I Actually Paid Attention To How Much Plastic I Use — And Was Horrified By The Results

Plastic. Is. Everywhere. But there are ways we can help.


We live in a world plagued by plastic pollution. Since the 1950s, we've produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic, and of that only 9% has been recycled. What about the other 91%? 12% has been burned, while the vast majority, coming in at 79%, is either sitting in a landfill or scattered in our oceans and surrounding environment. Yikes.

While plastic serves its purpose in our modern lives, it also has escalated into a problem that almost seems impossible to dig ourselves out of. This excess plastic affects nature, animals, and even humanity — specifically low-income communities located near plastic dumps or production sites teaming with toxins. In an attempt to help this problem, we're seeing more and more people make an effort to reduce their plastic usage, or even go plastic-free. It's commendable, but not easy. I mean, is it even possible to use absolutely zero plastic? With both these frightening facts and inspirational pursuits in mind, I decided to take a look at my own plastic usage and the amount of wasteful materials I interact with during my day to day.

The Plan

I've always been mindful of recycling — both at home and while out. If I'm at a store and have an empty plastic cup, I ask the employee if they have recycling rather than asking them if they can throw it away. Who knows if they actually recycle, but at least I know I tried. I hardly ever use plastic bags for produce at the grocery store, and I almost always have my Hydro Flask on me for water. Luckily, I also live in a place where plastic bags are banned, so that solves that. Now that I'm done flexing on my recycling-conscious ways, let's get to the point — despite having a few good habits, I know I still used a ton of plastic and non-recyclable materials on a daily basis. We all do.

For this experience, in addition to observing my behaviors, I decided to avoid plastic when possible. That being said, I continued to use the plastic products I already had at home because I wasn't just going to throw them out or purchase something I already owned. 

Grocery Shopping, And Other Attempts 

I Actually Paid Attention To How Much Plastic I Use, And Was Pretty Horrified By The Results

I was pretty confident going into grocery shopping. As I mentioned above, I don't really use plastic bags for produce, but I ordered these reusable produce bags just in case. I didn't plan on buying any nuts or granola, but if I did, I would have brought a mason jar and filled up from the bulk section. I needed chicken, so I opted to buy it from behind the counter rather than pre-packaged in the fridge. I think there was a little sheet of plastic in there, but much better than the amount of waste I would have from the packaged one. The only time I found plastic unavoidable was in my pursuit of tempeh. Super random, but I wanted to make this awesome buffalo tempeh caesar salad I love, so I sheepishly added it to my cart. 

Having a few meals planned and prepped helped a lot, and I only used my glass "tupperware" to bring food to work or store in my own fridge. In that sense, I did pretty well. One day after going to early morning yoga I brought my thermos so I could grab coffee from this awesome coffee shop near the studio. I was incredibly impressed to find that a majority of patrons brought their own thermoses too. I live in San Francisco in a laidback neighborhood by the beach, so I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised — but proud, nonetheless!

I Actually Paid Attention To How Much Plastic I Use, And Was Pretty Horrified By The Results

Plastic, Everywhere

While overall I succeeded at grocery shopping and proudly used glass containers to bring leftovers to work, I quickly realized plastic. is. everywhere. From the cap on the carton of almond milk, to the plastic that wraps a loaf of bread, to the lid on my container of oatmeal — it's almost impossible to escape it. Sure, going forward I can buy oatmeal from the bulk section and use a mason jar, but as I mentioned above, I wasn't going to not use what I already had. One night I made some roasted potatoes and went to the fridge to grab ketchup. Of course, it was in a plastic container. And we even get the fancier ketchup! Do they even make ketchup in glass jars other than the old school Heinz you see at diners?

Bruce Springreens — how cute is that?
Bruce Springreens — how cute is that?

One experience I had that left me seriously conflicted involved these juices we get delivered to work. The juices are from a company called Good Use, and they use "ugly" produce that would usually go to waste. It's really awesome and sustainable. Except, the juices come in plastic bottles! So, while helping the environment I was also harming it? Which was worse?

I started truly noticing how many things involved plastic, and how there was a difference between avoiding plastic for everyday grocery shopping and food storage, and going plastic-free in all areas of life (how?). Even things I buy in bulk, like my collagen and protein powders, come in plastic containers. Is there a way around it? It feels like the only way to avoid it is by not buying it in the first place. 

And that's only food products. Think about bathroom items and skincare — your toothbrush even! Luckily, a majority of my skincare products use glass bottles, but when going to change my razor head for the first time in forever, I realized each head was housed in an individual plastic container. And how many of those little containers do you think even make it to the recycling? Probably hardly any. 

The Sad Truth About Trader Joes

Alright guys, we have a tough topic to discuss — when it comes to plastic, Trader Joe's is the enemy. My husband and I hosted Easter at our house, and while we usually shop at Whole Foods, we happened to be by Trader Joe's so we went shopping there. I've always loved TJ's but as I've become more aware of the ingredients I eat, I find myself shopping there less and less. Regardless, we had a few basic things to pick up so we just went for it. Literally everything, and I mean everything, was wrapped in plastic. The zucchinis we on a plastic tray in addition to be wrapped in plastic, tomatoes on the vine were packaged in plastic, as was any form of lettuce — and that's just naming a few. Even the box of crackers, which was made from cardboard, had a plastic bag holding the crackers inside (which I guess is typical, but still!). I think the only thing we bought that was plastic-free was a baguette that came in a paper sleeve. It was really eye-opening and kind of depressing. I know we all love Trader Joe's so much, but damn, talk about being wasteful. 

I Actually Paid Attention To How Much Plastic I Use, And Was Pretty Horrified By The Results

How We Can Help

So, what can we do? As hopeless as it may seem, there are ways we can help and I believe it starts with awareness. When you mindlessly buy things packaged in plastic when you can easily buy the plastic-free version, you are contributing to the problem, but when you're caught in a bind and plastic is unavoidable — well, that's life. Though there are people who live completely plastic-free, it's extreme and requires major lifestyles changes that aren't always realistic. I commend you if you're able to do so, but I do not judge you if you cannot. Some of the ways you can help are by shopping places where you know you can avoid plastic a majority of the time (sorry Trader Joe's), using jars and buying items like nuts or granola in bulk, using mesh bags for produce, bringing your own cup to coffee shops, and so on. While we still have a long way to go, many brands and companies are taking initiatives to reduce their waste and be more sustainable, and you can't argue with that. Living 100% plastic-free may not be feasible, but all we can do is try our best and even that has the ability to make a difference. 

Pop Culture Editor at Livingly. You can reach me by email at sydney.fogel@livingly.com and on Instagram @sydneyfvz