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I’m a climate reporter trying to cut plastics out. But my kid wanted a Barbie Dreamhouse.

It was just me, a giant box containing what appeared to be 7,000 plastic pieces, and an existential crisis.

From Mattel

It’s late evening on a Friday in December, the eve of my daughter’s fifth birthday. The kids are upstairs asleep and my husband has called it a day. It’s just me in the living room — me, a giant box containing what appear to be 7,000 yet-to-be-assembled pieces of a Barbie Dreamhouse, and an existential crisis.

Years ago, it would have been the feminist in me that objected, but last year’s Barbie movie took care of that, showing how feminism and Barbie can go hand in hand. No, the problem is the hulking pile of plastic before me — a pastel nightmare with 70-plus accessories that will surely delight my daughter tomorrow, and likely waste away in a landfill in the future.


For years, I’ve been on a mission to cut out waste in our household. I am a climate change reporter, and sometimes tackling our household waste feels like the least I can do to quiet the demons I’m haunted by in my day job. After all, not only are most plastics made from fossil fuels, they also emit greenhouse gases. Half of global plastics production is for single-use items, and just 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, according to the World Economic Forum. Plastics clog our oceans, threaten wildlife, and spread toxins.

Now, thinking about what I want to do better in 2024, I can’t help but reflect back on where things have gone wrong.

The obvious things — single-use plastic bottles, plastic bags, cling wrap — have been easy enough to cut out. One million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world, and less than a third of those are recycled, according to the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. So, I carry my reusable water bottle and opt for cans when I buy a drink at a store. I take my reusable bags with me when I’m shopping, and have found other ways, such as silicone bags and containers, to store food to avoid cling wrap, which is not recyclable.


At the grocery store, I opt for the glass jar of Teddie peanut butter instead of the plastic tub, even though we consume a tub’s worth each week. And rather than using plastic bags for my veggies, I let them sit, naked and exposed, on the conveyor belt, vowing to wash them twice before serving them. (I do own those nice mesh produce bags but they are somehow never with me when I arrive at the store.)

But it’s not always easy. I embraced cloth diapers — buying up gently-used ones from friends and neighbors to cut down on waste — but then the pandemic hit and it felt like one task too many as we juggled young kids and full-time jobs. I bought reusable plastic pouches and filled them with homemade baby food and yogurt for my kids. But their seams were always filled with the crusty remnants of snacks past — so back we slid to store-bought pouches.

And after pledging to stop using plastic containers to store leftovers, and buying all sorts of glass ones (though probably not enough) to use instead, my cupboard is once again a den of shame, filled with plastic containers of all sizes, some of which I suspect were left behind by friends or family.


Some habits have stuck. There’s a great refill store near where I live, where I can fill my own containers with concentrated hand soap, dish soap, and all-purpose spray. That’s also where I pick up silicone Stasher bags, and cloths to replace paper towels. We have subscriptions for laundry and dishwasher detergent pods, low-waste products that arrive in cardboard packaging. Even these aren’t perfect — there’s a carbon footprint to their shipping, plus the pods are made from dissolvable films that may result in microplastics.

But these steps seem small in the grand scheme of things — especially with young kids who churn through endless sneakers, snacks, and toys.

A year or so ago, walking through my local grocery store, cart piled high with lettuce in plastic containers, tubs of yogurt, and plastic-wrapped granola bars, I ran into the owner of the refill store, who I’ve become friends with over the years.

The shame I felt — oh, the shame! — to be busted by the imminently cool store owner who really knows this stuff.

But then I looked at her cart, and it looked an awful lot like mine.

“Is this not a massive existential crisis for you every time you shop?” I asked her as we stood in the freezer aisle.

She laughed. Sure, she said — it’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed. But she’s realized she can only do so much. She makes the changes she can, where she can, and she’s trying to change the system from the inside, lobbying for changes in packaging laws at the state level. We can all do our part, but also, we’re allowed to be human.


Back in my living room, I try to remember that lesson. Breathing deeply through my attempts at installing the Dreamhouse’s four-doll elevator (did I mention it has an elevator?), I think ahead to a new year — a chance to try to do better.

So here’s what I’m thinking: I’m going to renew my commitment to my local Buy Nothing group on Facebook, where I can look first for anything that I need and pass along anything we’re through with. After all, the best product for the environment is one that lives multiple lives. I’m going to spend more time looking for plastic-free and sustainable options, and try buying in bulk more often. A great place to start is a local reuse store, or a food co-op that allows you to bring your own containers to fill up on essentials.

And I’m going to give myself some grace. I alone did not cause this climate crisis, and I alone won’t fix it. I’ll just keep trying to do my best.

Putting the final touches on the Dreamhouse, I step back and look at the behemoth I have just assembled. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to play with this? And for any haters out there, know this: Not only does this Dreamhouse have a cardboard solar panel, but my daughter will also receive Barbie’s electric vehicle and charging station. Yes, those are plastic and don’t work, but it’s a start.


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.