Waste Watch: Plastic Free July in the Age of COVID-19

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Three years ago more or less, I first became aware of and wrote about Plastic Free July in this post, Plastic Free July: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Plastics Waste.

Since that time, lots has happened – especially in the last several months- as we all are well aware.

Yet the plastic problem has if anything worsened, as we all try to dodge COVID-19 . Some seek to do so by shrink-wrapping anything we admit to our households- a trend I expect will only worsen. Markets or free for all selection of fruit and veg – as opposed to prepackaged, plastic-swathed alternatives – are a thing of the past, at least in much of the world. But that plastic waste has to go somewhere, and alas, much of it will end up in the world’s oceans.

And although I’ve written often and at length about the fallacy of chasing the recycling fairy alone for a comprehensive plastic solution, I concede recycling does not solve but does somewhat mitigate the plastic problem. But the COVID-10 pandemic has overwhelmed those miniscule remaining efforts, due to communities abandoning recycling as they, too, try most immediately to cope with COVID-19 (see Rubbish Is Piling Up and Recycling Has Stalled – Waste Systems Must Adapt).

So, to distract yourself from the COVID-19 obsession – and I admit I too, NEED this distraction. Indeed, any distraction! – think about committing to a plastic free July.

There are steps we all can take to leave a little less plastic behind.  These include, per the Plastic Free July website: eschewing  takeaway cups; finding plastic free alternatives to the wrapping of fruit and veg; carrying reusable non-plastic bags; refusing straws;  not grabbing those plastic water botttles; avoiding plastic at the bakery and butchery counters.

And perhaps most impprtantly, committing to reduce, reuse. and recycle. I admit. some of these recommendations appear ridiculous – if  not downright quaint – when many of us are still formally locked down  or if not, are ourselves limiting our encounters.  But remember: plastic lasts forever. And we all must hope, COVID-19 does  not.

Now I admit, there’s a bit of a problem in placing the onus on us for a plastic solution, as the Plastic Free July campaign admittedly does:

Plastic Free July is a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution – so we can have cleaner streets, oceans, and beautiful communities. Will you be part of Plastic Free July by choosing to refuse single-use plastics?

The real problem – again as I have written before – is not to produce the crap in the first instance. So imore importantly than reducing one’s personal use woold therefore seem to be to take some political action to pressure the powers that be not to allow the production of plastic in the first instance. Taking action againt the plastic pushers, and reducing production at the source – wold be a much better solution than these meager consumer efforts.

I can dream, can’t I? Back to reality.

Nonetheless, once you’ve dealt with the low-hanging fruit I mention above, there are other steps you can take:. These include: avoiding balloons and using other decorations; buying food in bulk; buying less of it; changing shaving routines to skip disposable razors; using bar soaps rather than the liquid alternatives. avoiding plastics in dental care and other bathroom uses.

But I think these suggestions aren’t radical enough. I’ve trained myself to be aware of – and to avoid – most plastics. I just don’t buy them, or bring them home. That means things made of ‘permanent’ plastic – not the single-use kind. And I choose metal, wood , or paper alternatives. Or sometimes, nothing at all — particularly where excessive, unnecessary packaging is concerned. Now, sometimes alternatives asre admittedly not avalable. And a plastic version slips into my shopping bag. But as a consequence of a mindful choice – and often cafter onsiderable internal debate,

I should mention that the suggestions in that earlier, now three-year old post, for creating a zero waste kit, are still viable. Or at least will be, once we emerge from our hibernation – enmasked I hope, – to engage once again with the world, Permit me to quote from that earlier post about what your personal zero waste kit should contain, to remind us what we should take from that earlier time once we can move forward again:

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).

We can say no to plastic. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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  1. John Zelnicker

    Now we just need to extend Plastic Free July to the rest of the year.

    Personally, I found it easy to stop using single use razors; I just stopped using them altogether many years ago as I have always hated scraping my face with sharp steel. I used to use an electric trimmer to shape my beard but I’ve stopped doing that, too, going completely au naturel.

