Easy Peasy Step : “No Straw, Please”

Hello, dear friends.

It’s still really hot. I live in an area known as a heat sink, and I definitely am feeling it. There’s lots of warm days, lots of swimming in the river, and lots of enjoying a refreshing after work beverage. At my place of employment we are big fans of our refreshing after work beverages. This post makes me realize how many Caesars I drink in the summer. Dear reader, I would appreciate it immensely if you would be so kind as to imagine that half of the straws described come from ginger ale or soda water.

This project is teaching me a lot of lessons. In some cases single use plastic is really important. I’m really glad that someone like my dentist, or someone providing me with first aid, wears single use sterile plastic gloves when they are providing me with care. Condoms are super important, single use, and provide immense benifits to individuals and to humanity as a whole. There are tons of examples where a single use piece of plastic is necessary or of benefit. There are also situations where single use plastic is pretty useful. I live in an area where the domestic North American opiod epidemic is a reality. I carry a naloxone kit when I am in certain places with single use plastic syringes, a CPR face shield, and antiseptic wipes. That is all contained in a plastic container similar to a sunglass case. It wouldn’t be practical to have that kit carried in a cloth bag or a glass container. Keeping track of my plastic use has taught me that there are very legitimate reasons to produce and use single use plastic. Straws are not one of them.

I’ve never really stopped to think how silly it is that I drink my mojito, or my ginger ale, or my smoothie from a straw. I don’t purchase straws to use in my house, but until now I haven’t really batted an eye at one being in my cocktail. They are ubiquitous. They are just there. A lot of them are just there. The United States alone uses 500 million straws a day. After an incredibly short useful life, often less than half an hour, they are generally put in the garbage. Straws are small and light, and easily end up in places other than the landfill. Plastic straws are one of the most commonly collected items on beach clean ups in North America, Australia, and along the European coastline. You may have seen the video of the sea turtle with the straw up its nose. This is a very graphic representation of how plastic straws harm wildlife. From breaking down into micro plastics to be injested, to ending up caught in orifices, to being injested in their entirety, straws cause a lot of damage. This is all the more infuriating because we simply do not need them. I can easily life my glass to my lips. I do this with my morning coffee, my water bottle, beer, tea, etc.

 

My coworkers and I  have decided to all abstain from using drinking straws when we are out and about. It is an incredibly simple step to lessen our plastic output. Servers at some of the establishments we frequent regularly are starting to recognize this request without us mentioning it. Unfortunately, putting a straw in certain drinks is a force of habit for a lot of bartenders. Gin & Tonic? Straw. Caesar? Straw. Mojito? Straw. Ginger Ale? Straw. We sometimes see bartenders place a straw in our drink and then hastily pull it back and throw it out. This is part of starting a habit. I’m very hopeful that enough people start asking for their beverages without straws servers will start to ask if straws are necessary. Plastic shopping bags are no longer assumed to be necessary at many grocery stores. Five years ago my groceries would be in plastic bags before I could say anything, no many cashiers ask if I would like a bag. I look forward to a day when I can ask for a mojito, and the server will ask if I need a straw, instead of just assuming.

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The straws in the stash so far.

I do have some straws in my plastic stash, both due to the muscle memory of bartenders, and my forgetfullness in mentioning it. I hope to have this occur with less frequency as I continue the project. Let’s suppose I indulge in 5 drinks that would normally have a straw per week (Remember folks,  we agreed that half of them are gingerale). If I get one straw every two weeks that is a saving of 18 straws over the course of the month. That is a saving of 216 straws over the course of a year. In just five short years I will have kept 1080 straws out of landfill or ocean. I tend to drink less commonly strawed beverages in the winter than the summer, so let’s suggest I’m using 200 straws in a year.  That’s 1000 straws every five years.

I have three coworkers that have taken the no straw pledge. Let’s suppose each of those wonderful humans average the same amount of beverages consumed per week as me. In one year we will collectively divert the use of 864 straws. In five years we will divert 4320 straws. A plastic straw weighs approximately 0.3 grams. Our five year plan will keep 1296 grams of straws out of use. That’s 1.3 kg or 2.8 pounds. That’s a lot of plastic that really doesn’t need to exist.

