Experiencing the Plastic Cap Challenge

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Ocean Conservancy receives a donation as a result of the Plastic Cap Challenge

September was a challenging month for me! The Dihedral posted a plastic cap challenge on their blog in August. Basically, the idea was to pay a $1 tax per plastic item purchased in the month of September in an attempt to reduce waste and eliminate the need to recycle. The. Whole. Month. I thought that was pretty awesome since I was knee-deep in my quest to reduce waste. Spoiler alert: I paid a lot of tax!

I started the challenge on 1 September while on vacation. I already had the cup, reusable bag, and utensils but didn’t take into account that I might need emergency eye drops or other things. I came home the next day thinking I’d be in good shape since I take reusable food containers to work on a regular basis and had no travel planned.

Guess what? The grocery shopping KILLED me! Why do we buy so much fruit and vegetables in plastic? I’m not even talking about the plastic bags on the side of the displays; I had reusable ones with me. No, no, I mean the peppers in plastic bags and mushrooms in styrofoam and plastic containers wrapped in plastic. I was up to a $40 tax the first week! Why is everything in paper boxes also wrapped in plastic? I don’t even buy the pre-cut fruit and veg because it’s expensive AND in more plastic!

How I attempted to save: I shopped every grocery store in my area over that month and attempted to save money in food and in plastic tax by purchasing the items not in plastic at each place. Each grocery store has good and bad habits. All of them encourage the use of reusable bags. Most places have a plastic bag collection bin and sell their own branded, reusable bags. All of them use plastic wrap and containers in the deli and produce departments. Some have options to pick vegetables with tongs and use bags but even those places wrapped a lot in plastic. I ended up buyIng in bulk at Costco and at least recycling almost all of those containers.

My friends with gardens let me have all the vegetables I wanted so I loaded reusable produce bags and even shared with another friend. Farmers Markets are the best solution I found for people with one exception: nightshift workers. How do you get to a place when it’s the middle of the night for you and the middle of the day for everyone else?

I took my own food containers and straw to restaurants and ate the leftovers at work. At one of the restaurants, my friend took home the little plastic cups they used to serve our sides so she could recycle them. I’m a regular at another place and they love when customers bring containers and refuse straws. The owner was so excited when she found paper straws!

A walk through the health and beauty department is kind of depressing now. I made all of my own body products and stored them in glass containers I had washed and saved. I tried to stuff homemade deodorant into an empty plastic deodorant tube but that wasn’t so amazing. I opted out of ordering drinks at places that wouldn’t let me use my own cup. I failed at that twice and felt guilty about it.

The result: I worked really hard and had to be extremely creative to cut out plastic! By 30 September, I was up to $150 in plastic tax. This was almost all grocery and medicine related! I wanted to take it very seriously to see how hard it would be to help influence others to make changes in daily routines. I walked to the store closest to me to save gas consumption and took my own bags and occasionally used the store next to my favorite restaurant.

I researched environmental charities and decided to donate the $150 to Ocean Conservancy in Washington DC. They are very serious about reducing the use of plastic and have many educational programs.

Next steps: I am reading and engaging with several groups from all over the world on social media that are on the same path. Each has an idea I hadn’t considered and also lists troubles they have. It’s like we are all in it together. I continue to use reusable items at work, home, and on travel. I’m learning about urban composting in an attempt to start mine.

I am still trying every day but not beating myself up if something happens where I don’t have an option. I recently drove to a friend’s house who lives in the middle of town. We walked to a restaurant to meet friends and then walked to our errands at the local stores. She does this all the time and it was very inspiring, plus we got a little exercise on a sunny day!

How we can all help: Please write your local stores corporate offices and ask them to find alternatives for wrapping food in plastic. What happened to old fashioned butcher paper and bulk stations?

Can’t get away from plastic associated with your medicine? Take your used human and animal prescriptions to participating Walgreens and drop them into the locked collection container, plastic bottles and all. Local police departments also have information for safe disposal.

A side note: Some of your friends will be irritated with this challenge should you choose to accept it. That is okay. Do this for you to see what you learn and let them decide if it is right for them by watching your example. You will be surprised at how incredibly helpful some of your friends are and what they already know and do!

Feel good about yourself: Celebrate each time you do something new – all of these things are small victories!

Finally, I’ve learned that we will not eliminate all plastic because some of it is necessary for medical procedures and also for humanitarian crises. However, we can eliminate wasteful plastic use in our everyday lives.

Source details:

Stores I shopped (and would like for you to contact if in your area):

Aldi

Costco

Giant

Walgreens

Wegmans

Whole Foods

Shoppers

Original source for the challenge: thedihedral.com

Photo source: Ocean Conservancy

🌎♻️ Thank you for reading and helping to reduce waste! 🌎♻️

The City of Hope ⚜️

I mentioned in the last post that I took two trips in August and learned much about trash. Well, the trip to New Orleans was really something. I love the romance of the French Quarter: the architecture, music, art, and of course food. I’ve been there half a dozen times or so now and each time I find something new that I love about this place. This time though was different. Maybe I was different. The city that has been through so much and keeps going, the city of hope gives me hope.

