Unwrapping Plastic Free July

'Display of fresh plastic wrapped yellow, orange and red cherry tomatoes.' Image sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 1085233847.

This July, the team at the Sydney Environment Institute participated in the Plastic Free July Challenge, and while it was difficult, we are pleased to have contributed towards the global movement to help end plastic pollution. It is especially exciting to have participated in 2018, as Plastic Free July organisers recently announced that this year’s challenge had been the most successful to date, with over three million participants in 177 countries registering for the challenge.

It’s important to note that despite our attempt at Plastic Free July being a success because we each kept it up until the very end of the month; our effort was not free of mistakes. At some point over the month, we each encountered some plastic, and the challenge was harder for some than others.

SEI’s Eloise Fetterplace attempted Plastic Free July while moving, and despite her dedication, she found that life has a funny habit of throwing plastic in your path. Eloise explains that:

“I moved to a new house the day before starting Plastic Free July, and while I was determined to go completely plastic-free for the month, I soon learnt that it was impossible. At first, I succeeded in finding creative ways to transport my belongings, like using a huge cotton bag to carry my clothes from my car to my house. I’m not sure what I would have done without that bag! But eventually, plastic infiltrated the move. Trips to a furniture stores were eye-opening because everything came bundled in plastic, and all of the future being delivered was wrapped in even more unnecessary plastic. It was overwhelming. The worst was trying to stock a pantry from scratch without buying plastic, but I did it.”

Despite our best efforts to avoid plastic, we experienced situations where we needed to consume plastic. Alice Simpson-Young, SEI Honours Research Fellow, explains that:

“I found it extremely challenging to avoid toothpaste, Panadol sleeves, rubbers bands, soy milk, labels on vegetables, fruit stickers and the plastic windows on envelopes. Although I use a moon cup, I still wanted to occasionally use tampons. These are the major barriers I think I will continue to experience in my efforts to live plastic free. The rest of my plastic waste was shameful and avoidable, although it is still progress!”

The only plastic Alice consumed in July.

The feelings of failure whenever we consumed plastic were strong throughout the team, which is linked to the fact that we are collectively passionate about ending plastic pollution. Despite these negative emotions, the challenge also delivered serval positives, including opportunities for learning.

For example, the challenge highlighted how plastic pollution intersects with other environmental and social justice issues. Killian Quigley, SEI Postdoctoral Research Fellow, explains that the Plastic Free July challenge made him aware of the connections between plastic and meat eating, as mass-produced meat is typically packaged in single-use plastic.

“I eat omnivorously, but over the course of Plastic-Free July, the proportion of meat in my diet has diminished, and permanently so, I reckon. Think of supermarkets and the extraordinary enwrapping of flesh! And imagine the ways we’d be compelled to engage with that flesh, were it somewhat less contained” said Killian.

Despite the challenge coming to an end, we at SEI are keen to continue the momentum by maintaining the habits we adopted during July. Alice found that by doing the challenge, she now knows that she can commit to being plastic-free in the long term. Alice explains that:

“There were various completely unexpected benefits of doing Plastic Free July! I had experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I had an ice cream in a cone, instead of a cup for the first time in 10 years, and I really enjoyed it! I got interesting cheese from the Deli section, instead of normal cheese in plastic.

Once I noticed I was having less of an impact through my waste reduction, I found myself working on other areas of my life where I am having an impact. I saw myself taking the stairs instead of the elevator (no idea why that happened!), and I purchased a bike and have been using it daily for three weeks now. 

The fact that it is easier to consume than not to consume is the disappointing truth in all of this. Although overall, Plastic Free July was an enjoyable and satisfying experience. It was unexpectedly achievable (in my circumstances, can’t speak for others!) and will likely lead to a long-term change in my habits.”

While the challenge had its ups and downs, many of the strategies we undertook to limit and avoid plastics are things that we at the SEI will continue to apply in our day to day lives (even if we are less strict at enforcing them). We would like to share our top tips for success, that can be easily replicated by others who want to reduce their plastic waste.

  1. When it comes to cutting down plastic pollution, preparation is the key. The SEI team all carried reusable items such as coffee cups, grocery bags, water bottles and containers to ensure that we didn’t need plastics. Taking the time every day to plan can go a long way to reducing single-use plastic.
  2. Plastic Free July highlighted to us, more than anything, that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and ask our local businesses for change. Killian and Anja both explained that at first, they were hesitant to go into their local butchers and delis with a keep container. But, once they asked the staff and explained why they were using their own containers, the staff were happy to accommodate.
  3. Buying groceries from bulk and packaging-free stores helped some of us cut down on our plastic waste. Bulk stores are usually single-use plastic free and allow you to bring in your own While these places aren’t accessible to all and are usually located in the inner city, you can use this bulk foods map to find one nearest you.
  4. In the words of Eloise ‘never try to eat on the fly’. The majority of us were most often faced with the prospect of failing the challenge when it came to poor food preparation. We struggled during the work week when we didn’t bring our lunch because we couldn’t find foods on Campus that weren’t packaged in plastic, meaning that in order to avoid plastic and hunger, we had to diligently plan out our meals.

Anastasia Mortimer is the Knowledge Translation Officer & Content Editor at the Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours in Sociology 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 between the State Government and Kimberly First Australians in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.

Alice Simpson-Young is a 2018 Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. She has a Bachelors of Science, and Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Environmental Studies and Government and International Relations from the University of Sydney and is currently undertaking Honours in the Department of Government and International Relations. Alice’s research aims to explore Sydney and Melbourne’s Resilience Strategies, to understand to what extent environmental justice, vulnerability and social resilience are incorporated.