We are a seasonal company, and we only really work together for April to October. We started this project in May.  At this point we are we are looking at about 15 weeks left in the season. If we would average 20 straws between the four of us per week, and we don’t get any more straws over the course of the season, that is 280 non existent straws. This is pretty cool. Suppose we start at the beginning of next season, stay friends, and continue to imbibe in similar patterns to this year. We are looking at about 28 weeks of a season. We could potentially collectively divert the use of 560 straws next season.

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There is no good re use option.

Lots of companies take part in challenges like Bike to Work Week, and various fundraising innitiatives. This is great. Taking an office wide no straw challenge is even easier. No bake sale. No pledges. No showing up at work in your cycling spandex. No deadlines. Literally all you have to do is say “no straws, please” when you go out for Friday night drinks. I encourage every workplace to take on a no straw challenge for workers who like to socialize together. You can keep track of how much your team drinks (remember folks, ginger ale), and figure out how many 0.3 gram straws your company is diverting from use.

Thanks folks! Keep cool out there.

Food for Thought of the Week : Canned Legumes

Hello, Dear Reader.

I didn’t food for thought last week. I did eat last week. I guess I just didn’t think too much. The stash is ever growing, and I’m getting more comfortable with this being a learning exercise. I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with a friend who I don’t see often, and she let me know that she is conscientiously asking for “no straw” when she is out for  drinks. She is even keeping the straws that make their way into her drink as a reminder to always ask for no straws. My coworkers and I have all adopted no straws as our personal motto for the summer season. Our local pub recongnizes us, we’re there a lot, and has just stopped putting straws in our waters and bevvies. The Last Plastic Straw has lots of great, encouraging stories about people and establishments all over the world refusing single use straws. It warms my heart.

My heart doesn’t need too much warming these days because it is a heat wave. I live in the Pacific Northwest, an area known for such months as Juneuary and Fogust, and not known for its intense heat. Well, my friends, it’s been hot and sunny with very little precipitation. As a result I am not cooking much, and when I do it tends to be big batches of stuff cooked at night. There’s been a lot of salads and barely cooked meals, as I just do not want to heat up my apartment by turning on a burner. I found a can of chickpeas waaaaaay at the back of my cupboard, where canned legumes go to live out their days, and decided to make crunchy spicy chickpeas to throw on my salads.  I had bought the can of chickpeas who knows when, so it was most likely purchased long before the start of the project. I took a moment to look at the label, which is plasticized paper. I thought briefly about how it would need to go in the stash, then I thought about how I’ve been eating salads for a week and should probably add some protein before I hangrily freak out on all my coworkers one day, and then continued on my way.

Chickpeas were made, salads were assembled, apartment was warmer but not sweltering. These were all conclusions that led me to believe this was a success. I washed out my tin, removed the label to add to the stash, and then went to put the can in the recycling.

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Most food cans are either tin plated steel or aluminum. Aluminum is great to recycle. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and can maintain tier (keep the same quality) through the recycling process. We have the infrastructure domestically in North America to recycle aluminum, and it often does not have to be shipped for recycling to Asia the way that many plastics do. Recycling aluminum is much more economical that manufacturing aluminum from virgin ore. It generally only takes about 60 days turnaround time, from when you place an aluminum can into your recycling to it being back on the shelves as a brand new can. Steel and tin are also domestically recyclable. Steel food cans have an excellent recycling rate in North America. Steel can maintain tier through recycling. Tin is a relatively rare metal to mine, so we should always reuse what we have. I felt this to be pretty successful. I went to recycle my can.

Then I remembered that food cans often have a (yes, you guessed it) plastic liner. All of your cans have some sort of plastic liner to keep metal from leaching into your food, and your food from corroding the can. Remember that science experiment when you put one of your baby teeth in a dish of cola and watched it dissolve over time? Yes, if you thought it was gross, it is. Why do kids think this is cool? Some classrooms use a nail now, thank goodness. Eventually that nail gets corroded, and everything acidic from tomato paste to cola would eventually leach into their metal containers due to their acidity. To counteract this manufacturers line their metal cans with a plastic resin barrier to keep the food from the metal, and vice versa. These liners are actually a total feat of engineering, each different food requires its own liner formulation based on acidity, carbonation, food colouring, and viscosity of the contents of the can. Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Cherry Coke all have different can liner formulations.  Regular canned chickpeas and canned chickpeas with no salt have different plastic formulations in their liners. I found this fascinating. These liners get removed during the re-melt process, and are a non recylable byproduct of metal recycling.

