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.

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.

Too many bags

Single-use plastic bags are undoubtedly bad, not least because of their deadly impact on marine life. But my gripe today is with the most common alternative: the reusable grocery bag.

green reusable grocery bagBecause reusable bags are bigger and more robust than plastic supermarket bags, they are more energy intensive to produce and transport. Of course, the waste they reduce through repeated use more than compensates for their initial energy investment. Over one year, replacing single-use plastic bags with woven HDPE (high density polyethylene) reusable bags is estimated to result in a 90% saving in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

The trouble is, I’ve managed to accumulate way more of these reusable bags than I can ever conceivably use — and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has! Most of my excess bags were donated by well-meaning family and friends. I only need a few bags for my weekly grocery shop, so the rest just languish at the bottom of a drawer until the next time I move house. It frustrates me that all the energy and materials used to create these spare bags is wasted.

The moral of the story? Consider clearing out that bag drawer and donating any excess bags to others who may need them. And if you have all the reusable bags you need, but you occasionally forget to bring them shopping, remember that accepting single-use plastic or paper bags (and disposing of them correctly) will likely have a lower environmental impact than buying yet another reusable bag.


P.S. On a related note, I saw this kick-ass canvas bag on the bus today:

recycle or die