On the morning of the day I decided to go without using plastic products – or even touching the plastic – I opened my eyes and put my bare feet on the carpet. Made of nylon, a type of plastic. I had about 10 seconds left on my attempt and I had already made a violation.
Since its invention more than a century ago, plastic has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. It’s hard to get even a few minutes without touching this durable, lightweight, insanely versatile item. Plastic has made thousands of modern conveniences possible, but it has also brought with it negatives, especially in terms of the environment. Last week, in a 24-hour experiment, I tried to live completely without plastic to see what plastic things we can and cannot give up.
I check my iPhone as soon as I wake up most mornings. On the appointed day, this was not possible given that every iPhone contains aluminum, iron, lithium, gold and copper, as well as plastic. I hid my device in a closet while preparing for the experiment. I quickly realized that not having access to it made me feel confused and brave, as if I was some kind of brave time traveler.
I made my way to the bathroom, just to stop myself before I walked in.
“Will you open the door for me?” I asked my wife, Julie. “There’s plastic wrap on the doorknob.”
“This is going to be a long day,” he sighed, opening it for me.
My morning hygiene routine needed a complete refresh, which required elaborate preparations in the days before the experience. I couldn’t use my usual toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo or liquid soap, all of which were plastic coated or made of plastic.
Fortunately, there is a large industry of plastic-free products aimed at environmentally conscious consumers, and I purchased a number of products from Life Without Plastic, including a bamboo toothbrush with bristles made from boar bristles. “The bristles are completely sterilized,” Jay Sinha, the company’s co-owner, said when I spoke to him a week ago.
Instead of toothpaste, I had a jar of chunks of gray charcoal-mint toothpaste. I threw one, chewed, drank water and brushed. The ashen spit was irritating, but nice and minty.
I like my shampoo bar. A shampoo bar is exactly what it sounds like: a bar of shampoo. Mine was pink grapefruit and vanilla scented and lathered well. According to bar shampoo advocates, it’s cheaper on a wash basis than bottled shampoo (a bar can hold 80 showers). That’s good, because living without plastic can be expensive. Package Free, a stylish outlet in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood adjacent to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop store, sells a zinc and stainless steel razor for $84 (also “the world’s first biodegradable vibrator”).
A set of plastic-free items in the reporter’s bathroom. Credit… Jonah Rosenberg for The New York Times
Following the advice of a blogger, I mixed a DIY deodorant with tea tree oil and baking soda. It left me smelling a bit like a medieval cathedral, but in a good way. Making your own stuff is another way to avoid plastic, but it requires another luxury: leisure.
I broke the rules by using the toilet for the second time before I was done in the bathroom.
It was also difficult to get dressed, given that many clothing items contain plastic. I ordered a pair of wool trousers that promised to be plastic free but they never arrived. I chose a pair of vintage Banana Republic chinos instead.
It said “100 percent cotton” on the label, but when I checked with the Banana Republic PR representative the day before, who was very helpful, it turned out to be a little more complicated. The main fabric is indeed 100 percent cotton, but the rep told me there is plastic lurking in the zipper tape, inside belt, woven label, pockets and threads. I cut my thumb trying to cut the black brand label with an all-metal knife. Instead of a Band-Aid – yes, plastic – I used adhesive paper tape to stop the bleeding.
Luckily, my underwear didn’t represent a plastic violation—Cottonique blue boxers made from 100 percent organic cotton and cotton drawstring instead of an elastic (usually plastic) waistband. I found this product from the “14 Warm and Sustainable Underwear Brands for Men” list.
I’ve had good luck with my upper body. Our friend Kristen knitted a sweater for my wife as a birthday present. It had blue and purple rectangles and was 100 percent merino wool.
“Can I borrow Kristen’s sweater for today?” I asked Julie.
“You will hold it,” said Julie.
“For planet Earth,” I reminded him.
Present and Past of Plastics
According to the United Nations report, the world produces approximately 400 million tons of plastic waste every year. About half of it is discarded after a single use. “We have become dependent on single-use plastic products, which have serious environmental, social, economic and health consequences,” the report said.
I am one of the addicts. I did an audit, and I estimate I throw away about 800 plastic pieces a year – take-out containers, pens, cups, bubble-in-filled Amazon packages, and more.
Before my Plastic-Free Day, I immersed myself in a series of plastic-free and zero-waste books, videos, and podcasts. One of Mr. Sinha and Chantal Plamondon’s books, “Life Without Plastic: A Step-by-Step Practical Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy,” came wrapped in clear plastic like a slice from Amazon. American cheese. When I told Mr. Sinha about this, he promised to investigate.
