General, Science for Everyone, Sustainability

How Cleaning My Apartment Led to an Existential Crisis (AKA the Plastic-Climate Change Connection)

Yesterday, I went on a cleaning spree of my apartment. Did I plan on going into cleaning mode? Nope. I’d planned on getting computer work done. But, alas, it was not meant to be. It all started when I opened the closet to look for space for the sewing machine I asked my husband to get me for Christmas. And I wasn’t quite sure where to put it. We live in a one-bedroom apartment that in many parts of the world (and some of the most expensive areas of the United States) would be considered large – almost 1000 sq ft. Yet, we are nearly out of storage space.

We didn’t have a lot of stuff when we first moved in three years ago; we were budget-limited grad students. However, that’s changed over the course of time. We bought an Instant Pot and a Kitchenaid Mixer for the kitchen (not an ad – I definitely don’t have enough people reading this blog for that – I’m just obsessed with them), books and board games for the living room, and, of course, clothes. Our limited storage in this place has filled up. And I needed to address it. I also unintentionally enlisted my husband in my plans. For the record, I told him he didn’t need to help me, but he refused to let me undergo the painstaking process on my own. 

Turn old clothes into reusable makeup remover pads. Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

We created piles – one pile of things to donate, one to sell, another of stuff we could reuse, and a final pile to throw away. And as I stared at this stuff I was reminded once again of the waste problem. Many of these items had been shipped in plastic. Some of them were made of plastic. Most of this stuff could not be recycled. And this pile reminded me of a thought that had been bouncing around in my head a while back – the plastic pollution/climate change connection.

Don’t throw away old jeans! Some organizations collect unwearable jeans to turn into housing insulation. Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

All this stuff that was now spread out on the living room floor contributed to climate change. The plastic in the coffee maker was made from oil and gas, and the process of turning those materials into the right components and then getting them from the factory to my apartment exuded greenhouse gasses. In 2015 alone, 24 ethylene facilities in the United States produced enough carbon dioxide to power 3.8 million cars. 3.8 million. Just let that sink in for a second.

And now, I was ready to get this stuff out of my life. I stopped drinking coffee over a year ago (my husband never has) and doubt I’ll start drinking in large enough amounts to warrant a coffee pot again. It still works perfectly, so it will go to Goodwill. Hopefully, someone will buy it. I can’t say the same for some of the other stuff.

I bought a pair of leggings for $12 last year. Unsurprisingly, they haven’t lasted, and I can’t patch them up anymore. I can’t donate them. But if I throw them away, then, best case scenario, they’ll end up in a landfill. Hopefully, they won’t become like the 15 million tons of plastic waste that entered the ocean in 2018 that, in addition to harming sea life, also emit greenhouse gasses. Instead, I’m going to *attempt* to make a rag rug with them and other clothing items in my closet that are note in good enough condition to donate.

Apparently, you can turn old clothes into t-shirt yarn. Fingers crossed this works for me. Photo by Isabelle Taylor on

The truth is that the stuff we buy has a much higher cost than what we see on the price tag. There’s a human rights’ cost since it’s nearly impossible to guarantee that the workers who make your item (particularly clothes) are treated fairly. And there’s an environmental cost. It’s not just about the fact that your item could be protected in plastic packaging that could end up harming an animal. The process of making that item contributes to climate change – particularly if it’s made of plastic.

First, reduce. Then, reuse. And, if all else fails, recycle. Image from Canva.

So, what do we do? How do I make sure that my husband and I don’t need to spend another day cleaning out the apartment three years from now? The answer is to buy intentionally so that, overall, we buy less. This is something that I’ve been working on over the past year and will continue to work on into the future. I’m definitely not perfect at it yet (and probably never will be). But the future of our planet depends on it.

P.S. If you’re curious and want to know more about the relationship between plastics and climate change, then check out my video on the topic below.

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