At this point, most of us know that plastic is environmentally problematic. Cheap, convenient and ubiquitous, plastic products undeniably make our lives easier in the short term. But in the long run, our reliance on plastic—especially single-use plastic—will destroy our planet.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), around 8 million metric tons of plastic gets deposited into our oceans each year—that's equivalent to the weight of 90 aircraft carriers. From toothbrushes to water bottles, grocery sacks to food packaging, what we discard from our daily lives has to go somewhere. While some plastics can be recycled, the environmental promise that recycling programs held for us in the past has not really panned out in the present. Far too much plastic waste ends up washing down our watersheds, into our streams and rivers and out to contaminate our oceans.
Intellectually, we know the trade-off of marine contamination for modern convenience isn't worth it. But humans are creatures of habit who tend to resist change, even when we know it's good for us or the right thing to do. So how do we make the changes we know are necessary? What are some practical ways we can work to break our plastic dependency and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle?
Learn from people who have already embraced plastic-free living
We can start by looking to the experts. Environmental influencers are in no short supply, and they can offer valuable experience and knowledge to help those of us who are just getting started.
Tammy Logan is a mom of two and the owner and author of the sustainability website Gippsland Unplugged. For her, the plunge into "plastic-free" living happened overnight. In 2015, she heard about the Plastic Free July (PFJ) Challenge, an initiative in her home country of Australia where people commit to refusing all single-use plastics for one month, and she started it the very next day.
"I had no idea at the time that this decision would lead to so much more," she says." It's not like Logan wasn't aware of environmental issues, considering she holds a degree in Conservation Biology and Ecology. But figuring out how to translate education and awareness into action isn't always as obvious as we think. "Completing PFJ was exactly what I needed," she says. " I had been feeling frustrated and powerless and was looking for a way to do more for the environment and to be an example for my children."
In fact, she found the challenge empowering:
"Importantly for me, I could achieve many plastic-free goals without financial investment and without taking time away from my family. I finally realised I could do something about a waste problem that I had recognised for a very long time, but which I'd previously thought I couldn't do anything about. It was a very empowering experience that has led to an examination of waste in all aspects of my life for five years so far."
Though her immediate family is not as committed as she is to plastic-free living, Logan estimates that she's reduced her consumption of single-use plastic by 90%. She now writes about her sustainability journey on her blog, which promotes "plastic and waste free living, community, local and ethical business, nature connection, and other aspects of living sustainably."
Beth Terry is the author of the book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and the website My Plastic Free Life. She was pulled into plastic-free living in 2007 after reading an article about ocean pollution and seeing a photo of a dead albatross chick whose insides were full of plastic.
"For some reason, that picture and that story really reached me in a way that other things hadn't," Terry says. "Like on a really basic, gut level—like, 'Oh my god, I feel this.'"
Terry says she was moved to action when she realized that plastic waste was something she had more control over than other environmental issues.
"Climate change is so nebulous, like we know that it's a real thing but you can't see your impact. But with plastic, it's right there, it's in your face. You can see it. You can touch it. You can refuse it. I wondered if it was possible to live without acquiring any new plastic."
Terry began tallying up all of the plastic she used and discarded, even going so far as to take photographs of it and make spreadsheets to track it each week. She laughs, explaining that she's an accountant, so that process made sense to her as a way to "see" her plastic footprint. But like Logan, she says she had no idea it was going to play such a big role in her life.
"It just grew bigger and bigger," she says. In fact, it grew so big, she gave a TEDx talk about her plastic-free journey in 2010:
TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch - Beth Terry - Living Plastic Free www.youtube.com
Recognize the mindsets that keep us addicted to plastic
Our habits are often wrapped up in how we think, so both Logan and Terry shared with GOOD some of the mindsets that keep us from taking the leap to plastic-free living.
"First, let's define 'plastic-free,' says Logan. "Plastic free living is about eliminating single-use and semi-disposable plastic items from your life— straws, water bottles, bags, coffee cups, toothbrushes, razors, and most packaging. The term 'plastic free' is a little misleading because people often think it means living without plastic altogether and this may not be possible in today's world."
Terry says the same thing, pointing out that the plastic covered headphones she's wearing, which are connected to a computer that has plastic parts. "I would say it's more aspirational," she says, "and it's being free of the addiction to convenience that plastic makes possible."
