By Rebecca Prince-Ruiz
Plastic pollution is one of many problems facing our environment, and it’s gaining attention. On a regular basis, images appear in our social media feeds of turtles entangled in plastic fishing nets and dead albatross with brightly colored plastic objects in their stomachs. We read news stories of the health impacts of BPAs and other chemicals in plastic food packaging and we feel concern.
Plastic pollution/marine debris/trash/litter… whatever term you use, it’s matter out of place and it impacts our health, our environment and our economy.
Unlike many environmental issues, there is no argument about cause and effect—there are no “plastic pollution deniers." With few exceptions, every piece of plastic in the world’s oceans has been in someone’s hands. Those same hands hold the solutions, and with plastics being found in all of the world’s oceans, we all need to play a part. And it doesn’t take expensive equipment or sophisticated technology to be involved; it can start with us, and the choices we make as we go about our daily lives.
Our choices not only help keep single-use plastics from hurting the environment, they can also put pressure on manufacturers to make better products with less plastic.
When I decided to “go plastic free” for the first time by trying to refuse all single-use plastic for a month in 2011, to be honest—I didn’t think it would be that hard. I never accepted plastic shopping bags, I carried a reusable water bottle, and I tried to shop in bulk. I never imagined what a challenge it would be, or how many people would join in. After visiting a recycling facility and seeing the sheer volume of what we discard and the complexities of the recycling process, I just knew I needed to do something.
Once you start trying to avoid plastic, you soon realize that it’s everywhere, from the straw in a smoothie to the plastic lining of tinned foods to personal care products (which can contain plastic microbeads, nanoplastic particles and liquid plastics). What I soon realized was that I didn’t have all the answers, but that was OK—I didn’t need to. Within our initial group of 40 people we soon found recipes to try, stores selling bulk, and plastic-free alternatives, and we shared our solutions. Any plastic we couldn’t avoid went into our “dilemma bags” to be shared at the end of the month.
Our Plastic Free July challenge has become an annual event with over 36,000 people, schools and organizations from 85 participating countries. It has grown because people are concerned about the plastic pollution problem, and taking on the challenge is something tangible that everyone can participate in. People can sign up for a day, a week or a month. How?
Try to avoid ALL single-use plastics, or take on the top four: plastic bags, water bottles, straws and coffee cups.
Many people report that being part of a movement and sharing ideas, getting tips and recipes through an e-newsletter or social media, or attending a workshop makes it easier than trying to go plastic free by yourself.
Participating in the challenge is a good way to make (and keep) new habits. Many people already have reusable shopping bags, water bottles and coffee cups, but they aren’t much use in the back of a cupboard or left elsewhere in the house. It’s not about buying new stuff, but remembering to take the reusables you already have.
Plastic Free July is also an opportunity to explore alternatives in your area: Visit the farmers market, look for stores selling food in bulk, and find stores that will let you bring your own container. Buying plastic free most often means purchasing fresh local produce, without the processing, preservatives and palm oil that packaged foods usually contain.
Plastic Free July isn’t just about changing personal habits. It’s also about taking a personal concern and sharing the challenge in your community. Schools have held waste-free lunches, businesses are changing packaging practices, government departments hold plastic-free morning teas, farmers markets establish “mug libraries” for takeaway coffees, participants become bloggers, authors, activists and have even started their own bulk food stores.
When participants report back on these actions, we are able to share them online at PlasticFreeJuly.org, and these stories go on to inspire other groups and individuals around the world. At the heart of the campaign, sharing stories of self-described “ordinary people” inspires other people to think “I could do that." Some of these inspiring stories are contained in PFJ in action online.
Sharing the challenge around food is a popular way for people to inform their friends, colleagues and families in a positive way. Whether it’s a picnic, lunch or a Plastic Free Morning Tea, coming together to enjoy food is a good way to start a conversation. Schools and community groups have often taken this one step further by screening a documentary on plastic pollution such as Bag It, followed by a conversation and a plastic-free supper, which provides a turning point for action.
By creating a global network, participants are able to connect with other groups working on the issue, and utilize and share resources. The extent to which disposable plastics have become part of modern life means that cohesive efforts are required in order to challenge the status quo.
Your situation, where you live and what your circumstances are will to some degree govern just how “plastic free” you go, in some places it’s undoubtedly more difficult than others. However we can all do “something” to reduce our plastic footprint and we all have our own unique sphere of influence. Please join our challenge and find that one thing that only you can do.
Rebecca Prince-Ruiz is founder of Plastic Free July in Western Australia.