Tips for a successful #PlasticFreeJuly
Published: 1 July 2021
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about #PlasticFreeJuly which sees the annual plastic-free challenge aimed at helping people reduce the amount of plastic waste they produce.
You can follow Denis on his Facebook page to keep up with information about Recycling issues.
July sees the annual plastic-free challenge aimed at helping people reduce the amount of plastic waste they produce.
Feeling a bit daunted by the challenge of cutting out plastic for a month?
Well, first it’s important to understand what ‘plastic-free’ really means – or what it doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean living entirely without plastic. That’s nigh-on impossible in today’s world.
It means, really, living ‘plastic-smart’ – or, more specifically, avoiding unnecessary plastic.
In the first half of this article, I share some advice to help ease you into the challenge.
In the second half (point 3 onwards), I dive a little deeper into the purpose of the challenge: how we can all begin to better understand not only the importance of reducing our plastic consumption, but of the consequences of all our consumer decisions.
1. Don’t try to be perfect.
It’s a tall order to buy no new plastic for a month.
Our pace of life means we rely, to varying degrees, on convenience – and plastic is the ultimate material for providing that. So, if it’s simply too much to forego plastic packaging entirely, try to commit to cutting out a few things.
Easy wins might include avoiding bottled water or fizzy drinks and refilling your own bottle at home, or making your sandwiches at home rather than buying a plastic-wrapped lunch – and using your Tupperware rather than cling-film.
If you’ve run out of freezer bags, you could use empty cereal liners or bread bags.
Think about what you actually need and whether any of it really falls into the category of ‘desire’ – stuff you think you need, because it brings some fleeting pleasure, but may in the longer term be hurting your pocket or your body or the planet.
2. Think ‘plastic-smart’ rather than ‘plastic-free’.
Let’s look at bread and cereal bags again.
It isn’t easy to buy bread that isn’t wrapped in plastic when the only time you get to buy food is spent in a weekly rush round the supermarket, and how many of us will buy a box of cereal this month?
Are we saying we should be avoiding these altogether in July, or can we use this month as a chance to think more closely about our consumption of this plastic and how it might be put to other uses?
Think about how you can reuse the plastic you have already.
Or how about this: if you really want something sweeter than water, buy a big bottle of concentrated squash and make up your drinks at home to take out with you. Sure, you’re buying plastic bottle, but you aren’t buying many more plastic bottles than you need to.
Avoiding plastic is easier for some people than for others. There is plastic everywhere we turn. ‘Plastic-free’ is a bit misleading in that it isn’t really about living entirely without plastic, but about avoiding as much as possible bringing unnecessary plastic into our lives.
I say ‘as much as possible’, because sometimes our choices are limited by our circumstances. Time, money and opportunity are not shared equally in society. There are people who really want to make a difference, but who don’t have the bandwidth to do as much as they’d like.
Plastic-free July is a time to help people do as much as they can within their means.
If you can’t avoid certain plastics, think about how you can give them another life.
3. Use this month as an opportunity to scrutinise your choices and whether plastic-alternatives are actually any better.
Don’t just throw away all your plastic bags and replace them with new cotton tote bags or bags-for-life.
If you buy a new cotton bag for groceries, it will need to be used over a hundred times more than a heavy-duty plastic bag before it moves into environmental credit over its plastic counterpart, even though the plastic bag will likely last nearly as long.
A poor-quality plastic bag will have a considerably smaller carbon footprint than a paper bag, and will likely last for many more uses.
Food and drink packaging?
Good quality, durable plastic can be recycled again and again – but recycling is hardly top of the agenda when it comes to selling goods.
Plastic drinks bottles are good quality plastic, but they aren’t designed to promote the benefits of recycling; they're designed to encourage our reliance on convenience.
This has turned fizzy drinks from luxury items into everyday items. It has driven up our expectation to consume them as much as we like, maximising producer profits.
Durable plastic is useful where it is used responsibly and appropriately. Single-use good quality plastic that is recyclable, yet is produced in vast quantities to perpetuate consumerism for maximum profit, isn't a responsible or appropriate use of plastic – even if it can be recycled.
Producing these bottles using recycled plastic is all well and good, but so many recycled bottles don't then end up being recycled again; it's clear, then, that enough new plastic still has to be made in order that it can then be recycled into enough new bottles to meet demand for the drinks.
Plastic alternatives? Glass is heavier (transport emissions go up) and uses more heat to make and recycle; bioplastics can’t be recycled and often don’t break down easily anyway; cartons are multi-layered, multi-material items that are difficult to recycle; new aluminium production is wildly ecologically and environmentally harmful.
Of these, glass and aluminium can be recycled endlessly, but how much recycled material is used in the products we buy?
Then there's the fact that over 40% of the plastic in our oceans is made up of abandoned fishing gear. The hidden plastic in our purchases can be more harmful than the plastic we bring into our homes.
Which leads us to…
4. Understand that the point isn’t really to seek an alternative to plastic so much as it is to reduce our consumption of the products it contains.
What the packaging contains is often at least as environmentally harmful as the packaging itself, and whatever the packaging is made from will cause harm in one way or another – whether that’s in production, transportation, disposal or all of these.
It comes back to assessing – or reassessing – what we need versus what we want.
Then again, there are economies in other countries that rely on our demand to consume whatever we want at any time of the year. Plastic keeps food fresh for longer, which makes out-of-season and exotic foods easier to transport across the world to meet consumer demand.
How can we effectively reduce our consumption of all types of single-use packaging, prevent our oceans from becoming clogged with (mainly) commercial plastic, and sustain our local economies without abandoning communities in other countries whose economies rely on our consumer habits?
There is no straightforward answer, so…
5. Use #PlasticFreeJuly discussions as community ‘spaces’ where the nuances of our impacts on the environment and ecosystems can be more fully debated.
Share quick wins, but don’t rely only on them.
Discuss the merits or otherwise of different products, materials and ways of shopping.
Keep an open mind. Everyone is different, with different knowledge, experiences, circumstances and pressures.
6. Remind yourself of point 1.
Above all else, don’t damage yourself under in self-imposed pressure to be perfect.
Do the best within your circumstances, but don’t beat yourself up for ‘failing’ at any given moment.
Try to use this as an opportunity to experiment, if you can. Branch out in your tastes and try new things.
Try, essentially, to have fun.