My Plastic Week

At the Chicago Cultural Center right now, there’s an exhibit called The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. It was put together by The Institute for Figuring. It’s a collaborative project to crochet a kind of exaggerated, colorful version of a coral reef. Its electric colors and sinuous shapes mimic and celebrate that of a real reef. The knitters’ intention is to call attention to the plight of reefs around the globe, which are endangered by our treatment of the water specifically and of the larger planet itself.

The thing that stuck in my mind the most after the exhibit was a bit of text on one of the explanatory signs on the wall. It was next to a section of the reef made largely from plastic, “The Toxic Reef and the Garbage Patch.”

I’m going to quote from the sign at length. It read, in part:

“As reefs disappear a sinister substitute is growing beneath the waves: In the north Pacific ocean the world’s plastic garbage is accumulating, fifty years of plastic trash building into a vortex that is now twice the size of Texas and more than 30 meters deep.

A ghastly synthetic analog to the Great Barrier Reef, this ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ as it is called, is an aquatic ‘wonder’ of appalling dimensions that accretes year by year. Since the 1950’s plastic production has increased tenfold every decade. In 2003 the average American used 223 pounds of plastic; by 2010 it is estimated we will be using 326 pounds. Americans consume 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour, 22 billion a year. Between us we throw away a hundred billion plastic shopping bags annually; worldwide figures are in the trillions.”

I’m not an expert on plastic, but I understand basically some of the big reasons why it is bad: it never ever ever biodegrades, it hurts animals, it may release carcinogenic substances in its decay, and it’s a petroleum product we use with decadent, careless, wasteful abandon. Plastic, like diamonds, is forever.

But a mass of plastic garbage two times the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean?!? My god!

What more did the sign have to say?

“What can we do? Become aware. As an experiment, try keeping your plastic trash for a week—everything you use—every bottle, bag, wrapping, packaging, and takeout container. A sobering salutary, and disturbing experience.”

Okay. I can do that.

I am going to keep all the plastic I throw out for a week. I need to know how badly I’m doing. And by examining my consumption habits, I hope to be able to see patterns, and consequently to see ways to reduce my environmental footprint.

Today is Sunday. I started at midnight, and I will be keeping all my plastic trash until midnight of next Sunday. So far, I have two disposable coffee lids, two little plastic half-and-half cups and their lids, a little plastic shopping bag, and a granola bar wrapper. Uh oh.

In preparing myself for this challenge, I’ve already started noticing some of my bad consumption habits. I’m tempted to change them right away, but I think this challenge will be both more honest and more useful if I wait until next Sunday to change them. So, my rule for going through this challenge is that I have to do what I normally do, so that my results are as accurate as possible. Of course, any physicist’d tell ya that the mere act of observation will change what you’re trying to observe, but I’ll do the best I can to be true to my usual practices.

Sitting here at the beginning of the week, trying to peer down six and a half more days to the end, I predict that a lot of the plastic trash I generate will be related to food. I don’t shop much ever, but I am notorious for eating on the go. As a very busy nondriver, it’s tricky—if I get off work at five and I’ve got someplace to be at six thirty, it’s just so much easier to grab a cheap dinner at a restaurant on the way than it is to bus it all the way up to my home on the North Side and then to bus back south or west or wherever I need to be and then afterwards to bus it all the way home again. Finding time to cook at home is tricky, and going to a restaurant is all the more tempting because it’s easy to combine eating and social time that way. Not to mention, keeping a decently stocked fridge and pantry as a busy, nondriver, vegetarian living on the Near North Side is, um, not uncomplicated—some days it feels like an Olympic sport.

All that said, though, I’m already sitting here thinking that I’ve got to start carrying canvas bags to the store. And given the frequency with which I consume coffee when I’m out in the world, I really, really need to make the effort to have a re-usable coffee cup with me when I’m buying coffee. But that’s for next week. This week, it all hangs out.

So, wish me luck. I’ll update here about my progress throughout the week as often as I am able. I’ll do a big round-up when I’m done, along with an inventory and some pictures of the carnage I’ve collected.

I encourage you to consider taking the Plastic Week challenge yourself. If you blog your Plastic Week, please let me know here or e-mail me (clairelovesthecity AT gmail) and I will link to your write-up. And even if you’re not comfortable doing your own Plastic Week, please take a look at your habits in the coming days, and think about changes you might be able to make to reduce your impact. I remind you, the Pacific ocean’s got a plastic clot twice the size of Texas and thirty meters deep. We did that, but the good news is that we can make choices that will stop it from getting worse (or at least, slow things down). It’s up to us.

Plastic Week, here I come.

You can learn more about The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, including how to contribute to it, by visiting the project’s page @ The Institute for Figuring website.

Published in: on December 2, 2007 at 8:27 pm  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Claire — interesting post. Sounds like that exhibit was worth seeing.

