Plastic Free July: Over Halfway

We’re now two thirds of the way through Plastic Free July and again it’s come with some achievements and some not-so-successful moments.

Small victories, small frustrations

I’m afraid to say that my husband and I have bought some new plastic since I last posted (a whole 80 grams worth). The first plastic purchase came in the form of packaging for several items from the hardware store. We were able to purchase a few screws and washers from the bulk bins, but plastic-free alternatives for larger items were either non-existent or way out of our price range.

The second plastic purchase was due to a miscommunication and came in the form of plastic bags wrapped around meat from the butcher. I take solace in the fact that we’ve avoided several polystyrene meat trays, but next time we buy meat I’m hoping to use our own containers or repurposed plastic bags.

The third plastic purchase was a straw in my drink at a bar… Fail! Not using straws is meant to be one of the basics of Plastic Free July, but as I said in my intro post it’s something I encounter so infrequently that it didn’t occur to me to say “No straw, thanks” until it was too late.

We’ve also generated more plastic waste from pre-PFJ purchases. About half of it came from food, most of which we can replace with low-plastic alternatives from bulk bins or in glass bottles and jars. The other half was packaging from kitchenware and other household items purchased before July, and like our experience at the hardware store last week I suspect that finding plastic packaging-free versions would have been very difficult. Our pre-PFJ plastic weighed in at 200 g, of which 50 g came from a can of tomatoes — did you know cans are lined with plastic? The stuff gets everywhere! (See this post from blog My Plastic Free Life for a quick list of items you may not realise contain plastic).

My small victories for the week include buying a solid shampoo bar at Lush (and taking it home wrapped in a handkerchief to avoid all disposable packaging), bringing a bar of soap to work (no more liquid soap in a plastic bottle), taking our own drinks to the movies instead of buying drinks in plastic cups, buying bulk bin golden syrup (yum!) and gluten flour (so we can make wholemeal bread), and continuing all the little actions I mentioned last time.

So, the stats for my husband and I in the past 10 days:

Plastic purchased ~ 80 g
Pre-PFJ packaging disposed of ~ 200 g
Plastic salvaged from the street ~ 230 g

But now onto the really interesting stuff!

Getting out of the kitchen…

During the first week or so of PFJ I focused primarily on the kitchen. It’s the obvious place to start, being the biggest source of single-use plastic packaging. As we progress through the month I’ve discovered how pervasive single-use plastic is in the bathroom and laundry too. While it’s still months before I have to replace any cleaning products, laundry detergent, lip balm or moisturiser, I am curious to see how easily I’ll find plastic-free options for these items. For example, we currently use both soap nuts and ecostore laundry detergent, both of which come in plastic bags, and I’m happy to discover that soap nuts can be purchased in paper bags instead. Lip balm, too, can be found in metal, glass or even cardboard packaging.

Also hiding in plain sight is the medicine cabinet — and this is one instance where I can appreciate the need for single-use plastic packaging. However, for basic first aid there are still some lower-plastic options, like fabric plasters, and painkillers in bottles instead of blister packs. And when it comes to contraceptives, the little bit of plastic packaging involved has a significantly smaller impact on the environment than the impact of all the extra humans who might otherwise be born.

Finally, I realised that in some areas of the city our local council enforces the use of single-use plastic in the form of council rubbish (and recycling) bags. Of course the quickest way to reduce this use of plastic is to avoid sending waste to landfill, which is best accomplished by reducing the use of single-use plastic packaging! It’s a virtuous PFJ cycle. And that brings me to my next point:

…onto the streets…

When I attempted to collect plastic from my local beach I found that there just wasn’t much plastic to be found. So last week I went for a wander through my local streets to see how much plastic I could pick up there. I’m afraid to say it was a huge success — I picked up the first piece of plastic before I’d even left my driveway, and then found more every few metres along my walk. During a short 10 minute walk I picked up a bag full (230 grams) of plastic and I’m confident I could have gotten much more than that if I’d been walking slower and looking more carefully.

