Plastic Free July: Take the Challenge

Vectorized image Santa Monica Pier California 2013-08-17, by Peteippel, openclipart.org.
Vectorized image Santa Monica Pier California 2013-08-17, by Peteippel, openclipart.org.

Would you be willing to stop all single-use plastic for one month? I was about to pat myself on the back when I saw the plastic bags stacked on the table—remnants of my online purchase I received today. Why did they have to put my items in plastic? Well, I'm going to have to do better. Would you like to join me for Plastic Free July? Together, we can learn and make a difference.

Plastic Free July

Last updated April 24, 2017

Plastic Free July began in Perth, Australia, 2011, as a way to increase awareness of plastic use. Now, it's an international event, where participants decrease or stop all single-use plastic during the month of July.

If committing to zero single-use plastic seems too difficult, then participants have the option to focus on the big four: coffee cups with lids, water bottles, plastic bags, and straws. Here's some information on the big four that might motivate you to join in!

Coffee cups and lids

What's that you say? But I thought coffee cups were made of paper? Yep—plastic-lined paper. Here's an interesting article from Grist on coffee cups and recycling.

As it turns out, recycling coffee cups is complicated, and although technically possible, it just doesn't happen due to lack of infrastructure and demand. Currently, in most communities, only cardboard cartons with three layers can be separated. But coffee cups have two layers, so they get left out in the cold. But I don't really want to drink coffee out of a plastic lined paper cup, anyway. Do you?

But what about the lids? Despite the fact that companies stamp recycling symbols on cup lids, in most cases, these smaller items have the potential to break recycling machinery. This chart from the Ecology Center provides a useful reference—guidelines that are fairly typical across many cities in the U. S.

Single-use water bottles

Have you ever wondered what happens to single-use plastic water bottles? Here's an interesting article in The Atlantic that describes the life of a water bottle. In the United States, we recycle only 31% of plastic beverage bottles, some of those becoming carpet, clothing or stuffing for teddy bears. Some of our plastic beverage bottles end up on a ship to China.

But in the U. S., there's a company that's actually turning single-use water bottles into more water bottles. Hooray! Well, I don't think so, really. Often, recycled water bottles cost more than new water bottles made from virgin plastic, due to the complexity of the manufacturing process. And I'm not convinced that consuming any beverage or food from a plastic container is a good idea.

Take a look at this article on chemical compounds and cancer on the Plastic Pollution Coalition website. And here's a nice short summary on the Adverse Health effects of Plastics on the Ecology Center website.

I would rather see single-use plastic bottles recycled than have them end up in our oceans, but because of health concerns, I don't think turning old water bottles into new ones makes much sense.

Plastic Bags

Whether you can recycle plastic bags or not, just as with many plastics, depends upon the community you live in. I checked the recycling chart pinned to our refrigerator, and, indeed, now we can recycle plastic bags in our curbside bins.

Fortunately, our city banned stores from using them last year. But for the few bags that do trickle into our community, once recycled, they become lumber, another plastic bag or carbon nanotube membranes.  

But besides the fact that many fear the lingering presence and toxicity of plastic, there's no denying that plastic bags reek havoc in the environment. They clog up storm drains, litter farms and streets and often end up in our oceans. Sea animals become trapped in them or mistake plastic bags for food. Also, they have a way of taking flight during garbage and recycling collection, drifting elsewhere on the currents of the wind.

What are the alternatives to single-use plastic bags? Are paper bags better? What about all of those trees? Did you know that it takes more energy to make a paper bag, when you consider the shipping along with the manufacturing? Well, that's easy. I'll do all my shopping with a reusable cotton bag. But cotton requires tons of water, more than required for most vegetables and animals. The cotton industry also uses a significant amount of pesticides and insecticides. One study even suggested that reusable bags made from recycled plastic were the best option.

There's more to consider, though, than the energy requirements to produce a bag. Reusable bags last a long time, and at least cotton and paper eventually degrade, unlike plastic, which is a toxin that lingers in the environment for 500-1000 years. Organic cotton and organic hemp bags make even better choices.

