Here's something interesting. The Dallas Morning News asked me to write an opinion piece for their Sunday news magazine, and they actually published it!
The article I wrote is called "How I Gave Up Plastic," and it was paired with a piece by Stanley Fish called, "I Am, Therefore I Pollute." Fish writes the New York Times blog Think Again.
Here's the text of my article as it appeared:
How I Gave Up Plastic
by Jeanne Haegele
Bad habits are hard to break, but sometimes you just have to try. At least, that's what I've been telling myself for the past year as I've attempted to give up plastic.
Why on earth would anyone give up plastic? There are ample reasons.
Americans send huge amounts of plastic to landfills each year – almost 60 billion pounds in 2006 alone. Some plastic never biodegrades, and most of what does takes hundreds of years. It is difficult to recycle, and evidence of plastic's negative health effects is mounting. Then there's the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a vast, swirling soup in the Pacific Ocean where wildlife is threatened by plastic refuse trapped in the currents.
Last autumn, thinking over these worrisome facts on a bike ride through the streets of Chicago, I started to wonder whether it would be possible to live without plastic. It seemed unlikely, especially since everything in the supermarket is wrapped, if not double-wrapped, in the stuff. How could I avoid it?
But I decided to go for it. I would conduct an experiment and give up everyone's favorite polymer.
Looking back now at those first few months, I understand why people feel green fatigue. Learning to live without plastic wasn't easy. I had to throw out so many of my old routines and rethink fundamental aspects of my life.
Grocery shopping was my greatest challenge. I remember my initial trip to the the supermarket, when I first learned that so many of my normal standbys were off-limits. Crackers, chips, cookies, pasta and dozens of other favorites were out, and I had no idea what to buy. Only a few items came home with me that day – and even some of those, like the canned tuna and milk, had hidden plastic in their packaging (aluminum cans and paper milk cartons are lined with a thin layer of plastic). I spent those first few weeks a bit hungry.
But with some practice, grocery shopping became surprisingly easy. Fruits and veggies are a much bigger part of my diet now, and I've discovered that several stores in my area have bulk bins with enough products to keep me happy – cereal, oatmeal, granola, nuts, dried fruit, rice and chocolate candy are some of my favorites. And I still buy milk (in a glass container) and meat (wrapped in paper at the deli), and use my own cloth produce and grocery bags. Eating well has been not a problem – and the cost savings are significant.
Groceries haven't been my only dilemma, though. Most of my favorite toiletries are packaged in plastic. Searching for a shampoo replacement has been a constant struggle, and conditioning my hair with a vinegar solution, while effective, makes me worry about smelling like a salad. And do you know how hard it is to find plastic-free makeup? Difficult enough that I've basically given up. Still, even these have been changes for the better; I use very few toiletries now, and I am, once again, saving a lot of cash.
So, like kicking a nail-biting problem, I gave up plastic – a bad habit that was hurting the environment – and I'm stronger for it. I've tested my boundaries, forced myself to think critically about my actions and developed a simpler way of life. I'm happier and healthier than ever.
I know I have more bad habits, still unnoticed or unchecked. But with a little effort, I know I can get rid of them, too. It just takes a true dedication to change, little by little. A commitment to drive less, adjust my thermostat, even eat less meat.
At first, breaking these habits will seem difficult; it did when I gave up plastic. But this experiment has shown me that the hardest thing about making changes is breaking old patterns, patterns that comfort you or help you make mundane decisions but don't truly influence your quality of life. Getting greener seems difficult at first, but it only takes small steps to get you on your way.
As for me, the more steps I take, the less I miss the old bad habits. And the more I learn that it's not the minor hardships that matter in the end.