Plastic Free July: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Plastics Waste

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.

When Mr. Mc.Guire tells Benjamin Braddock in the American film classic, The Graduate, “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”— I don’t think he had today’s plastics nightmare in mind.

The world is now drowning in plastics— something I was reminded of just last week, while diving in the South China Sea, around Whale Island, off the coast of Vietnam.

Despite Vietnam’s decision to recognize and protect this unique marine environment, today, these dive sites are the dirtiest I’ve yet seen— with their beauty marred by plastic waste.

I, along with the divemaster, dive guides, and some of the other recreational divers each carried a mesh bag, to pick up plastic and other waste from the seafloor— e.g., water bottles of various sizes, huge plastic jerrycans, pieces of styrofoam packaging that escaped from nearby shrimp farms, small blister packs that once housed tablets. Some of these were too big to retrieve.

And while the diving was good, and this ad hoc effort did make me feel I was doing something, it’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to the scope of the problem.

New Plastics Economy and EU Circular Economy Policy

Last year, the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, produced a report, The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics.

One thing that Mr. McGuire got right: there’s certainly been an explosion in the use of plastics, especially in the area of plastic packaging, plastics’ largest application, representing 26% of the total volume. “Since 1964, plastics production has increased twenty-fold, reaching 311 million tonnes in 2014, the equivalent of more than 900 Empire State Buildings,” according to the Report (p. 25).

And, while today, discarded plastic is suffocating our oceans and cramming landfills, the problem is only expected to worsen in future. In the next twenty years, it’s estimated that plastics production will double, and by 2050, nearly quadruple from 2014 levels. Over the same period, the amount of plastics in the oceans will increase fivefold, from current levels—where the ratio of plastics to fish (by weight) is 1:5— to where it will be 1:1 (Report, p. 25, and p. 28. figure 5).

The purpose of this post is not to wallow in the details of this urgent problem. Nor is it to delve deeply into the report’s detailed recommendation to adopt a new model for how the world uses, recycles, and reuses plastics— what it calls a New Plastics Economy—based heavily on circular economy principles (see the discussion starting on p. 31 of the Report). Some of this discussion is closely linked to the EU’s adoption of a circular economy model for waste management— a topic I have previously posted in Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States:

This policy was motivated by a conscious decision to replace the ‘take-make-consume-dispose’ model of how resources are used and consumed (with some minor tweaks to promote for end-of-life-cycle recycling for some inputs). EU policymakers appreciate that as the world’s population approaches 9 billion people, the prevailing wasteful linear model of resource consumption results is no longer sustainable. The circular economy alternative instead considers the entire life cycle of a product, and seeks to reduce waste by various means, including reducing materials used in products; promoting durability and thereby extending the useful life of a product; practicing ecodesign (and so facilitating easier maintenance, repair, or remanufacturing); and promoting waste reduction by minimizing recycling costs and encouraging reuse.

I mention these points in passing to set the scene for what I want to discuss: the simple changes each of us could make, in our daily lives, to reduce our use of plastics, particularly of the single-use variety. I do admit it takes some effort to reduce one’s personal use of plastics, because the default setting is to accept the convenient packaging that’s foisted on us, and that only leads to the generation of more and more waste.

Zero Waste Kit

Now, I’ve long made the effort in my daily life to eschew single-use plastic, by taking the following steps:  I carry cloth shopping bags, don’t use plastic wrap, and carry my own refillable water bottle, for example. I try to purchase food at farmers markets where items aren’t prepackaged in plastic (and where, incidentally, I can purchase only what I need, thus helping reduce the fod waste I generate). At supermarkets, I don’t place produce into plastic bags, but chuck it all into my grocery cart, and then decant everything into cloth bags at check out.

I’ve also taken other steps to reduce my use of plastics. I seek out and treasure lidded containers— glass, ceramic, or metal to store bulk food and leftovers, for example. I buy larger size toiletries— and prefer to purchase them at places that promote reusuable containers.

And of course, I shouldn’t forget to mention, that whenever possible, I recycle the plastics that I’ve not been able to avoid purchasing.

Yet after last week’s my dives, I was thinking about what I could do to cut back further on my use of plastics, and stumbled upon this post, How To Go Plastic Free, With One Easy Step, written to draw attention #PlasticFreeJuly “a month-long challenge to stay away from single-use plastic items such as straws, cutlery and take away containers.”