Straws

Did you know that humans have been using straws for over 7,000 years? I found an excellent resource on the life cycle of a straw, complete with the history of straws and the manufacturing process involved in making them. You can bet that these earliest straws contained plastic alternatives—how clever of them!

Just because a plastic item, such as a straw, contains recyclable materials, doesn't mean it's actually recycled. Like plastic coffee cup lids,  straws can clog the sorting equipment at recycling centers, making them more or less non-recyclable. And after discussing the more toxic nature of plastic, I wouldn't want to use a plastic straw anyway.

But let's not forget our animal friends. Have you seen the image of the turtle with a straw stuck in one of its nostrils? Here's a link to the Plastic Pollution Coalition page on straws, complete with a video of the turtle that made the anti-straw movement visually more potent. It's a tricky video to watch, but it does end well. You won't look at plastic straws the same ever again.

How do straws end up in our oceans? Just like with other plastics, trash tossed into gutters, rivers, and streams, makes its way to our oceans. In my post on plastics in our oceans, I refer to unprotected landfills and uncollected garbage in other countries as major contributors to plastics in our oceans.

We can't control the collection and disposal of garbage elsewhere, but we can inch a little closer to ending single-use plastic by simply refusing plastic straws. This eventually influences markets around the globe.

Colorful turtle with outline of body made of plastic bottles, courtesy of Plastic Free July
Colorful turtle with outline of body made of plastic bottles, courtesy of Plastic Free July

How can you help?

  • Take a look at the plastic Free July website here, and sign up for the challenge. They also have a Facebook page that anyone with a Facebook account can follow. I like how they emphasize that this isn't a contest; it's an opportunity to learn and for us as individuals to work on our plastic-free goals.
  • Begin planning ahead on how to stop single-use plastic in the big four categories. The Plastic Free July website along with the websites below have a wealth of information. If needed, Life Without Plastic sells plastic free straws, bags, water bottles, coffee cups with lids and other cool plastic-free stuff. Don't forget to check out secondhand shops and thrift stores, too.
  • Join me here for more posts during the month of July, and share your suggestions and tips in the comment section. It's amazing what we can learn by exchanging ideas and knowledge. I recently learned about storing fresh produce in glass jars from the Beth Plastic-Free Terry Facebook page. I've listed other online resources, below.

Some final thoughts.....

Even if you pick only one area to work on for Plastic Free July, that's progress, and I hope you celebrate! Doing nothing because you can't do everything isn't beneficial to you or the planet. And it doesn't even send a message to industry that we demand more options for packaging, especially single-use plastic packaging.

But this post wouldn't be complete without recognizing the economic constraints of many individuals and families. Purchasing frozen foods and vegetables, sometimes in bulk, is often a necessity for those on a tight budget. And besides, there's not a store in our town where we can purchase paper wrapped meat at the butcher counter.

Remember, focus on what you CAN do, not on what you can't. The numbers game is powerful. What if a billion people stopped single-use plastic for just one item? Industry would take notice.

Hopefully, I'll be seeing you around these parts for Plastic Free July. Until then, gather up those thoughts on reducing single-use plastic, and please, share them here for the benefit of all.

Laura

I would like to send out a special thanks to Cory at Aquarian Bath for filling me in on this project. If you haven't already checked out the Aquarian Bath website for personal care products, this would be an excellent time to do so! 

Also, Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve is another wonderful choice. I wrote a review on their products in 2015.

I purchase my hair and skin care products from both of the above companies, and they use little to zero plastic in their packaging. 

Related posts

Just so you know that I'm not perfect, here's a post on how our family kind of messed up on the whole reducing plastic thing. I seldom leave my wood, so I was caught unprepared planning a family day trip.

How have you minimized plastic use around your home? Check out the ways we've reduced household plastic, and please share your struggles and successes.

Microbeads in toothpaste - Unfortunately, this is true, but change is on the horizon. If you're looking for a simple DIY toothpaste, I have a simple recipe here.

Resources

Websites and Blogs

Helpful Articles