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.

A brief history of my blogging motivations

By way of (further) introduction, I’d like to regale you with a brief history of my life as it relates to my desire to write…

I’ve always been vaguely interested in the environment. As a child, that interest manifested itself in a wishy-washy, disconnected urbaner sort of way — nature is good, man-made is bad, but god forbid anyone makes me actually go outside.

Around the time I started university, my idealistic brother prompted our family to start buying organic food and eco-friendly household products. It was my first step on a road to a more sustainable lifestyle.

But the moment of truth came a couple of years later when I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. His book shocked me into the realisation that humanity was in trouble, and we were in trouble now. Published in 2005, Collapse describes the effects of resource scarcity on past civilisations*, followed by a review of the current state of the Earth and the warning that in about ten years we would globally be reaching the point of resource depletion-induced civilisation collapse. That was nine years ago.

Since then, I’ve gradually been educating myself on the problems facing us and exploring some of the solutions available to to help us live more sustainably. And, to be honest, I’m driven much less by a desire to “save the environment” than by a desire to escape the awful life of conflict and hardship foretold by Diamond. The earth will be fine**; it’s us humans that will suffer if we don’t change something soon.

Despite my growing sense of urgency, I was never quite sure how to take environmental action beyond making changes in my personal consumption patterns. I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, and somewhere along the lines I considered starting a blog to share information on sustainability. The Green Lips was founded a few years ago but I never gained the momentum necessary to really do anything with it at the time.

When I finished my undergraduate studies I made the decision to go on to a PhD in a healthcare related field. However, sustainable living remained my true passion, which meant the PhD was both a blessing and a curse. Being a postgrad student gave me the flexibility to continue exploring environmental issues and solutions, but it also gave me a huge responsibility — that of finishing a PhD…

I spent much of the past year focused solely on writing my thesis and completing the remaining requirements of my PhD. By the time I’d finished, I was broken, with little energy or passion for anything that had interested me before — including sustainability.

It was at this point that I began encountering messages describing the important connection between caring for oneself and caring for the world around us. For, as I had learned first hand, how can you be an activist for positive change when you don’t feel positive about anything?

As the old adage goes, time is a great healer, and I’ve gradually regained a sense of purpose. I’ve already described the new direction I plan to take with this blog. I hope that as I progress, you too will understand the connection between the seemingly disparate topics I may cover: climate change and self love, composting and women’s rights, peak oil and resilience, recycling and home.

 

* A quick summary: It’s conflict and death all round, folks!
** Although many species and ecosystems certainly won’t survive.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

This piece is adapted from a speech I gave as part of a Speechcraft course earlier this year – Speechcraft is a crash course in public speaking run by a Toastmasters Club, and is a great way to build confidence and approve speech-making abilities!

Reduce, reuse, recycle — it’s a well-known saying, but how often do you practice it in your daily life? The reality is that we live in a consumerist society, where we are encouraged to buy on impulse, to own the latest trendy items, and to throw things away when they stop working or go out of fashion. However, this is a finite world and it contains finite resources, including water, metals, and fossil fuels. Even the amount of food that can be grown is limited by the space and nutrients available on Earth.

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