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Tray Mauvais: A Story Of Unwanted Plastic

Hey. It’s been a minute.  Again.  But I have a pretty good excuse this time: two weeks ago, I moved to France for the semester.  And it’s been awesome so far!  I have studied french since middle school and it is such a gift to be here to experience the language and culture for an extended stay.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I will definitely be posting in the future about how packaging, recycling, waste management, etc. compare between France and the US.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but I’m feeling like it will be best to write about it after I’ve been here for more than a few weeks, and have more experience with la vie française.  For now, I’d like to share a story about what happened to me last Friday.

First, let’s backtrack.  On Monday night I moved into my temporary dorm room for orientation, where I found 5 trays of food on the desk.  It soon became clear these were meant for breakfast: 2 pains au chocolat, a box of orange juice, instant coffee, plastic cutlery, creamer…

All I saw was a pile of plastic.  And worst of all, lots and lots of soft plastics, which have no chance of being recycled.  Upon a later investigation of the dumpsters near the building, I determined that whatever I put in the recycling would be contaminated anyway—people were clearly throwing regular trash in.  (You can read my previous post about plastic recycling here.)  So I knew nothing I would put in would see a recycling center.

It was getting to be dinner time, so I went in search of food I could cook.  I bought pasta and sauce at a place nearby only to discover there were no pots and pans in the kitchen.  Frustrated and utterly exhausted from the long flight, I came back to my room and ate the pains au chocolat in the first tray.  This was not what I would have chosen, but alone and practically in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, I felt it was all I could muster.

Over the next few days, I resolved to either eat the food or pawn it off on my classmates so at least it wouldn’t go to waste.  I thought it was a 5 day thing, enough to keep us fed until we figured out how to go grocery shopping.  Then I got back from class on Friday, and FIVE MORE trays had appeared.  My peers rejoiced at their restocked supplies, but I was dumbfounded. More plastic? I didn’t ask for this!!!

At that point I had two more weeks of orientation.  That meant at least two more deliveries.  They would just keep bringing more, trays would keep piling up, I would keep eating this processed food that was already starting to make me feel icky.

Shame on me! I thought. I should be grateful they brought me free food, some people live with hunger and food insecurity their whole lives!  But after giving it some more thought, I realized it wasn’t free.  The cost of these meals was hidden somewhere in the program fees and we were definitely paying for it.

I sat sadly on my bed, staring at this future plastic waste, this future debris in our waterways, this future absorber of toxins.  Que faire?*  I realized I had been going easy on myself the whole trip.  I’ll be in a foreign country, I though, I won’t be able to find plastic-free alternatives right away.  Maybe that was true the first few days, but I had been allowing myself to slip from my usual standards. Heck, I had found a bulk store on the 3rd day.  How could I sit passively and watch myself consume all this plastic?

I got up and went to the office of la cité universitaire.  I was nervous the whole way over, because I would have to speak to the secretary in french.  But it wasn’t so bad.  I was able to communicate, if a bit clumsily, what I wanted–no more deliveries.  Afterward I was so relieved, and proud that I had actually done it.

It is remarkable how easy it is to consume what is most convenient.  This food was literally placed in my room. This is definitely an extreme example, but it happens all the time.  The cheapest option with the most packaging is always front and center, with the logo facing you, ready to be plucked from the shelf, shiny and pristine, like some grotesque, eternally ripe fruit.

I have chosen to go the other way, hard as it is.  Back home, I was not 100% plastic free–I am not perfect by any means, and it often takes an experience like this to get myself back on track and make more sustainable choices.  I also acknowledge the insane amount of privilege I have to have these choices in the first place, and do not judge anyone who is not in my position.  I try to do what is right for the planet with what I’ve got, even and especially when it pushes me out of my comfort zone.  In the wise words of Jen Sincero, from her book You Are A Badass at Making Money:

“Where there’s a will there’s a way; we just prefer to pretend there isn’t a way so we don’t have to take responsibility and do the uncomfortable stuff required to grow.”

I’ll be posting again soon. Au revoir! ❤

*What to do?

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