Many of these liners have BPA, a plastic additive known for it’s endocrine disrupting, potentially carcinogenic properties. It’s the stuff that made us all throw out our Nalgene water bottles a couple years ago. Even the most stalwart skeptics I know conveniently “lost” their old Nalgenes after the media storm around BPA. The science is still very much under consideration on how our exposure to BPA from canned foods may affect our health. I am not a doctor and would not suggest people eat more or less canned food based on the BPA alone. It is a plastic product, and I need to look at it in conjunction with my project.

So I looked at my can for awhile and had the mental back and forth. The can is recyclable. I should recycle. The plastic liner is not recyclable. It’s very thin and is often sprayed or squeegeed on. I can’t see it. It’s like it barely even exists. I’ve been doing so well lately. I don’t want to add to the stash. The can is can be recycled domestically . The can is lined with a plastic based resin. I’m not doing a recycling audit. I’m doing a plastic audit. Now stop looking for loopholes and stash the damn can.

I stashed the damn can.

I consoled myself with some strawberries I got at the farmers’ market, which came in a totally compostable tray instead of a plastic clamshell. You win some, you lose some. Usually you win at the farmers’ market

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So, what are my alternatives? Should I never eat chickpeas again? While this may be a great blessing to those who end up downwind of me, I don’t think I’m ok with that. I live alone, and largely work alone, and I can deal with the after affects of Chana Masala night. I’m uncertain as to how much BPA I want to expose myself to, and it’s not great to be washing that into the output of the aluminum recycling process which often ends up in the wastewater stream. That BPA is often just flushed out into production output. Like all other things plastic, it never really goes away.

Luckily, this is the easiest switch to date. Dried legumes come in bulk, are way cheaper bulk by weight than canned, and are dead easy to prepare. I just need to remember to cook them, or soak them overnight, but this is the smallest of changes to routine. As a single person it is easy to make too much at once, with consequences that border on horrifying for those around me, but those little suckers freeze super well.

This was a super simple change, and one with many spinoffs. Blackbeans, kidney beans, and lentils are all so much cheaper in bulk. I’m almost kicking myself for buying canned for so long. I love learning.  I’m excited to try replacing other canned staples, like tomato paste, with homemade alternatives. I hope this is the last can in my stash, and the last bit of plastic resin I am responsible for introducing into the waste stream.

So, dear friends, fear not. I’ll still be bringing black been and sweetpotato salad to potlucks. I’ll still be deciding to “stay home and have a night alone” after I eat too many lemon dill chickpeas. I encourage you to look at one food in your pantry that you could replace the canned version with something else. I’ll let you know how making my own tomato paste goes. I can only assume it will be a “learning curve”. A delicious, delicious learning curve.

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Easy Peasy Step : Travel Mug

I’ve calmed down on the cheese front. After having a slight tantrum over how all of my favourite food is wrapped in plastic, I have set my sights to something I wouldn’t even describe as a food. It’s more like oxygen, or gravity, a necessary force for life. I’m talking about coffee. I’ve had a strong relationship with coffee for well over a decade. Unfortunately, I’ve had a relationship with disposable to go cups for almost as long. I went two years in university without using any to go cups. I was pretty proud of that. Then I fell off the wagon and started grabbing a coffee when I was out walking my dog in the mornings. Then I started using to go cups when I was getting tea, because I didn’t like the way both the coffee and tea flavours would sit in my travel mug. Then I started using to go cups if I was treating myself to a flavoured latte for the same reason. Then I started using those silly clear plastic cups to get iced Americanos because I had graduated university and thought I had money for treats. Then I started writing this blog post and realized how much money I spend on coffee. This plastic audit is turning into a financial audit. This is embarrasing. Let’s get back to the plastic.

That’s a lot of plastic. I wouldn’t get coffee if the cup was styrofoam, as I knew that stuff was terrible for the environment. However, even your basic to go cup often has a plastic liner between the two layers of cardboard to keep coffee from saturating the paper and causing a terrible mess. You also have those shiny plastic lids to deal with. Even a nice looking paper cup has a significant plastic content, and isn’t necessarily much better than styrofoam. If you are sitting there, dear reader, and enjoying a delicious coffee beverage out of paper cup, don’t worry.  There’s a million and one funny, stylish, or utilitarian travel mugs in the world.