    The advice about eschewing plastic at the grocery store led me to remember decades ago when groceries would stock small paper bags for fruits and vegetables, before thin plastic bags were developed. Although paper manufacturing is a very messy process, at least the bags are recyclable and/or can be composted. Paper also holds up better with heavy onions or apples. (I just bought some Thursday and by the time I got home, the plastic bags were in shreds.) I need to further reduce my plastic usage by carrying small cloth or paper bags to the grocery for fruits and veggies, along with the cotton/canvas bags I’ve been using to avoid the plastic bags used at checkout.

    It really is an ongoing challenge to eliminate plastic wherever we can in our lives, it’s so pervasive. Plastic Free July is a good time to rededicate ourselves to this task.

    1. HotFlash

      Beard-grooming not a problem for me personally, but my DH uses an olde-fashioned straight razor to shave some parts, and scissors to trim the parts he wants furry. He *loves* sharpening, honing, and stropping that razor, which is nearly 100 years old. Possibly displacing some more atavistic urges, but hey!

      Hairs we have always cut ourselves, “always” being 4 to 5 decades. We get compliments! Cutting hair is not rocket science.

      We buy our soap and shampoo in bars, no wrapping, totally plastic-free. So much of this stuff is doable, it is just getting the first step that requires the work — after that it’s smooth sailing. We (we-all) need to do more (less), but it is not that hard.

      1. John Zelnicker

        June 28, 2020 at 9:32 pm

        That’s great. Especially using scissors and an antique razor. Steel lasts forever (effectively).

        I used to have professionals cut my hair from time to time, but I gave that up five years ago, when I stopped trimming my beard.

        1. JBird4049

          Personally, I use a safety razor because the disposable razors costs so much. You trade for the “convenience” with overpriced junk. I would try to use a straight edge if I did not feel like I would accidentally kill myself. What an obituary that would make.

          At least with the safety, you only replace the blade instead of the whole thing, although finding the right brand of blade for whatever safety razor you’re using. They are supposed to be all the same, but each brand is just slightly different in size as well as in quality. Also each brand of safety razor‘s head is also slightly different in size. I had to go online to get some recommendations for what brands go with what brands.

  2. Tom Doak

    We had been bringing our own tote bags to the grocery store for years, having picked up the habit (and brought home some bags) from various trips abroad.

    So I was distressed to see that these were one of the first casualties of the coronavirus in stores locally – as if we might infect store workers with them. (sigh)

    That guy from the party in The Graduate is still out there, protecting his investment.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      We can still avoid unnecessary plastic bags in the store – e.g. for our loose lemons, etc. And if they don’t allow in reusable bags, demand paper alternatives. Or insist on placing unpacked groceries in your cart, and bag them into your reusable tote bags in the parking lot. Inconvenient? To be sure. But they make us bag our own groceries anyway.Let them know you reject single-use plastic.

    2. ChrisPacific

      That’s dumb. Even at the highest level of lockdown here (New Zealand) we still brought our own grocery bags – we just had to pack them ourselves, as checkout staff weren’t permitted to help.

    3. lordkoos

      Same here, stores won’t allow you to bring in your own bags. Stupid. I’d be happy to bag my own stuff.

  3. jef

    Ending our “addiction” to FFs is ridiculous enough but ending plastic use is like saying we need to end our reliance on nutrition. There is no facet of global industrial civilization that is not totally reliant on plastics.

    Our relationship should obviously be looked at but there is zero chance of eliminating it or even reducing it significantly. Please lets remain in the realm of possibility.

    1. John Zelnicker

      June 28, 2020 at 8:01 pm

      Plastic is neither nutritional nor necessary for the continuation of life.

      The possibilities for the reduction of plastic in our daily lives are numerous, many of which are detailed above and in Jerri-Lynn’s previous posts on the topic. Of course, we won’t be able to eliminate plastics, but we can certainly make a difference in how much of it we use and if enough people do that, it will have a beneficial effect.