A small group of us stayed over a holiday weekend at this wonderful little boutique hotel on a block between Bourbon And Royal. The hospitality at the hotel was like no other and we loved it! I found myself looking for ways to recycle and reduce trash consumption as I had all over New Mexico. My sister and one of my friends jumped right in with me.
We lucked out with breakfast served daily at the hotel on dishes with linen napkins. I had a place to fill my coffee cup but not a place for water. The hotel staff was quite confused that I didn’t want bottled water to pour into my cup or to just take the plastic bottles. They only set out fruit-infused water in a pitcher in the lobby later in the day but that was wonderful! The coffee shops let us use our cups and most of the restaurants served us on dishes. The problem was really the bars with plastic cups galore. So much trash and no place to recycle.
I came home and did a little research. It turns out New Orleans has a recycling program for residents but hotels, restaurants, and bars in the Quarter are responsible for trash and recycling through a private company. This makes much more sense after walking around and seeing the giant trash cans at several places. The bars serve in plastic cups or souvenir-style containers. It is cheaper and easy to just toss all of it. People seem to act a fool here like no other and the staff doesn’t have time to add on responsibilities.
A local bartender told me that people do things in New Orleans that they would never do in their own home or town including throwing trash on the ground and leaving disgusting messes for people to clean, all under the guise of being on vacation. After she said this, I started watching people as I walked down Bourbon and zigzagged the other streets. Bourbon seems to have the most bars, the youngest tourists, and the most trash and vomit on the streets.
One block over on Royal is full of art galleries, coffee, government buildings, and the police department. It is cleaner and more quiet except during parade time. Jackson Square all the way over to Cafe Du Monde and down to the Markets is full of life and shopping but not a lot of craziness. Restaurants tucked away along the side streets were in most cases quaint and cozy with no litter.
The crowds and trash are dependent upon the celebration du jour. The sanitation department rolls out early and hoses down the filth for the tourists to party again. Trash is stacked high with a stench from the night before that will rot as the sun comes up only as it can in the humid heat of Louisiana. They work hard to start each day fresh. I have thought about this a lot since I returned home.
New Orleans is a place that welcomes everyone and isn’t going to turn away tourism because of the revenue it generates. The local residents care about the city and clearly participate in the recycling program available; options to increase the size of the containers are even available.
Not all tourists are there to binge-drink and be a mess. Many are there to experience the culture and would gladly participate in recycling and waste reduction. The key is to make it simple and a way of life.
Tourists need a place to recycle along the main streets and around Jackson Square. Some may not even realize how much trash they’re reducing by sitting down at the wonderful restaurants. Companies save money every time a customer brings a mug from home and the result – one fewer drink cup ends up in the dump each time. We should celebrate small victories and appreciate the talented street artists and overall culture of such an historic place while sipping from our reusable cups.

The Travel About Trash

The last few months have been focused on eliminating waste in my life. I cannot believe how incredibly hard it is to reduce waste during travel if you don’t either plan ahead or basically change the way you think in general.

Two stateside trips in the month of August were eye-opening about how far we have come and how much further we desperately need to improve! I’ll tell you about the first trip now and the second in another post so you don’t have to spend your entire day reading!

My family agreed to meet me for a ridiculous and fun-filled family adventure in a rental zig-zagging across as much of New Mexico as we could possibly pack into a few short days. Unbeknownst to the good spirited travelers, I was on a quest to use all of the items I packed in my carry-on to avoid trash. This included: a metal silverware set in a tiny zipper case, metal straw, and reusable coffee mug with its cardboard sleeve. I also carried a backpack with a smaller daypack to avoid using plastic bags.
I set off for the airport and made it as far as TSA. It turns out I should not have packed a yogurt for breakfast. It was over the three ounce liquid rule so they dumped it into the trash. I was mystified that they allowed my metal silverware set through that contained a knife and set of chopsticks but would not allow a yogurt I planned to eat for breakfast. I found out later my knife was contraband but both airports let me bring it through  . . .
I made a mental note to tell everyone about this later and marched on to Dunkin Donuts where they filled the reusable cup I purchased from a major competitor. I sat on the airplane and sipped coffee from this mug, skipped breakfast because I was still pouting about the yogurt, and sadly watched all of the other passengers drink from the free airplane cups. The little plastic cups stuffed with paper napkins and miscellaneous trash fell into the flight attendant’s plastic trash bags again and again.
I arrived in Albuquerque and waited for the family to arrive. The very kind woman at the hotel did not understand why I wanted to use a water fountain when she had complimentary bottled water for me. I did not realize at the time but this is a very common conversation everywhere.
The family traveled like the Bernstein Bears by car, Dad as the driver with me as the navigator and Mom and sister in back. The sister tried repeatedly and mostly unsuccessfully to block the glaring summer sun with one of the seemingly million maps my parents collected throughout the trip. At one point Dad was driving at least 75 mph when they decided the sister should roll down the window and try to fold the map while he rolled up the window as fast as possible. That was truly the most entertaining thing that happened in the car.
I was hopeful we could use the maps on the phones and not create a need to recycle but phone service was spotty and Mom actually collects maps. She tried hard to maintain her neatness by using a trash bag in the car. My sister brought along a solar powered cell phone charger for the trip which was one of several environmentally positive things she did.
The reusable cup was a major success! We ate breakfast at a different hotel every morning; I used the same cup all day for coffee and water. The gas stations and fast food places allowed me to fill water for free wherever we went. Most of the time it went very smoothly. The bigger National Parks have water fountains so we made excellent use of those opportunities as  often as possible. Twice I ordered a drink and used my own cup; neither place charged me.
The utensils were a huge breakthrough habit! I used my utensils at breakfast every morning in lieu of the plasticware provided. I went back to the room and grabbed them when I forgot them. Depending on the location within the same chain of hotels, either styrofoam or paper plates were the only options for food service. The metal straw came in handy when we stopped at a restaurant with table service and washable dishes.
The reusable bag was an interesting dilemma. I didn’t bring a bag big enough for a blanket I purchased in Santa Fe and didn’t think to carry it without a bag. The reusable bag my sister brought was also too small. I ended up taking the plastic bag and filling it with all of the purchases. Mom used it as the trash bag in the car but ultimately it went into the trash when we left.
I celebrated the fact that I saved at least 15 cups, six sets of plastic utensils, and made choices that reduced the overall amount of trash I created. Other than the National Parks, I found no place to recycle items. This disappointing fact made me happy to have reduced my personal amount of trash. The trip left me to consider what more to do, especially since I’d be going on another trip a week later.

