As I started researching my options to begin the Plastic Free Challenge, it struck me pretty immediately that this was going to be very difficult. And not just because on my first day I stopped to pick up food while running errands and realized too late that I was holding a disposable coffee cup in my hand.

A great deal of the advice on the internet for going plastic-free comes down to DIY. Make your own deodorant! Make your own laundry soap! Make your own glue! Make your own toothpaste! Make your own dog food! Make your own sanitary napkins!

This isn’t to knock DIY — I’ve already cut out a great deal of plastic by gardening and canning what I grow, or making my own chicken broth and freezing it in glass jars. But going plastic-free through DIY isn’t feasible for most people.

Because plastic is so ubiquitous — and cheap — products that are plastic-free or plastic-lite usually involve higher upfront costs, putting them out of reach for people facing economic hardship. Or these products might not be available in a local area; they can be bought online, but that involves plastic and gasoline for packaging and shipping. Finally, if someone is working two or more jobs to make ends meet, DIY might mean some budget savings, but people in this situation are already exhausted. Plastic means budget-friendly items at their convenience.

For example, shortly after starting this challenge, we needed to restock on household staples. So we went to Costco, with an eye out for all the plastic we usually purchase. Take a look at how we did:

Plastic Packaging

Buying in bulk might reduce the amount of plastic we bring home, but that’s still a lot of plastic, some of which can’t be recycled (like the dog food bag). There were still choices of convenience, budget, and time that came into play.

Where we did better was in the things we did not buy that we usually would:

  • Eggs: Costco’s egg packs are wrapped in plastic;
  • Hummus: Comes from any store in a plastic container, but I can make my own in a slow cooker;
  • Milk: We switched to glass bottles that come from a store located closer to us;
  • Lunch meat and bread: We will bring leftovers from home-cooked meals in reusable containers for lunches;
  • Shampoo and conditioner: We switched to bar shampoo;
  • Strawberries/Peachers/Other fruit: All of these come in flat packs that are lined with plastic, but we can purchase them loose from local farmer’s markets right now.

One product we struggled with was the coffee. We are lucky that in our part of Utah there are a number of local coffee bean roasters popping up, but not only are they often very expensive, the beans still come in a plastic or foil bag. To get coffee (that we could afford) in a paper bag would require a drive to a specific store that is outside our area, but even then the paper bags for coffee beans are often lined with plastic. Ultimately, we decided this wasn’t a tradeoff that was worth it, especially since the brand we purchased (San Francisco Bay Coffee) has been making strides to make their product packaging more environmentally friendly.

You are going to see this theme several times across the four weeks of my plastic-free challenge. Going plastic-free means tradeoffs, and sometimes those tradeoff options are only available to those with the privilege of extra time or money. If real environmental change is going to be possible, those alternative options should not only be available to those who have extra time to DIY, extra money to shoulder upfront costs, or extra resources to seek out alternatives that fit in their lifestyle. Alternatives must be as ubiquitous and convenient as the plastic options.

For example, let’s look at shampoo. As part of going plastic free, I switched from bottles of shampoo and conditioner to a shampoo bar from Lush that promises both shampoo and conditioner in one.

Previously, my shampoo purchasing decisions were made based on two qualifications: price and convenience. Therefore, I primarily purchased one of the lower-priced shampoos and conditioners from Costco. These are large bottles that I estimate lasted about 150 to 180 washes (depending on how long my hair was at the time) each. The bottles themselves are recyclable plastic, but the pumps in the bottles cannot be recycled in my area due to the metal spring inside. To get to Costco takes me less than a 10-minute drive.

In case you couldn’t already tell that I live in the suburbs, I do not live so close to a Lush store. In fact, to purchase the bar shampoo from them, I either have to order it online (meaning environmental costs of gas and shipping materials) or I have to drive over twice the distance as I would to Costco. Furthermore, the Lush bar does not last for as many washes as a Costco-sized bottle; the best estimates I can find online are for about 80 washes per bar.

There are a number of things I can do to improve the gas consumption part, but this is an example of the costs and benefits I weighed through the process of cutting out plastic. Is it worth it to drive farther, in trips I have to take more often, to get shampoo that does not come wrapped in plastic? Does the pollution from car travel impact the environment less than the plastic waste that comes from a shorter trip?

Ultimately, neither I or any large-scale environmental movement can’t answer that sort of question for you. It depends on so many factors: your ability to travel, your access to public transportation, your type of car, your budget, the time you are able to spend on shopping trips, and more. My decision might have been different if my local recycling facilities could recycle the pumps in shampoo bottles, but local recycling options are another factor that varies widely in these considerations.

If you are looking for some alternatives to plastic items that I have found useful, here is a list:

Disclosure: Fibonacci Media Co./WhiteHat Magazine participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.

Cover Photo: Arshad Pooloo.

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