The world is drowning in plastic. An average piece of plastic takes thousands of years to break down. The oceans are awash with billions of tonnes of the stuff, from large pieces of junk to tiny microscopic particles, which collect at certain points of the globe in huge gyres or floating garbage heaps. Plastic kills over 100,000 marine creatures and one million seabirds each year.
But our passion for plastic shows no sign of subsiding. Troubled that we consistently put convenience over the health of our planet, I decide it’s time for my household to try the plastic free challenge. In 2011 the Western Metropolitan Regional Council in WA held the first Plastic Free July, a local initiative, since gone global, developed by staff from the Earth Carers program to try to encourage residents of Perth’s western suburbs to cut down on their use of single use plastic.
On behalf of my family of four, I accept the Plastic Free July challenge (even though it’s August): to attempt to refuse single-use plastic. This means for one week no more plastic bags, cups, straws or packaging.
I have been trying to cut down my household’s plastic consumption for years but you wouldn’t know it from a quick scan around my house: drawers are stuffed full of plastic bags, plastic trays fill the recycling bin, and plastic takeaway containers are stacked in the cupboard.
The Plastic Free July challenge recommends starting with the big four: plastic bags, bottles, takeaway cups and straws. I understand why; it’s dispiriting to look around and see so much plastic, from food packaging to cosmetic containers to parcels delivered in the post. I can’t imagine how a plastic-free life could even be possible. Banning single-use plastics is going to be difficult enough.
Takeaway coffee cups
A good place to start is my morning coffee. Australians love coffee, but the downside of our caffeine addiction is the one billion disposable takeaway cups we use every year. Most cups aren’t recyclable either, thanks to a layer of plastic that lines the cardboard. Some expert estimates suggest 90 per cent of the takeaway cups and plastic lids we turf every day end up in landfill.
I already have a good quality reusable cup, but am often guilty of leaving it at home and using a disposable cup instead. No more! I institute a new rule: No KeepCup, no coffee. This gets instant results. I quickly get into the habit of taking my cup with me everywhere. And if I am caught without it, I sit in. It’s actually nice to take five minutes to drink my coffee at a table instead of rushing to my next destination.
In Australia we use nearly 7 billion plastic bags a year.
I take a similar approach to plastic drink bottles, and make sure to fill a reusable water bottle for car trips and sporting games. Takeaway food is more of a problem. Unless a restaurant offers plastic-free packaging, the only option is handing over reusable containers when your order your food (impossible by phone). I feel sad when I walk past my favourite sushi joint, pining for now-forbidden plastic trays of nigiri and little plastic fish filled with soy sauce. My three-year-old is not sympathetic to the plastic-free cause, and I give in and buy her a tray of baby tuna rolls (not the first time I have forsaken my ideals in the name of parenthood).
A typical trip to the supermarket yields handfuls of plastic, from the bags we use to transport our groceries home to the containers that package even fresh produce. The willful, wasteful use of single-use plastic in the fresh produce section of a supermarket is enough to make a thirty-something writer trying to do a plastic free challenge cry. Why, oh supermarket lords, must you encase something as hardy as lemongrass in a plastic tray? Why?!
So I ditch the supermarket in favour of the local farmers’ markets – not a completely plastic-free zone but much better than the bricks and mortar stores. Weather and small children permitting, it’s a fun Sunday morning outing for the whole family (groaning life partner included).
Trying to minimise plastic requires having uncomfortable conversations nearly every time I buy something.
While other states have banned them, incredibly, people in NSW, Queensland and Victoria still carry our groceries home in plastic bags. In Australia we use nearly 7 billion plastic bags a year. Like the coffee cup scenario, I have plenty of reusable bags stuffed in cupboards at home but regularly forget to take them to the shops. Carrying a canvas bag in my handbag and reusable bags in the car rules out accepting a plastic bag out of convenience.
Buying in bulk would be the most effective way to reduce my family’s use of plastic but there are no bulk food stores nearby. If I must buy products that are contained in plastic, I try to buy the largest size possible. I lug home three-litre bottles of milk, a two-litre bucket of yoghurt and a 10-kilogram bag of rice.
It’s at the shops that I get the sense that I’m going against the tide. Trying to minimise plastic requires having uncomfortable conversations nearly every time I buy something. Into a plastic bag goes my meat before the butcher wraps it in paper. At the bakery bread comes in a plastic bag. I feel like people think I’m crazy for trying to take the inconvenient option of less plastic. There should be more pressure on retailers to offer customers less plastic. Until then the chance of making plastic-free the norm is a long way off.
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Image courtesy of Flickr/ Best of EP Guest Photographer April: "Flying rainbow" - Victor Andronache.