    I have been getting so sick of the accumulating plastic bags in my house (only get to Schnucks to recycle them every month or two.) Finally ordered a couple of reusable grocery bags while I was ordering something else from a web site. They are fantastic! Huge once unfolded — they can fit tons of stuff — they are really compact and fit in my mid-sized purse just fine. Google envirosax if you are looking for something like that. (I swear I’m not spamming nor do I have any investment in this, I just REALLY like them. And am super excited to see that I’ve accumulated zero plastic bags in the past month.)

    Also, I’m really glad that the City recycling drop-off sites have started accepting beyond numbers 1 and 2 plastics for recycling. Now that I’m recycling more of my containers, I’m realizing how many I must have been throwing away before. Ack.

    I’m interested to read how this week goes.

  2. Oh god, I want to run to the ocean, get down on my knees, and sob “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Instead, I think I’ll just get off my lazy butt already and start sorting my trash and taking recyclables to the bins at the grocery store like everyone else around here. (So I probably won’t be blogging about it, but if I do I’ll let you know.) My apartment building claims to have an “automatic” recycling program, but I have a haunch it’s actually the Waste Management thing or something similar.

    Thanks, and good luck!

    PS: Got me one of these at the Green Festival last spring. Handiest thing ever.

  3. I recently saw a program on Animal Planet called “Natural World: Hawaii – Message in the Waves” and I too was absolutely shocked to hear about the untenable amounts of plastic that is accumulating in the ocean as well as killing wildlife – on bird in particular is a species of water bird. Water birds are programmed to skim their food off the surface of the water and guess what, plastic floats. So these poor birds starve to death because they fill their bellies with plastic thinking it’s food and then, after eating enough plastic, there is no room in their stomach for real food. Biologists find decayed birds and feathers on the beaches with large plastic masses of the birds stomach contents. Try to catch the show if you can. The other amazing thing (amazing bad not amazing good) is that there is an island in the path of an ocean current that carries plastic to the shores – the island looks like a vividly colored plastic carnival garbage dump. They have found plastic from WWII times – Midway Island is right near there – and I guess there was a lot of plastic used during WWII in that area. Shocking.

    What I would like to know is what I can do to help. I do recycle plastic already, but want to do more. If you know of any way to do more or other ways to recycle, congressmen to write, company’s to boycott, please post.

  4. The coral reef art is gorgeous. I’ve been reading articles here and there about the die-off for the last several years; the study that really got me came out about a year and a half ago and reported that in the Caribbean, an entire third of the coral had died, including an 800-year-old colony. The scientists quoted called it a holocaust.

    Good luck with your plastic project. I’ll be interested to see how it goes! The canvas bag, reusable mug, and reusable water bottle changes really are important ones even though they seem small. We’re obsessive recyclers around here, so I tend to think that we don’t throw out too much plastic, but I’ll have to start paying more attention now. By the way, even your trash bags themselves can be made out of completely biodegradable and compostable plastic; if you’d like, I’m sure someone (you know, like me) would be glad to pick up a couple boxes for you on the next trip to Whole Foods Hell.

    Regarding the city’s recycling program, people residing in these zip codes–63108, 63110, 63112, 63113, 63116, 63139, & 63147–are eligible to sign up for the pilot curbside program for the next year, for $41.25, but payment must be postmarked by December 15:

    Our zip code isn’t eligible, but because of the amount we recycle–and because we want to be able recycle everything (except #6 plastic; no one around here takes it)–we signed up with Earth Circle directly. It still only costs us about $100 a year, and for the convenience and the broad range of what we can recycle (and not even separate–you can toss it all together in one bin), it’s worth it.

  5. Thanks so much for this wonderful post!! I am a Chicago area resident who has given up buying plastic and is trying to drastically reduce the amount of plastic I use I’m doing this for lots of reasons including that plastic is really harmful to the environment and because there’s a good chance it’s harmful for our bodies.

    If you need tips for you plastic week, check out my blog at Other good resources are the blogs Fake Plastic Fish, and Living Plastic Free in 2007.

  6. Hi there. I see that my blog was mentioned in the last post. I’ve been tallying my plastic waste since June of this year, so I welcome you to take a look at and see the results I’ve come up with.

    Also, I have an ongoing list of changes I’ve made to reduce my plastic waste and consumption at

    Good luck with your project. It should be very enlightening for you!


  7. Hi there. I see that my blog was mentioned in the last post. I’ve been tallying my plastic waste since June of this year, so I welcome you to take a look at and see the results I’ve come up with.

    Also, I have an ongoing list of changes I’ve made to reduce my plastic waste and consumption at

    Good luck with your project. It should be very enlightening for you!


  8. […] Crochet Coral Reef, including how to contribute to it, by visiting the projects… source: My Plastic Week, Curious Feet St. […]

  9. […] bookmarks tagged plastic My Plastic Week&nbspsaved by 1 others     tohruheart bookmarked on 12/26/07 | […]

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