Plastic Free July 2016: Final Reflections

My Plastic Free July experience this year took an unexpected twist in the final week. Things were trucking along nicely, with a relatively small trickle of plastic entering my dilemma pile and my cravings for dairy getting a little weaker. Then a family emergency temporarily turned my life upside-down, and avoiding plastic suddenly didn’t seem like such a high priority.

So this post reflects on what I learned from the plastic-free challenge itself and from dealing with the realities of an unpredictable world.

But first, what plastic did I accumulate since my last post?

The Plastic

Plastic packaging from July - pill packets, meat tray, chocolate wrappers, and jar stickers

This is the plastic I accumulated in the third week of PFJ.

  1. Meat tray and cling wrap: Both these items can be recycled, and while that doesn’t eliminate the plastic completely, I am much happier buying meat on recyclable plastic trays than polystyrene trays.
  2. Pill packets: Healthcare is one area where it’s difficult—and perhaps not even desirable—to avoid plastic packaging.
  3. Chocolate wrappers: As I said last time, these were a gift (given with good intentions—and delicious!)
  4. A bag of pinenuts: This was purchased a while ago and finished during July. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find replacement pinenuts in any bulk bins yet.
  5. Plastic stickers from glass jars: A disappointing find, and something I’ll have to watch for more closely in future.
  6. Tear strip from an envelope: I received an official document in the post in a cardboard envelope with a plastic tear strip. Compared with the usual plastic parcel bags, I thought it scored pretty highly on the plastic-free front.

The Lessons

Here are the key lessons I learned this July. While they aren’t strictly new lessons for me, they are important reminders about the best way to journey towards a lower impact life.

1. Buying food in your own containers will only get you so far

All I can directly control through my purchasing decisions is my post-consumer waste. Buying from bulk bins or getting takeaways placed into my own container avoids packaging going into my household rubbish and recycling bins, but almost everything I purchase will have arrived at the store in some form of single-use packaging.

However, I can help to reduce this pre-consumer waste by choosing local (hopefully reducing the packaging needed for transport), choosing fresh, choosing to support companies working to reduce waste through all parts of the supply-chain (like Ooooby), choosing to grow or make my own, and choosing to buy less stuff.

2. Living a more sustainable life is not about deprivation

I really struggled with giving up dairy products this July, which is clearly a sign that I’m not ready to do so completely yet! For example, in the middle of winter a hot drink is comforting and warming, but I find tea and hot chocolate taste much nicer with milk than without.

The journey to a more sustainable lifestyle needs to be just that—sustainable. That means gradually building in lifestyle changes that align with your values and don’t feel like too much hard work. It’s impossible to stick with a diet (whether it’s a low-carb diet or a plastic-free diet) if it’s built around a narrative of deprivation instead of mindful consumption. I haven’t yet figured out how to significantly cut back on dairy and meat packaging in a way that feels sustainable for me, but I’ll keep working on it.

3. Sometimes other things are more important

When a family emergency took over my life in the final week of July, sticking to my environmental principles seemed pretty unimportant compared to spending time with family and helping everything run as smoothly as possible (e.g., by contributing to and partaking in meals made with plastic-packaged food, including copious amounts of tea!)

Making the decision to give up Plastic Free July for the final week was actually really easy. I’d read Pip’s recent post on her lessons from Plastic Free July last year just a few days earlier, and I felt like it gave me the permission I needed in order to let go.

It’s also worth mentioning that the plastic-free challenge and my other environmental values still featured in my life, even though they’d dropped lower on my list of priorities. Extended family members were happy to chat about my efforts to live a “plastic-free” and “car-free” life (and gently tease me for failing in those aspirations).

So in closing I’d like to reiterate what Pip said: Some people have other things to worry about and simply aren’t able to reduce their waste. Sometimes, we are those people. And for all of us, some areas of our lives are harder to tackle than others. This just makes it all the more important that those of us who can reduce our waste (and our car travel, etc.) do what we can for the benefit of the whole world and all the people in it.

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11 thoughts on “Plastic Free July 2016: Final Reflections

  1. It was great to read your thoughts on Plastic-Free July, especially where you talked about sustainability versus deprivation. Provided we’re able to find easy and convenient ways to make changes in our lives, we’ll be more likely to stick with them.

    • Absolutely! I hadn’t struggled so much with any previous changes I’d made to my lifestyle, because they’d always felt important and in keeping with my values. It’s been a useful experience to come up against a change that truly felt like deprivation, because I suspect that’s how a lot of people may feel about the changes that I perceive as being small and easy.

  2. I love how you documented your plastic. That’s a great way of identifying sources. It is funny how people will tease about ‘failing’ but really the standard is impossible. The system in place that makes change extremely difficult means that any effort ought to be praised.

    • I’d recommend tracking your own plastic waste for a month if you haven’t done it before. I found that keeping track of my rubbish – combined with picking up rubbish in my neighbourhood – was a real eye opener and convinced me to take more responsibility for how much waste I produce.

      And you’re so right about it being impossible to not fail. The best any of us can do is to take a step towards reducing our negative impact on the world. And hopefully that will be followed by another step, and another, but even just taking the first step is better than living with the status quo.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly about the ramifications of feeling deprived. The areas that I create the most waste (dairy in all its forms) are things I am not willing to give up. If I don’t eat them because I cannot source them package free I am a less happy person. I try to eat less but also give myself permission to fail. This is my happy medium.

    • I’m glad to know I’m not the only one! Some people seem to give up dairy so easily, but I just can’t do it (yet) even though I know it’s a good choice to make environmentally. So you totally have my permission to keep eating dairy and staying happy 😉

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