Six years ago, I was like most people -- requesting double plastic bags at the grocery store, buying bottled water, living on processed convenience foods in plastic packaging, and not really worrying about where all that packaging came from or where it was going to end up. It was not until I read an article about plastic pollution in the ocean and saw a photo of a dead albatross chick whose body was completely full of everyday plastic pieces, that I realized my personal actions actually mattered -- that my choices had an impact on creatures I hadn't even known existed. I decided to see if it would be possible to live without acquiring any new plastic -- either disposable or durable plastics -- and to measure my plastic footprint by collecting the plastic waste I generated.
Back then, living plastic-free was harder than it is now because there wasn't so much information available about plastic-free alternatives. I took it slow, one step at a time, and as I used up items packaged in plastic, I would try and find substitutions.
Here are the easiest steps I took right off the bat:
- Bringing my own reusable shopping bags and always having at least one with me at all times -- just in case. (Once, my husband and I ended up carrying fresh fruit out of a store rolled up in our shirts -- just like the guy in the Plastic-Free July video -- because we had forgotten our reusable bags while on vacation. But that just helped us remember the next time.)
- Getting a stainless steel water bottle and quitting bottled water. (Back in the 80's, we said that Evian was "naive" spelled backwards. Who would pay for water in a plastic bottle?)
- Ditching liquid soap and switching back to bar soap. (I say switching back because liquid soap is a fairly recent invention.)
- Carrying my own reusable container, mug, and utensils (even a glass drinking straw) to avoid disposable restaurant packaging.
- Buying my produce "naked" instead of putting it in a separate plastic produce bag just to carry it home. (My apples and oranges have yet to get in a fight from touching each other in transit.)
Here are some cool ideas I discovered along the way:
- Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and vinegar (which can be purchased in a glass bottle) are miracle substances that can be used for everything from household cleaning to personal care (shampoo/conditioner, deodorant, tooth brushing, and more.) Using baking soda as deodorant is one of my favourite money-saving discoveries and works better than any commercial deodorant I have ever tried.
- In addition to solid hand soap, there are solid or dry versions of many different personal care products -- lotion, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, laundry soap -- and that switching from liquids to solids or powders can reduce the need for plastic packaging.
- I can make a lot of my own processed foods that normally come in plastic -- things like yogurt, ketchup, mustard, chocolate syrup (my favorite!) -- and not only avoid plastic but also a lot of the preservatives and other chemicals in processed foods.
- When I truly need a durable plastic item, I can look for it secondhand rather than buying it new from the store. This saves the energy and plastic that would have gone into a new item, as well as the excess packaging that would have come with a new item.
- When faced with a decision, I can take the time to decide if something I think I want right now is something that will really make me happy in the long run. Or is it just more "stuff" that would end up cluttering my life anyway?
I'm still learning these lessons. Back in 2007, I bought a brand new soy milk maker, thinking that it would save many disposable cartons (cardboard cartons coated inside and out with plastic). I used it a few times, and then it ended up sitting on my counter, taking up space and not doing any good to anyone, until just this week I posted it for sale on Craigslist. Living with less plastic teaches us what is really important in life -- and that most of us only really need just a few things to be happy.
Several years into my plastic-free experiment, I realized I had accumulated enough information for a book, and that the hardest part of going plastic-free is researching all the many alternatives that are out there. I had also learned a ton of stuff about plastics -- how they are made, the truth about plastic recycling, why they may all be dangerous to our health (including those labelled BPA-Free), and the pros and cons of things like silicone and bioplastics. So I wrote Plastic-Free to give other people the guide book I wished had existed back in 2007 when I was first getting started. And I was lucky to find a publisher that was committed to creating the book without any plastic materials -- no plastic coatings or thread or even glue. The book is available everywhere books are sold -- including Australia! -- and is also available now as an e-book and soon as an audiobook (I've been spending my weekends in a recording studio reading the book and even adding updates as I go along.) Many libraries have the book too (although ironically, they are all covering it in protective plastic covers.)
Finally, after 6 years of working to reduce my plastic use, I feel like my actions are part of a movement vastly bigger than myself. Events like Plastic-Free July blow me away. Imagine, an entire country trying to reduce its plastic use for an entire month. I want to help the momentum of Plastic-Free July spread across the globe -- or at least to my corner of it. Kudos to all of you. I'm honoured to be a part of this effort.