      Working only to achieve the possible, rather than the aspirational, has never been effective in bringing about major change in our society. It’s like compromising before the negotiations even start.

    2. HotFlash

      My grandparents raised seven kids on my mom’s side and eight on my dad’s side. Such big families are pretty irresponsible in these times but all those kids survived, thrived, many went to university, and (!!!!) no plastics. That is how it was for most of human history. The idea that we are all going to die (GONNA DIE!!!) without plastic baggies is insane.

      1. The Rev Kev

        With plastic everywhere you forget that it is only in the past two generations that it came onto genera, everyday use. Looking around our own homes, you can see how you can replace plastic with longer lasting alternatives. Porcelain plates instead of plastic plates for a start.

        1. Ook

          Indeed. We forget. Some weeks ago I was Skyping my mother, who is in her late 90s, and she was telling me how she was stocking up on plastic garbage bags because she “needs” them for disposal.
          When I asked “How did you and the rest of humanity survive before 1969?”, she admitted that it was more a matter of plastic being convenient for her.

    3. Edward

      This just isn’t true. There are plenty of ways to reduce plastic use. The only real obstacle is the willingness of the public to do so. If everybody committed themselves to doing this, it would happen eventually, and probably not over too long a time, no problem. You want to talk about a society doing the impossible? How about our crazy health care system, offshoring our jobs to China, use of cars in cities like Los Angeles, 20 years of pointless, bloody wars, or helicopter money?

  4. ObjectiveFunction

    We were appalled by a delivery we got last week from Amazon of some specialty products. The volume of packaging waste, including puffy thermal bags and ice packs, almost equalled the volume of actual product!

    We saved a few bits for reuse, but it’s more than we can use. Amazon only takes back cardboard boxes (if asked). Won’t be doing that again.

    My guess is that to keep (sweatshop) labor productivity high and breakage low, Amazon just says screw it and does this.

    Tangentially related, but may be of interest to those who follow the circular economy, a Reuters piece on bottlenecks in the global metal scrap business:

    China is dragging its feet in releasing new codes governing high-grade copper and aluminium scrap imports, leaving scrap metal firms abroad confused and without a clear way into their key market….

    Top metals consumer China has carried out an environmental campaign against foreign garbage in recent years, progressively restricting scrap inflows and planning a ban on all solid waste imports…. [But] high-grade scrap has been reclassified as a resource instead of waste….

    There is currently 50-100% more scrap metal than usual sitting in yards in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. Two aluminium scrap suppliers with stock in Malaysia said they could melt their scrap into secondary ingots which can still get into China….

    Fabricators use copper scrap to make copper products like wire rods and copper smelters use it to make refined copper. Aluminium scrap, often in the form of used beverage cans, can be melted down into brick-shaped aluminium ingots, which are then processed into aluminium products used in everything from aeroplanes to cars.

    My best guess is that the Chinese industrial heartland is so massively overcapacity now that it is purposefully shutting down the scrap market.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    The lockdown has definitely changed many peoples waste patterns. In my apartment building, we’ve had a problem with the shared recycling bins because of so many delivery boxes (made worse by people being too lazy to flatten them before chucking them in). Our building manager says they’ve had identical problems in all their buildings. Conversely, waste levels seem to have gone down, but thats possibly because people being at home have more time to sort things so they are diverting more to green bins. Sadly, most apartment buildings here have abandoned composting bins because of management issues.

    I’ve certainly noticed an increase in my plastics use, simply because in trying to limit my food shopping I’m more inclined now to buy packed vegetables as they last longer and tend to be a little more economical. The loose plastics used are not recyclable here, only ‘solid’ plastics such as PET. I’ve managed to convert a few bottles into seed trays and so on for my few rather pathetic tomato and chilli plants, but mostly they’ve had to go. I still have a small pile of cardboard that I’m trying to find a proper use for before throwing out.

  6. BlakeFelix

    I like silver better than stainless steel for my straws personally. Copper is antimicrobial also I think, but silver is more silverwarish IMO.

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