How to Use Less plastic: Lessons from a Road Trip

Windy road through mountains and fog,

Windy road through mountains and fog,

Last updated April 7, 2018

Anyone up for a road trip? After all the blog posts I've written about using less plastic, you would think I could get this one right. Well, I didn't. Read on to learn how our family used way too much plastic on a family outing!

Goodbye to a tired, old friend

This past Saturday, our family drove from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento, about 75 miles, to purchase a new used car. The time had come; my car, now twenty-five, was well beyond the legal drinking and voting age. But more importantly, even an old Volvo reaches a point where restoration costs are prohibitive, rendering it unreliable.

Both the speedometer and odometer broke about a year ago. As a result, I'm never sure how fast I'm driving. And the seals around the sunroof leak, which I discovered one morning after a storm. Although the driver's seat was dry, my foot quickly sunk into a half inch of water. Imagine flip flops and a dirty, wet floorboard—squish and yuck.

My husband took on the job of finding a replacement, thoroughly researching the online used car market for value and safety, which is what I care about most. Cars are his thing; for me, they're an inconvenient necessity. I don't even like to drive. And although I wanted to replace our old car with an electric one, they're out of our price range, especially since I don't drive more than 5 miles a week. So we settled on purchasing a 2006 Ford Taurus, instead. Given our slow pace, however, I just hoped it would still be available when we reached the dealership!

Off to a disorganized start - typical

Not only is our family slow to move on weekends, but we're also poor communicators, and this past Saturday was no exception. Lingering over food and coffee is a given. We were just going about our slow weekend business. No one had even thought to set a departure time. But the dealership in Sacramento closed at 5:00 p.m.

At some point I announced that we weren't leaving until our son washed his hair. This barely produced a stir. But by 2:00 p.m., however, household tranquility transformed into panic—complete with terse words, a tantrum thrown by our son about the hair washing, and a tantrum of my own, which occurred when my husband announced from behind his computer screen that he was just waiting for us. As you can guess, no one was thinking at all about how to use less plastic on this road trip.

For our family, this is so typical; no one makes a plan, and no one takes charge, at least not when we all need to be somewhere on time. Using less plastic requires planning ahead. Somehow, though, we made it out the door, scrambling into our car one last time for the trip to Sacramento—our tensions easing as we gazed at lush farmland from the windows of our old, green station wagon.

But where were our water bottles?

In the rush of activity, I remembered to pack and fill our son's stainless steel water bottle, but I completely forgot to bring along water bottles for myself and my husband. The truth is, I don't like my water bottle; it's plastic. But it's still better for the environment than purchasing water in single-use containers. Fortunately, the car dealership had a water cooler with both paper and plastic cups to choose from. Naturally, I chose paper—less plastic, but probably not recyclable or compostable.

What happened at the car dealership is of no interest to me, except that we arrived in our old car and left in the gray 2006 used Ford Taurus that my husband found online, for which I'm grateful. From there, we made a pit stop at a popular electronics store; I was overwhelmed by the amount of merchandise in this big-box store and couldn't help but wonder where all of that packaging was going to land.

Well, we botched the whole less plastic thing on this road trip.

Before heading home, we stopped for a bite to eat at an artisanal grocery store in Davis, my old stomping grounds. We don't eat out much as a family, preferring home cooked meals or the occasional nice sit down restaurant with real plates and cutlery. Finding ourselves at the deli counter of a trendy supermarket threw me for a loop.

Although most of our food was served in compostable paper dishes, the cutlery was plastic, of course, and wrapped in plastic for sanitary purposes. I totally get this; I just hadn't thought about it beforehand. Also, everyone was thirsty by now, but my son was the only one with a water bottle, which was in the backseat of the car. Rather than buy water, we asked for regular water at the beverage counter, which the barista cheerfully served in plastic cups with plastic lids and straws. So far, using less plastic was feeling more like a dream than a reality.

Our dinner was delicious, though. I even got my son to eat an entire chunk of salmon, after which, we divided a bar of our favorite dark chocolate between the three of us. The alfresco eating area looks out over farmland, which added to the ambiance of our meal—such a welcome contrast to the fast-paced buzz of the Bay Area.

Such a lovely dinner and setting - but what about all the plastic?

But, now, what the heck were we supposed to do with all of this plastic? Davis is a forward thinking community, and I quickly found recycling containers with busts of fish mounted on top. It's counterintuitive, but you pitch your recycling and trash into the fishes' mouths! I have to admit—I love this market, partly for it's artistic quirkiness.

But with the research I've done on plastic, I knew that the lids and straws were going to the landfill along with the cutlery and plastic wrappers. Yet, the market had done an excellent job of providing different sorting bins, and I think that I even overlooked a composting container. Because I wasn't sure about the plastic cup, I tossed it in the recycling bin for good measure.

It was dusk, now; the smell of dirt and young tomato plants lingered in the cool evening breeze as we plodded to our car for the trip home. A quick stop for gas and some coffee to go from a drive-through kiosk, and we were on the road— with more plastic lids. By this point, I was horrified that we had unthinkingly used so much plastic. I didn't lose any sleep over it, but I vowed to handle things differently in the future. Practice makes perfect—or at least, better.

What Would I Change?

Three ways to travel with less plastic

First of all, I need to purchase water bottles for everyone. That one is a no-brainer. But for a short trip, we could have simply used our coffee travel mugs for all our beverages. I don't know if the coffee kiosk would have allowed us to do that, but it's telling that we have enough coffee motor mugs and not enough water bottles. Did I mention how much we love coffee?

Stainless steel (glass too!) water bottles and travel coffee mugs are available for sale in most communities. Even Whole Foods, Target and department stores sell them. If you don't have access to these where you live, check out Life Without Plastic, or search online for other options. Also, Plastic Pollution Coalition provides excellent tips and resources for living with less plastic. 

Secondly, I would bring my own cutlery wrapped in a cloth napkin or dish towel. Even a paper towel would do. Then, I can rewrap the dirty cutlery in the same towel. My purse is tiny and wouldn't have been big enough to hold everything, so a small shopping bag or backpack would make an excellent tote for the utensils and the water bottles.

Thirdly, if we fail to achieve either or both of the first two goals, because life can just be that way, we'll bring the plastic cutlery and straws home and wash them. Not! Please note: It isn't safe to wash and reuse plastic utensils and straws because the plastic can break down from washing, which results in chemicals leaching into your food (University of Wisconsin). It's also difficult to properly clean this type of plastic, so it's easy for bacteria to settle in the crevices. This is a huge incentive to bring my own cutlery to fast food and take out restaurants—even though I seldom eat out— because throwing away plastic is painful.

But I understand how stainless steel can be heavy, or you might be afraid of losing utensils that belong to a prized set. Because of this, I suggest purchasing individual reusable pieces from a thrift store as a cost effective option. Alternately, you can also purchase lightweight, reusable cutlery from Life Without Plastic, Tiny Yellow Bungalow and other stores.

It's normal to be unprepared when we change our routine.

When we change our routine, or do something out of the ordinary, it's normal to be unprepared. I'm used to packing lunches and snacks for park days and longer car trips that involve eating meals at restaurants with non-disposable dishes and utensils. Our culture hasn't made using less plastic easy. As with many things in life, we learn by making mistakes. A good time was had by all, though, and next time, I'll be more prepared and waste less.

Now, I would like to hear from you. What travel tips do you have to offer? How do you travel with less plastic?

Happy travels,