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The No-Plastic Challenge

Traveling across the country eating at restaurants, I will try to avoid plastic

By Troy Johnson

“Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world.”—UK Prime Minister, Theresa May (April, 2018)

“Plastic soup”—The nickname for world oceans given by scientists after the UN study in 2006 revealed that every square mile contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastics, most of it “microplastics.”

I’m on the road for the next ten days filming a food TV show. There’s plastic in my hotel room. Lots of it. The disposable coffee cups are hermetically sealed in a plastic bag, because apparently exposed coffee cups attract Midwestern Zika. The coffee creamers are single-serve plastic thimbles. The coffee lid is plastic. There are plastic bottles of designer water I can afford if I sell some blood plasma or my most valuable child.

Last night, I made the bad decision of reading this article in one of my favorite food media outlets, Civil Eats. Halfway through, I draped a bathroom towel over the half-empty bottle of SmartWater on my hotel nightstand. It’s inconvenient to read inspiring articles. Realizing the consequences of my actions gives me the heebs. And lots of what my Catholic friends call guilt.

So I did deeper research, and here are some pretty astonishing facts I found:

  • According to the EPA, the U.S. produced 33.3 million tons of plastic in 2014, and only 9 percent was recycled.
  • Britain’s better than us, recycling a little less than 30 percent of theirs.
  • It’s been estimated that Americans use 500 million drinking straws every single day. The website believes that statistic is flawed, but doesn’t provide much proof to the contrary. So let’s use common sense math. There are 327.5 million Americans. We would have to average 1.5 straws per day to reach 500 million. Ever had a two-straw day in America? How about a three-straw day? So let’s just say a few hundred million straws are probably being used.
  • According to Science Daily, in 2015, humans had created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. Like the U.S., only 9 percent is recycled.
  • Data from beach cleanups in Malibu found that water bottles were the most littered plastic thing. Straws were fifth. Plastic utensils sixth.
  • In the first decade of this century, we made more plastic than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. Plastic is extremely durable. The EPA reports “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”
  • The problem is that most plastic litter breaks down into “microplastics,” which are about the size of a seed. Tiny organisms eat those microplastics. Bigger predators eat the micro-organisms. Then we eat the bigger predators, and the plastics.
  • A 2015 study found that a quarter of fish at markets in California contained plastics.

My industry—food and drink—is full of plastic. Straws, to-go bags, to-go utensils, to-go water bottles, to-go containers, to-go coffee cup lids, you name it.

So I’ve started a 10-day no-plastic challenge. For the rest of my travels on the road eating at restaurants, I will do my best to use no single-serve plastic. Since my life is currently a to-go existence, this won’t be easy.

In fact, it took me less than an hour to totally screw this up. I made coffee in my hotel room because my brain says that word and only that word until I give it that word. I poured in the creamer and then realized I couldn’t use the plastic stir stick. So I used the handle end of my toothbrush (which is plastic, but not single use, I reasoned). And then I realized the creamer I’d already used came in a single-serving plastic thimble. Fail. Then I realized the coffee itself was brewed using a single-serving plastic container designed for Keurig. The hotel room smelled like my good intentions, decomposing.

So I hopped in a Lyft and visited Willy Street Co-Op. I bought snacks from bulk bins. I bought a reusable coffee cup, reusable water bottle, and—the hippie coup de grace—a set of bamboo utensils (with chopsticks!). Gonna have to wash that crap in the hotel sink like Lewis and Clark.

Over the next 10 days on the blog, I’ll explore the facts about plastic’s effect on our environment, and what the restaurant and bar culture is doing about it. Specifically, San Diego restaurants and bars. But also other inspiring places with solutions.

Wish me luck. Current score: Plastic 1, Troy 0.

The No-Plastic Challenge

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