A month without plastic
The following is a compilation of excerpts from David's blog. You can read his full blog account of Plastic-Free July, including David's full list of plastic-free alternatives 'for everything', at https://cookda.wordpress.com.
Is it possible to go a month without single-use plastic? This month I find out.
As I become more and more conscious of the effects of my lifestyle on the Earth and other people, I’ve made several changes to what I buy. When I was introduced to the Ethical Buying Guide, I started choosing supermarket products based on company ownership and avoiding companies with bad ethical track records. When I learnt about the terrible conditions people are forced into in the tea and coffee growing industries, I chose Fairtrade certification to ensure my dollar voted for a better world. When I read about the effects of large-scale modern farming practices, I sought out organic produce and dairy. After discovering bulk-food shops, I started bringing my own containers to fill them up with dry goods and avoid the packaging you would normally buy them in.
And now it’s July, bringing a challenge proposed by a Perth city council: attempt to refuse single-use plastic during July. The rules I’m following are simple: avoid using any disposable plastic, but if you do end up with some, keep it until the end of the month.
To get an idea of how much we’ll need to change our lifestyle, we collected all plastic waste from our house in the month of June. As we’ve been working to reduce our waste for the last couple of years or so, we thought there wouldn’t be much … but we easily filled a large tub with it all!
So in reality it’s a huge undertaking to be (single-use) plastic-free. With a 15-month-old, and a busy calendar, we’ve needed to think ahead about a lot of things. For the last couple of months, my amazing wife has done a huge job in preparing us for every aspect of life, including meal menus, baking a birthday cake, giving me a birthday present and planning a family holiday. We’ve also converted a lot more things in the pantry to re-filled jars (with nice homemade swing tags).
What’s the big deal about plastic?
Plastic is an incredible material. The plastics we use today are mostly derived from petroleum and, because of their durability and cheapness to produce, are used in so many applications. Plastic is so good, in fact, that it never fully breaks down. (There are different types of plastic, of course, including biodegradable plastics, but they are not used for most packaging, and require certain conditions to degrade.) When left out in the natural environment, it inevitably breaks up and spreads around, finding its way into animal diets or the sea — having a devastating impact. I dare you to search for ‘plastic inside of dead bird carcass’ or ‘how much plastic is in the ocean?‘.
That’s why we signed a petition last month to ban single-use plastic bags from being distributed at shops in our state. And that’s why we’re taking up the challenge this month to reduce the amount of plastic that leaves our house as waste.
July is well and truly over now and daily life continues on. We made a lot of changes in July — will they stick? Were they enough to ensure our month truly was plastic-free?
Changes mean thinking and thinking takes extra effort. So where possible, I naturally try to come up with a good choice once, then just keep repeating it. Therefore, after a month of living plastic free, the path of least resistance should simply be to keep repeating it! That’s been my aim for July all along: to make lasting change by working on each of our daily habits. It wasn’t about going cold turkey, which would lead to frustration and probably not even last a month. Instead, it’s about changing the impact our lives are having, both now and for the many years to come. In fact, my honest intention was mainly to be a model, to get those around me thinking about what they need to do. This helped us keep things in perspective and not beat ourselves up so much when we made mistakes.
But July was still hard, because we had to continually question things we’d taken for granted our whole lives. So many times we’d look at a product we’d like to enjoy and have to ask, ‘What will we do with the packaging?‘
We had started asking this question some time ago, but when you have to deliberate about it every day, it takes up a lot more mental and emotional energy. But I think it’s a really important question, one that should be asked much earlier on than bin night. It should be considered by everyone (especially manufacturers, distributors and retailers). However, it’s a question that’s so easy to avoid when there is an established system to regularly truck every piece of rubbish out of sight. But by holding on to all of our plastic waste for a month, we were forced to face it. And even after so much work, we were surprised to see how much there was!
A month can be a long time. Towards the end of the month I helped a neighbour who was locked out get back into their house. They rewarded me the next day with a box of Cadbury Favourites. Of course it’s a pretty standard gift and, let me tell you, I was very happy to get it. But ... look at how much packaging there is inside — none of it even recyclable! Oh no!!
At the end of the month, we sat down and emptied out the tub to see what was inside. The broad categories, from left to right, are: household items (broken, or related to repairs); gifts or mail sent to us; medical-related; food and drink; and plastic bags (all of which were given to us).
Broken items were something I hadn’t really thought about before. These were certainly not single-use (plastic containers could be, but, believe me, we gave them plenty of uses!), yet the plastic still needs to be dealt with eventually. Thankfully, recycling is available — this is what recycling is for! It was also a great reminder to choose new products wisely and look after them to ensure they last.
- Mail and other items given to us are generally out of our control. Or are they? In June, we ended up with several envelopes with plastic windows, so we redoubled our efforts unsubscribing from mail-outs (in what seems to be a never-ending challenge) and opting for email delivery. But even so, there will always be new reasons for mail to be sent to us.
- Apart from plastic bags, we received very little other gifts with plastic packaging. Which is pretty amazing considering my birthday was in July! By talking about the Plastic-Free July challenge we had hoped that people would consider our position when buying us gifts, and it seems to have worked. As a bonus, it’s another sneaky way to get other people to participate in the challenge!
- Medical items seem impossible to avoid. So we won’t even bother going there.
- Considering all the food and drink we consumed over a month, I’m pretty happy with this tiny pile! Still, the few items there seem obvious. I guess it just shows unless you’re relentlessly focused on avoiding plastic, it finds its way in.
- Consider a paper cup of hot chips: at first glance it seems perfect, until you look closer and realise it has a plastic lining.
- And almost every piece of fruit we bought has a little plastic sticker on it. Presumably this is to hide blemishes more than anything — do I really need to be told that a green apple is a Granny Smith?
- Plastic bags: it just goes to show how entrenched they are in our society. Even when we were trying our hardest to be prepared and avoid situations where we’d need them, we were still handed them numerous times. We usually wash and re-use any type of plastic bag, for example, at the bakery for a new loaf of bread. But we are growing weary of dealing with all this plastic and are finding alternatives for more and more things. We now have five home-made cloth bags for our bread which are working great.
After going through it together, my wife and I discussed whether we could realistically aim to reduce this pile to nothing. We agreed that some things would be staying. We’ll keep using band-aids, pain-killers and prescribed medication. I needed to fix that broken window blind and if that meant ordering a part to be shipped in bubble-wrap from Hong Kong, then so be it. There’s no way we would have taken that cute balloon dog away from our daughter. And that bucket of hot chips? It was totally worth it.
We had to come up with so many alternatives for our daily lives, and feel like we’ve achieved so much. Look out for a future post with a complete list of plastic-free alternatives for every household product.
One thing we learnt was to savour the old ways of doing things (for example, cooking a meal from raw ingredients), which are more satisfying in the end.
As I’ve alluded, we also learnt that plastic is in more places than you might expect! We were particularly challenged by packaging made with a mix of materials (plastic, foil, paper). Things such as milk cartons are labelled as recyclable, but they require specialised facilities and more energy to process, which now makes us think twice.
We realised just how much we don’t know about how recycling works and still have many unanswered questions. We hope to go on a tour of a recycling plant one day, but so far haven’t had the time to organise one.
So we were very happy and proud of our almost plastic-free July, but come 1 August, there were some things we full well knew we would be eating: Weet-Bix. Pasta. And Cadbury Favourites. Mmmm…
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