That addiction to convenience is hard to break through for most of us, as is the idea that we "have to have this one particular thing right now," Terry says. So if we forget a reusable bag, we just say "Oh well," and use plastic. "We have such privilege," says Terry, "especially in this country, to get the things that we want right when we want them. And we don't think about, you know, maybe I could wait. Maybe I could come back with a reusable bag."
Terry says she made a hard and fast commitment at the beginning not to go soft on herself. "I knew when I started this that if I let myself off the hook and said, 'Okay just this one time,' then it would never become a habit."
However, Terry also acknowledges that going plastic-free can be overwhelming if you try to get too finicky about it.
"You can get so stuck in the weeds that you finally just give up and go 'forget it,'" she says. "The other thing about being stuck in the weeds is that you can lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we have to have systemic change." She said that small individual changes are important and do make a difference, but we have to change on a systemic level and not get too caught up with tiny details, like what we're going to do with the sticker we just pulled off of our apple. "I mean, go to the farmer's market and get apples without stickers on them," she says, "but don't get so hung up on every tiny little thing."
Logan says she had to give up the idea of perfection in order to stay committed:
"After a few years of eliminating single-use food packaging, I decided to accept that I can only do the best I can in any particular moment. This means if I have to drop round to the nearest neighbourhood store to grab some supplies to get through a situation, I will. But it did take some time to stop feeling guilty about this. I reminded myself that whole systems are working against me and that it is wasteful systems that I am trying to change and raise awareness of. I am not actually trying to be a perfect plastic free person."
Take stock of your current household plastic consumption and waste
Terry began her plastic-free journey by literally counting her pieces of plastic waste. You don't have to go to quite that extreme, but it is a good idea to take a good, hard look at how much plastic you dispose of, either in the trash or the recycling bin.
Logan suggests doing an "audit" of your garbage:
"I think a great place to start is to conduct a bin audit to identify the most impactful ways your household can be less wasteful. Your garbage is actually evidence of your behavior, which might turn out to reflect a different situation to what you thought. This is because we like to describe our behavior in ways that meet cultural expectations. For example, someone might see themselves as very environmentally aware and believe they are good at reducing waste until they do a bin audit and realize they actually have a bin full of food waste and single-use plastic."
Another thing Logan did was walk through each room of her house and list all of the things she consumed. Then she crossed out all of the things she actually could live without, then followed that up by figuring out which items left on the list had plastic-free alternatives that she knew about already. For example, we all need hand soap, but could we use bar soap instead of a plastic pump?
We may fall into complacency with some plastic packaging because we assume we can just recycle it. But most of our recycling doesn't get recycled locally. It gets shipped across the ocean—hardly an environmentally friendly solution. And especially since China no longer accepts our recycling waste, much of our supposedly recycled plastic just ends up in a landfill or the ocean anyway.
Take the plunge and free yourself from single-use plastic
Oceanic Global, an international non-profit organization dedicated to protecting our oceans, offers some bullet-point action items that can help you start weeding out unnecessary plastics from your home and life. Here is a partial list to get you started:
- Go strawless
- Use a reusable bag
- Bring your own bottle
- Bring your own cutlery
- Bring your own coffee cup
- Switch to a safety razor
- Say no to balloons
- Use biodegradable glitter
- Say no to glow sticks
- Don't use plastic tea bags
- Use a shampoo bars
- Use body-wash bar soap
- Don't use disposable plastic q-tips
- Buy bamboo toothbrushes
- Refuse products with microbeads
- No cling film
- Ziplock free
- Purchase cosmetic items in alternative packaging like jars
- Buy shampoo, conditioner and body-wash in bar soap form or in refillable packaging.
- Buy fruits and veggies not wrapped in plastic
- Buy reusable bulk bin bags for nuts, beans, legumes, oats.
Our oceans can't take continually being used as our trash bin, and neither can the animals that rely on those oceans for life. While industrial fishing and other large-scale industry contributes to much of the ocean's plastic pollution, far too much of it can be traced back to our own shopping carts and recycling bins. Taking steps toward a more plastic-aware lifestyle is something we can all do to protect our oceans, beaches, and marine life.
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