Written by Marta Olszewska
You’ve probably heard that in 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
If this is not scary enough, I don’t know what is (well, climate change, but those go hand in hand).
Producing plastic involves fossil fuels and leaves a giant carbon footprint. Plastic bottles followed by food wrappers, and cigarette butts are the top contributors to freshwater plastic pollution.
The thing about plastic is that only as little as 10–15% of it is being recycled globally right now. Single use plastic bottles can be recycled only once and some of them (non-transparent ones) are difficult, if not impossible, to reuse.
Also, it takes them 450 years to decompose.
As a result of not being recycled, plastic finds its way to landfills where it lives forever and to our rivers and oceans (8 million pieces every single day) where it poses a real threat to various marine life species, killing more than 1 million of them every year.
Here is a shocking video of birds found on the Lord Howe Island near Australia. Cause of their death? They were filled with plastic which perforated their gut.
And it’s not only plastic litter and marine debris that ends up in our oceans. Microplastics washed out from clothes made of synthetic fabrics such as viscose are consumed by fish and make their way back to our food chain. Result: we eat plastic. In fact, each of us eats 70,000 microplastics every year - an equivalent of one plastic credit card per week! The potential risk on our health hasn’t been fully identified yet, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
If you’re even as half preoccupied by this as I am, read on.
Recycle? No question about it! But most importantly — REDUCE plastic.
Wanting to educate myself on ways to reduce plastic, I joined the #plasticfreejuly. challenge. Day by day I faced new challenges and discovered yet another area of my life which needed a mindset change.
But, let me start from the beginning.
#PlasticFreeJuly is a movement born to help millions of people around the world reduce plastic waste. Throughout the entire month of July, they provide resources and tips to limit plastic in all areas of our lives. The challenge to refuse single-use plastics in July has inspired over 120 million people in 177 countries.
It’s a month of discovery and the beginning of some necessary habit changing.
When you start reducing plastic, you start questioning choices of your everyday life and sometimes it may all seem too daunting or too small to matter. Questions such as: “Am I really making a difference?” can take you down a dangerous spiral of thoughts which may result in inertia: doing nothing.
Knowing that some of the biggest plastic polluting countries are China, US, Germany, Brasil, and that The East Asia and Pacific region dominates global mismanaged plastic waste (60%), I repeatedly asked myself: does it make a difference to drive change outside of those countries?
Does it make a difference to act single-handedly when this is a serious global challenge which needs to be addressed by country leaders and result in new policies?
I still think it does. Here’s why.
Changing even one habit already makes a difference and minimizes demand for certain products. Asking challenging questions to brands (often located in the polluting countries) and talking about this topic sparks conversation and awareness amongst people worldwide. It makes companies more transparent about their processes and supply chains as well as creates demand for new, eco-conscious and sustainable businesses forcing traditional brands to adapt.
Going plastic-free requires a big re-adjustment and it is something you cannot expect to change in a week or even a month. It’s a process of self-education, learning, and exploration. So, if you want to start reducing plastic, I think it’s best to keep your expectations in check and know IT IS OK to do it step by step, not all at once.
One of my takeaways from #plasticfreejuly challenge is that the switch is possible, but is definitely not easy. It requires extra planning, guts to refuse, asking many questions, and most importantly, new habit forming.
This is not to discourage anyone, but rather help you go into it with the right mindset and ready to face some roadblocks ahead.
Since reducing plastic involves habit changing, a lot of time needs to be invested in finding new brands for everything, localizing zero waste shops, or making your own products. (I’m definitely not there yet!). And in extreme cases, it means letting go of your favorite brands or food types, simply because they always come in plastic.
It also means extra planning whenever going grocery shopping, ordering food to take away, going to the beach, or traveling. Spontaneous trips to the shop around the corner will most likely result in unwanted plastic. So will going out without your water bottle.
Once you get organized and know where to get all you need, it becomes part of your daily routine and is much more manageable than at the beginning.
