By Elenor Hodges, EcoAction Arlington

For this year’s Plastic Free Challenge, we’re making an effort to elevate the work of our Plastic Free partners around the DMV. Today we hear from Elenor Hodges, executive director of EcoAction Arlington. In August 2018, EcoAction Arlington organized a 60-day Plastic Free Challenge, which had hundreds of participants across the metro area.

Leaving MOM’s Organic Market (MOM’s) in Arlington that day without a speck of plastic felt amazing. In addition to my reusable grocery and produce bags, I brought in my own container to get brown rice, a staple in my household.

It’s easy to take advantage of the bulk foods section at MOM’s, where you can bring your own container. It’s pretty simple—you just go to the checkout to get your container weighed, then fill up with a variety of dried bulk items like grains, beans, nuts, baking supplies, snacks, and spices. In the Northern Virginia region, both MOM’s and Earth Fare let you bring your own container.

My inspiration for this grocery store trip was the 2018 Plastic Free Challenge, which included weekly challenges focused on reducing the use of single-use plastics in your lifestyle—in areas like shopping, the bathroom, takeout beverages, and cleaning.

Buying whole, fresh veggies instead of pre-cut or packaged
veggies is a great way to reduce your plastic footprint.
Photo by ja ma on Unsplash

When I started the challenge, I felt like I was already doing a lot to reduce my plastic consumption. I regularly carry a reusable grocery bag, coffee mug, bamboo utensil set and metal straw. For my lunch box, I pack my sandwich and snacks in reusable containers. I also educated my family about why I was taking these actions and asked for their help and support.

One of the most critical lessons I learned was the importance of making these actions convenient. I made sure to store reusable grocery bags in the car, and I put sets of bamboo utensils and metal straws in my purse, in the car, and in my desk drawer at the office. After I washed my coffee mug, I put it in my purse so I had it ready for my morning coffee stop the next day.

To up my game for the challenge, I focused on my grocery shopping. In addition to buying bulk food at MOM’s, one of the first things I did was to start bringing my own produce bags and to commit to buying most of my fruit and vegetables without packaging. I had been buying pre-cut melons to save some time but started buying whole watermelons and cantaloupes. I made sure to choose as many vegetable options as I could without packaging—including carrots bunched with just a twist tie and loose string beans carried out in my own bag. I also put things like onions and peppers in my own reusable produce bags.

But sometimes where I shopped made a big difference. It was easy to get berries without plastic at the farmers market but impossible at any grocery store. And if I didn’t go to MOM’s, it wasn’t feasible to get bulk items without plastic.

Cut watermelon is a delicious Plastic Free treat.
Photo by Floh Maier on Unsplash

Then there were things I just couldn’t change. On some days, I am packing three lunch boxes: one for me and one for each of my daughters. I do use reusable containers and avoid a lot of packaged foods, but for a few items, I just couldn’t figure out an easy solution to avoid plastic. These included cheese sticks and granola bars. I probably could have bought big blocks of cheese, cut slices, and wrapped them in reusable packaging. And I could have made my own granola bars. But just throwing granola bars and cheese sticks in lunch boxes on hectic mornings was more practical.

I think when taking on a challenge like eliminating single-use plastics, it’s very important to be realistic and to reward all progress, big and small. For me, there are a few new habits I’m really proud of. Everyone in our family has been enjoying using our metal straws when out and about. Every week this summer, I made it a routine to buy one or two whole melons and cut them up. During summer camp season, when I had a lot of lunch boxes to pack, I bought some bulk snack items and then pre-packaged small quantities in little reusable containers.

And each time I did one of these activities, it felt great.