This Plastic Free July we join millions of people reducing their plastic waste so that we can live cleaner and healthier. Aspiring to a zero waste practice is something we push ourselves to be all year round. However, we do use Plastic Free July to educate and remind ourselves of what we can do and apply that knowledge in our everyday life! This month we want to explore ways that people as individuals, as businesses and as communities can make a difference though small steps. We want to highlight the impacts those small steps have on the bigger picture. We know that these topics can be overwhelming to some of our customers, which is why we invited a zero waste educator to make the conversation easier. Introducing Lindsay Miles; educator, speaker, author and passionate zero waste/plastic-free living advocate who will share her knowledge on this topic. Lindsay strives to help others live more meaningful lives with less waste and less stuff. Her focus is on the practical and do-able steps we can take to change our habits and make better choices.
How to live with less plastic this July (and beyond)
The start of July marks the beginning of the annual Plastic Free July Challenge, a global one-month endeavour to evaluate all of the plastic currently in our lives, and identify where we might be able to use a little less of it. Definitely for July, but hopefully some of those new-found habits will stick and we will continue with them going forward.
And how much plastic we use (or don’t use) matters! We often think of plastic as a litter problem, and as a material that harms wildlife – and both of these things are true. But the plastic problem is so much bigger than that. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and that makes it a climate change issue.
Plastics account for almost 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is double the emissions created by the aviation sector. Yet whilst we associate flying with creating carbon emissions, we tend not to think of plastic in the same way.
Fossil fuels need to be extracted and refined to make plastic. When plastic is burned for waste disposal, it’s no different to burning fossil fuels. (Plastics ARE fossil fuels!) It’s all releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.
It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest fossil fuel companies are also the world’s biggest plastic producers. As society tries to transition away from fossil fuels for energy, these companies are looking for new revenue streams for their oil and gas – and they are turning towards plastic.
What can we do about it? Well, taking part in Plastic Free July is a great place to start.
Despite the name ‘Plastic Free July’, the goal isn’t to go completely plastic-free, or eliminate every single scrap of plastic from our lives. It’s a chance to look at the choices we make everyday, try alternatives and swaps, tweak our behaviours… and then decide what changes to keep. So don’t be fooled by the name. This challenge is for absolutely everyone. It’s just that “try-to-use-a-bit-less-plastic July” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
But by the same token, it wouldn’t be called a “challenge” if it was easy! Plastic is everywhere and when we start to pay attention, it can be a little (and sometimes very!) daunting.
The trick with changing our habits and behaviour is to start small. Forget the ‘big picture’, and focus on individual swaps or actions or habits.
Reducing plastic in the home
If you’re just starting out, the best place to start is by having a good rummage through your bins (both general waste and recycling), through your pantry and through your cupboards. Have a look at your till receipts.
Look at what you buy, and look at what you throw away. See if there’s anything that stands out to you as something you’d like to try to change. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with just a couple or even one thing.
With food shopping, the next time you head to your grocery store, schedule some extra time so you can have a look for plastic-free alternatives to the things you usually buy. You might notice unwrapped fruit and vegetables, loaves of bread sold loose, pasta or oats in cardboard boxes, and sauces in tins or jars. It doesn’t matter if you can’t find solutions for everything. It’s all steps in the right direction.
With beauty products, look for solid bars rather than liquids that come in plastic. As well as regular bar soap, you’ll discover you can buy solid shampoo, conditioner, balms and lotions. You’ll find products packaged in tins or glass containers, and cardboard.
With cleaning products, look for powders that are packaged in cardboard, or bottled in glass. Avoid individually wrapped single-use items where you can. If you can’t avoid plastic, choose concentrated products that will last longer (and use less plastic overall).
Reducing plastic when out and about
Put together a “kit” of reusables to help you reduce single-use plastic when you’re out and about. The important thing is to think about what will be useful to you. You don’t have to buy anything new if you’re on a budget – a solid jam jar with a few elastic bands wrapped around the middle will work as a reusable cup, and a repurposed passata bottle can hold water just as well as a reusable water bottle.
Think about where to keep your kit so it will be most helpful. The best reusable is always the one you remember to bring with you, and the one you actually use. Do you need something that can live in your bag, or in the desk drawer at work, or your bike basket, or the glove compartment? Would it be helpful to have a couple of sets of items, because you’re often on the go?
Once you’re set-up with a reusable kit, remember to refuse plastic straws, plastic cutlery, or individual sachets of sauce. Try walking past free samples. Ask for no lid (where that works).
Sustainable change that’s sustainable for you
Reducing plastic is different for all of us, and one person’s “easy swap” is another person’s “too-hard basket”. If something works for you, embrace it, but if it’s too tricky move onto something else that WILL work for you. Don’t sweat what you can’t change, focus on what you can.
When it comes to trying to reduce our plastic and live more sustainably, it never has to be all-or-nothing. If you really want to buy your groceries plastic-free but you can’t go past plastic strawberry punnets, then don’t. Buy what you can plastic-free, and let go of the guilt around the strawberries.
If you love the idea of shopping at the bulk store but you find it too expensive to do a regular shop there, then don’t. Perhaps you can do a monthly top-up there, or perhaps you can buy a few items there (herbs and spices tend to be particularly good value).
Living sustainably for the planet has to be sustainable for us, too. If it’s not sustainable for us (because it’s too time-consuming or too expensive, for example) then we’re not going to keep it up. Better to make a few changes that we can continue with than try to do everything, succumb to overwhelm, and then give up.
It’s not just about the swaps
Our individual swaps might seem small, but they are part of something bigger. The choices that we make have a bigger impact.
We can start conversations with the people around us (friends, family, colleagues or even service staff) about why we’re avoiding the plastic. It might be the first time they’ve ever considered it, and you’re sowing a seed. More than that, you’re normalising a different way of doing things.
We can also write to businesses and governments. We can tell them what we’d like them to do better. We can support companies doing the right thing, and avoid those who don’t have ethical business models.
Other people notice what we do. Governments and corporations notice too. Our actions have power. And collectively our actions combine together to create a movement, and movements disrupt the status quo.
Why our individual actions matter
It might seem like it’s only “one plastic teaspoon” or “one plastic straw”, but we’re making these small choices multiple times a day, and these choices add up. They are also part of a much bigger picture. And every piece of plastic not being used is part of the solution! No-one is going to change the system on their own through their individual choices. But we are not alone, we are part of a growing community of people who care about our planet and want to do better – all of us together.
And that is how we create change.