How Quitting Plastic Got One Designer Thrown in Mall Jail

How Quitting Plastic Got One Designer Thrown in Mall Jail

There a lot of pros to quitting plastic—less waste, a fatter bank account—and some cons
Shuya Gong
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When you go plastic-free for 100 days, you can expect small life improvements, like more aesthetically-pleasing toiletries, and minor inconveniences, like remembering to carry reusable water bottles everywhere. But there were other things that went way beyond my expectations. For example, an incident in Panama in February where I almost landed in “mall jail” after I tried to refuse a plastic bag with my purchase. (The store used bags to determine who had paid for their goods, and they thought I was trying to steal a pair of shoes.) The challenge took me on weird and wonderful tangents like this one, and really made me consider how ingrained plastic is in our purchasing decisions and daily systems.

As a designer at IDEO’s CoLab, I’m always working on the kinds of systemic challenges that no single company—or even industry—can solve alone. And every time we start exploring a new problem, I get really excited. So excited that I’ve challenged myself to do things like go 100 days without sugar, 100 days without meat, and 100 days in heels (to varying degrees of success). So when we decided to explore and prototype goods for the circular economy—which focuses on manufacturing goods with a use beyond their lifecycle—I decided to dive straight in, and cut plastic out of my life for 100 days.

I kicked off my new journey with a shopping spree at T.J. Maxx, picking up all of the cute little glass jars that I could find to replace Tupperware, drug store cosmetic packaging, and other hygiene-related items. But when I hit the checkout counter, I realized that I was snaring myself in an expensive catch-22. The second all of my existing plastics hit the trash, I would be creating more waste. Instead, I enacted a grandfather clause: I used everything in my life that I already had—plastic or not—and barred myself from consuming or buying anything that brought additional plastic into my life.

The first of January 2019 was day one. Everyone was super accommodating about New Year’s resolutions. But the rest of the 99 days put me in some situations that were downright weird. Around March, I started to run out of toiletries and hit a low point where I used a Sharpie as eyeliner for a good week (do NOT recommend). I once had to drink bubble tea out of a bowl, and ransacked my bag until I found a random piece of pipe to use as a straw. It wasn’t all bad, though. Here are six surprising advantages to going without plastic.

1. I went on an accidental diet

Cutting out plastic meant no more junk food, snacks, sugar, to-go drinks, or sodas. I ended up eating more things that come in their own packaging, like avocados, yams, and eggs, and buying whole fish instead of pre-prepped fillets that came in shrink-wrapped plastic.

About five weeks after I started this challenge, I noticed that my skin was clearer, my joints were less inflamed, and the number on the scale had dropped—I felt great. But more importantly, it made me realize how much of the real estate in the modern American supermarket is dedicated to things packaged in plastic, from bagged snacks to most of the cold refrigeration aisles.

2. I needed way fewer products than I thought

After rinsing out my shampoo and soap bottles for their final suds, I turned to the beauty gurus and slapped some coconut oil and baking soda together and called it shampoo. It was totally... just okay. But after a rough couple of weeks, my body adapted and my hair and skin were doing great because all the chemicals had worked their way out of my system. It was surprisingly effective.

3. I saved money

My life was a lot more inconvenient, but also much improved. You know when you justify retail therapy as self care, and you go into Target just to grab some toilet paper only to come out with everything you need to redecorate your living room? Most retail was off limits for me, either because of packaging or material choice. Instead, that money and time went toward things I could experience. Shopping used to be entertainment; buying brought the rush of reward. Even now, post-challenge, it feels strange walking into stores.

4. My trash was compostable

With my new rules, I didn’t make that much garbage—mostly just compost that I stored in the freezer, and my experiment brought me closer to the way that I lived when I was at home. My parents grew up in rural China, growing all their own vegetables, so when Mama and Papa Gong bought a house in the middle of urban Chicago, they put a farm in the backyard. When I go home, I’m reminded just how differently they think about waste. Any organic trash goes right back to the chickens and the soil, and they don’t have any food- or shipping-related packaging to deal with. After a season, all their waste has decayed back into the soil, while plastic in our landfills will sit around for 1,000 years.

5. My social life improved

Small talk makes me uncomfortable, but I had to start talking to strangers to ask them to, say, leave the straw out of my drink (flashback to day two of this challenge when I asked for no straw, and somehow ended up with two). These small interactions always turned into real conversations about plastic and climate change. As a bonus, people also started giving me free stuff, like the brewer who was handing out samples of Bohemian Raspberry in plastic cups, but gave me a half-pint of beer in a commemorative pint glass instead. Conversations get a lot more interesting when your opener is, “Have you considered that you consume a credit card’s worth of microplastics a week?”

6. Every day was a challenge

This experiment threw constant small design challenges my way. Getting groceries and forgetting a tote bag meant cradling too many vegetables while chasing a bell pepper that rolled away in the parking lot, until I stopped and made a quick a sack out of a hoodie. It was a fun daily design exercise, finding little hacks to my plastic puzzle.

Though there were a lot of upsides to this challenge, over the course of the 100 days one thing began to frustrate me. A lot of sustainability design aims to shift consumer behavior. But cutting down on plastic isn’t just an individual responsibility. We may have the choice to buy a glass bottle over a plastic one, but by the time we exercise our buying power, it’s too late. We need smart options for what to do with the products we buy after we’re done with them. That starts with design. And until the corporations that provide us with our purchasing choices and set the tone for how we live our lives get onboard with the circular economy, it’s tough to take it on ourselves. Still, I recommend you try. Unsubscribing from plastic is a pretty big wake up call, and it’s changed the way I live.

If you've already blown your original 2020 New Year's resolution, maybe give this challenge a shot? At the very least it might help you lose weight, clear up your skin, and strengthen your social relationships. Let me know what adventures it takes you on and where creativity strikes because of it. Let your favorite brands know, too, so at the very best, they’re motivated to start making changes upstream and join the circular economy. We’ve definitely left our mark with this material—it’s time to figure out what to do about it.

Illustrations by Jenice Kim

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Shuya Gong
Shuya Gong is a designer at IDEO CoLab's Cambridge studio. With a background in mechanical engineering, she has a penchant for whisking up product prototypes that showcase the potential for emergent technologies in our day to day lives.
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