Sustainability 101: A Lesson in Plastics

It dawned on me one Saturday afternoon, as I was unpacking the groceries I'd just lugged from the Trader Joe's on 72nd Street. I was still living in my studio apartment in Morningside Heights, a "cozy" 5th floor walk-up with no kitchen drawers or closets (the latter an apparently optional amenity, only coming to my attention after move-in). 

Trader Joe's is by far the most affordable grocery store in New York City. The closest Target is across the river in the Bronx; local supermarkets and bodegas suffer from mark-ups that make Whole Foods look like a dollar store; and as settled in as I am to the Organic Non-GMO Cage-Free All-Natural bandwagon, I can't justify spending $90 on a bag of almonds, a few apples, kale, bread, and olive oil (okay, fine, and a Tobacco & Patchouli Paddywax candle. Fine). 

Although the experience of shopping at a New York Trader Joe's is quite unique - with checkout lines wrapping around every corner of the store and employees shouting directions at you as they try to restock the avocados before a mob of angry Upper West Siders breaks out - it's worth the stress just for the prices. I know I can consistently stock up on everything I need for the week for just about $50, candle included. At Whole Foods I stick to basics, choosing grocery items based purely on cost; at Trader Joe's I can indulge in goat cheese, fresh figs, and shea butter hand cream without breaking the bank.

But it wasn't until that Saturday afternoon, just over a year ago, that I fully realized the impact of my Trader Joe's shopping: I was throwing away an unnecessary amount of trash. For some reason TJs decides to package almost every produce item in single-use plastic - cucumbers on styrofoam are wrapped in saran wrap; lemons are often caged in synthetic mesh; tomatoes and brussels sprouts come in easy-to-grab bags. And for items not pre-wrapped in plastic they let you do it yourself, like most grocery stores, offering thin soft-plastic bags that bear the sole responsibility of making it easier for you to get your groceries home.

 Look how nice the ocean looks when it's not filled with plastic. Ain't it lovely? Don't you just want to dive right in?                     Cape Finisterre, Spain (2013)

Look how nice the ocean looks when it's not filled with plastic. Ain't it lovely? Don't you just want to dive right in?                     Cape Finisterre, Spain (2013)

Each trip to the store was saving me money, but sending to the landfills a material that will essentially never break down. Not unlike love, plastic is forever, and if it does break down it releases dangerous toxins in its wake.

From that realization came others, and I began to see wasteful, single-use plastic and paper items everywhere: to-go coffee cups, straws, grocery bags, paper towels and napkins, plasticware, tissues, water bottles, and Amazon packaging (boy do I have a bone to pick with Amazon). Even in multi-use items plastic was seemingly unavoidable. It was in my toothbrush, shampoo and conditioner bottles, packaged food items like peanut butter and greek yogurt, and restaurant to-go containers. While there are companies, like Preserve and Patagonia, that are finding innovative ways to reuse and recycle, not all plastic is even sent to recycling facilities. And of the plastic that is, it can typically only be recycled one time before it degrades in quality so much that it's sent to the landfill anyway.

The danger of plastic goes beyond just piling up in landfills and taking up space; it's beginning to infiltrate our environment, floating in the ocean, killing animals, and even ending up in our own food. It's easy to write-off headlines like these as inflammatory and paranoid, and to ignore environmental activists with clipboards getting in the way of us and a 40% off sale at Loft. But the issue can only be shrugged off for so long before we've caused irreversible damage to the environment, and that moment is fast-approaching.

Since that afternoon I've slowly been making changes to everyday habits in an attempt to reduce my own trash output. I started bringing cloth produce bags to the grocery store and collecting food scraps for New York City's compost drop-off program. I carry reusable water bottles and coffee cups, switched to bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars (which make my hair so soft I don't even need conditioner), and starting buying tree-free paper towels and toilet paper. It was easier than I thought to make many of these changes; there are so many incredible brands, companies, and initiatives that help make a more sustainable lifestyle not only possible, but enjoyable.  And lucky for me Trader Joe's candles are made with soy wax, a cotton wick, and come in aluminum tins, so all is well on the candle front.

I'm hoping to spend some time writing about my sustainability stories and discoveries, as well as confessing and confronting the challenges of trying to reduce waste. And of course I'll toss in the occasional rambling, long-winded blog post, such as this one. That is all.