Exhibit inspires woman to try to avoid buying plastics for a month

May 21, 2013

Plastics have only been in wide use since the 1940s, yet they are everywhere, from sandwich bags to phones, to keyboards, to rain gear. Even the cans of soup in the grocery aisle are lined with it.

It's hard to imagine a world before these conveniences. What would your life be like without plastics?

Seattle resident Samantha Porter decided to find out. She works behind the scenes of the Burke Museum, which is hosting an exhibit titled "Plastics Unwrapped."

The exhibit aims to depict how our culture has changed as a result of plastics. And it got Porter thinking about her own relationship with it.

Bales of hundreds of disposable plastic bags show the rate at which we use them: 3,000 per every quarter of a second in the United States, say the Burke museum curators who created several of these "statistical sculptures" for their new traveling show.
Bales of hundreds of disposable plastic bags show the rate at which we use them: 3,000 per every quarter of a second in the United States, say the Burke museum curators who created several of these "statistical sculptures" for their new traveling show.
Credit Courtesy Burke Museum

"To see visually how many plastic bags are used in a second in North America is impactful,” she said. “It made me really want to know: how much of this do I actually have in my life? And what do I need to keep and get rid of?"

Porter decided to be practical; she didn't try to excise all plastics from her life. She knew that would be an impossible feat.

"Because plastic is in everything. It's in clothes. And even some face washes have little plastic beads in them," she said. She wasn't going to cut the plastic coating off the ends of her shoelaces, or go without using her phone and computer. "So it's impossible really now to get rid of plastic entirely."

But she wanted to be more conscious of her use. So she pledged not to use or buy any new plastics for a month.

She found the biggest challenge at the grocery store where disposable plastics seemed to be part of almost every purchase. Avoiding it required her to re-think her whole diet, as well as the logistics of getting her purchases home.

"Plastic packaging in food is huge," Porter said. "You can't get processed food that's not in plastic."

Porter opted instead for more whole foods, shopping at farmers markets and in the bulk section of her QFC or local co-op. She armed herself with an assortment of glass containers and reusable cloth bags.

"I used primarily glass mason jars. And I would haul my empty jars to the co-op,” she said, adding it felt weird at first, entering the store carrying a handful of things. Making things even more difficult was the fact that she doesn't use a car for environmental reasons.

"So taking the bus places and walking with a bag full of glass jars is really awkward,” she said, adding carrying the containers, especially after they were full, was daunting.

"I have a bag on one arm, full of vegetables and fruits. And then the other side is all-glass. Heavy, awkward, inconvenient,” she said.

Porter says the scale of the inconvenience, while also attempting to be sustainable by using mass transit, was annoying. And she was surprised to learn just how difficult it was.

"It's really not easy to do. And there's a whole lot of planning that goes into it,” she said.

Busy days—when she had a class or volunteer hours after work—nearly stumped her.

"It's just nearly impossible to pack all of the food that I would eat during the day in glass," especially since she was taking the bus and walking everywhere, Porter said. "So, I would love to continue to live without plastic. But it's just not sustainable for me."

What did she miss the most? "Bags of candy," she said sheepishly.

And despite her best attempt to excise plastic from her life, quite a bit crept in. The collection includes several containers from items she already owned when she began the challenge and couldn't resists, such as a bottle of chocolate sauce that was in her fridge. 

Perhaps the largest single contribution was from a package she received that contained several items packed in bubble wrap. And then there was a spontaneous trip she took with a friend to the local Dairy Queen.  

"Without even thinking about it, I got this giant thing in plastic," she said. All it took was a momentary lapse in awareness.

"It comes in if you don't think about it for one second."