Reflecting on an almost Plastic Free July

‘While doing the challenge, I noticed that plastic is everything and everywhere and that it was not possible to do this challenge without benefiting from the ease of plastic in some way.’

Image by Natalia Klenova via Shutterstock, Stock photo ID: 400095169

Last month I participated in the Plastic Free July challenge, which aimed to educate people on the issues of plastic pollution and to encourage participants to stop or limit their plastic consumption for the month of July.

An option for the challenge was to go completely plastic free or to stop consuming single and disposable plastic for the month. I chose to go completely plastic-free because 1) I thought going completely plastic-free would be easy (spoiler – it wasn’t), and 2) my plastic consumption and waste were already because I always carry a metal drink bottle; drink takeaway coffee from a keep cup; use fabric shopping bags; carry my own cutlery; and (usually) bring a container with me when I eat at a restaurant.

They don’t call it the Plastic Free July Challenge for nothing. We live in a world that does not accommodate for the plastic-free folk, but somehow, we need to adapt and make lifestyle changes if we are to face the challenges of the future.

How I failed at the Plastic Free July Challenge

My reason for doing the challenge is that I am guilty of claiming that ‘I already do enough’ *insert reason and complain about people who don’t do all the wonderful things that I do for the planet.*

However, while doing the challenge, I noticed that plastic is everything and everywhere and that it was not possible to do this challenge without benefiting from the ease of plastic in some way.

Every product in my life was either made of or packaged in plastic, at some point in its production cycle. My furniture at work and home, my cooking utensils, my hair and beauty products – everything in my life is plastic. The world we live in is plastic. That realisation was disheartening.

The hardest part of the challenge was when I ran out of shampoo and foundation. I realised that all of my beauty and hair products are heavily packaged in plastic. These items are not necessary for my day-to-day life, but I am a vapid consumer, and I like them. This happened ten days in, and I found it difficult to adapt.

Staying true to the challenge, I couldn’t buy new products and managed to last a week without them. I tried making my own shampoo out of baking soda and tea tree oil (tried being the operative word here). But eventually I caved, and I bought my expensive, unnecessary, plastic shampoo and makeup. I regret nothing!

A plastic-free life is an expensive life

It became apparent early on that going completely plastic-free was going to be costly. Before the challenge, I would usually spend $30-40 a week on my groceries. During the challenge, the cost went to $90.

The cheapness of my usual food bill comes from me being a vegan, living of bags of chickpeas, lentils, and rice for $2 a kilo. I could no longer buy my cheap environmentally, socially and economically unjust legumes, pasta, cereals, soymilk and tofu products because they were wrapped and packaged in, you guessed it, plastic. Awful, unnecessary, harmful plastic.

I had to start shopping at specialty health and wholefood stores to purchase my food because they allowed for customers to bring their own containers or use the paper bags available in store. However, the reality was that the products sold in the stores were held in large plastic tubes, and were most likely packaged in plastic before they made it to the store. I ignored this, or else I would have starved (because in this polluted world, plastic is everywhere).

These products cost more because that is what happens when you buy food from a store that promotes an eco-friendly just supply chain.

However, it does not sit right with me that to successfully go plastic free; you need to spend a lot more money. The expenses associated with a plastic-free lifestyle isolates a lot of people who are not as fortunate as me to have a job that pays well. I am lucky to have a relatively disposable income, which I have from a job I got straight out of university. I recognise that I am in a position of privilege, but for the majority, this is not the reality, and most people could not spend double the amount of money to avoid plastic in their weekly shop.

How can we make the plastic-free life more accessible for people who can’t spend a lot of money to buy from stores that don’t sell products in plastic? This is a question which we need to find answers to if we are to address the issue of plastic pollution.

The accidental benefits of going plastic free for the month

I had to meticulously plan all my meals each day so that I would not have to buy food because chances are, it would not be plastic free. This was annoying, but I got used to it, and now it has become a habit.

Because I spent the month eating whole foods and avoiding all packaged foods, I ended up having a really healthy month. I resented the fact that this challenge meant that I could no longer indulge in my favourite unhealthy snacks, but I got used to it. I realise now that I am adaptable, if not reluctantly so.

Have I changed for the better? No, of course not

I personally cannot keep up being completely plastic free, which probably means I failed the challenge. The challenge attempted to make its participants realise that our plastic dependency can be broken and that at the end of the month we would come to find that I could live without plastic.

Although I know I can, I also know that I don’t want to. I am a grotesque consumer who loves my cheap packaged foods and overly packaged beauty and hair products. Does this make me a bad environmentalist? Probably. Am I to blame when the world burns? Definitely.

However, since completing the challenge, I have put restrictions on my wasteful, plastic filled lifestyle because of environmental guilt. I have taken a stance only to buy beauty products that are not held/ packaged in 100% plastic and which have recyclable elements. This is not going to achieve much, but it is something.

I have also decided to try buying my shampoo and conditioner from a specialty store, which makes their products and encourages you to bring back the bottles for recycling. Although, honestly, if I hate the formula and what it does to my hair I will revert to my overpriced, environmentally destructive products.

While I believe in the message of Plastic Free July, and the desperate need for us to stop consuming and producing plastic, I also recognise that this is unpractical in the current world we live in. If we are to make a change, we need to drastically change how manufacturing industries and consumers use and view plastic consumption.

How will this happen? I am not sure.

Anastasia Mortimer is the Knowledge Translation Officer & Communications Coordinator at The Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours. Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.