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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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

Soft Plastic Recycling Comes to Aotearoa New Zealand

Here in Auckland we’re lucky to have a kerbside recycling system that accepts most types of packaging, but there is one conspicuous exclusion: soft plastic. Apparently plastic films and bags clog up the machines that sort our recycling, causing all kinds of chaos in the process.

Now I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that avoiding single-use packaging in the first place is more important than recycling it after the fact. However, there are some items I still struggle to find plastic-free, and I know many households still consider it normal to bring home a stack of single-use plastic bags from the grocery store each week. What’s more, I recently unearthed a great pile of soft plastic while clearing out some old boxes, and I’m loath to send it all to landfill.

So, with all that in mind, I was delighted to discover a new recycling initiative was recently launched to provide soft-plastic collection bins at supermarkets and The Warehouse stores. The bins will take pretty much any type of soft plastic you can think of, and if they’re well used they should make a big dent in the amount of waste going to landfill. The initiative is being trialled first in Auckland before being rolled out to the rest of the country over the next few years, so keep an eye out for them at your local stores.

While the soft plastic collected won’t be recycled into new plastic bags — it’ll be used to make park benches and other outdoor furniture and signs — providing any sort of recycling is undoubtedly better than sending the whole lot off to a rubbish dump.

Check out the following links if you want to find out more:

  1. Soft Plastic Packaging Recycling
  2. Press Release: Industry, Community and Government partnerships to recycle soft plastic bags gain momentum
  3. Plastic shopping bags to finally be recyclable in new project
  4. From metal to plastic: recycling soft plastic in NZ

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!)

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

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!

Peak Living

Peak oil is a term used to describe the point at which the rate of oil extraction/production reaches a maximum. After peak oil, the availability of cheap abundant energy will decline unless sufficient alternative energy sources are already in place. (Building resilience to a post-peak oil future is one of the motivations for the Transition Town movement).

As depletion of existing oil sources pushes up the price of oil, the extraction of unconventional sources becomes economically viable. This process will delay peak oil, but it cannot continue indefinitely because a finite planet must contain a finite supply of fossil fuels.

And although the discussion around peak oil typically focuses on the availability (or economic viability) of conventional oil and alternative energy sources, it’s important to emphasise that we cannot burn all of the known fossil fuel reserves without committing to catastrophic climate change. If we burn [the fossil fuels], we burn [the planet].

Much of our current lifestyle relies heavily on the abundance of cheap fossil fuels, so a decline in the availability or usability of conventional oil is clearly a concern. But the concept of peak supply doesn’t just apply to oil. Any resource that is available in a finite quantity on Earth will reach peak production — and if we continue with our reckless use of the earth’s resources, this includes recyclable or naturally regenerating resources like metals, freshwater or soil.

Global prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria may mean we’ve also reached “peak antibiotics”. The increasingly common occurrence of antimicrobial resistance means that common infections will become untreatable. Many New Zealand scientists have provided suggestions for action to delay the move towards a post-antibiotic world, including judicious use of the antibiotics that still work (e.g. not using antibiotics for infections that are likely to be viral), avoiding everyday household products that contain antimicrobial chemicals such as triclosan and triclorban, and eliminating antibiotics in animal feed.

Reading about the threat of antibiotic resistance got me thinking: Have we in the modern western world reached Peak Standard-of-Living? The past century has been characterised by an abundance of cheap fossil fuel-based energy and considerable advances in medical science and healthcare, leading to explosive economic and population growth. In a future without the same access to cheap energy it seems impossible for us to maintain a standard of living that relies so heavily on consuming energy and materials. And in a future without effective antibiotics, death rates from previously treatable infections are likely to skyrocket.

I’m not entirely pessimistic though. In a future where economic growth is constrained by the high cost of scarce energy and materials, we cannot afford to work so hard and we’ll have more time to spend with family and friends, doing things we enjoy and find satisfying. We may experience a decrease in standard of living, but we have the opportunity to increase our quality of life, and that, I suspect, is far more valuable to our perception and enjoyment of life.