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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Shall I buy a cow? A Plastic Free July update

We’re a little over halfway through Plastic Free July so I thought I’d review my progress so far. 

Let’s start with the lady elephant* in the room: Dairy. Everyone I’ve talked to about the challenge wondered what on earth I was going to do about milk and cheese. Neither are easy to source plastic-free in Auckland (though not completely  impossible). My simple solution was to go without. 

I knew giving up dairy would be hard for me, but I didn’t expect to struggle with it so much! I miss the creamy sweet tartness of yoghurt on my breakfast. I miss the burst of cheesy flavour in my lunch. I miss milky cups of tea and hot chocolate. Every time I prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack or a hot drink I am reminded that I’m not allowed to have these tasty things. 

It is getting easier as the month goes on and I grow accustomed to a new normal (and as I’ve found alternative ways to get a melted cheese fix on these cold winter nights) but at this stage I expect I will go back to buying plastic-packaged milk, cheese and yoghurt once July is over. 

And then what? I’ll probably eat/drink less than I did before, but I can’t forget that every time I buy these items I’m introducing brand new plastic to the environment, which will take hundreds of years to break down and may never truly be gone. 

So I’m left pondering the question: how much plastic waste am I comfortable leaving in my wake? Should I put my faith in some as-yet-uninvented technology that can chemically break down old plastics into harmless and useful substances, or bacteria that can eat microplastics, transforming them into energy and carbon dioxide? Or should I just buy a cow?!

PFJ trash halfway

In other news, I’ve acquired a bunch of extra plastic in the past fortnight from new board games, gadgets and magazines. While none of the purchases were strictly necessary (and I’m of the opinion they all arrived rather over-packaged), I do expect the new items to bring joy into my life. I would also rather focus on eliminating plastic from regular purchases, like food and cleaning products, because that will have a bigger long-term impact than being super strict about one-off purchases. 

The other new plastic items I bought include toothpaste to replace the empty tube, two meat trays (which someone else dutifully bundled off into the recycling bin before I could photograph them), a few fruit stickers, and the plastic label on a glass jar of coconut yoghurt. 

I have to admit that last one was a bit disappointing! I bought the yoghurt last week after going “cold turkey” for a week, and I’ve really appreciated the added creaminess on my oats. But I subsequently realised the packaging wasn’t quite so plastic-free after all, so I won’t be buying it again. 

The photo also includes my plastic waste from things purchased pre-July, including chocolate wrappers (a gift), and a ziplock bag that fell apart after several years of use.

While the start of July brought a lot more plastic waste than I’d expected, I’ve also managed to successfully avoid plastic in tricky situations like work functions. If you’re doing Plastic Free July this year, how are you finding the challenge?  

*Because female elephants are also called cows! Sorry for launching that pun at you without warning… 

5 reasons I love my fruit and vegetable box

Earlier this year my family started getting a box of fruit and vegetables delivered to our house each week. We decided to order from a company called Ooooby — Out Of Our Own Backyards — because they specialise in local, organic produce, but there are a ton of other companies offering a similar service.

After a couple of months using the service, here are five reasons I love our fruit & veg box.

1. It’s fresh, local, seasonal, and organic

So this is four reasons rolled into one, but they’re all related. Ooooby makes a point of sourcing all their produce as locally as possible. The fruit and veg arrives fresh at our doorstep within a day of being delivered to Ooooby. Because the food is fresh and locally grown, it’s in season too. And Ooooby also focuses on organics, making it much easier (and cheaper, and less packaged) than buying organic produce at a store.

2. It’s super convenient

Between our weekly Ooooby box delivery and a bulk shopping trip for dried goods every month, we don’t have too much more in the way of grocery shopping. That saves a lot of time each weekend that we used to spend traipsing around the supermarket.

3. It’s like Christmas every week

I get excited about receiving a package full of healthy, tasty goodness each week! Opening up the box and seeing all the fresh colours there gives me a thrill similar to unwrapping Christmas presents — but without all the waste and misdirected consumerism.

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Sneak peek… look at that colour!

