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.

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

Galvanize Me

I’ve been feeling rather at odds with the world in the past couple of weeks. It’s like I’ve reached a tipping point and I’m just so fed up with all that is wrong with the world—the lack of female representation in the media and in my work environment;  the casual disowning by retiring baby-boomers of the myriad issues facing their children and grandchildren; the modern economic lens that frames every decision as ultimately selfish; the way so many people are locked into a consume-and-dispose mindset…

At the same time, I’m surrounded by events that roar with love—close friends getting engaged, another recently married, and the celebration of some big milestones in my own marriage.

And a part of me realises that this slow-burning fury can galvanize me into action, into living as though a better world is possible. After all, surely the point of anger is to help us protect ourselves and those we love most. So, in that spirit (and with an unapologetically cheesy wedding theme), here are a few things that have been inspiring me recently:

Something old: I’ve rediscovered the pop punk anthems of my teen years—and I still love them! I was amused (but somewhat disheartened) to find that the rebellious songs of my youth still feel so applicable, what with all the condescending advice older generations keep spitting in the local media.

Something new: I’ve started using instagram, and it’s bringing me a lot of joy. The combination of artful pictures and simple words packs a powerful punch. I’m even tempted to start posting my own photos, although I’ve always preferred to express myself using words rather than images.

Something borrowed: A wonderful blog post by Ryan Cope on Plastic-Free Tuesday highlights the gossamer-thin line between being either weighed down or motivated to keep fighting by the endless stream of plastic waste humanity is generating.

And some blues: Mahogany L. Browne’s poem, litany, captures some the essence of blues music, as well as some of my own recent feelings of frustration. I’ve written before about my love for blues dancing, but reading litany made me question whether I—as a privileged white woman from halfway around the world—have the right to seek and receive so much pleasure from a music style with deep roots in hardship and struggle. Perhaps the answer is to further educate myself about the history of blues while continuing to appreciate the music and the dance for the joy it brings me and others in my community. After all, it’s times like these we most need shared moments of joy to bring us together and remind us what’s most important in life.

Plastic-Free July: The First Installment

I’m a third of the way through Plastic Free July (PFJ) and so far it’s been a success and a failure in roughly equal measure.

Let’s start with the good news: I haven’t bought any new plastic!

On the other hand… I have generated copious amounts of plastic waste at home by using up products in plastic packaging that were bought before I considered doing PFJ, a grand total of 234 grams (and that doesn’t include the two meat trays that are living in the freezer until we put the rubbish out).

plastic waste

A pile of plastic bags, wrappers and containers generated by my husband and I in 10 days. There’s plenty of room for improvement here!

If I was being really strict, I could have tried to avoid using anything that came in single-use plastic packaging. However, I’m viewing PFJ as the start of a long-term reduction in packaging and waste, so it seems silly to pretend that the single-use plastic we’ve bought previously doesn’t exist for July because we’d just throw it away in August instead. So let’s consider this tally a baseline level of plastic packaging from my pre-PFJ life, which I can compare my later tallies against (and hopefully show a reduction in plastic!)

Good plastic-free things I’ve done so far

I started July 1st with a brand-new bamboo toothbrush. It’s not technically single-use plastic, but my old one needed replacing anyway so I figured I’d take the opportunity to switch to something with a smaller environmental footprint. Unfortunately, I’m not quite convinced about the decision. I actually used a bamboo toothbrush a few years ago but found it left my lips feeling raw and I’m having the same problem again this time. Does anyone else struggle with bamboo toothbrushes or is it just me??

My little household has switched to bulk-bin breakfast cereals and we’ve started using a bread-maker to bake our bread. These are both things we use a lot of, so eliminating the plastic bags that our bread and cereal previously came in should make a big difference over time. Of course, the yeast comes in a (recycleable) plastic jar — I’ve yet to investigate whether plastic-free yeast is a thing — but in the grand scheme of things I feel it’s good progress.

As I mentioned previously, milk and yoghurt were going to be impossible to source plastic-free so I gave myself special permission to keep using them, but I have made an effort to reduce my use of dairy products for PFJ. This week I stopped using milk on my breakfast (though I’m still using it in copious hot drinks during the current cold snap). Instead, I’ve been making a sort of bircher muesli by soaking my muesli overnight in water — which, as it turns out, is delicious thanks to the dried apricots in the mix.

As well as the actions I’ve started this month, there are a number of other waste-reducing measures I’ve been using on and off for several years now, such as baking my own muesli bars, making my own hummus, refusing plastic bags when shopping, buying fresh fruit and veges in reusable produce bags, and buying nuts, legumes, oats and dried fruit from bulk bins. I’ve restarted or continued each of these actions, and PFJ just means being more diligent about preparing for and making these decisions each time I shop.

