A Plastic-Free Wrap-Up

Plastic Free July is over and you might expect me to jump with joy at all the foods I can now eat again: chips and biscuits, peas and pies! Except the experience of attempting to live plastic-free for a month has left its mark. The other night I walked into a supermarket while hungry — normally a recipe for disaster — but the sight of all that plastic packaging made me walk out again without buying a single snack.

Now that it’s August, here’s a summary of how I fared during PFJ and my thoughts on the experience.

How much waste?

In July my husband and I produced 780 grams of plastic waste, of which 270 grams was bought during July; most was put out for recycling but some went to landfill.

Apparently, the average New Zealander consumes 36 kg of plastic packaging per year, which works out to about 100 grams per day. That makes our tally of about 12 grams per person per day look pretty good — although I suspect the national per capita total may also include non-household packaging, e.g. for products being shipped from the site of manufacture to distribution to sale.

After doing Plastic Free July, buying 100 grams of single-use plastic packaging each and every day seems horrifyingly wasteful to me, and yet plastic accounts for just 8% of household waste in New Zealand; on average each person sends a whopping 500 kg of waste to landfill every year. Where do we get all that crap from? And, more importantly, do we seriously think we can keep doing it without any repercussions? (The July/August issue of New Zealand Geographic has some excellent articles on waste, and I suggest you grab a copy — or borrow mine!)

In addition to weighing the plastic my little household produced during July, I also collected 380 grams of plastic litter from the beach and streets in my neighbourhood. Reclaiming plastic from the ocean isn’t the end of the story — even if it makes its way safely to the rubbish dump second time round, it’s still going to sit there for centuries, perhaps degrading slowly but never truly decomposing. The long-term solution is to stop using the stuff in the first place. However, cleaning up the plastic waste already in the environment and cutting off the source of more plastic waste in our neighbourhoods are complementary steps towards a less polluted, more sustainable world.

Going plastic-free has some additional environmental benefits. Firstly, cutting out processed, packaged foods like chips and biscuits is a great way to avoid the palm oil that has been snuck into these products. (If you’ve somehow managed to avoid learning about how high demand for palm oil endangers orangutans, have a quick read of this or this.) Secondly, finding plastic-free sources of meat and dairy products has been by far my biggest hurdle so far, and the simplest solution of cutting back on dairy and meat consumption also helps to reduce the significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals for meat or milk. (I’m aware that some butchers still sell meat wrapped in brown paper, so if you can find one locally then your plastic-free meat source is sorted, but meat’s higher carbon emissions mean it’s still worth reducing the amount of meat you eat.)

Looking back

In the days leading up to July, I wrote a summary of my thoughts as I planned for PFJ. At that point I was constantly coming up with new plastic things that I would have to try to avoid during the challenge. Even before starting I was becoming aware of just how ubiquitous and difficult to avoid plastic is, although my awareness wasn’t as visceral as it is now.

The process of planning for PFJ also made me aware of many of the dilemmas associated with plastic and trying to avoid it, and on revisiting my notes I’m interested to see that most or all of what I wrote was reinforced by my experiences during the challenge itself. For example:

  • Planning for PFJ made me aware of just how much of a crutch recycleable and compostable plastics are for the well-intentioned but half-hearted eco-warrior.
  • The fallback of using single-use paper bags and glass jars isn’t really any better. Although paper is biodegradable and glass is infinitely recycleable, both have a higher carbon footprint than their plastic cousins and both are often disposed of in a way that negates their theoretical advantages. Therefore, we need to turn to reusable packaging wherever possible.
  • Some types of food are nearly impossible to source plastic-free. My reluctance to give up dairy products stemmed from my viewing PFJ not as a few weeks off plastic but the start of a permanent reduced-plastic lifestyle.
  • Going plastic-free is a commendable goal, but with all the other environmental and social issues demanding our attention, I’m wary that focusing too much time and energy on this one thing distracts from everything else going on. And, as I noted last week, we often face a trade-off between choosing plastic-free and choosing products with other ethical credentials.