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A week’s worth of delicious fresh fruit and vegetables

4. We get to try new types of food

Each box comes with a different variety of fruit and veg, depending on what Ooooby’s growers have available that week. And each box includes all sorts of items I never would have bought (or even seen) when shopping at the supermarket! So far the new types of food I’ve tried cooking thanks to Ooooby include:

  • Chestnuts
  • Kale
  • Beetroot
  • Tatsoi
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Fennel
  • Daikon radish

We’ve also received exciting new varieties of familiar plants, like pointy capsicums and rainbow chard.

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Another week’s haul (minus a bunch of kale that had already been sent to the fridge)

5. It’s (almost) waste-free!

The main packaging is the box, which Ooooby collect and reuse each delivery. Aside from tape on the box, paper to protect leafy greens, paper bags for dirty root vegetables, and the odd rubber band, our produce now comes virtually packaging-free, which makes it much easier to avoid plastic and other waste — perfect for Plastic Free July. It also means no more pesky fruit stickers! And we can now buy organic, fair-trade bananas without the plastic tape they come wrapped in at the supermarket.

Of course, getting our produce delivered is not a perfect setup. We have less control over how much fruit and veg we get each week — some weeks we’re barely scraping by and others we end up with a lot more than we need. And when the supply chain is this short and local, any hiccups at the supplier’s end have a much greater influence on us as consumers. But on balance, I’m totally in love with my weekly produce delivery and I highly recommend it as a way to buy local, seasonal, and plastic-free food.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Ooooby in any way; I’m just a happy customer.

Plastic Free July – Round 2

​Plastic Free July kicks off today!  Taking part in the challenge for the first time last year was honestly life-changing. I became so much more aware of how much plastic we use in our daily lives and how damn hard it is to avoid. And committing to pick up rubbish each week during July made me aware of why it is so important to reduce single-use plastic as much as possible. 

But I feel like my journey towards a lower waste lifestyle has stalled since then and I’m becoming complacent about the changes I’ve already made. So I’m using this month as an opportunity to tackle some of the areas I avoided last year – namely dairy, crackers, and (possibly) meat. 

I love dairy-based foods so I’m reluctant to give them up, but plastic-free dairy products are near impossible to come by. Here is my plan of attack: 

  • Milk: I intend to not drink milk this month. I have multiple reasons for this decision, which I’ll elaborate on further in a forthcoming post. 
  • Yoghurt: I plan to buy coconut yoghurt in a glass jar tomorrow – I’ll let you know how that goes. 
  • Cheese: I found a local source of unpackaged cheese but it’s much more expensive than the regular stuff we buy so until I find a cheaper option I’ll be severely cutting back my cheese consumption. 
  • Ice cream: While I don’t eat as much ice cream during winter, it’s still a delicious treat. Luckily, there’s an ice cream store round the corner from my work. I used to always buy ice cream in a cone to avoid the disposable cup, but I’ve discovered the staff are also very happy to serve ice cream in my keep cup. 

There are other areas I’m also keen to tackle at some point, such as making or sourcing plastic-free lip balm, deodorant and cleaning products, but it’s more wasteful to do this before I’ve used up what I already have so I’ll wait until my current supplies run out. 

I also want to mention the #take3forthesea initiative by Take 3, which I came across just today. I hadn’t intended to set myself a rubbish collecting goal this time around, but picking up rubbish in conjunction with doing the Plastic Free July challenge last year played a huge part in opening my eyes to the need to take personal action, and I encourage all of you to give it a go!

Check back here for updates on the plastic I’ll inevitably accumulate this is month, and keep an eye on my (brand new) instagram too: @raquel_nz

If you need some inspiration to get started, check out my tips for reducing waste and the rest of my posts from last year’s #plasticfreejuly

A word on compostable and degradable plastics

At the end of Plastic Free July, bojblaz wrote an interesting comment about technological solutions for improving packaging, particularly whether there are more sustainable ways of producing and using plastic. I wrote a quick answer at the time, but I want to delve further into the available alternatives to traditional petrochemical plastics.

Just Degrading

One of the big problems with traditional plastic is that it takes hundreds of years to break down. “Degradable” plastics are often touted as the green alternative to regular plastics, and many plastic bags these days come with the statement “This bag is degradable” proudly stamped across their base. However, degradable plastics are not all they’re cracked up to be. Continue reading

Want to have a go at plastic-free living? Here’s my advice for getting started

After a month of the Plastic Free July challenge (and many years of inching towards a more sustainable way of life), here are my tips for those of you who want to have a go but are intimidated by the idea of trying to eliminate plastic from your life.

