My Surprising Experience with #PlasticFreeJuly

When I started my #PlasticFreeJuly, I was shocked at how much single-use plastic had insinuated itself into my life. It was wrapped around practically everything. But when I looked for alternatives, I found many surprisingly easy to come across.

I documented my plastic-free month on my Twitter account, @pronouncedlaura. Not every bit of single-use plastic could be replaced, but there were plastic-free packaging alternatives for foodstuffs, cleaning supplies, shampoo…pretty much everything but medicines. In many cases, the “replacements” were more pleasing. I plan to stick with milk in glass bottles, for instance, and pick up the artisan bread in paper every chance I get.

One thing I enjoyed about #PlasticFreeJuly was the way it made me look outside my routine. How had I kept walking past that pastry case? Why didn’t I just carry a few reusable utensils in a pouch? Had soba noodles and those excellent peanut-butter malted milk balls always been right there in the bulk bins? Why had I been picking up meat at the grocery store when the local butcher was just as easy to reach, and rather nicer? Wasn’t it neat that the local ice cream shop didn’t have to shrink-wrap its hand-packed pints?

There were a few other positive side effects. By using less packaging, we created less waste, putting out less recycling and less garbage (also a savings in plastic, since our garbage utility requires plastic bags). Once candy started coming home in one of my reusable bags, I realized I could wash a beautiful glass canister that had been languishing in a cabinet and have a proper candy jar instead of a manufacturer’s bag. And I enjoyed the encouragement and ideas from others trying a #PlasticFreeJuly.

Where I Failed

I made a few choices that ended up in single-use plastics. When a smiling relative showed up with bubble tea, I didn’t turn them away. When a friend had a death in the family, I knew they’d need help with dinner and that I didn’t have time to cook them a meal. I got them takeout and didn’t think to ask about the plastics. When I ordered some clothes online, and every single item arrived in a plastic bag. I should have tried the thrift store first.

There were things I couldn’t avoid buying, notably medicines, that come in nothing but plastic. Most of the bottles are at least theoretically recyclable, but when they’re not…? I still need eyedrops and ibuprofen. Ever since the 1982 Tylenol murders, the U.S. has put a lot of safety seals on medicines and foods. Safety is good! I am a fan! I just wonder if there are better ways to do this, and I can’t do them alone.

Where We Can Do Better

We need research, both by companies and by independent researchers, to find out how to make what plastics we do need more sustainable. Maybe compostable, plant-based plastics could be loosely timed to the expiration date of the medicines, for instance. It doesn’t make sense that the packaging will outlive the product by a few centuries.

We need cleaner, more efficient transportation for goods. It didn’t escape my notice that most of the foods in glass were local. Glass is heavier than plastic, so it only makes sense that a company that’s trying to go national will switch to a lighter packing material to save on shipping costs. Cleaner, more efficient transportation would certainly take research, but I don’t think we’ll see a lot on that in the U.S. without regulations.

More regulation in general would be a good thing. Sometimes I couldn’t get away from a product in plastic, because there just wasn’t an alternative. So we need to let companies know what we’d rather buy. We need to let our electeds know, from the town hall to Congress, that this is important to us. And we may have to work at it with them at more places than just point-of-sale.

Where I Stand Now

Going (almost) without single-use plastics for a month wasn’t very hard for me. I enjoyed the way it made me notice the single-use plastics and the fact that I almost always found a workaround. That said, I’m fortunate in good health, transportation access, kitchen and storage space, adequate income, a flexible schedule, and a long growing season for food. For someone who has health needs requiring medicines or aids in plastic, or is sharing a small kitchen with three roommates, or doesn’t have the time and flexibility—let alone the money—to shop around, reducing plastic gets much more difficult.

I’m going to keep on doing what I can, but I think it’s important to work past our mistakes instead of beating ourselves up for them. I don’t regret getting food for grieving friends. Now I know I should keep an emergency casserole in the freezer, that’s all. I’m not going to pick on somebody who doesn’t have the wherewithal to make their own yogurt, and it’s not up to me to police who can do what. We need to make it easier for everybody to use less single-use plastic, and to make the single-use plastics we need safer for the environment.

Green goods shouldn’t be luxury goods. A life with fewer single-use plastics needs to be available to everyone.