Honoring Earth Day

Last month, in honor of Earth Day, two GSAS graduate students, Elizabeth Carlen and Elle Barnes gave up purchasing food in plastic.

Both of us are scientists, and because of the nature of our research we were unable to completely give up plastics. Sample tubes, petri dishes, pipette tips, and many other everyday lab supplies are plastic and essential for our research. However, because we’re often in remote areas to conduct research we see first hand the far-reaching effects of single-use plastic.

Plastic debris on Henderson Island showing the far-reaching effects of plastic debris in our environment. Photo © J. Lavers via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We consider ourselves relatively environmentally aware.  We carry reusable water bottles, recycle everything we can, carpool, carry reusable tote bags, are conscious of food/water waste, limit our meat consumption, eat/shop local, and so on. Elle was the self-proclaimed ‘garbage police’ as a child, checking trash cans for recyclables and lecturing people about what can actually be thrown away.

But we decided to embark on this endeavor for two reasons: (a) to help make ourselves aware of all the single-use plastics we consume and (b) to see where we could cut out or reduce single-use plastic from our lives.

Here are some things we found.

  1. It’s really difficult to cut out plastic! Our first grocery shopping trip was spent wandering around the grocery store trying to meal plan and realizing we were going to have to get creative. Chips and crackers were completely out (before you tell us that some bags look like aluminum or paper: well, they are actually made from metal or paper molded with low density plastic and thus, cannot be recycled), as were cheese, meats, berries (fresh & frozen) and most dairy (gone are the days of paper cartons without plastic). Fruits and vegetables were placed directly in our carts (instead of plastic bags) and washed at home. If we did want cheese or meat it had to be bought at the deli counter so we could ask the butcher/monger to only wrap the item in paper. Snacks on campus were even more difficult since plastic tended to be the only option. This meant we had to remember to bring snacks with us or leave campus and scout the local delis (which also contained mostly plastic-based foods).

Chip aisle at Whole Foods. Photo © E. Carlen

 

Snack options in the vending machine options at Walsh Library are all in plastic. Photo © E. Carlen

  1. BYOE — Bring Your Own Everything. Both of us were already in the habit of carrying reusable water bottles, coffee mugs, and Elle had been carrying reusable silverware. Elizabeth dug out her camping silverware, as well as metal straws. We also found that we could bring paper lunch bags to buy bulk items at the grocery store; this allowed us to purchase pasta, rice, and dried fruit that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to buy.
  2. There are a lot of hidden plastics. Foods in cardboard containers or glass that you think have no plastic have hidden plastic. Bartenders & waitstaff often put straws in your drinks without asking if you need them. This meant that on multiple occasions Elizabeth had to chase down waitstaff after ordering and ask them to not add a straw. It also meant that we bought food on multiple occasions not realizing there was plastic in or on it. It happens and helped us realize how prevalent plastic is, even when trying to avoid it.

 

Hidden plastic seal on San Pellegrino water. Photo © E. Carlen

  1. Think about if you actually need to use that plastic. At times we had to get creative. Early in the month we both forgot our silverware and ended up eating salad with a single pair of wooden chopsticks passed between us. At school social events sandwiches were placed directly on napkins (no wasting a plastic plate) and paper cups were used instead of plastic bowls.

 

Fruit eaten out of a paper cup with a coffee-stirrer ‘utensil’. Photo © E. Carlen 

  1. Be conscious of the alternatives. So if we aren’t going to use plastic, what are some alternatives? We prefer paper or metal items. In general though, any single-use item is wasteful–no matter the material. For instance, single-use chopsticks are extremely damaging to the environment as large areas of forest are cleared throughout the world to provide wood for the chopstick industry, having cascading impacts on the ecosystem. An alternative: reusable bamboo or metal chopsticks. Similar to the chip bags mentioned before, many paper coffee cups are actually not recyclable because they are made by molding plastic to the inside. This helps prevent the paper from breaking down and keeps your coffee warmer for longer. The cup may be made of recycled materials, but once it becomes a coffee cup, it becomes waste. In an effort to close the loop on coffee cups, many coffee shops have begun switching to more environmentally friendly cups that use a different method to adhere the plastic making them recyclable. However, a better option would be a cup that uses a plant-based liner, making it both recyclable and plastic-free. The best alternative: bring your own reusable coffee cup to the coffee shop–even Fordham’s Rose Hill on-campus Starbucks acknowledges BYOC (Bring Your Own Cup)–and many coffee shops will even give you a discount for it.

Overall this experience was incredibly enlightening and helped us learn more ways to cut out plastic from our everyday lives. While we were both very happy to be able to buy some of our favorite foods again on May 1st, we’ll continue many of the practices throughout the year. Our endeavor is especially timely due to National Geographic’s June 2018 issue entitled “Plastic or Planet?”, which begins their multi-year effort to raise awareness of the global plastic trash crisis and become a more sustainable magazine.

Written by Elle Barnes and Elizabeth Carlen

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