Opinion

Plastic Free July: writing your own rules

2018 Honours Research Fellow Anja Bless talks about how she is progressing in the Plastic Free July Challenge and shares her ‘rules’ for living without plastic.

Image sourced via Pexel, CC20 License.

This month the entire office at SEI is participating in Plastic Free July. With the potential for more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050,this should come as no surprise.

It is easy to become overwhelmed when you start to think more about the plastic problem. Even sitting at my desk, writing this blog post, I am typing on a keyboard made from plastic keys, connected to a laptop made largely from plastic, on a chair made from polyester fibres and a plastic stand. My stationary, Tupperware, mobile phone, cabling – it is all made from plastic. In the normal every day, it is impossible to avoid.

In order to save myself from being overwhelmed by the sea of plastic, I was already drowning in; I had to set my first rule, as there was no way I was going to live a month without the things listed above:

1. I will only avoid new plastic

This means not avoiding things that I have already purchased or things that already exist in my current sphere of life (such as in public or communal spaces). While this means that no, my July could not in real terms be entirely plastic free, I believe it is also part of a sustainable mindset to acknowledge the things in your life that include plastic and to treat them with care and respect, to ensure they have as long a life as possible. And, then, when you can’t or don’t need to use them anymore, ensure they are disposed or reused in the most eco-conscious way possible.

So there, before even really starting the challenge, was my first rule. But the second was not far behind. Only a few days into the month I went away with a group of friends for a short getaway. The food for us all was bought by a couple of people before I arrived and, upon looking at the shopping spread out along the kitchen bench, I quickly realised that it was not going to be a plastic free getaway. To keep under budget and to cater to all different dietary requirements and food preferences, there was plastic everywhere. I certainly didn’t feel it was my place to impose my plastic free challenge on other people, so I had to decide on rule number two (or otherwise starve for two days straight).

2. I will only avoid plastic that I purchase

This rule also helped me when deciding whether or not I could eat at restaurants or cafes which inevitably use plastic in their food preparation. I also live with my partner who had decided not to join the challenge this year so, unless I planned on buying all our groceries and household items, I had to allow that he might buy some things in plastic, and that was okay. Because one thing I have learnt with trying to encourage others to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle is that forcing it upon them, or forcing your own choices upon them, often does a better job of alienating them from the cause than bringing them on board. It is easier for me to demonstrate to my partner when we are shopping together, or when I am doing the groceries independently that it is possible to shop plastic free.

Using my produce bags for some plastic free shopping.

In spite of these rules, what comes inevitably along with partaking in Plastic Free July is the guilt. It’s the guilt about creating easy outs or little provisos for yourself like my rules above, or it’s the guilt of realising how much plastic you already own, or it’s realising how much single-use or short-term use items you were using. But perhaps the most disheartening of these pangs of guilt is when, even with all your little provisos to try and make it easier, you still make a mistake.

My plastic pile of shame as of 12 July, containing three stickers, a seal from underneath a metal bottle cap, and a plastic window from a cardboard box of pasta. These were just the things I remembered/was able to keep.

My mistakes have slowly been building into a little pile of plastic trash that I have accrued in spite of my best efforts. One type of item I would like to highlight are the stickers. Even on things that are seemingly plastic free, such as a fruit or vegetable, I have found plastic stickers. Another example is when I needed to buy cheddar cheese for a recipe. As often happens during this challenge I was faced with a puzzle – where would I find plastic free cheddar cheese at my local shops? It took a little thinking and some desperate searching through the cheese section of a couple of supermarkets, but eventually, I found it! Cheddar that was still packaged in wax. Triumphantly I took it to the counter, paid the price premium that so often comes with plastic free products (a whole other issue on its own) and walked away proud in myself. Proud that I hadn’t given in or given up, but that I had found a solution. It wasn’t until I got home and started to unwrap the wax that I registered that the cheese had stickers, plastic stickers, on each side. Even with all my efforts, I had failed. This sense of failure was only further entrenched when a friend pointed out that a lot of wax on cheeses is often now synthetic and a petroleum derivative. There was that guilt again, sitting as heavy in my heart as that kilogram of wax-wrapped cheese.

The cheese culprit in question

On reflection of this disappointment and with the gift of a little hindsight I have decided to make one final rule:

3. I will not guilt myself out of this challenge

We live in a world where plastic is largely unavoidable; from medication to stationary, sanitary products to those tiny plastic windows that are seemingly on ALL cardboard boxes of pasta. Not to mention the cost barriers of products that are plastic free, or the fact that if you don’t live near a bulk food store or an eco-minded grocer, you will have a very hard time even finding a plastic free alternative. But this, I have realised, is part of the message, it’s part of the challenge. You aren’t necessarily meant to succeed. You are meant to realise the things that don’t have alternatives, to become creative in the ways that you shop or carry or store things. It teaches you to notice plastic when it’s there, to open your eyes to unnecessary packaging that will most likely be single use. It is to show you that recycling isn’t enough, that there are ways that you can in fact cut down on your plastic use. And, unlike many challenges that raise awareness about an issue, this one shouldn’t finish at the end of the month. This is a way to help you break some of your bad plastic habits, to be more aware of your waste and its impact and to find simple ways that work for you to cut down on your plastic use. It’s not about feeling guilty. It’s about writing your own rules and doing your own bit, however small. The fish will thank us. I’ll leave you with a fantastic Jane Goodall quote to bring you up when it all gets you down:

“I like to envision the whole world as a jigsaw puzzle … If you look at the whole picture, it is overwhelming and terrifying, but if you work on your little part of the jigsaw and know that people all over the world are working on their little bits, that’s what will give you hope.” – Jane Goodall

References

1.United Nations. (2017). UN’s mission to keep plastics out of oceans and marine life. UN News (27 April 2017). Access here.


Anja Bless is undertaking Honours in Government & International Relations with the Faculty of Arts. Anja’s research will be exploring lessons which can be learned from Australia’s tobacco control policies that can be applied to reducing meat consumption for environmental and public health benefits.