Hurdles as yet un-hurdled

Trying to avoid plastic has thrown up some interesting hurdles. It turns out plastic is everywhere. In preparation for PFJ, I started to notice all the little bits of plastic that used to slip by unnoticed — produce stickers and pet food packaging, lids on jars and linings on tins, contact lenses and tampon wrappers — along with other questionable materials like thermal receipts (not plastic but coated in BPA) and waxed paper (the wax coating is derived from petrochemicals). Even the chocolate block wrapper that I always assumed was just paper appears to have a thin plastic coating; I simply didn’t see it until PFJ made me look really, really closely.

While I’m happy to choose plastic-free chocolate, I don’t relish the thought of relinquishing fruit in the name of plastic-free living… For now, I’ll continue to buy fruit loose and add the plastic sticker from each piece to my PFJ tally, but I’m hopeful that I’ll come across a source of un-packaged, un-stickered fruit.

The other hurdle I’ve come across is in the bathroom at my work, where the toilet paper and liquid soap come in plastic and the paper hand towels are sent to landfill. These decisions are not made by my employer, so at this point it seems the easiest solution may be to BYO. It’s easy to control what we buy as individuals (within the constraints imposed by what is available in local stores). It’s often harder to influence the purchasing decisions of those around us, including the companies and organisations we’re involved with.

Plastic on beaches

As suggested by The Non-Plastic Maori, I headed down to the local beach to pick up what plastic I could find. Turns out there wasn’t much at all and I picked up a mere 21 grams of plastic waste. I’m not really surprised, because I’ve had similar results on most of the previous local beach clean-ups I’ve done. Next week I’ll try collecting plastic rubbish from my local streets instead, which will prevent it from heading down the stormwater pipes and into the ocean.

Overall outcome so far

Plastic purchased: none
Plastic collected from beach: not much (21 g)
Plastic used in pre-PFJ life: a whole damn lot (234 g)

During the first week of July I was feeling rather daunted by the challenge I’d set myself (and wondering why on earth I’d told everyone so I couldn’t back out!) But blog posts from two waste warriors helped me regain motivation. The Zero-Waste Chef reminded me why plastic waste is such a huge problem, with her post on the insane amount of plastic currently floating in the Pacific Ocean and all the awful things it does while it’s there, while Lindsay from Treading My Own Path posted about an inspiring new bulk store that actively encourages people to choose reusable packaging.

Going completely plastic-free is hard, but reducing the amount of plastic in our lives is easy! Everybody can, and should, start making small changes in their lives to reduce the amount of plastic waste they produce.

Plastic Free July? Challenge Accepted

This July I’m going to attempt the Plastic Free July challenge by refusing single-use plastic! The official website suggests choosing from two different levels of participation: Attempting to refuse all single-use plastic or refusing the top four — plastic bags, bottles, takeaway coffee cups, and straws. I already use reusable shopping bags, a stainless steel drink bottle and a reusable coffee cup, and straws are something I encounter about once a year on average, so I’ve signed up for the harder challenge.

Now I’ll have to admit upfront that going completely plastic-free would require some dietary changes that I’m not quite prepared to make just yet, in particular giving up milk and yoghurt. New Zealand’s last glass milk bottling plant closed down in 2005, which means the only options are plastic or tetrapak. While looking for alternatives, I did come across the suggestion to buy powdered milk from bulk bins. However, having recently learned that milk powder is made using coal-fired boilers, I’d rather buy it fresh! I will try to cut back on the amount of dairy I consume, but ultimately my July will be more in the spirit of “plastic a lot less” than “plastic free”.

I plan to post a tally of the plastic waste I generate each week — some of which will be recyclable (like those plastic milk bottles and yoghurt containers) — and talk about what is and isn’t working for me. I’ll also have a go at the extra challenge posed by The Non-Plastic Maori of picking up plastic from my local beach each week.

Wish me luck!

Take it up a peg or two

20150627-220142.jpgSome of our clothes pegs are starting to show their age… They’re over two decades old and the plastic is disintegrating, leaving a fine plastic powder on everything they touch — yuck! You can see the peg on the left is all pocked from the plastic wearing away. (Interestingly, different colour pegs are aging differently — the white ones are the most powdery, while the green ones are turning brittle and snapping apart).

We could’ve just replaced them with some new plastic pegs from the supermarket, but instead we decided to upgrade to bamboo pegs, like the one on the right. Instead of petrochemicals, these pegs are made from a fast-growing, biodegradable, renewable resource — sounds much better to me!