No. 45 – The 1-Week No Plastic Challenge

We were in Cambodia when Alison, our youngest, first asked me to find her a documentary about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not knowing where she’d even heard the term and if she really knew what it meant, I had to question her a bit. “Mama, I know what I’m talking about,” she said adamantly. “I need to learn more about this.” Since the only video I could find at first was a full length documentary, I thought she’d get bored with the whole thing when no animated characters popped up on the screen. Instead, she sat there transfixed through the entire film and then asked to watch it again.

Since then, pollution in all of its forms, but especially plastic in the oceans, has been a major concern of hers. She’s spent a significant amount of time doing her “research” online and we’ve found some kid-friendly videos to satisfy her thirst for pollution knowledge.
Alison at computerAlison at lake
I’m not sure where this interest came from, but it’s become her favorite soapbox topic, coming before other critical issues in her life such as “Things My Sisters Do That Make Me Mad” and “Why I Should Get To Pet Every Dog I See.” Suffice it to say, Alison is now our resident expert on plastic and its effects on our global ecosystem. Paraphrasing her many arguments won’t do them justice, so here they are in her words:

 Alison Carisch May 28, 2015 – Transcribed by the Mama

Hi. I’m Alison. I’m 6-years-old and I want to share what I know about the Pacific Garbage Patch and the pollution of our world. The Pacific Garbage Patch is a couple big huge blobs of garbage that are like two times the size of Texas. They turn the ocean into a plastic soup. It hurts a lot of animals and I think that we’re doing things that are really bad to the environment that are hurting us too. A lot of plastic never really goes away so it’s just always floating out there even in these teeny tiny itty bitty little pieces that look like fish food and stuff. It’s not, NOT good. For one, the turtles think plastic bags look like jellyfish, so they eat them and they get stuck in their stomach. And for two, little pieces of plastic look like food to birds, so the birds eat them and they feed them to their young and then the babies never even grow because they die when they’re little. And for THREE, the fish eat the plastic and then we eat the fish and get sick.

Some people don’t care because they don’t think it matters to them, but they forget that we eat the fish and basically we’re eating the plastic, so do you really want to eat plastic? And then there are people who say, oh well, that doesn’t matter to me because I don’t eat fish so I don’t care. But ocean problems are still a big problem for all of us. All of it is connected, you know? This whole planet is connected. It makes me feel really sorry for birds and turtles and everything that gets hurt by all this pollution everywhere. Sometimes it makes me cry. No really. Sometimes I’m playing along, la la la, everything is fine and then I start thinking about the ocean or the turtles or somefing in the water and then there’s water in my eyes!

We really, really, really, really need to stop using so much plastic. And if you really have to use it then recycle it and don’t throw it into the street or the ocean or whatever. And people need to stop using plastic bags!! Like really. Just don’t use them, never ever. Just use reusable bags or paper bags or even a box or somefing. Plastic bags should be against the law. I wish they were never invented. So I challenge you to stop using plastic for a week and you’ll realize how much stuff comes in plastic and why we need to be more careful. Okay…I’m done.

It wasn’t surprising when Alison kept asking for our family to go at least a week without buying anything with plastic in it. I kept putting it off because I knew this wouldn’t be an easy task for even a short period of time. In many countries we’ve visited, attempting it would have been impossible since even our drinking water had to come out of plastic bottles. Then, we came to Pucón, Chile where the town had taken its own steps to decrease world consumption of plastic. Last December a municipal law went into effect outlawing plastic grocery bags in all commercial businesses. “See Mama!” Alison cried gesturing at the poster. “If they can give up plastic, we can!” In her mind the simple act of remembering to use our reusable grocery bags was synonymous with giving up all plastic. But I decided it was time to take her up on her challenge. We decided to go one week without buying anything that had any amount of plastic in the product or packaging.
Pucon plastic bag posterAli and our shopping bags

One week. Seven little days. The fact that this seemingly small sacrifice was so incredibly difficult and ultimately impossible to uphold actually scares me quite a bit. We really are TOO dependent on plastic! The next time you’re in the grocery store, really stop and look at the amount of plastic we use. It’s a little mind-boggling, especially when you extrapolate this amount out to the billions of people consuming it.

Some of the changes we made for this period weren’t too bad. We bought cartons of milk and juice instead of jugs. We got cheese and meat wrapped in paper from the deli rather than buying the prepackaged stuff. We had to forego the standard loaf of bread in its plastic bag and switch to loaves and rolls from the bakery section. Brian made a valiant effort in giving up the sleeve of chocolate chip cookies he’d been buying practically every day since we got here. (Nice work, honey.) These were easy, and in many cases tastier and healthier, alternatives to what we’d been doing.

But then…oh wait…cereals have plastic bags inside them. Sorry, no Cheerios. And no peanut butter either because they only have it in plastic jars. No pasta, rice, dry beans or frozen foods because they’re all in plastic bags. No cleaning products or toiletry items because they’re in plastic bottles. No pencils when we need them (only available in plastic packaging) or spices when we run out (only in little plastic bags). Plastic, plastic, plastic! On Day 5 of this challenge we ran out of toilet paper and had to break down and buy some, plastic wrapping and all. Then I went to the store and asked for chicken at the meat counter, only to realize the butcher had put it in a plastic bag. Argh! In the end we couldn’t do it. We failed in our quest to stop buying plastic for a single week.

All of this focus on plastic has made us start looking at the items we use. Toothbrushes, kitchen utensils, technological devices, brooms, pens, toys, storage containers. Even our suitcases! So many things we use will never decompose and aren’t likely to wind up in the recycling bin. I’d never thought about our plastic consumption until Ali brought it to my attention. We recycled as much as we could and figured that was the best we could do. However, after this experience we’ll be thinking very differently in the future. Packaging has become a major issue for me now, and I’ll always choose cardboard or glass jars whenever I can. When we eventually get back to the U.S. and have to purchase a lot of things for our new household, you can bet Alison will be helping me search for non-plastic items. I even looked up “non plastic toothbrushes” the other day just to see if they exist…they do.

Alison’s passion has opened our eyes. It just goes to show you that kids really can teach adults a thing or two. In honor of our little earth-lover I challenge you to try this No Plastic Challenge yourself and see how it changes your point of view. Alison and the sea turtles will thank you.

Plastic Paradise Documentary
Silent Killers: The Dangers of Plastic Bags
Plastic Recycling Facts
Life Without Plastic

About the Author

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. I read this a few days ago when you posted it, and I spent the weekend obsessing about the amount of plastic in the house. I think we’re very good recyclers (and generally relatively conscious about the environment), but it is truly amazing how much plastic we consume! Thank Alison for raising our awareness!

    1. I know, Mary Lou. It really is crazy when we stop to think about it. Just the awareness of it creates small changes that can have a big impact over time. These kids…I think they’re smarter than us parents sometimes.

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