Most of the rubbish had collected in the gutters and on the verge, and it was evident that most of it had probably come from the bags of domestic rubbish put out for kerbside collection.

I recently read a news article about efforts to ban plastic bags in New Zealand, and the journalist had decided to interview a random concerned citizen. The woman being interviewed said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It’s terrible that so much plastic is getting into our waterways and causing problems, but I see how it has anything to do with me — I put all my plastic bags into the rubbish!”

Well it appears that putting your plastic waste into bags or wheelie bins for kerbside collection isn’t necessarily enough to exonerate you. If you aren’t careful to ensure none of it is liberated by wind or animals, your kerbside rubbish and recycling could end up blowing into the stormwater system and, ultimately, into the ocean.

This is something of a game-changer for me. Never again can I claim ignorance about domestic kerbside waste escaping to the sea via our stormwater drains. It’s not enough to recycle. It’s certainly not enough to assume that all the rubbish I put out for collection will go “safely” to landfill. It’s up to me and everyone else to try to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we buy in the first place so that less and less of it ends up littering the world.

This realisation also makes me reconsider my stance on the merits of plastic vs paper. When I started the PFJ challenge I was aware that plastic is generally bad because it doesn’t break down for millenia, but I was also aware that paper packaging is heavier and therefore generates more CO2 emissions than the equivalent plastic packaging. Purely from a climate change prevention perspective, plastic may still be better than paper (depending on how it is disposed of at the end of its useful life). However, when taking a holistic view of the problems facing the world today I think the best solution is to switch to reusable packaging — thus avoiding the plastic vs paper conundrum completely.

…and out to the world

You know what I’ve learnt during the last 10 days? Plastic Free July is not about my successes and failures as one individual or one household. Even if I managed to live completely plastic-free this month it would just be a drop in the plastic-filled ocean. What it’s really about is the conversations I have with people who are interested in how I’m finding the challenge and are inspired to take their own action. It’s the conversations I have with people who are unaware of the pitfalls of recycling. (Did you know food-grade plastics must be made from “virgin” plastic? The risk of contaminants in recycled plastic is considered too high, so instead of being recycled into more food packaging it’s downcycled to things like plastic lumber and so-called eco-clothing that proudly proclaims “I used to be plastic bottles!”)

The real meaning and purpose of Plastic Free July comes from engaging with and inspiring others. So please share the message and, if you haven’t already, start taking your own steps towards a less plastic-filled lifestyle!

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11 thoughts on “Plastic Free July: Over Halfway

  1. Good for you not only for reducing your plastic consumption but engaging others in your worthwhile challenge. And I also applaud you for picking up garbage in the streets. I am tempted when collecting ‘dropped’ items around our house to return them to the real culprits – the fast food suppliers who make all this garbage available.

    • Thank you!
      I like your idea of returning rubbish to where it came from! If companies were required to take responsibility for everything they make & sell we would surely see a rapid reduction in rubbish – and maybe even a return to things like reusable glass milk bottles?

      • Actually we do have returnable milk bottles from a nearby dairy available at some of the classier stores. Maybe this will become more common elsewhere too.

      • Oh that’s great! New Zealand hasn’t had refillable milk bottles since 2005, though we do still have refillable beer bottles…

  2. Well done on doing the plastic free July 🙂 I too think companies should be held more accountable for recycling and reducing plastics.

    To help, we made this infographic which helps people identify which types plastics can be recycled. Feel free to use it on your blog 🙂

  3. I admire you for doing this. I haven’t. But I do help clean our local beach. A lot of what we find is shredded rope from commercial fishing boats, and tiny bits of plastic that are almost too small to pick up.

    • Thanks! I found it was surprisingly easy to start avoiding at least some plastic. And good on you for cleaning up your local beach – I don’t do that nearly enough.

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