Pesky plastic, it's everywhere, forever. It was and continues to be revolutionary, and the supermaterial has its place. That place is not inside oceans, or inside fish, in our clothes, on our fruits and vegetables, our beauty products, on almost everything we buy. Its place is most definitely not in streets, on beaches, in landfills decomposing for decades on end.
Consumers drive change
Plastic free choices are becoming more and more accessible all the time, as consumers put more pressure than ever on the companies and brands they use to offer sustainable alternatives. These sustainable changes cannot come soon enough.
Project MainStream, an initiative launched by Dame Ellen MacArthur with the World Economic Forum, published a groundbreaking report The New Plastics Economy. Here are some of the most shocking findings reported:
Each year, at least 8.8 million tons of plastics is leaked into the ocean. This is the equivalent of dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute
Unless corrective action is taken, this figure is expected to increase to two trucks per minute by 2030, and four per minute by 2050
The oceans currently hold over 150 million tons of plastic waste
If the way we vastly consume plastic is allowed to continue, the oceans will contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and more plastic than fish by 2050
Only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling
So we make different choices. We email the brands we buy from and we ask about different packaging options. We talk to our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours about plastic pollution, raising awareness. We take action to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Taking a stand
Here's where Plastic Free July comes in, an award-winning initiative part of the global organisation Plastic Free Foundation: an independent, not-for-profit that believes, amongst its other values, that "small changes add up to a big difference", and that providing solutions to those who want to make changes to the way that they consume plastic, is key.
Without further ado, here is a detailed guide on how to start making plastic free choices, put together by Plastic Free July. The checkpoints below are only the beginning. Once you've read these, head to their website where you can find a long, thorough list of alternatives for many widely-used products (e.g. dental care, sanitary care, pet care, balloons, bin liners, nappies and so many other sections), with clear explanations of why alternatives are necessary, what those alternatives are and how to find them, plus informative ways on taking further action.
Don't forget to sign up to take the challenge for helpful resources, tips, tricks and reminders throughout the month of July, and onwards.
How to go plastic free: getting started
Takeaway coffee cups
What you can do: bring along your own reusable cup. Keep it in your bag or on your desk at work; wherever you’ll remember to use it. You don’t even need to purchase a special cup. You can bring a mug or jar from home – just be conscious of using items that can heat up or don’t travel well if you’re going far.
Why should I do it? coffee cups are not recyclable in most locations. Even ‘compostable’ cups are rarely composted as they require very specific facilities and conditions. Also, bringing your own cup shows others how easy it is to reduce their waste, shows the shops that their customers don't want or need the plastic packaging, and it creates a new trend.
Next steps: spread the word about reusable coffee cups with others, especially those you go out for coffee runs with. You can also encourage and support cafes to become a part of the Responsible Cafe network.
Fruit & veg
What you can do: look out for loose fruit and vegetables in your local grocery store, or head to a farmers market or organic store where plastic packaging is less often used.
Why should I do it? you can help save plastic from entering our oceans and landfills where they break up into tiny micro plastics and remain forever. Plastic is also fatal for animals who mistake it for food or become entangled in it.
Next steps: support stores that provide loose fruit and vegetables or offer paper bags instead of plastic ones. If your local store doesn’t do this, why not share your concerns and request they reduce their plastic packaging.
Plastic shopping bags
What you can do: reusable shopping bags are a fantastic alternative to single-use plastic bags. Carry a reusable bag wherever you go. It’s a great idea to keep one somewhere where you’ll remember it, like in the boot of your bike or by your front door.
Why should I do it? By choosing to refuse plastic bags, you can save around 500 plastic bags per year from entering our oceans and landfills.
Next steps: To make an even greater impact, consider making your own reusable shopping bags using repurposed fabric. Check out the Boomerang Bags movement, there are even local groups to join.
If you prefer to buy, choose bags that are made from natural fibres such as such ethically-produced cotton, jute, or hemp or recycled plastic bottles.
For those living in places that have not banned the plastic bag yet, get involved with a local advocacy group and petition your governing body to make a change!
There is not currently a Boomerang Bags London group. Should we start one? Message us on Instagram and tell us if it's something you'd join 🧵
What you can do: if you’re able to, request your drink is made without a single-use plastic straw. It’s important that you ask this before your drink is made; if the straw is already in there when it’s brought to you, it’ll likely become plastic waste anyway.
For those with accessibility issues or who prefer straws, you can also bring your own sustainable alternatives. There are stainless steel, bamboo, and glass options available on the market, and even foldable reusable straws that you can easily keep in your bag or pocket.
