I Tracked My Plastic Use for a Month

I'm careful with my consumption, but what I found scared me

If you track your plastic for a month, you probably use more than you think. (LeoPatrizi/iStock)
Photo: LeoPatrizi/iStock plastic

A few months ago, I decided to collect all the plastic my household produced for 30 days by hoarding it in separate trash bags. I wanted to know what the impacts of an active lifestyle are on the waste stream. Our two-person, one-dog, highly active family reuses Ziplocs, avoids plastic bags when we shop (even while traveling), never buys overly packaged goods, and steers clear of the single-use produce bags you find in the the grocery store. But one week in, I realized that the problem was bigger than I thought. On average, my home added three to five items per day to the pile of plastic.

After the month was over, I sorted through the plastic I’d collected. I felt sick that we filled two 13-gallon bags with waste. About 35 percent of the mountain was recyclable or reusable, primarily consisting of food containers, health care products, and a few broken household items. And 65 percent was nonreusable, single-use plastic, a whopping 88 percent of which came from food products. I may be a die-hard practitioner of Leave No Trace, but much of the plastic I collected—granola bar wrappers, chip bags, polybags, and more—could all be traced back to weekends in the wild.

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(Meg Attebery, Atlas)

I set out to learn how I could use less plastic outdoors—especially when snacking. Plastic still reigns king for protecting food and maintaining shelf life, making it a go-to for plenty of instant meals or individually packaged snack foods. But Daniel Kurzrock, CEO and founder of ReGrained, a company that creates meal bars from spent beer grains and wraps the bars in compostable film, says, “No one in the food business talks about how they are the future trash industry.” 

Kurzrock believes the issue involves the entire supply chain process, from raw materials to the consumer, and industries need to come together to identify a solution. But he’s quick to point out that compostable wrappers aren’t a silver bullet. Yes, they’re petroleum-free compared to the typical film wrappers, but even they may end up in the landfill and not break down properly. “Are compostable plastics the answer?” Kurzrock asks. “Maybe not. However, when we consider that they don’t use petroleum like traditional wrappers, that’s still progress.”

The EPA estimates only 9.1 percent of U.S. plastic is actually recycled, compared to its more eco-friendly brother, aluminum: 75 percent of all U.S. aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Because of its sustainability, several aquariums and zoos recently adopted products like Open Water, a business that markets aluminum-bottled water so the products they sell better align with their message of conservation. Nicole Doucet, founder of Open Water, says they’d like to see the national parks join the movement, especially after the Trump administration reversed the ban on plastic-bottled water in many of America’s parks in 2017.

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(Meg Attebery, Atlas)

But what about the plastics we can’t see? Many people who adventure outside rely on synthetic materials in our clothes and gear (think: nylon, polyester, spandex, rubber, neoprene, and others). Those materials seep into our environment every time we step outside in the form of microplastics. The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) flagged concerns as I tried to figure out how many micromaterials my household produced during my monthlong experiment. “We just don’t know,” says Beth Jensen, OIA’s former director of sustainable business innovation. “Currently, we are working with both outdoor and fashion brands to develop standardized testing methods to determine how much shedding a particular synthetic product yields over its lifetime.”

Abby Barrows, a microplastics expert and principal investigator for Adventure Scientists, aims to shed light on this issue. Barrows spearheaded the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative, a survey conducted in the remote Gallatin River, a headwater site for the Missouri River. More than 50 percent of the samples in these remote locations contained microplastic pollutants, many of which could be connected to outdoor recreation, like neoprene from kayakers and rubber from mountain bike tires.

“The impact of microplastics is still under discovery,” Barrows says. “These micromaterials are ingested, even by large creatures like baleen whales. The buildup causes large blockages and lacerations that eventually kill the animal.”

We know more about how many microplastics are released into the water when you wash these materials, but it’s also believed that every time you go outside with them, they’re shedding some amount there as well. The problem is we don’t know at what rate and how much is too much. “We don’t know if these tiny pieces of plastic are leaching chemicals or how much they are bioaccumulating, and that’s scary,” Barrows says.

The development of testing methods gives the industry a standard at which it can begin to control the problem, or at least bring consumer awareness to how their purchases affect the environment in ways they might not consider.

An ongoing study about microfiber shedding from the University of California, Santa Barbara (sponsored by Patagonia) cited ways consumers can make a positive impact. One main takeaway was to wash synthetic materials less often, a simple solution for the dirt lover in all of us. The study also found that front-loading washing machines tend to make clothing shed seven times less than top loaders. (Front loaders also use less energy and 13 fewer gallons per load than their top-loading counterparts.)

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(Meg Attebery, Atlas)

My whole experiment left me disheartened. There was no “aha” moment and no simple solution. Now all I see are mountains of plastic waste everywhere—in the grocery aisles, infiltrating my home, at my favorite outdoor gear store. Not to mention the immense amount of plastic I can’t see without a microscope that I shed simply by existing.

Despite that helpless feeling, my habits evolved. Every action we take outdoors has an impact on the environment. Now I research the gear I buy before committing to a purchase. I replaced sandwich baggies with reusable, non-petroleum-based silicone versions. If I do end up with a single-use plastic baggie, I reuse it until it’s rendered useless. When I reach for that bag of chips on the way to the trailhead, I ask myself if the convenient snack is really worth filling the landfill with more plastic and often opt for a homemade option instead. Will I stop doing the things I love in hopes that my fleece sheds a little less on the environment? Probably not. But the small decisions add up.

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