Plastic Free July – how did it go?

A couple of us at Ethical HQ decided to take on the Plastic Free July challenge, and spent the month saying no to single-use disposable plastic. Why is this important? Why did we bother? Did we end up running into a pile of sweet wrappers on August 1st crying about how much we missed it?

Plastic Free July

“Think about it…why would you make something that you are going to use for a few minutes out of a material that’s basically going to last forever. What’s up with that?” – Jeb Berrier, BagIt movie.

The challenge
The more you become aware of plastic use, the more you notice it. Everywhere. While there are some products hard to make from other substances at present, the challenge aims to reduce the ridiculous single-use plastic that we literally need for seconds before it’s thrown away – things like plastic straws, cups, water bottles, excess packaging and individual bags.

Go prepared:
Carrying vegetables – most shops look at you a little funny when you say no to yet another plastic bag and are happy to carry your own veg, but as I thankfully still have two functional hands I can make use of them with a simple piece of broccoli.

Local vegetable box/bag – many local groups, farmers markets and business exist to provide a handy ‘veg box’ and they tend not to come swathed in plastic. Bonus!
I found ingenious Abeego food wraps and Keep Leaf baggies are invaluable for carrying and preserving your food.

Plastic bottles waste

However, I did stumble upon a couple of things I hadn’t previously considered and learned a few things in the process.

The worst offenders:
1. Bread – It’s inevitable that you remember that you haven’t picked up a loaf of bread at 9pm at night when only one supermarket is open and you’ve missed the farmer’s market. Typical. Ah, but they always have freshly baked loaves, don’t they? Yep, and they’re now all in plastic. There were no loose loaves or rolls, and all but one of the 216 brands of bread they sold (only a slight overestimate) was in a plastic bag. Where were those traditional loaves that always came in waxed paper? Finally I spotted one single loaf in waxed paper…it had to be the worst overprocessed, nutritionless white loaf. I didn’t bother.

We ended up making our own bread instead! Almost from scratch for bread beginners, I bought a handy paper-bagged bread mix and took it from there. It was lovely, and something we’ve actually stayed with.

2. Vegetables in supermarkets – most of the mainstream names are guilty of this in spades. Don’t get me started on one in particular and their plastic drinks cup of peppers. Why do we need this?! It became a struggle to even find simple potatoes loose and not pre-packed in ‘handy’ fours or a bag of 2kg. I left one shop in defiance after refusing even more plastic bags, with a head of broccoli held naked and proud in one hand, and sat in the car with it like some loon cuddling a green vegetable 😉

3. A trip to the cinema – from drinks cups to bags of sweets, every option was swathed in plastic. At least the pick ‘n mix sweets were in paper bags…

4. Frozen food – even my favourite vegetarian substitute Quorn seems to be switching to non-recyclable plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes (grr) so I chose their boxed varieties instead.

5. Fruit markets – Our local market is a great resource, although soft fruit still comes in plastic punnets with no other option, and many other fruit and veg that was perfectly stable was still in pesky plastic! I’ve since been told of a great ‘pick your own strawberries’ type of farm just outside of Newcastle that I’ll have to stop by sometime. There’s also the option of growing your own if you’re handy in the garden.

Some other things that caught me out!

Plastic wrapping on new clothes – To be honest I forgot about this one, and even buying a gorgeous organic cotton tshirt collected to reduce delivery miles, I realised it still came in a thin plastic cover. What can you do? You can reuse them at home (perhaps to keep stored-away clothes neat and free from moths?) or perhaps send them back to the brand if they’re in good condition to reuse. Mine are making a moisture barrier for some house plants at the moment! If you do reuse anything in the garden make sure it can’t get away and end up posing a danger to animals or environment.

Why do I care?
In the pursuit of convenience and profit it seems it’s easier to throw potatoes into a plastic bag, packing more than the customer will likely need to use of course. When I complained to a particular supermarket about their shocking vegetable aisle having no loose fruit or veg at all (thankfully not a brand I usually shop with, or will again) their rather unhelpful Twitter response was to say that ‘this is what customers want’. I responded saying that when this is the only choice you give them, of course they end up buying it.

Recently, companies that just so happen to make disposable plastic bags (funnily enough) have complained against the ban of plastic bags in Hawaii, even going so far as to create a website to shout about the virtues of the plastic carrier bag. Yes, really. “But it actually takes less carbon to make this than paper” they shout. Well yes, that may be true for some but there’s one major factor they don’t point out. The plastic won’t break down naturally for roughly 450-1,000 years or even more, and only breaks down into tiny fragments posing a risk to wildlife and marine life the whole time. I’d rather take the paper.

Mass production of oil-based plastics only started around 75 years ago, yet every piece ever made still exists apart from the tiny portion reused or burned. Plus, in the first decade of this century we also produced more plastic than the whole of the 20th century. Think about that for a second – our neat and handy system of waste disposal here is quick, easy and out of sight. We throw a ‘not currently recycled’ bag in the rubbish and off it goes to landfill, out of sight and out of mind. Except that ‘out of sight’ is always in someone’s back yard, near someone’s school, and in someone’s environment. People can be careless and landfill isn’t impenetrable so things end up in waterways, on beaches and in wildlife. Sadly in the UK even the recyclable stuff is mostly thrown straight in the bin never to be recycled, thrown in the wrong bins potentially ruining a whole batch, or even not actually recyclable at all. (Now the overall discussion of plastic and recycling is something for another blog post, and I’d love to hear your views and input.)

A colleague recently made a very interesting comment, that in the distant future “our descendants may look at us as foolish for investing so much time and money into a finite short term resource like oil for our main energy supply, instead of renewables”. And I think that future generations will look at us in horror for even considering single-use plastic that so easily ended up strangling wildlife, making our beautiful seas a giant rubbish dump, and even ending up back in our own food chain. All of this for something that we may only use for a few seconds..?

Two Hands Project - clean up our environment

Did this teach me anything?

I have to admit to being in a bit of a rage having faced yet another supermarket onslaught of every single loaf of bread in plastic, and then seeing every damned packet of sweets and chocolate in plastic too. That’s not what you want to see when a chocolate craving hits (thank my stars for Divine!). Add to that the perpetual vegetables-in-plastic fiasco in every other shop and I was just about ready to make a battle headdress out of green veg and run around screaming, waving plastic-free asparagus at bemused shop assistants.

Suffice to say it can be a bit of a challenge, and a few friends did ask smugly “so why are you doing it then?”. Most challenges are, naturally, a bit of a challenge! Like being vegetarian, caring for the environment, insisting on people being paid and treated fairly, refusing cruel animal testing, or even trying to save our bees, it all takes work and a little concentration – but it is so worth doing and it certainly wasn’t difficult overall.

I’ve also realised that ‘not currently recycled’ is simply not good enough. It’s been that way for several years already and it’s still ‘not currently recycled’, so when will it be? You’ll see this on the majority of flexible plastic packaging and film (especially frozen food), so I’ll be contacting the frozen food brands I buy from to see what they’re doing to find alternatives, if anything.

What can we do?
There is no perfect answer, but many things we all need to be aware of. Check out the Plastic Free July campaign website, check out what others are doing on Twitter, Facebook and other networks, and let us know your tips and tricks! Take inspiration from clean-up groups like Two Hands Project or the Ghost Gear campaign, and head out to help clean up your local beach or park.

If you’re looking for alternatives we’ve put together a handy list of products that use non-plastic materials where possible, or reduce plastic packaging in their manufacture or packaging.

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