When I was working in an office, I used to be really “trashy”. In the morning, I’d buy a cup of coffee and a snack at the local coffee shop. At only $1, the coffee comes in a Styrofoam cup covered with a lid placed in a plastic carrier ring for my convenience. The snack comes in a plastic bag too.
In Singapore, cheap food is widely available, so most of us don’t bring lunch from home. Since I worked in a hospital campus, the food courts are always packed with patients, visitors and staff. So for lunch, my colleagues and I always ordered takeaway from the campus food court because it’s difficult to find seats for all 4 of us.
My meal would be packed in a plastic container. It typically came with a tiny plastic container of condiment and disposable plastic fork and spoon, all of which goes into a plastic bag.
A Wake Up Call
As a result, in each day of work, I found myself using 1 Styrofoam cup, 1 plastic carrier ring, 2 plastic bags, 1 big plastic container, 1 small plastic container and 1 set of disposable utensils. To make matters worse, the recyclable containers were never recycled. That was how lacking my awareness of the plastic problem was.
So I generated 7 pieces of plastic waste each day. In a week, that’d be 35 pieces. In a year, I’d have thrown away 1820 pieces of plastic over 52 work weeks.
One day, I gave our plastic waste problem a deeper thought, and realized that things needed to change. As difficult as it was to admit, I was actively contributing to the pollution problem. So I decided to change the way I did things.
I didn’t have a reusable bottle. Instead of buying the coffee in a reusable bottle, I used a glass jar to buy my coffee and sewed a bag to put the glass jar in so I don’t burn my hand carrying the hot coffee. Honestly, it was a little weird buying coffee in a jar at first. But, after the first couple of times, it became my new normal. In fact, the barista was always happy to see me. I think my glass jar amused her.
I stopped buying snacks for breakfast, but I could’ve brought my own container to buy them in. Instead, I made sandwiches at home, wrapped them in a cloth, and brought them to work. Beeswax wraps would’ve worked better because bread dries out a bit in a cotton cloth, but I’m not picky!
For lunch, I brought a reusable plastic container from home to buy food in. It was a breeze. In all the times I’ve bought my lunch with the reusable container, I’ve only been rejected once. And that was because my container was too small for what I was buying. I thanked them and went somewhere else.
Interestingly, the store owners were usually happy to see my reusable container. My guess is that they see the amount of plastic they use first hand, and are aware of the amount of waste it represents, so they don’t mind putting my food in my own container.
The hard part was not getting my condiments anymore. To be fair, I could’ve brought a tiny container to store them in, I was just lazy.
I also brought my own reusable bag to put my lunch in, and reusable utensils to eat it with, naturally.
My Big Impact
Just by making these small changes, I prevented 7 pieces of disposable plastic from going into the landfill each day. All I had to do was bring the jar and the container, and wash them when I’m done drinking or eating.
The solutions to our enormous plastic waste problem are often easy. All that’s involved are simple mind-set shifts: buying things in our own containers is perfectly awesome, and washing our own dishes is convenient.
Small, Easy Changes. Big Impact
Can you imagine if 100,000 of us did the same thing?
Let’s say you only buy a coffee and a salad or a sandwich a day, if 100,000 of us brought our own reusable cups and containers, we’d have saved 200,000 pieces of waste from getting thrown away in a day.
So if you’re an office worker looking to lower your plastic footprint, make sure you have these things.
A Wide-Mouth, Reusable Water Bottle
Whether you’re a coffee addict, tea connoisseur, bubble tea fan, or a juice person, a wide-mouth reusable water bottle is your best friend. I mean, we all need water. So even if you don’t buy beverages at all, a reusable water bottle helps you to avoid bottled water.
Don’t have a reusable water bottle? Repurpose a glass jar! Then put it in a small reusable bag so you don’t burn your hand when you buy a hot drink. Or drop it when you buy a sweaty cold beverage.
Why wide mouth? Wide-mouth jars are so much easier for your favorite barista to work with, and they’re also easier to clean! My recommendation to you is to buy an insulated stainless steel bottle so you and your barista can hold the bottle comfortably even when you get a hot drink, and not worry about breaking it if you drop it.
I didn’t mention a straw because apart from bubble/boba teas, all drinks can be drunk straight from the bottle or cup. But if you’d like a straw, make sure you get a food grade reusable one! There has been a surge of cheaper reusable metal straws in the market, but the quality is questionable. My niece has one but she can’t use it because it made her drink taste weird. The straw will have to be recycled…
When you buy a straw, make sure it’s food grade metal or silicone, or glass, so you can use it with a peace of mind!
Reusable Container & Utensils
Depending on your location and lunch habits, bring the container most relevant to you. It’s a good idea to use something you already have at home, and when what you have wear out, consider using a stainless steel container. Stainless steel is more stable than plastic, lighter than glass and doesn’t break. If you’re a sandwich person, maybe a beeswax wrap will be the most suitable for you. It is light and folds down to a tiny square!
Of course, don’t forget to bring a reusable and washable bag for your lunch containers.
The Bigger Picture
These days, it’s so easy to use disposable plastic containers and bags, and it never looks like a big deal to throw one away. However, take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that it adds up very quickly when all of us do that. 16 billion disposable cups are used every year just for coffee, and because they’re paper coated with a thin layer of plastic (polyethylene), they’re hard to recycle and usually end up in the trash.
Sometimes, all we need to prevent waste is a simple reminder of the easy solution: bring a container.
Do you already bring your own containers to buy food and drinks in? If you are, good for you! If not, do consider giving it a try. I promise you, it’s easy.
Julie Xu is the creator of My Dark Blue Journal, one of my favorite sustainability blogs! Click through to check it out and enjoy Julie’s unique voice and perspective on all things minimalism and sustainable living!