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How a week's worth of plastic adds up


LA Times reporter Susanne Rust pays a lot of attention to the amount of plastic she uses. She's an investigative reporter who covers environmental issues. So she didn't expect to be quite so taken aback when she began keeping a diary of all the plastic in her life.

SUSANNE RUST: Clippy (ph) for my hair, AirPods case, plastic on teakettle - windows are glass, but casings are vinyl. Bird decals on windows, computer casing, monitor...

SHAPIRO: Susanne Rust is here to talk about what she learned from her weeklong experiment. Hi there.

RUST: Hey. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of things humans do that are not great for the environment. You could have kept a diary of your carbon emissions or your total trash. What interested you specifically about plastic?

RUST: I just feel like every week I'm reading another study from a medical journal about finding microplastics in heart tissue, for instance, or lung tissue or in the meconium of infants. It just - it seems like it's becoming so overwhelming. It's everywhere. It's in me. It's outside of me. I'm breathing it in. It's in the water. You know, where is it all coming from? And just taking a look at what's around me, I thought, would be a really good way to sort of look at this and investigate it.

SHAPIRO: And unlike many of us, you've been thinking about this for years. And so what surprised you despite all the attention that you've already paid to this issue?

RUST: So I think the thing that just most surprised me is when I sat down to actually chronicle my interaction with plastic every day, it was more than I had imagined. I mean, I think we all walk around with some sort of awareness, but until you start writing it all down - the level, the amount of plastic around us sort of blew me away. And it really required just sitting down and chronicling.

SHAPIRO: You give one specific example of being on an airplane and bringing a reusable cup, which is something that never would have occurred to me. And talk about what you observed.

RUST: So I did. I brought my little metal reusable cup, and as the drink cart went by, I asked if I could have some water out of the big plastic bottle that they had. And I got a funny look, and the flight attendant held up a plastic cup, poured water from the plastic bottle into the plastic cup, and then poured it into my cup. They said there were hygiene issues. I don't know if it was, you know, particularly me or if this was just sort of a generality they do. But what got me sort of thinking was I looked at the plastic cup that they then put in the garbage and looked at this plane, and I guess there were probably about 120 people on it. And you think the drink cart goes by two or three times. I mean, that's 240, 360 cups that are all just going to get chucked as soon as we land. Then, you know, there are probably about 100,000 flights a day around the world. That's a lot of plastic. And this is just one small example.

SHAPIRO: How much of this is about personal individual choices versus systems that produce and encourage us to use plastic whether or not we would prefer to make a different choice?

RUST: Well, you know, at the - as I was just seeing how much plastic I was using every day, I tried to make an effort to reduce it. But what I realized is as hard as I tried - and I did try pretty hard - I just could not get rid of plastic. I would go to the grocery store and try to, you know, buy lettuce not in a plastic box or vegetables not in plastic or pasta not in a plastic box - on and on and on. And there was really no way that I could function without some sort of plastic in my shopping cart. So environmentalists would tell you it can't all be about consumer choice because we can't choose it because it's not an option. So it has to be some sort of system, whether it's governments putting caps on the plastic industry and packaging companies about how much plastic they can use, whether it's voluntary decisions by the plastic industry and packaging. But something has to happen that allows a consumer to avoid plastic if they choose, and right now it's just not an option.

SHAPIRO: Susanne Rust is an investigative reporter covering environmental issues for the LA Times. Thanks a lot.

RUST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.