1. Start easy!

If you try to go completely plastic-free all at once, the enormity of the task is likely to make you give up before you even begin. It’s better to reduce some plastic waste than not try at all. So figure out what’s going to be easiest for you, then start introducing new habits into your everyday life. To give you some ideas, here are the things I’ve found easy:

  • Using reusable shopping bags for everything — not just at the supermarket but at every store; it helps if you always keep a small/foldable shopping bag (such as a canvas or string bag) in your bag or car.
  • Likewise, using reusable produce bags for fruit and veg (you can buy produce bags made of cotton or tulle or make your own from a light material).
  • Carrying a reusable coffee cup and water bottle (I use a stainless steel bottle to avoid plastic additives leaching into my water).
  • Packing sandwiches and snacks in a lunchbox instead of glad wrap (aka cling film).
  • Covering bowls of food in the microwave or fridge with plates instead of glad wrap.
  • Buying Earthcare tissues, which are made from recycled post-consumer paper and have no plastic insert in the box.
  • Better still, replacing single-use tissues with handkerchiefs — I scored eight for 20c each at an op shop the other day!
  • Using solid shampoo and conditioner (e.g. from Lush). Another alternative is bulk shampoo (e.g. from bulk stores or ecostore).
  • Buying bars of soap packaged in cardboard or paper.
  • Using a wooden dish brush and bamboo clothes pegs (from ecostore, organic stores, and some supermarkets).
  • Buying dried goods from bulk bins in my own bags or containers (e.g. Bin Inn, most organics stores, or even in the small bulk bin section at most supermarkets if you don’t mind paying the weirdly high prices).
  • Making my own hummus, muesli bars and bircher muesli.
  • Using cloth menstrual pads (check out this detailed guide to reusable menstrual products by Use Good Stuff).
  • Using an old-fashioned safety razor — I don’t use one (yet) but my husband does.

Feel free to take it slow: I introduced all these changes over time, so don’t feel like you have to overhaul your life in one go.

2. Start big!

I know this appears to contradict the previous tip, but what I mean in full is: Identify the areas of your life where you can make the biggest impact, and start there.

For my husband and I, bread and cereal bags were a regular source of plastic waste, and we identified plastic-free alternatives with relative ease so that’s where we started. Plastic packaging from cheese, milk, and meat is also a big source of waste for us but we’ve found it difficult to source alternatives, so that’s something we’ll keep working at.

On the other hand, the plastic pottle of honey I finished during July or the plastic spray bottles from bathroom cleaner are both things we replace just once or twice a year, so finding plastic-free alternatives for these items has a lower priority.

3. Look at the bigger picture …

Plastic Free July is all about attempting to live without single-use plastic. Plastic waste is a huge issue in the modern world, but it’s certainly not the only issue we’re facing. So while you’re figuring out the best way to live a low-impact lifestyle, consider all the (big and easy) changes you could make. For example, I try to avoid single-use paper items too. Recycling or composting paper packaging just doesn’t feel as good as knowing I avoided unnecessary packaging altogether.

4. But go easy on yourself

Sometimes thinking holistically will throw up tradeoffs: Milk in recycleable single-use plastic bottles, or bulk bin milk powder that was dried using coal-fired furnaces? Walking to the local shop or driving several kilometres to the nearest bulk bin store? Buying the fair trade, organic coffee or the bulk bin coffee beans? Don’t beat yourself up when this happens; just make the best decision for you at that point, and remember that simply being aware of the dilemma is more important than being the ‘perfect’ ethical consumer.

Thankfully, more often than not buying ethically will actually allow you to make a positive difference in multiple ways: Eating less meat and dairy products because they’re difficult to source plastic-free and they generate higher carbon emissions and create more water pollution than eating a largely vegetarian or vegan diet! Buying fresh, seasonal, locally-grown fruit and vegetables because they’re easy to find packaging-free and they have a smaller carbon footprint and they taste better and they’re usually cheaper too!

Now that you have a few ideas under your belt, go get started! I’d love to hear how you get on.

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!)

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