I’ve had a lot of coffee mugs in my life. I’m a notorious loser. I mean, I lose stuff. Well, both I guess, but I would inevitably lose my mugs. Sometimes they would come back down the road, and sometimes they were gone forever. Sometimes I managed to lose just the lid. I have no idea how that happens. I currently have an excellent travel mug, with a spill proof lid. I would know. I spill everything. It’s so good I feel comfortable having it right beside my work computer, including when my boss is around. I’ve had this little champion for about two months.  The biggest challenge going forward won’t be avoiding returning to my to go cup using ways, this mug keeps my coffee way hotter longer, it will be to not lose this magnificent godsend. It’s also the reason I currently have 0 to go cups in my plastic stash.

On thing that this project has brought up for me is to think about the cumulative use of single use plastic over the course of a lifetime. Like many kids in my generation I got juiceboxes pretty regularly in my lunch kit. In addition to the tetrapak (stay tuned, I’ve got lots to say about tetrapaks in their own post) I used  a childhood’s worth of little plastic juicebox straws, individually wrapped in little plastic sleeves. I have three siblings, all of us getting those juiceboxes. All of those straws are still in existence, and that’s just one family.  My mind was boggled in terms of to go cups. Many were used just because I didn’t like how the vanilla flavour from a latte would linger in the lid of my travel mug for a couple of washes.

For the past five years I have probably used 4 to go cups a week. This is totally a guess, but it seems pretty right. Sometimes I would use them more frequently, and sometimes not at all. I’m going to guess 4, because it’s a good number. It’s also likely a bit conservative, I may well have used more.

If I’ve used 4 to go cups a week, in a single year that is 208 cups. In the past five years that is 1040 cups. Over a thousand coffee cups used for maybe half an hour each. Those cups would either be lined with wax or have a plastic barrier. Plastic is most likely, it’s inexpensive and doesn’t degrade over time. So over 1000 plastic liners hanging around forever. Forever ever? Forever. That’s also over 1000 plastic lids. Each of those little lids weighs about 3 grams.

So 3120 grams of plastic just in the lids alone, or a little north of 3 kilograms. That’s a lot.

That could potentially be a lot to feel guilty about. The cups are used, and there’s no use crying over used coffee cup.  Stopping to do some math is a staggering wakeup call on how something like the garbage from my morning Americano, happily consumed while walking the dog, accumulates. I had a great route where I could oh so responsibly dispose of them partway along my walk, never littering. Unfortunately, the garbage can is just the layover between use and either the landfill or the ocean.

So, dear reader, what the heck? Do I just feel guilty about my to go cup history? Nahhhh. Math works both ways. If I keep my amazing coffee mug in use it keeps to go cups out of commission. Let’s say I want to take a coffee with me to work everyday until I retire. That’s most likely a good 38 years. I can’t buy lottery tickets anymore because they are all plasticized, so let’s say 38 years. If I had continued on the trajectory of using 4 to go cups per week that is:

208 cups per year

2080 cups per decade

7094 cups for the rest of my working life.

That brings the total plastic weight of just the lids to 21 282 grams of plastic. That’s 21.282 kg of plastic hanging over my head that I don’t have to worry about. Now I can sleep at night. Let’s say I lose one mug every 5 years (miracles happen right), that’s 7.2 mugs. The mugs’ plastic lids would still be in existence, but certainly not 21 kg worth. My current travel mug’s lid is just north of 200 grams. If I keep the same style of mug, and that’s pretty likely as I’m literally spill proof over here, I would be responsible for about 1.52 kg of lost plastic lids. I’m not great at math, but my calculator is, and that’s about 19.76 kg less. That’s about 40 lbs, or one third of my bodyweight, worth of plastic lids. If I lose a cup every 2 years, which still a miracle but more likely, I’m looking at 3.8 kg of lost lids, or 17.492 kg less plastic than to continue my to go habit. I’m not going to stop drinking coffee. I probably am not going to use the same coffee mug for almost 40 years. 17.492 Kg less plastic sounds like a pretty good reduction to me.

I’m in. I’m also making coffee at home most morning, so that’s a good financial savings too. My plastic audit and financial reflections go hand in hand. I’m going to divert a lot of waste, and save many dollars, for the next 38 years.

 

 

If anyone wants to know what I want for christmas over the next 38 years, it’s one of these. That way I can turn any one of my mason jars, for some reason so much harder to lose than coffee mugs, into a travel mug.