How often do you think about what your food is packaged in? Do you every really consider where it ends up? What about your makeup and beauty products? How about the clothes you wear? Most likely, they are made from or packaged in plastic. We are all aware that plastic is a major issue for the environment and our health, but have you ever considered going without it?
Well that became my challenge this past month. I would say I have always been an environmentally conscious person; I bring my reusable shopping bags and produce bags to go grocery shopping, I bring my reusable coffee cup, straws, and utensils with me to school and work, I buy cleaning products that are toxic free, and over the last few years I have been switching over my entire beauty routine to be completely natural and lower waste. Beyond that, I didn't overtly consider how my every day actions and shopping habits were impacting the environment.
Enter Covid-19 and my master's thesis. What do these two things have to do with going plastic free and the environment? Well, it was an interesting combination of circumstances. My master's thesis focuses on land - looking at the politics of land, Indigenous sovereignty and also from a cultural and spiritual perspective. By diving deeper into my thesis, I began formulating an argument on why land is important, why it is important for Indigenous people to be able to assert their rights to land, and the importance of protecting land from corporate destruction. The more I worked on my arguments, the more I realized that if I was going to talk about the importance of land and protecting it, I needed to live up to my own words in my every day life.
Then there was Covid-19 and suddenly I was spending all my time at home working on my couch... and finding ways to procrastinate that work. It started with the typical endless scrolling on Instagram and Pinterest, as we all do, and then suddenly I was stumbling upon ethical and sustainable fashion blogs, and accounts to follow on Instagram. Well that led me to a particular blog that not only focused on making your closet more ethical, but also more ways to make your life more low waste and sustainable. So there I was, educating myself on low waste and slow living and discovering more ways I could make my life more sustainable. I started with expanding what I had already been doing, switching my make up to 100% natural and ethical brands. Then I was looking at leaving the fast fashion world and looking more at thrift stores, ethical fashion brands, and Etsy to support local and independent creators for my shopping fixes. Then I came across a blog post on Plastic Free July and I thought why not give it a try. I convinced a few friends to join me in my challenge and decided to share it on my Instagram stories, knowing I am far more likely to keep myself accountable when I feel accountable to others.
What is Plastic Free July?
The challenge is to try for the whole month of July to live without single use plastics. The purpose of Plastic Free July is to bring more public awareness to the amount of single-use plastic that our society uses and inspire people to live more plastic free and environmentally conscious. Plastic waste is becoming an ever increasing problem around the world, with single-use plastics covering the bottom of our oceans and piling up in landfills, and micro-plastics harming our wildlife, and through the food chain, our own health as well. Canadians produce roughly 3 million tonnes of plastic per year. And while recycling is a start, much of what ends up in our recycling bins, an estimated 86% of our plastic waste, unfortunately still ends up in landfills. It's a scary reality and can seem like an impossible job to resolve the plastic problem, but that's why initiatives like Plastic Free July matter. Since recycling isn't a perfect process, finding ways to reduce our plastic waste and reuse products as much as possible is our better solution, as is spreading the word on environmental awareness and solutions.
There are many ways to participate, which made it easier for me to find ways to challenge myself and not feel pressured to have to do it perfectly. I chose to eliminate all plastic shopping bags, create a plastic free grocery list, kitchen, and bathroom for myself and to find eco friendly replacements for any products that I bought throughout July (and beyond). I knew that there would be some ways I would not be able to avoid plastic unfortunately. As an athlete, my supplements come packaged in plastic. There was also those unavoidable purchases I made throughout July that could not get plastic free. I also have certain dietary restrictions which made it more challenging for finding options that were plastic free... and sometimes there just were not any, so some exceptions had to be made. I also knew that I was not going to simply throw out or eliminate plastic products that I already had in my house, such as my tupperware, as that would just be even more wasteful.