I also called Gabby Salazar, a social scientist who studies what motivates people to support environmental causes, and asked her for advice as I navigated my plastic-free day.
“It might be better to start small,” Salazar said. “Always start by forming one habit, like carrying a stainless steel water bottle. Once you learn that, you start another habit, like taking bags of produce to the grocery store. You build it slowly. That’s how you make real change. Otherwise, you’ll just be overwhelmed.”
“Maybe being overwhelmed brings some kind of clarity?” I said.
Dr. “That would be fine,” Salazar said.
Admittedly, living completely plastic-free is probably a silly idea. Despite its faults, plastic is a crucial component in medical equipment, smoke alarms and helmets. There is some truth to the plastics industry’s slogan of the 1990s: “Plastics make it possible.”
In many cases it can help the environment: Plastic aircraft parts are lighter than metal ones, which means less fuel and lower CO2 emissions. Solar panels and wind turbines have plastic parts. However, the world is overloaded with items, especially disposable forms. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that people use one trillion single-use plastic bags each year.
The crisis took a long time to come. There is some debate as to when plastic entered the world, but many date it to 1855, when British metallurgist Alexander Parkes patented a thermoplastic material as a waterproof coating for fabrics. He named the item “Parkesine”. Over the decades, laboratories around the world have spawned other types, all with similar chemistry: These are polymer chains, and most are made from petroleum or natural gas. Plastics vary wildly, thanks to chemical additives. They can be opaque or transparent, foamy or rigid, flexible or brittle. They are known by many names, including Polyester and Styrofoam, and abbreviated as PVC and PET.
Accelerating plastic production for World War II was crucial to the war effort, providing nylon parachutes and plexiglass aircraft windows. This was followed by a post-war boom, said Susan Freinkel, author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” a book on the history and science of plastics. “Plastic went into things like Formica counters, refrigerator liners, car parts, clothing, shoes, any kind of material designed to be used for a while,” he said.
Then things turned around.
“Where we really started getting in trouble was when we started getting into disposables,” Ms. Freinkel said. “I call it prefab garbage.”
The overflow of straws, glasses, bags and other temporary items has had disastrous consequences for the environment. According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 11 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans each year, seeping into the water, disrupting the food chain and suffocating marine life.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which reports that only 9 percent of plastics are recycled, close to one-fifth of plastic waste is burned, releasing CO2 into the air. Some are uneconomical to recycle, and the quality of other types degrades when recycled.
Plastic can also harm our health. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, some plastic additives such as BPA and phthalates can disrupt the endocrine system in humans. Worrying effects can include behavioral problems and low testosterone levels in men, and low thyroid hormone levels and premature births in women.
Dr. “Solving this plastic problem cannot fall entirely on the shoulders of consumers,” Salazar said. “We need to work on it on all fronts.”
he is everywhere
Early in my plastic-free day, I began to see the world differently. Everything looked menacing, as if it contained hidden polymers. Especially the kitchen was very crowded. Everything I could use for cooking was forbidden – toaster, oven, microwave. Not even leftovers. My son shook a plastic bag full of French toast. “Do you want some of this?” Yes I did.
Instead, I decided to look for raw food items.
Instead of the elevator with plastic buttons, I exited my building using the stairs and walked to a health food store near our apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
I try to remember to take a tote bag with me when I go shopping. This time, I brought with me seven bags, large and small, all made of cotton. I also had two glass bowls.
I stuffed apples and oranges into one of my cotton bags at the store. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that each shell has a sticker with code on it. Another possible violation, but I ignored it.
In the garbage cans, I poured the walnuts and oatmeal into my glass dishes using a (washed) steel ladle I brought from home. The boxes themselves were plastic and I ignored this as I was hungry.
I went to the cashier. At this point it was time to pay. This was a problem. Credit cards were gone. So was my iPhone’s Apple Pay. Paper money was another violation: While U.S. paper money is primarily made of cotton and linen, each bill likely contains synthetic fibers, and higher denominations have a security strip made of plastic to prevent counterfeiting.
Just to be safe, I brought a cotton sack full of coins. Yes, a big old sack full of quarters, dimes, and pennies – worth about $60 I pulled from Citibank and my kids’ piggy banks.
At the counter, I started stacking quarters as fast as I could, amid nervous looks at the customers behind me.
