1 Month, No Plastic: How Real People Did It

No plastic in your beauty routine? Editor Leah Zerbe committed to bar soap and homemade scrubs. Photo: Leigh Ann Adams

When Rodale staffers came up with the idea of a plastic-free challenge in an editorial meeting, they had no idea the concept would go global.

As these editors pledged to live a plastic-free life for the month of February, so did swarms of their Twitter followers and Facebook fans from the U.S., to Mexico, to Abu Dhabi.

But it was obvious from the beginning that daily interaction with some plastics was simply unavoidable – in the car, on the computer, even in the furniture.

“Our main focus is the single-use plastic,” Editor Leah Zerbe told Earth911 in a pre-challenge interview. “I think you can make a big difference with all of these other little things you come across during the day that you don’t need.”

Were they able to do it? We caught up with Rodale Editors Emily Main and Leah Zerbe to get the full story.

Leah Zerbe: For beauty products, less is more

Leah Zerbe lives on a farm near Philadelphia, and commutes to her office in Emmaus, Penn. In her pre-challenge life, Zerbe says she considered herself a conscious consumer, but when she surveyed the products in her bathroom, she found plastic everywhere.

Editor Leah Zerbe, who lives on a farm, was able to plant seedlings for spring without plastic cases. Photo: Courtesy of Leah Zerbe

“My major focus for the week was not using plastic shampoo bottles,” she says. “It was actually easier than I thought, and my hair felt healthier at the end of the week. In the beginning, I thought I looked like a bag lady not using my products. But it turned out to be OK.”

In our January interview with Zerbe, she predicted toiletries to be her No. 1 challenge, but she quickly found that it was the little things she overlooked.

“The one night I went out for Happy Hour, I was writing on Facebook not to use straws, but before I could think of not to order a drink without them, the bartender came out with straws,” she says.

Zerbe’s initial goal of cutting out plastic toiletries was a success, and she didn’t have to sacrifice her personal pampering routine. Zerbe went to a local salon and learned how to make a homemade sea salt solution, an experiment she says “turned out great.” Plus, once she got used to washing her hair with bar soap, she learned how to style it sans mousse and hairspray.

“I went on NBC 10, and I was nervous to go on TV without using my products,” she says. “But I was still true to the challenge, and I looked great.”

Emily Main: Slow down and enjoy things in dishes

Editor Emily Main reveals that she tried a similar plastic-free challenge a couple of years ago.

For Editor Emily Main, living without single-use plastics forced her to slow down and dine on dishes. Photo: Courtesy of Emily Main

“Then I looked around my house and thought to myself ‘that is impossible,'” she recalls with a laugh. When the challenge presented itself this time around, Main was equally as apprehensive, so she was surprised to find that implementing it was actually easier than she thought.

“Before we started this challenge, we all collected our plastic trash to see where it came from, and most of mine was food, so that was my primary focus,” she says.

Main’s major hiccups came in her grocery shopping routine. As a cheese- and meat-lover, plastic packaging was virtually unavoidable. Main explains that while she could have gone to the butcher and have her meat wrapped in paper, the organic beef she often buys was only available in plastic.

“So it was a trade-off,” she says. “But I wasn’t going to compromise on my own [eating] habits and beliefs, so that was frustrating. I wish that grocers would give more options.”

Along with her organic meat and cheese, Main also struggled to find packaging alternatives for her contact lens solution and other personal-care items.

“For the things that I couldn’t avoid, I just tried to use less,” she says. “Plastic may be good for some things, but it isn’t really necessary for others.”

For Main, the go-go-go lifestyle typical of New Yorkers is commonplace, but she found that cutting her single-use plastic habits – unexpectedly – forced her to slow down.

“Plastic is kind of a crutch for the life that we created – one that’s fast, on the go,” she says. “If you just slow down, you can enjoy things in dishes. I found extra time in the morning to make breakfast, drink coffee and read the paper. Not being in a rush was a nice change.”

Lessons on a smaller scale

“We never wanted to make it an ‘all or nothing’ thing; that would be hopeless,” Zerbe says. “[The challenge] was about making the biggest impact where you can with everyday single-use plastics. Once you get into that mindset, it can be a positive and powerful experience.”

Both Zerbe and Main says the week-long challenge was a much-needed jolt for their jaded attitudes, and they plan to carry on the same resource-saving habits.

“We both have been writing about this stuff and have fallen into the ‘dark green’ category, and I felt like I had done everything there is to do,” Main says. “But this challenge woke me up, and I can no longer rest on my laurels. There’s always something more you can do to reduce your impact.”

You may also like…
Recycling To-Go Plastics
The Ultimate Plastic Breakdown
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  1. This challenge is inspiring. I’m sure our largest plastic consumption are bags, soda bottles, food packaging, and hygiene products. I reuse plastic bags to line smaller bathroom trash cans and for smelly diapers. However, I can cut down by using cloth bags until I need more of the plastic bags. As for the rest, I’ll follow the example of using less product and continueing to go make-up free.

  2. For me, the toxins leached by most plastics are reason enough to scrupulously avoid them. And when I’m stuck buying something in plastic, I get it into glass containers as soon as I get home, then recycle all the plastics that are recyclable. The impact of plastic throw-aways on our environment is huge. We really do have more sensible alternatives…it’s up to us as customers to insist on them.

  3. I applaud Amanda for writing this article, and for the staff at Rodale for taking on this awesome challenge!! I’ve made my own in the past using vinegar and baking-soda with a drop of essential oil (I prefer lavender best) but my boyfriend couldn’t stand the smell of the vinegar– which the lavender didn’t removed completely. I tried adding lemon but still, too much vinegar smell even once I reduced the vinegar in the recipe.

    I hope readers will provide their great and not-so-great attempts at replacing store-bought recipes for homemade ones on our Working for Green Community: http://www.workingforgreen.com/community

    I gave up on the recipe I tried above, but am off to try Leah’s. Feel like others are going through the same thing and would hate for people to give up if they didn’t find a good recipe the first time. So would love to spread the word in our WFG Community!

    Thanks again to Amanda & Leah…!

  4. (Re: Emily Main) I think cutting out meat and cheese from one’s diet would likely do a lot more to helping the planet than worrying about the bits of plastic that come with these products.
    Overall, this article shows that if everyone puts in a conscious effort, solutions will be found.

  5. I love this article and I think that if we all made an effort we coud be the difference. I hope that you visit http://www.anafernandez.net (an eco-community) and leave your comments with tips to a greener life style.
    Again, I love this article

  6. I take plastic bags to Publix Food Stores for recycling or to thrift shops which help them save more money for their causes by not buying bags. I recycle plastic egg cartons by using them to plant seedlings for my organic vegetable garden or give them to schools for teaching the kids to grow things. I also use my food scraps for my own compost. I stopped eating meat, except for fish, when my heart doctor said fats coming from meat products were the worst for clogging up one’s arteries. I am 75 and love America. Having just returned from India, where they don’t have the resources to clean up their country, we Americans should be vigilant in recycling and becoming more frugal & wise in our choices, lest we also become a third world country. Please consider contacting your local government officials to enact heavy fines for people who litter; that alone could raise the budget for the police department!! Thanks to all of you who are thoughtful instead of mindless about our great country!!

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