When I mention to people that I am avoiding buying anything packaged in plastic during July the response ranges from “are you crazy?” to “that’s impossible!” and then there is a lot of “I could never do that!”. On reflection I agree with all three sentiments at different times but being of the “glass half full” rather than the “glass half empty” philosophy I think that on the whole its better to try to avoid plastic and accept that we will acquire some plastic during the month than to not give it a try. Its too important an issue not to.
Of course its obvious to anyone following the Two Hands Project why plastic is an important issue, we all know where it can end up and the devastating impact it can have on the ocean. But it’s not my problem, right? I hadn’t accepted a plastic bag for years, I hadn’t ever knowingly littered, I tried to be a conscious consumer and always carefully read my council recycling guide and sorted waste properly. I always recycled and felt very virtuous putting my (well sorted) recycling bin out. Then I found myself working in waste education and did a tour of a landfill site (much as I expected) and then a tour of a Materials Recovery Facility (the place where our recycling goes to get sorted into different materials and then sent for recycling). The sheer volume of materials was overwhelming as was the energy involved in the sorting, transport and reprocessing. In an instant my attitude towards recycling went from a feel-good moment to questioning “why do I have this in the first place and how could I have avoided it?”. Glass, paper, aluminium and steel can all be recycled into the same material but whilst in theory all plastic is “recycleable” not all types are regularly recycled and at best a lot is “downcycled” for one more life.
So while it may not be my plastic bag wrapped around a sea turtle’s neck in those well publicised photos my plastic is out there somewhere, it doesn’t just go away. I read recently that every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists somewhere. Whilst not doubting for a moment that plastic is a useful, cost effective and diverse material that is an important part of our modern lives it still seems a waste to use it for packaging, water bottles, straws, bags etc that get used once or at best twice and then thrown away. Of the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) it is reduce which is the most important element and plastic was the obvious place to start.
As a result Western Earth Carers started the Plastic Free July challenge in 2011 with about 40 households involved and has grown to around 300 households in 2012. The aim is to avoid single-use disposable plastic packaging for a shopping trip, day week or the month of July. Along the way participants are asked to share their ideas, recipes, inspirations and tips via the Plastic Free July facebook page (there is still time to sign up!). Participants keep any plastic acquired in what we like to call the “dilemma bag”. The challenge is a journey and by sharing our stories through social media and our weekly email we can learn from each other how to live lives a bit less plastic.
From the western Suburbs of Perth the challenge has been taken up by people in countries from New Zealand to Egypt, the Netherlands and the USA. Questions are posed, answers given, recipes are shared, successes photographed, failures are described with sadness, alternatives are suggested and frustrations are vented. Each week we come across new blogs where people are sharing their stories and promoting the challenge. One lady wrote telling of her success in asking her butcher to put meat into her own container. Constantly we hear stories of interesting discussions the challenge initiates in shops, cafes, family dinner tables and between friends. To our surprise posting a photo of our rubbish bin lined with newspaper on facebook as an idea for a plastic bag free alternative was immediately liked and shared around the world!
Sometimes I think I am crazy and things have taken more work to source or make. Other times it feels impossible and another item goes into the dilemma bag. At times life seems simpler as there just aren’t as many options that are plastic-free (and I never really liked going to supermarkets anyway). Kneading dough and making rosemary and olive oil crackers with my son was a time to chat and work together (and probably quicker than going to the shop to buy a packet). It is easier than last year, this year my whole family is on board, we have reduced our plastic consumption significantly and I hope that again a few more new habits will remain after July.
On my way home from work the other day I stopped by an Italian delicatessan to buy some fresh pasta. Rather sheepishly I produced a slightly shabby brown paper bag which originally contained potatoes. The shop assistant said “Good on you, I reackon there should be more of this happening.” Plastic Free July is a challenge which hopefully gives people inspiration that we can all do something in our own lives and together make a difference
Photo: Plastic Free July penance – carrying the shopping when you forget your bags (or getting a friendly 7 year old to do it, thanks Ronan)