Are you Ready to Help Change the World with me?

Are you a person who reads about a problem and tries to think of a way you can help make it better? Some topics seem pretty daunting because they are a global epidemic – waste, climate change, the loss of bees and endangered species, and human trafficking are a few hot button items. Do you lay awake at night thinking about these issues like some of my friends or do you throw up your hands and hope someone comes up with a solution? Are you in the middle? It is okay if you haven’t even thought about things like this because you are learning about it now.

Since I was little I have been what some might call a do-gooder. I come by this honestly because my mother is a lifelong volunteer for so many things. She took us to community events, collected money from us for food donations and Christmas presents for children in need for as long as I can remember. We were relatively poor and relied heavily on family in serious times of need but we always seemed to have time for volunteer work.
As we got older, we earned more money and were able to spread the wealth better. My dad and sister like to make sure the kids in their community have school supplies and fishing gear for the annual tournament. I like to volunteer for Veterans charities in the DC area and donate money to several types of non-profits. We all do what Mom, aka the family Chief of Staff, tells us to when she chooses a place for her annual donations.

It never occurred to me not to do things like this because it was something we always did. I received an award from a company where I created a recycling program in the early 2000’s and then a leadership award for being community and people oriented in my company in 2016. That was the same year my mother turned 70. I flew home for her surprise party and met several people who told stories about how nice my family is and how we always do things to help the neighbors and community. I was stunned to realize that not everyone thinks to do things to help others, especially strangers, but it also has never occurred to me to judge people for not being like us.

The flood of 1993 in Missouri sticks out in my mind as a time we helped our community. We lived in a neighborhood on a hill, just above the floodplain. Roads to our home were closed and the National Guard patrolled my friends neighborhoods and kept them out of danger. It was so bad the President arrived by helicopter on the high school football field to survey the damage. We had to help sandbag the subdivision that backed to the river. The Mississippi and Meramec Rivers spilled over the banks and broke levees like never before. One way in and one way out became the norm for a while. We watched the water rise close to spilling over the bridge on that last route into town.

Have you ever sandbagged an area to try to keep the water out of someone’s home? This is a legitimate daunting task because it is really hard work and it may or may not help. We stood in long lines and passed the bags down the way. People shoveled sand into bags and tied them, others passed them down the line, and the end of the line was the group strategically stacking them. I was a kid, basically oblivious, and struggling with this type of physical labor. I can remember people laughing at my facial expressions through the heavy lifting. In the end, the neighborhood we helped persevered through the worst of it. Others were not so lucky and I saw people’s homes and lives destroyed. These people were poor but didn’t let that stop them from moving forward.

I learned so many things from experiences like this and want to share with you, my journey through these lessons because I believe each person can make a difference in this world. Even if the difference is only for one person, it is something big. The flood taught me that you can ask for help in time of need and sometimes people will come to your aid and it will work out. Sometimes no matter what you do, the hardship will still come but it’s what you do to overcome it that makes the difference. We cannot wait for someone else to make a law or rule or to do something for us. We must get in there and do it ourselves.

If you’re not ready to jump in with both feet to save the world that is okay. However, I hope you are interested enough in how you can make tiny changes in your life to impact others in a positive way. If you are ready, let’s climb together, one step at a time.

I look forward to sharing information about recycling, reducing waste at home and work, being a conscientious traveler, energy consumption topics, and using small batch homemade goods. In addition to these articles, I’ll share information about the hot button items I mentioned above along with some great organizations who jumped into the fight for us and are already making a huge difference.