Admittedly, I’m a bit late to the party here, as this campaign started on July 1. Nonetheless,  if we’re going to make any real progress in cutting down on plastics waste, this can’t just be done for one month a year, but needs to become part of one’s routine throughout the year. It really doesn’t matter when one starts, just that one does. Adopting just some modest changes would allow one to extend a Plastic Free July to a Plastic Free Life– while recognizing it may be impossible, at least initially, to get to the goal of zero waste, but even major reduction in single-use plastics would be a significant improvement on the status quo.

The post was written by @itsahashtaglife— aka Emily Charles-Donelson– and this point struck a chord with me, and I bet it will with many readers as well:

As a zero waste blogger in Toronto, I find the biggest barrier preventing people from participating in such campaigns (or taking the plunge to go zero waste year-round) is one of the following:

    1. They don’t know where to begin
    2. They think avoiding waste is going to be too difficult

Donelson’s solution was simple:

So, in honour of #PlasticFreeJuly, I’ve boiled down the first step towards breaking free from plastic into one simple step: assembling and carrying a Zero Waste Kit.

Jerri-Lynn here: Now, I’ve yet to get around to assembling my own Zero Waste Kit, so I’m going to start with Donelson’s description and list:

A zero waste kit is made up of all the things you carry with you on a regular, day-to-day basis. You incorporate these items into your daily routine so as to always be prepared for the coffee on the go, the spontaneous decision for takeout or picking up veggies on your way home from work.

Her Zero Waste Kit includes:

  • a collapsible coffee cup;
  • a leakproof, stainless steel container with removable dividers;
  • three lightweight veggie bags and a cloth bread bag (all of which it into the stainless steel container;
  • cloth napkins;
  • bamboo chopsticks;
  • stainless steel straws;
  • a wooden spoon and a foldable spork;
  • combination placemat/cutlery holder, which holds all the cutlery and the cloth napkins;
  • a cotton canvas tote bag.

Jerri-Lynn here: What you may choose to put into your kit would, obviously, reflect your needs and preferences. I, for example, would certainly include a Swiss Army Knife or other similar tool in my kit, and I wouldn’t bother with the metal straws (I hate straws).

To some readers, these tips may seem to be on the order of  advice to Look Both Ways Before Crossing. But others may find, as Donelson concluded:

While dedicating yourself to using a Zero Waste Kit is not going to solve the plastic crisis we’re facing, it does serve two fundamental purposes: it will make you more conscious of our consumption practices in the West and will spark important conversations about refusing single-use items.

The Plastics Free July website has a page of further tips for how to live a plastics-free lifestyle, covering cleaning, cooking, food storage, gardening, meals-on-the-go, personal care, pet care, and shopping, among other topics.

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31 comments

  1. cocomaan

    Jerri-Lynn, great article!

    There’s a few good forums out there as each of us tries to do our best to reduce waste. I have started to frequent the Reddit forum for Zero Waste, which has all kinds of good ideas and discussion.

    Seems to me that most of the waste has to do with packaging and shipping food or drink or that kind of consumable. The closer we get to the source of our food, the less packaging. The obivous example being your own food, which just has to be carried back into the house because you grew it.

    Also want to throw out composting as a way to reduce one of the biggest uses of plastic bags, which is for garbage. Our trash went from being big and bulky to nearly non existent when we started composting.

    But one thing that I can never figure out is how to carry my garbage in something other than plastic trash bags. Sure, I could just throw it in the bin, but then I’m using water to wash the bin, and I’ll never get some of it out. Plus raccoons will begin to raid our bins if they get too stinky.

    Any thoughts? One of the ironies is that much of what i’m throwing out is polymers and plastics!

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      I think zero-waste is not plastic free, if we reuse some of those plastic things (plastic cups for example).

      And some plastic products are necessary, like all those tubes and pouches one might see in a hospital, to name a few.

      1. optimader

        I use scrap plastic bags to tie up tomato plants. Rip them is strips, twist and make a loose loops around the limbs, then tie them back with string. The feature of the twisted bag loop is that it relieves any pressure point that just a string would create.
        They do eventually UV rot and just become part of the soil.

        1. JEHR

          Do you know what toxins exist in your plastic bags that will eventually go into the soil?

        2. oh

          AFAIK plastic bags w/o a high carbohydrate (starch) content don’t degrade; they get get washed up in the rain and find their into storm sewers and into the nearest water body.

