How to Use Less plastic: Lessons from a Road Trip

Black white drawing of woman driving old model T, "Woman Drives Old Car", by j4p4n, openclipart.org.
Black white drawing of woman driving old model T, "Woman Drives Old Car", by j4p4n, openclipart.org.

Anyone up for a road trip? After all the blog posts I've written about using less plastic, you would think I would have gotten this one right. Well, I didn't. Read on to learn how we failed to use less plastic on a family outing.

Goodbye to a tired, old friend

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

Both the speedometer and odometer broke about a year ago, so I never know exactly how fast I'm driving. And the seals around the sunroof leak, as I soon discovered one morning while stepping into the driver's side of the car after a storm moved through our area. Although the 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 merely a necessity. I don't really like to drive. I wish I could tell you that we replaced our old car with an electric one, but for a second car that rarely travels more than ten miles a week, they're out of our price range, for now. We tentatively settled on purchasing a 2006 Ford Taurus. Hopefully, it would still be available when we reached the dealership.

Off to a disorganized start - typical

Now, I have to tell you that our family is slow to move on the weekends. We also don't always communicate too well, and this past Saturday was no exception. Lingering over food and coffee is a given. We were all just going about our slow Saturday business with no one having planned a time of departure. The dealership in Sacramento was due to close at 5:00 PM.

At some point, I announced that we weren't going anywhere until our son had washed his hair. This barely produced a stir. But by 2:00 PM, household tranquility transformed into a flurry of panic - complete with terse words, a tantrum thrown by our son about the hair washing thing, 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 tired, familiar car one last time before heading onto the freeway - our tensions easing as we edged our way north - our eyes gazing upon the lush farmland from the windows of our old, green Volvo station wagon.

But where were our water bottles?

In the rush of activity, I remembered to pack and fill our son's stainless water bottle, but I completely forgot to bring along water bottles for myself and my husband, who doesn't actually own one. 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.

What happened at the car dealership is of no interest to me, except that we arrived in our old car and left in the dark gray 2006 used Ford Taurus that my husband had seen online, for which I'm grateful. From there, we made a pit stop at Fry's Electronics; 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 end up.

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

Before heading home, we stopped for a bite to eat at Nugget Market 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 local supermarket that sells high quality natural and artisan foods, threw me for a loop.

Although most of our food items were 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 naturally 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 to us in plastic cups with plastic lids and straws. So far, using less plastic was feeling more like a far away dream.

Our dinner was completely awesome; 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 the early evening - such a welcome contrast to the fast-paced buzz of the Bay Area.

Farm Banner - Fields, by j4p4n, openclipart.org.
Farm Banner - Fields, by j4p4n, openclipart.org.

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 waste? Davis is a forward thinking community, and I quickly found recycling containers with busts of fish mounted on top. Seriously, it's counterintuitive, but you pitch your recycling and trash into the fishes' mouths. I have to admit - I love Nugget Market, partly for it's artistic quirkiness.

But with all of 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. The market had done an excellent job of providing different sorting bins, and I think that I even overlooked a composting container. Honestly, I don't know about the plastic cup. I tossed it into the recycling bin for good measure, though.

It was dusk, now; the smell of dirt and young tomato plants wafted in the cool evening breeze as we headed to our car for the journey home. A quick stop for gas and a drive through a coffee kiosk and we were on the road - with more plastic lids. I felt truly humbled by this point. I didn't lose any sleep over our obvious ineptness, but I vowed to do better in the future. Practice makes perfect.

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 of 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. We really love our coffee.

Secondly, I would bring my own cutlery wrapped in a cloth napkin or dishtowel. Even a paper towel would work. Then, we can rewrap the dirty cutlery in the same towel. My purse is tiny and wouldn't have been big enough to hold all of this, so packing a small shopping bag or backpack for the utensils and the water bottles would also be helpful.

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. We can use the plastic utensils for another outing. Since we didn't eat dinner in the car, we didn't need the plastic lids for the water cups. ( I was busy fetching my mashed potatoes when that happened!)

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.

Stainless water bottles and travel coffee mugs are alive and well in most communities. Even Whole Foods and department stores sell them. If you don't have access to these where you live, check out Life Without Plastic.

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,

Laura