Why should I do it? Single-use straws are used for a few minutes then discarded, where they’ll remain in the environment indefinitely. They are lightweight and easily blown down drains and into waterways, rivers and oceans. Straws can become stuck in the airways of animals, or if mistaken for food and ingested can be fatal.
Next steps: going beyond refusing single-use straws, you can also encourage and support businesses to only provide straws when requested, rather than as a default.
You can also encourage schools, day care centres, and other child-minding communities you may be involved with to rethink the use of plastic straws in arts and crafts.
Plastic water bottles - an important one for summer
What you can do: avoid buying single-use plastic water bottles by carrying your own reusable alternative with you. Be sure to choose a socially-responsible and environmentally-friendly alternative, such as a reusable bottle made from stainless steel, glass, or safe aluminium.
If you do forget to bring your water bottle along with you, don’t panic. You can find a fountain, ask a cafe for a glass of water, or purchase a glass bottle of water and reuse it.
Why should I do it? you'll be reducing the pollution produced by plastic water bottles, which end up in landfills and impact millions of animals and habitats.
Next steps: encourage and support businesses to provide refillable water stations.
You can also talk to school campuses about rethinking selling bottled water to their students.
And finally, don’t underestimate the impact of writing to your local government. Ask them to ban single-use plastic and hold manufacturers accountable by implementing extended producer responsibility schemes.
At the bakery
What you can do: Unfortunately, many bakeries package their bread, rolls, and other baked goods in plastic. Most local bakeries, farmers markets and even supermarkets have sections with freshly baked goods that are yet to be packaged; by heading along with your own reusable bread bag or containers, you can easily avoid single-use plastic packaging.
If you forget to bring your own, you can also ask for a paper bag (which you can recycle later on if clean, or compost).
Why should I do it? Please see all reasons previously noted.
Next steps: bringing your own reusable containers and produce bags to do your grocery shopping helps sets a precedent that shows people just how easy it can be to avoid single-use plastic.
Meat, fish & deli
What you can do: choose to refuse pre-packaged meat, fish and deli products, particularly those sold on polystyrene trays.
It’s worth shopping around for a local butcher, fishmonger or deli-counter who sell unpackaged items. Just remember to bring your own reusable container along when you go shopping.
Why should I do it? See all reasons above.
Next steps: you can encourage and support businesses to offer meat, fish and deli items that are unpackaged. You can also talk to them about alternatives to plastic packaging, or direct them to the Plastic Free July website for them to find helpful resources.
Supporting campaigns calling for single-use plastics (including polystyrene) to be banned can also go a long way.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
What you can do: Reduce what you buy. Before you make a purchase, ask yourself if you truly need it, or if you can repurpose other items that you already have. Shopping for secondhand clothing and products helps contribute to less waste. Avoid products that are wrapped in plastic, and seek more sustainable alternatives.
Reuse plastic items as much as possible or take to a secondhand or charity shop where possible so they don’t end up in landfill.
Recycle correctly, and choose to buy recycled products to close the loop.
Learn about the process and impacts of our production and consumption patterns, and the role of recycling, at the Story of Stuff (20 minutes).
Before you make a purchase, ask yourself 3 simple questions:
Do I actually need this?
Is there an option with less plastic packaging?
Is there an alternative made from recycled materials?
Be aware that recycling rules may change, and aren’t necessarily always the ‘best’ option. In other words, ‘reduce’ should still be your top priority. In saying that, you can still work towards becoming an expert recycler using these tips:
Find out what’s recyclable in your area
Check the rules for recycling in your area (e.g. which items to separate, rinse or take to a specialist collection point)
Ask what can and can’t go in your recycling bins (for example, many recycling systems can’t take old toys, clothing, scrap metal or some types of plastic)
Why should I do it? All of the oil, water and other resources used to make products is wasted if those products aren’t recycled. By reducing, reusing, and recycling, you can help minimise landfill waste.
Next steps: if you can’t recycle items in your local area, search for special recycling companies near you such as TerraCycle.
You can also support campaigns for:
Local and on-shore recycling facilities, to reduce the pollution caused by transporting goods
Governments to regulate manufacturers to minimise packaging and use sustainable materials
Governments holding manufacturers accountable by implementing extended producer responsibility schemes
Main image: "Vida Tóxica" (Toxic Life), created by Catalan artist Alvaro Soler Arpa, is fourteen sculptures made with animal bones and plastic waste. The sculptures emphasize the human impact of runaway plastic pollution on ecosystems and individual animals.