          I resist* using plastic bags and bottles and recycle whatever little plastic (PE or PET) that comes into my life without my control.

          * not to be confused with Resist the faux movement of the DimRats.

    2. marieann

      The Plastic-Free July website suggested lining garbage cans with newspapers, though I’m not sure how secure that would be.
      What about the paper garden waste bags, they are most likely too large but could probably be squeezed in.

      Thanks for the Reddit link.

  2. marieann

    I heard about this challenge a couple of weeks ago, I already do most of the plastic-free lifestyle changes but I’m always on the lookout for new blog sites and new ideas. I bookmarked the blog you linked to.

    I’m always trying to get the word out, I take my zero waste kit with me whenever I’m out at restaurants (rarely) and at my assorted group meetings. I often have folk comment and it’s usually along the lines of “I could never do that”
    I did teach a class on sewing the placemat at one of my sewing groups but I don’t often see the finished products used….sigh :(

  3. Ivy

    A further plastic-free step may be made by eschewing credit and debit cards. There are many steps to impact, if at least potentially, in each supply chain. Why not make a conscious effort when shopping, even if somewhat symbolic. There is something to the handling of cash and coin instead of a credit or debit card that makes any transaction slightly more personal.

    1. PKMKII

      I doubt there’s much gains to be made in plastic reduction by forgoing credit/debit cards. It’s such a small amount of plastic and gets replaced so infrequently, it would be one of the least effective ways to reduce plastic use.

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        I think widespread plastic-consuming bacteria is inevitable. Too much food around for them not to exist (and, as shown by multiple researchers, they do exist).

        1. fajensen

          I remember discovery of Oil-Eating bacteria.

          Back in the day, 1990’s, the Environmental Ministry was suddenly cloaked in power to give a suitable position/platform to a losing candidate for a leadership contest in the Social Democrats.

          Which caused every corner of Government to become Aware of the Environment. The worry at “my place” was that the old diesel-electric trains would “lose” about 700 litres of lubricant on an 700 kilometre round trip (kinda like a WW polo), and where does the oil go!? Serious discussions best summarised as: “Do we honestly now have to buy decent equipment or fix anything or … Invest”, “ARRRGH, the horror, the unimaginable horror … ”

          “Luckily” it was discovered by university researchers that the track bedding was full of oil-eating bacteria and the oil only makes it some 50 centimetres down.

          So, if anyone visits Kastrup Airport, one can still see the Danish trains take of while ejecting a fat, happy, plume of Diesel particles for everyones lungs to enjoy. The Swedish trains are the electric ones :).

  4. PKMKII

    I largely can get out of having to deal with plastic bags at the grocery stores by having the groceries delivered. The store uses their leftover cardboard boxes to deliver the food, and they load the van with multiple deliveries at a time as to make the fuel costs more efficient than if people drove. Although this only works in a densely populated area, as otherwise the fuel use would outweigh the benefit of the plastic reduction.

  5. lyman alpha blob

    I’d like to add cloth diapers to the list. We used them with our spawn and they really weren’t that bad. Just put the dirty ones in a bucket until laundry time and wash them all at once. Once the kid was potty trained we handed them down to a friend to use.

  6. WobblyTelomeres

    And yet another approach:

    pyrolytic ovens

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrolysis

    these things just love plastics. I’ve often wondered if a fleet of autonomous barges carrying pyrolytic ovens could scoop up plastics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, convert them into hydrocarbons (methane) and then burn the methane to continue the process.

  7. kareninca

    I’m diligent about recycling. So finding this out about Palo Alto (which is near us and whose system we probably share), was not cheering:

    “Just so you know, most of the plastic in recycling bins ends up going overseas. It gets compacted into “big hunks,” Bobel said, and probably gets burned as fuel.”

    https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2017/03/24/talking-trash—the-dos-and-donts-of-recycling

    I’m hoping that the plastic fuel burning is some sort of specialized, enviromentally friendly sort. But I have no way to know.

    1. fajensen

      I’m hoping that the plastic fuel burning is some sort of specialized, enviromentally friendly sort. But I have no way to know.

      Maybe it will eventually be used to feed our white elephant: https://www.a-r-c.dk/amager-bakke :)

      The conspiracy theory is that the builders basically wanted a monument to their greatness, so they sized the plant for four-five times the available waste from Copenhagen to make it very great indeed. To fix, they are planning procure waste and ship it in to feed the beast.

