What matters is reducing where you can.
Local businesses and organizations committed to the cause
- Sans Market is a zero-waste lifestyle store that sells personal hygiene items, bulk cleaning supplies and more.
- Kenwood Produce offers fresh, local produce in a shop free of packaging.
- Black Crow Coffee Co.’s two St. Petersburg locations divert at least 90 percent of their waste from landfills by recycling and composting.
- The Refillery sells items like sunscreen, bug spray and laundry detergent. Bring your own container to fill, or use theirs. Every Wednesday the Refillery teaches a different DIY recipe that shoppers can make in the store and take home.
- Re Refill brands itself as the “modern day milkman," selling refills of eco-friendly household products.
- Rollin’ Oats, Lucky’s Market and Bulk Nation offer bulk shopping around the Tampa Bay area.
- Suncoast Compost rents out ventilated compost bins to help folks with limited time and space. People who live within their service area can have compost picked up for $30 a month. There is also a $15 per month option that allows people to drop off their compost.
- Suncoast Rise Above Plastics Coalition is made up of 17 organizations that support the mission of protecting the environment through reducing single-use plastic. They also host volunteer opportunities like beach cleanups.
Did I leave off any good local businesses? Do you have tips for reducing plastic use? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email.