There was also the added challenge of the Covid-19 health restrictions in place to keep people safe while shopping. As a result, many bulk options are not currently allowing people to bring in reusable containers, coffee shops are not allowing you to use your own mugs, and some grocery stores do not allow for reusable bags anymore. I had to get a little creative with DIY, go on a hunt for grocery stores that would allow me to bring in my reusable bags, and find the best alternatives to the more common commercial plastic item that I needed.
Lessons on living without plastic
I took going a whole month without buying or using single-use plastics seriously. Did I accomplish my goal perfectly? Of course not. I made several mistakes in avoiding plastics both consciously and unconsciously. I learned that there is far more plastic used to package the every day items that we buy than I think many of us actually realize. Because bulk stores were not allowing plastic free options, I went for the next best options with buying products wrapped in paper, cardboard, or glass. Yet, even then I still ended up with some plastic in a lot of cases. Even when buying gluten-free pasta in a cardboard box, there is still the tiny plastic window to show you what the pasta inside looks like. I found eco-friendly products packaged in plastic. I went to the fish counter at the grocery store to get salmon, and they wrapped it in plastic wrap and Styrofoam (oops). Even when I would picked a food item that looked to be packaged in paper, cardboard, or glass, there was still some plastic used as extra packaging on the item.
What I learned is that there may not always be a perfect plastic free solution - at least not yet - but I can try my best to find the best alternative possible. I learned how to make my own almond butter to avoid buying nut butter in plastic packaging. I went berry picking with a friend. I discovered local low and zero waste shops. I also learned that it never hurts to exercise your voice. I began asking shops and companies, whether it be a bakery or my favourite take out restaurants, to not package my products in plastic but in paper instead. Most of the time, people were more than willing to accommodate. Although, sometimes, I still ended up with unwanted plastic. I was found a way to get a note added to my Amazon account to ask that my packages come without plastic packaging where available, thanks to the help of a friend for showing me how to ask! Then discovered a week later when I made a purchase that my packages were still coming packaged in plastic.
I made sure to engage as much as I could in conversations about what we can all do to be more plastic free and eco friendly, and also educated myself more on sustainability. I read blogs, watched documentaries, and chatted with other people about what they were already doing to be more environmentally friendly. I started composting just before July and took advice from friends (and the internet) on how to make it work best from a tiny, balcony-less apartment. I watched The Plastic Ocean, and was only able to make it half way through before getting to sad about ocean birds and sea turtles. The new Down to Earth with Zac Efron docu-series on Netflix is a great starting point for educating yourself about a more sustainable earth, without the doomsday feelings, and the episode on "London" takes a little bit of a look at plastic waste in a large urban centre.
What I also learned from this challenge is that there is privilege in being able to chose a more ecological, ethical and sustainable lifestyle - and that shouldn't be the case. The ability to be more decisive over the foods and products I buy, instead of buying the cheapest and more economically available item is not a luxury everyone has. Not everyone has the ability to spend the amount of time that I did researching the most ecological alternatives to everyday items, or finding sustainable and environmentally friendly shops like I did. There is also the way that low waste living has glamorized the lifestyles of those from low income households, who have no other options but to live in ways that the new age low waste "eco warriors" champion. There is also the privilege to have been able to focus on doing a Plastic Free July challenge when many people across Canada and the United States are focusing on fighting for their fundamental human rights.
Low waste living moving forward
So where do I go from here? This past month has opened my eyes to ways in which I can make more changes in my life to be more low waste and environmentally friendly in the future. This might not necessary mean going completely plastic free, but it definitely means being more consciously aware of the choices I make when buying and consuming products in the future. I have been choosing glass over plastic where ever I can. I switched to cloth napkins and towels instead of paper towels. I found toilet paper made from and wrapped in recycled paper, and I am finding more and more ways to switch household and beauty products to reusable options or zero waste options where I can.
Taking care of our land and waters is everyone's job and there is something we can all do to protect them for the future. Whether that is by choosing to switch to a more low waste lifestyle, or simply refusing single use plastics whenever you can. There is something we can all do, big or small, to make a difference in our world.