      Yes – there is indeed a skiing hill on top of this thing, except with climate change every winter the last decade or so has been crap with almost no snow, maybe, to fix that, they will use the artificial plastic brush stuff instead of relying on the weather.

      Pictures,
      http://images.google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=Amager+Bakke

      PS: This is likely the next free and unrestricted area of Copenhagen that will be smothered by over-architected designer mausoleums, where nothing can afford to live (and no-one would really want to).

  8. Ignacio

    It is really annoying to see that ones neighbours don’t give a damn on environmental issues like this.
    In the 16-story building where I live we leave our trash near one of the lifts. There are 4 apartments on each floor. Yet we are the only neighbours to recycle in our floor. Very few others recycle in the building. They just don`t care no matter what you say. Supposedly educated people.

  9. Jeremy Grimm

    Plastic is much lighter than glass and less prone to break. But I love glass. I can’t get enthusiastic about recycling because it seems so pointless the way we recycle. Some locales make recycling and trash so complicated you need a lawyer on staff in you household to figure how, when, and whether you re-cycle, trash, or dump — when and where no one is looking — because neither recycling nor trashing is allowed. Besides it’s too easy to “do your part for the environment” by recycling.

    Anyway … as I said — I love glass. I love its luster and clarity, and I love its heft and feel in my hand. I am a fanatic bottle and jar saver. My pet peeve is the label glue I can only remove using some nasty goop remover. From what I’ve read the glue used on labels in the U.S. has the advantage that labels stay in place better after they are first put on. I want laws passed to bring back and mandate the use of water soluble glue for jar and bottle labels. And while they’re at it I think jar and bottle makers might standardize, register, and label their batch mixes — with a machine readable [OCR is good enough — no scanner bars!] code in the glass. While they are at it the glass makers should be required to keep their batches consistent — if they don’t already. These changes in glass recycling would make it easier for people to reuse bottles and jars and possibly return them — think how many wine bottles are identical [and is it such a sacrifice to require that they be identical within certain standards?] The rest of the waste glass could be sorted to more categories of cullet and more of it recycled into new glass batches with greater confidence.

    1. fajensen

      The glass manufacturers sort of do all that already, under ROHS and the “Waste Framework Directive”.

      Everyone manufacturing something that will go to waste are supposed to provide recycling for it and they are getting stricter about it, I had to go to a tyre shop and pay(!) 400 SEK to dispose of my old winter tyres from the last car, rather than taking them to the usual recycling place, which was confusing.

      They don’t label the glass directly, instead they use Infrared Spectroscopy to classify and sort the glass. They are required to take it back, which is not a problem for them because used glass is a resource. Well specified batches are indeed better for them, they use the spectroscopy to get their “mixture” exactly right. The raw materials for very clear glass comes out of a special sand mined in Bohemia. There is only one known source for this sand.

      For taking off the labels, I use “Coleman Fuel” if one only need a liter or so, or rather, Alkylate Petrol Alkylate Petrol which is not quite so nasty.

      I buy it in 5 liter quantities for the mower and the hiking stove. Really worth the expense this fuel (4x car petrol), the mover still has clear oil in it after 5 seasons of grass cutting. With car petrol, the oil is black filth after only 5 hours or so.

      Directive 2008/98/EC on waste (Waste Framework Directive)

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Thank you very much for the information. I gathered it up and saved it in a text file. I want to try using cullet as a source of glass for doing glass art without paying through the nose for special art glass.

        1. fajensen

          Thanks! Cullet would work, I imagine that the main problem will be the perpetual “how to buy less than some metric tonnes of the stuff” and if one wants bright, or distinct, colours these are probably always a special item.

  10. nothing but the truth

    more than a carbon or tobacco tax, we need a plastic and styrofoam tax.

    there was a good old time when people ate in porcelain dishes with steel cutlery, which then was washed and reused. Ah the pre internet days.

  11. fajensen

    Her Zero Waste Kit includes:

    To me, that collection of “daily items” sounds totally like an old-fashioned picnic basket. Which I am not going to be lumping around all day, every day.

    I carry a small 12-liter hiking back-pack, with lunch, tea, a book, those really expensive Rotring graphite pencils (0.7) and an A4 notebook of good quality. I tend to get all of the really good ideas well away from anything digital.

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