Want to Reduce Plastic Use? Say AAH

Mr. McGuire shares his wisdom with Benjamin Braddock (a young Dustin Hoffman) in "The Graduate"
Scene from “The Graduate”; photo from Pinterest

If you grew up in the 1960s, you may have looked at plastics the way Mr. McGuire did in “The Graduate,”  seeing a “great future” in them.  But that future has become a challenging problem today.

Plastics are Everywhere

You may know that plastics are a big part of your life, but you may be shocked at just how prevalent plastics are now. A few examples (from the American Chemistry Council):

  • Cars are now about 50 percent plastics by volume
  • Workout gear and other high-performance clothes contain plastic fibers
  • Most eyeglasses have plastic lenses
  • Medical care uses plastics

Take a minute to look around you, and you will see plastics.

The Plastic Monster

The stomach contents of a sea turtle
The stomach contents of a sea turtle. Photo from the New York Times

Plastic has many helpful and essential uses. However, our production of plastic – and our addiction to single-use plastics such as grocery bags and bottles – have overwhelmed our ability to handle it.

Since plastic was produced on a large scale starting in the 1960s, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste.  Most of that has not been recycled. (In the US, less than 10 percent of the plastic produced is recycled.) Of the almost 450 million tons of plastic produced in 2015, over a third was for packaging materials, which are typically disposed of within six months of use.

Where does all of that waste go? Sunlight and tiny sea creatures are breaking up some of the plastic into small bits called “microplastics” that are going into our oceans and being eaten by marine life. Plastics that don’t break up may be swirling in one of five enormous “garbage patches” in the ocean.

You can read more about the plastic waste problem here.

Attempts at Action

I’m gratified to see increased concern and awareness centered on plastics and the environment – and attempts at action. Multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and Unilever “have pledged to convert to 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025.”  On an individual scale, some churches have asked their members reduce plastic use for LentLiving without plastic is hard, though – and for many of us, just not possible.  Where do we start?

The AAH Technique: Awareness, Action, Habit

In the spirit of “thinking big, starting small, and seeking impact” that I’ve discussed previously, I suggest that you “say AAH”:  Awareness, Action, Habit. 

The idea is that opening yourself to personal awareness can be enough to jolt you into action; starting with one action can be a manageable way to work toward change; and sticking with that actions for an extended period (at least a month) can turn your great efforts into an eco-healthy habit.

Here’s how to apply the AAH Technique to reducing your plastic use:

Awareness. Take 10 minutes today to conduct a “plastics audit” in one part of your life.  Where do you see plastics?  Are you using them once and throwing them away?  I did my audit in our kitchen: food containers, cleaning tools, parts of appliances, among many

Action:  Pick one area to try a change in your plastic use.  Can you switch from plastic to another material?  What about re-using the item?  Maybe you can not buy or use it at all? I drink a lot of tea and I eat my lunch at work, so I am committing to carrying a re-usable mug and utensils as much as I can.  I’ll put those items in a bag that I can use for shopping if needed.

Habit:  Try some self-motivation and self-coaching to turn your commitment into a habit.   Some ideas:  keep track of your progress and reward yourself for sticking with it for a week, two weeks, a month; commit with a buddy and encourage each other to stick with it; if you mess up, instead of getting discouraged, reaffirm your progress and thank yourself for being willing to change.

Say AAH, and thank you! Let’s check back on Earth Day and see how we did.

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