Photo courtesy of Kate Melville-Rea/The Gazelle

Going plastic-free for a month

What would a month’s worth of someone’s plastic waste look like? For November, my plastic waste was 33 items including a straw, honey container, pill ...

Photo courtesy of Kate Melville-Rea/The Gazelle
What would a month’s worth of someone’s plastic waste look like? For November, my plastic waste was 33 items including a straw, honey container, pill packet, two q-tips, a bottle of contact lens solution, a broken pen, packaging from vaccines, two starbucks cups, my face wash, a surgical mask and wrappers from (junk)food. From the 1st to the 30th of November, Kelly, Mitali and I decided that since we can’t grow beards, we’d grow environmental awareness instead by cutting plastic out of our lives and storing any plastic we did accumulate into individual boxes that we called Sin Bins. The conception of this project started in the same way that Kelly and I have previously found ourselves dressing up as a plastic bag, a water fairy or Adele: one of us suggested the idea and we committed ourselves before we had time to rethink and escape.
The month brought about a range of emotions — from pride, when I could write “NOTHING!” in my log sheet at the end of the day; to annoyance, when I received gifts with packaging that I’d have to keep for the rest of the month; to rage, as I browsed the (in)convenience store and realized that almost everything was packaged in plastic. The unexpected silver lining to going plastic free, however, was the opportunity for conversation. Since I would have to get my teas, coffees and smoothies in mugs and glasses, I would be bound to a place until I was done. Most times a friend would join me, and it gave us both an opportunity to slow down, sit and just talk. I started to appreciate the inconveniences related to going without plastic waste.
The inconveniences related to going plastic-free are huge especially in a place like Abu Dhabi, where there isn’t yet a market for alternative products, and health and safety regulations lead to catering companies providing single-use packets and banning customers from bringing in their own food or drink containers. Throughout the month I progressively realized just how saturated with plastic my life is.
Even though I have a reusable waterbottle, ceramic plates and cups for gatherings, and even switched to a menstrual cup, there was so much plastic in my life that I didn’t even realize was plastic. Let’s start with my Nivea face wash: It turns out that the little exfoliating microbeads inside it are made of polyethylene, the same plastic that single-use bags and bottles are made of. These microbeads are ruining the world’s oceans, and some countries and U.S. states have already banned self-care products that contain these microbeads. With this little realization, I went the first two weeks of November without washing my face with anything but water. Eventually I became too desperate for a clean face so I bought a new beadless wash and decided that my previous sinful face wash would be better in a landfill than ever used again.
Now onto paper products: It turns out that paper cups have a plastic film to keep them waterproof. But because of this film, paper cups are not recyclable, and so they end up in a landfill where they produce a lot of methane gas due to the landfill’s anaerobic environment. The same is true for glossy paperboard packaging, like that of Digestives biscuits: it has a thin layer of plastic to make it look shiny, making it harder to recycle. Even the surgical mask that I picked up while at a recycling plant contains polypropylene, a harder plastic often used to make chairs and rope.
The sad reality is that my Sin Bin isn’t even a true representation of my real plastic use because it doesn’t include a lot of the dining hall’s backstage plastic that we never see: burger buns arrive in plastic wrapping, our orange juice comes from big plastic bottles and the staff at the Grab and Go counter wear single-use plastic gloves for easy hygiene. Nevertheless, it was an experiment that I am happy to have done and probably will repeat each time I am in a new environment.
While this month has made me a lot more aware of my plastic use, it did not inspire me to live completely plastic-free for the rest of my life; since lifting my self-ban on plastic, I have relapsed back into Starbucks, chips and single-serving honey packets. Still, I am now painfully aware of every piece of waste that I do produce, and know that I have a long way to go.
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