Overwhelmed by the idea of cutting plastic out of your life?
Like so many people, it was the footage of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II that first jolted me into awareness of plastic pollution. And as I started to dig into the stats, I was shocked at the scale of the problem.
Here are a few of those stats from Lucy Siegle’s Turning the Tide on Plastic:
- The plastic we throw away in a single year could circle the earth four times
- Out of the 320 million metric tonnes of new plastic mass-produced each year – almost all from oil – eight million tonnes leak into the world’s oceans and waterways
- Every minute of every day, one million plastic bottles are used
- In the last decade we’ve produced more plastic than we did during the whole of the last century
- By 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by their weight than fish.
We have a real problem on our hands and, as Lucy told me recently, it’s only getting worse as cheap shale gas from America is fuelling a boom in plastic manufacturing.
So whether you’ve come to this moment from a specific event or simply a growing frustration over the amount of plastics you encounter in your everyday life – it’s time to say ‘enough is enough’.
But a word of caution: you don’t need to throw all your plastic away on Day One. Lindsay from Treading My Own Path makes the very good point that while it can be temping to start with a clean slate, throwing all your plastic away in one go generates a huge amount of plastic waste.
‘If your main motivation for embracing plastic-free living and zero waste is to reduce waste, this is completely counter-productive.’Lindsay, Treading My Own Path
Her advice is to start slow and replace the plastic items with plastic-free alternatives as they reach the end of their life or if you find someone who needs it and will use it. ‘Plastic-free and zero waste livings is a journey, not a race.’
5 Ways to Ditch Plastic
1. Identify the plastic in your life
‘Getting to grips with your household’s plastic habit is the first step in turning off the tap of unnecessary plastics that flowing into our lives,’ writes Lucy Siegle in her book. And she’s right. It’s important to start with a full picture of how much plastic you encounter both in and outside your home.
Rather than feeling like this is an onerous task, try treating it like a scavenger hunt with your partner or children, going room by room and noting the examples of plastic material. And don’t forget to chart the interactions you have with plastic outside your home.
However you approach it, the main tool you need is Lucy’s plastic diary. ‘Simply put, you put aside fifteen minutes each day to register and record as much of the plastic that flows into your life as possible. Keeping your personal household diary for four weeks (or at the very least two weeks) will give you an invaluable, most probably shocking, perspective on your personal plastic footprint…
‘The diary is in the form of a grid, where you can enter as many pieces of plastic that come into your life as possible…My version has eight columns (see example below). Yours might be simpler: to note essentials, the type of object and the number of items. However, the more information you record, the better.’
On your plastic diary, you will mark down the source of the plastic and whether it was avoidable, useful or necessary. You decide if it’s single-use or if it could be used multiple times. She asks people to note whether it was uninvited plastic, purchased or as part of a product or if it was free. She said that people are often surprised by how much uninvited plastic is foisted on them in a month.
Once you have the results, it’s likely you’ll see some immediate areas where you could make a difference with a few small tweaks. Lucy recommends trying to cut the amount of single-use plastic you go through in a month by half. What follows are some ideas on how to proceed.
2. Set realistic goals
Plastic Free July uses the framework of a month, which is really helpful. Most people can try something new for 31 days. But you probably won’t change your entire life in that amount of time, and we don’t recommend you try! Everyone is juggling a lot right now, so be sure to give yourself the flexibility you need to make this work within your current routines.
You could choose one item of single-use plastic this month and make the effort to refuse it or replace it with a plastic-free alternative. Take a look at your next grocery shop and see if you can find the ingredients you need in bulk or in a glass jar instead of a plastic bottle. Or you could choose a room and focus your efforts on eliminating the plastic there that’s at the end of its life.
And you need to work with where you and your family are on the journey. My husband prefers his electric toothbrush, so compostable bamboo ones aren’t yet an option. But I did find a brand that offer a recycling scheme so I can simply send the used brush heads back to the company to dispose of in a way that doesn’t end up in landfill.
It’s better to start small and succeed with those things than not start at all because you can’t change everything at once.
3. Reduce and refuse
These are two of the pillars in Lucy Siegle’s approach to cutting down on plastic in your life. We recommend starting with the basics outlined below, and while some of them may sound obvious, you’d be surprised how many people haven’t done them yet.
- Swap the plastic bags at the supermarket for a reusable one in natural fibres – including in the fruit and veg aisle where you can opt for loose items rather than packaged
- Refuse plastic straws; you can take a reusable straw with you or simply drink from the side of the cup
- Put a set of cloth garden gloves in the car to use at petrol stations rather than using a disposable glove and make sure you wash them regularly
- Cut down on fizzy drinks, juice and snacks on the go as well as ready meals from the supermarket – all of which are overloaded with plastic
- Cook at home where possible and take your lunch to work or school. If that’s not possible, take a set of cutlery with you for the takeaway
- Swap plastic wrap for beeswax wrap – there are even vegan options
- Shop at local farmer’s markets, health food stores, zero waste or bulk shops and boutique stores that allow you to bring your own containers
- Refuse unsolicited direct mail through the Mail Preference Service in the UK (mpsonline.org.uk) or the Direct Marketing Association Preference Service in the USA (dmachoice.thedma.org)
4. Replace and refill
These are two more Rs from Lucy that will help you take your plastic-free game to the next level.
- If you can’t live without fizzy drinks, invest in a SodaStream and make your own – less plastic and it’s healthier for you!
- Look for glass bottles instead of plastic, especially in the kitchen; it’s easier to recycle and non-toxic
- If you need plastic containers, look for BPA-free containers – often marked with a #4 or #5 on the reverse side; Bisphenol A is a chemical additive that disrupts hormones
- Swap bottles of laundry detergent to cardboard boxes or try soap nuts – ‘dried fruit shells containing a natural soap harvested from the Sapindus bush’
- When your toothbrush needs replacing, consider one made from bamboo which can be composted, but check what the bristles are made of before disposing
- Soap bars can now take the place of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, shaving foam and bottles of hand soap
- Make the switch from regular menstrual products to a reusable one – whether in the form of cups, pads, pants or in the form of cardboard tampon applicators
- If you have kids, swap the disposable plastic nappies for reusable cloth ones; even biodegradable nappies will takes hundreds of years to break down in landfill
- When it comes to kids toys, switch from plastic to wood, swap with friends or buy toys secondhand from charity shops or Ebay
- Buy a refill water bottle and coffee mug (here’s why it’s still ok to use reusables during COVID)
- You can buy items in bulk and refill the bottles you already have – things like shampoo and conditioner if you can’t get on with the bars, cleaning supplies or dry store-cupboard ingredients
- Lucy also talks about cleaning products in concentrate that only require you to add water and refill your existing bottles
5. Get a little help from your friends
Change is always easier if don’t go it alone.
Recruit a friend, family member or colleague at work to go on the plastic-free journey with you. Join a local zero waste community or follow a few people on social media who can share what they’re doing. Sign the pledge with Plastic Free July and sign up for their tips on reducing plastic in your life.
And share what you’re learning along the way. Who knows who you may inspire to do their bit for the planet.