“I’m really sorry it took so long,” I said.
“It’s okay,” said the cashier. “I meditate every morning to deal with such turmoil.”
He added that he appreciated my commitment to the environment. This was the first positive response I got. I counted $19.02 – full change! — and I went home to have my breakfast: nuts and oranges on a metal cookie tray that I balanced on my lap.
A few hours later, I walked to Lenwich, a sandwich and salad shop in my neighborhood, in search of a plastic-free lunch. I arrived early in the afternoon carrying my rectangular glass plate and bamboo cutlery.
“Can you make the salad in this glass bowl?” I asked.
“One moment, please,” the man behind the counter said simply.
Called a manager who said ok. Victory! However, the manager later denied my request to use my steel ladle.
After lunch, I headed to Central Park, thinking this was a place in Manhattan where I could relax in a plastic-free environment. I took the subway there, which gave me more violations, because the trains themselves have plastic parts and you need a MetroCard or a smartphone to get through the turnstiles.
At least I didn’t sit in one of those plastic orange seats. I had brought my own: unpainted, folding Scandinavian-style teak chair, solid and plain. This is what I used to avoid plastic stained chairs and sofas in the apartment.
I put my chair close to a pole in the middle of the car. One man had a please don’t talk to me look in his eyes, but the other passengers were so engrossed in their phones that the sight of a man sitting in a wooden chair didn’t scare them away.
While walking through Central Park, I saw a floss pick, a black plastic knife, and a plastic bag.
When I got home, I recorded some of my impressions. I wrote on paper with an unpainted cedar pencil from the “Zero Waste Pen tin set” (regular pencils contain yellow paint with a plastic fill). After a while, I went to drink water. Which brings up perhaps the most common foe, one I haven’t mentioned yet: microplastics. These tiny particles are everywhere; in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the oceans. Among other things, they come from degraded plastic garbage.
Are they harmful to us? I talked to a few scientists and the general response I got was: We don’t know yet. “I think we’ll have a better understanding over the next few years,” said Todd Gouin, an environmental research consultant. But those who are extra cautious can use products that promise to filter microplastics from water and air.
I had purchased a jug with a membrane microfilter from LifeStraw. Of course there were plastic parts in the jug itself, so I couldn’t use it on the Big Day. Instead, I spent some time filtering the water in the sink the night before and filling the Mason jars. Our kitchen looked like it was ready for the apocalypse.
The taste of the water was particularly pure, I guess it was a kind of placebo effect.
I wrote for a while. Then I sat in my wooden chair. No phone. without internet. Julie took pity on me and offered to play cards. I nodded.
“Plastic wrap,” I said.
At around 9pm, I took our dog for a night walk. I was using a 100% cotton collar that I bought online. I threw away the poop bags—even the sustainable ones I found were made from recycled or plant-based plastic. I carried a metal spatula instead. Thankfully I didn’t have to use it.
At 10:30 p.m. I lay exhausted on my makeshift bed – cotton sheets on a wooden floor as my mattress and pillows are plastic.
The next morning, I woke up happy but also feeling defeated to be free of the ordeal and reunited with my phone.
By my account I had committed 164 violations. Dr. As Salazar predicted, I felt overwhelmed. And also unclear. Even after weeks of studying this subject, there was much that remained unclear. Which plastic-free products really made the difference, and just what is the green wash? Is it a good idea to use boar bristle toothbrushes, tea tree deodorant, microplastic filter devices, and paper straws, or is the difficulty of using them driving everyone so crazy that they end up destroying the cause?
For his morale speech, Dr. I called Salazar.
“You can drive yourself crazy,” he said. “But it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress. Believe it or not, individual behavior matters. This adds.
“Remember,” he continued, “it’s not that plastic is the enemy. The enemy is disposable. It’s a one-time use-and-throw culture.”
I thought of something writer Susan Freinkel told me: “I’m not an absolutist. If you came to my kitchen, what the hell would you do? You wrote this book and look how you lived!”
“Mrs. Freinkel is making an effort,” she said. He avoids disposable bags, cups, and packaging, among other things. Even though my one-day ban attempt wasn’t entirely successful, I promise to try it too.
I will start with small things, I will develop habits. I like the shampoo bar. And I can take product bags to the grocery store. I can take my steel water bottle and bamboo cutlery with me for my trips to Lenwich. And from there, who knows?
And I will proudly wear the “Release Marine Plastic” t-shirt I purchased online in the days before the experiment. Only 10 percent polyester.