Looking forward

As PFJ came to a close for the year, I was left with a whole lot of questions; first and foremost, are the wrappers on Whittaker’s chocolate or camembert made of paper (albeit waxed and foiled) or are they lined with plastic? They pass the “rip test” (i.e., if you rip them they tear without revealing a stretchy plastic layer) but they just look so suspiciously shiny. How do I know if I should avoid them or not? Did I needlessly deny myself the [actually-not-all-that-exciting] experience of #JellyTipJuly?

I’m also left wondering how much commercial packaging is associated with the modern Western lifestyle — all the stuff we don’t see and can’t easily control as consumers but that ultimately derives from our consumer behaviour. For example, Lush provide paper bags for their customers, but the other day I noticed that their paper bags are delivered to stores packed inside plastic bags, which does rather seem to defeat the purpose.

Ideally, ethical companies will make an effort to reduce waste at every step, not just where it’s visible to the end customer. But relying on companies to voluntarily incur the extra costs of curbing their waste isn’t going to get us very far. Ultimately, the biggest impact will come from implementing laws to regulate packaging and waste, whether at the national, regional or local government level.

Of course, the fact that it’s difficult to avoid plastic these days doesn’t absolve you of all responsibility! As consumers we all play our part and what the world needs from us now is more reducing the amount of new stuff we buy, including unnecessary packaging; more reusing, repairing, and re-homing the stuff we already have; more rethinking our consumer choices, such as buying more pre-loved, more local, and more hand-crafted; and only recycling as a last resort instead of using it to salve our collective conscience.





5 thoughts on “A Plastic-Free Wrap-Up

  1. Thanks Rachel for the interesting posts! I’m curious as to what other ideas you have or have come across for larger-scale improvements in packaging. You say that paper or glass is not really better, implying to me that we need to concentrate on renewable sources of plastic. Interesting developments that I’ve come across are:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorona plastic, it is large scale plastic that is partially source from renewable sources, but more exciting is that they use bacteria in the processing.

    https://vimeo.com/103801887 Sweden incinerates their rubbish for electricity and district heating.

    Overall though I agree that there is a lot to be gained in societal changes to how we buy and store food – and the kind of food we buy (eg. individually wrapped snack foods).

    • Thanks for your comment, you’ve raised some really interesting points! I think I’ll have to write a full blog post (or several) to do the topic justice, but in the meantime here’s a “short” answer…

      First, let me clarify that I don’t think paper or glass are inherently bad materials for packaging. The carbon emissions associated with using them for single-use packaging may be higher than the emissions from their plastic equivalents, but the real problem – and solution – lies in what happens next.

      Paper can be recycled or composted and glass can be recycled pretty much indefinitely. Most plastics are also recycleable but they tend to be down-cycled rather than made into the same products over and over, and too many plastics still end up in landfill or the sea, where they take forever to break down. Making those plastic products from renewable resources is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t change a thing about how they’re disposed of. For example, ecostore recently switched from fossil fuel-derived plastics to sugarcane plastics for their bottles, but the environmental benefits of the new plastic depend almost entirely on the bottles being recycled at end of life (see http://www.ecostore.co.nz/pages/carbon-capture-pak).

      So despite my engineering background, I don’t really view technological advancements as the solution. I think what we really need is better systems for managing our waste, as well as for ensuring we produce less of it in the first place.

      I think energy recovery is a great option for managing waste and reducing the amount we send to the tip, especially in places cold enough to justify district heating, although it does generate more carbon emissions than recycling the materials would. The closing statement in the video you linked to was spot on: “In the long run, the world needs to produce less waste; the world has a garbage problem. In the meantime, waste incineration and extracting energy from the waste is a good solution.”

  2. good on you – we do our best here with our purchases but still it finds its way into our home. just now fencing our garden to keep out possums and wallabies the roll of wire came wrapped in plastic … and so it goes.
    like you I dont want to become too thingy – afterall there is so much to be concerned about that directly impacts on our continued survival but I do try to maintain an awareness and seek out the no plastic options when I can.
    back in july 2012 I wrote a blog ” it is insane what I need to manage my life” after a trip to our tip on our property – still unnerves me…

    • I honestly think that maintaining awareness is the best any of us can do. I enjoyed doing my part to reduce waste during Plastic Free July, and I’m keeping up my new habits now it’s over. But the biggest benefit came from increasing my own awareness and the awareness of all the people I interact with online and in person.

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