How comfortable are you to explain to the lady behind the counter (in a foreign language) that "no, you don’t need it wrapped in plastic", while there are several people in line waiting impatiently?
Sometimes I do it, other times, I simply give up.
Often you need to anticipate that your drink in a restaurant will come with a straw (or two! why??) or that your water will be served in a plastic bottle. And you need to have guts and patience to refuse them upfront. I’m lactose intolerant, so combined with all my questions about dairy in the menu, I become the most annoying customer of all times.
Last but not least, since this is a lifestyle change, you probably should tell your family and friends about it if you want to stop receiving gifts that involve plastic or take part in activities where excessive plastic consumption is involved.
My recommendation is to always be patient and explain with a smile: I'm trying to avoid single-use plastic as much as possible. Could you please pack the cheese in this container I brought with me?"
Many aspects of going plastic-free are good for your wallet. Swapping hundreds of tampons for one menstrual cup. Buying certain products in bulk. Thrift shopping for clothes. Simply reducing excessive shopping. The list goes on.
But, there are a few life areas where it is much more expensive. Organic cosmetics that come in glass bottles are sometimes cheaper than higher end brands, but still way more expensive than the supermarket ones.
Cost is one thing, convenience is another. I feel privileged to be able to get out of my way and buy different products in six shops scattered around town. But how many of us have time to run around town in search for products? And if we need to drive 40 minutes to get there, doesn’t it defeat the purpose?
Look for alternatives that are within your reach and if it's too hard, try to reduce the frequency of buying things that come in plastic. Also, it's important to accept that perfection doesn't exist and there will be times where you simply cannot avoid it.
Although it is not easy, it is possible. Every decision and choice you make, matters. If you start thinking this way, you realize how many life aspects you can actually change.
Let’s face it. Plastic is everywhere and touches upon many areas of our lives. Let’s take a look at some of them one by one:
The good news is that we've started building a network of water refill stations in Barcelona and soon you will be able to find them all in our free app.
The amount of cigarette butts collected at one of Barcelona beaches during one weekend:
Esto es lo que se ha recogido este fin de semana en una playa de Barcelona. Pero los que no pueden ir son los perros pic.twitter.com/7Od63YId6b— Andalucillo (@Andalucillo) July 19, 2019
Use bamboo toothbrush and toothpaste in a glass jar (I failed in the latter, see below!)
Update: When it comes to bamboo toothbrush, my dentist told me to stop buying it and invest in an electric toothbrush which leaves your teeth cleaner and more healthy. When it comes to health, I prefer not to compromise.
Use a bar body soap — I found this lovely organic business, Moonvaley Organics, created by a couple who runs a farm in Deming, WA. It just happens to be selling in an eco shop on my street. Recently I've switched to a more local alternative from La Chinata.
Look for cosmetics that come in glass bottles — I buy my body lotion in Biompompas and discovered Evolut cosmetics which are natural and available in glass containers.
Get reusable cotton pads for makeup removal — I use each several times and then wash them all with my laundry.
Reuse empty containers for other purposes.
Lady products - switch to a menstrual cup, and get reusable or at least organic pads or liners.
Make your own products - like a body scrub.
An incredible, thought-provoking art installation by Von Wong and Laura François that illustrates the amount of clothing one person owns in their lifetime. Read about it here.
Phew! There you go. This is just a small start, but it is worthwhile.
And to end with, here are the notes from my July (and beyond) wins and fails.
There are probably more failures than that, but I try to focus on celebrating the little wins. It’s only the beginning.
How about you? Have you started to reduce plastic from your life? What’s the most challenging aspect of it for you? Do you have any tips to share?
Co-founder of Refill Aqua striving to reduce single-use plastic waste. Marta is also a marketing consultant and growth mentor helping startups tell better stories through content.
Convenient or incredibly wasteful? Single-use plastic takes centuries to decompose, but it’s so easy to reduce. ★ Here's how!
9 min read