Take the packaging – to eliminate plastic waste from your life…
As soon as Carolyn Armstrong started looking for plastic in her life, she realized it was absolutely everywhere.
There are plastic water bottles and straws, of course, but also makeup, clothing, laundry detergent, wrappers and food wrappers. “Everything we use is encased in plastic,” says Armstrong. “Sometimes I go to the grocery store and take pictures of the fruit that’s hiding behind the plastic and email the store and say, ‘Please stop doing this!'”
The 52-year-old author first thought of eliminating plastic from her life when she was looking for a children’s book about ocean plastic pollution, and soon joined Go Green Winnetka, a local environmental activism group. But this year, for the first time, Armstrong took its commitment one step further, pledging to go plastic free for an entire month. She’s far from alone: For more than a decade, people around the world have made a similar pledge, officially known as Plastic Free July.
It’s hard to overstate the scale of the planet’s plastic problem. Each year, approximately 11 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in water bodies, according to the UN. Over the next two decades, that number is expected to triple. Faced with the crisis, the 175 member countries of the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed in March draw up a treaty to limit the use of plastic by the end of 2024.
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Businesses, not individuals, are the biggest plastic offenders. Specifically, 20 companies, which produce more than half of all single-use plastics, according to a 2021 analysis by the Australian non-profit Minderoo Foundation. Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp is the world’s biggest plastic polluter. But that hasn’t stopped millions of individuals like Armstrong from trying to reduce their own plastic footprint, even if it’s just for a month.
How to use less plastic
“I never set out to start a global movement,” says Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, who founded Plastic Free July in her native Australia. “It started the last week of June 2011 when I visited a recycling facility for the first time…I was really overwhelmed to see what we throw away as a society.”
The next day at work, Prince-Ruiz told her colleagues she was going to spend a month trying to cut single-use plastic and asked if anyone wanted to join her. The beginning of July was coming, she said. Fast forward 11 years and several million people in 190 countries have taken part in the campaign, according to research she commissioned.
To reduce your own plastic use — in July or any month — the best place to start is “to just look at what the plastics are in your life,” says Prince-Ruiz. “Look in your trash can, look in your fridge, your pantry, your workplace trash can. Just pick one or two things to try and tackle, because if you’re trying to do it all – and believe me, I’ve tried – it can be really overwhelming.
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Luckily, some of the easiest plastic items to drop are the ones you use every day.
Plastic food packaging
Opting for bulk fruits and vegetables over packaged produce is one way to get rid of plastic, says Armstrong. And depending on what you’re buying, there are other ways to limit packaging. “Our house drinks a lot of orange juice,” says Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. So she switched from plastic bottles to frozen orange concentrate and bought two reusable glass pitchers to serve it. Enck also convinced a family member to start making her own iced tea rather than “buying the big plastic thing from Honest Tea,” she says. . “It’s an extra step but it’s really not that troublesome.”
Another option: Buy pasta, cereal, and other items packaged in cardboard — or better yet, use your own containers to get them in bulk when possible — instead of plastic-wrapped options.
Cups, mugs and water bottles
If you drink a lot of coffee or tea on the go, Prince-Ruiz says an easy way to reduce the number of disposable cups is to use a reusable mug or cup instead. Many disposable coffee cups are made of paper lined with a plastic called polyethylene. In 2005, approximately 75 million disposable coffee cups were used daily in the United States. That number jumped to more than 105 million cups a day in 2015, according to a US Cups and Lids study by Freedonia.
Likewise, you can ditch plastic water bottles for reusable ones. And you should: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 29% of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and jars, as well as natural high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles, were recycled in 2018. In 2020, more than 600,000 plastic drink bottles were collected by international coastal cleanups, making it the second most found itemaccording to Ocean Conservancy.
Plastic bags are another easy place to start, says Enck. Of the 4.2 million tons of plastic bags, bags and packaging produced in 2018, only 10% was recycled, according to the EPA. Meanwhile, nearly 275,000 plastic grocery bags were found along the world’s coastlines last year, according to Ocean Conservancy.
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If you want to reduce the number of plastic bags you bring home from the grocery store or convenience store, bring reusable bags instead. To help you remember to use the reusable bags you already have, store them in your trunk or try to keep the squeezable options in various to-go bags.
“My shortcut is to pass a law banning plastic bags and you have a lot more people going to reusable bags,” says Enck. Seven US states have done so: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York and Oregon, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii has a de facto ban because there are so many local bag bans.
Plastic napkins and cutlery
For people who order a lot of takeout, asking the restaurant to save plastic cutlery, napkins, and straws is an easy way to reduce waste. More than 225,000 straws and stirrers were collected along the coast in 2020, the Ocean Conservancy found, along with 223,000 plastic takeout containers.
Giving up take-out plastic shouldn’t be a problem for people living in California and Washington, both of which have laws in place that require customers to opt in to various single-use takeout items. Some cities, including Portland, Oregon, have similar laws on the books. But in most places in the world, customers still have to take the initiative. Enck’s group even released a guide that diners can give to their favorite restaurants, offering advice on how to reduce their use of plastic.
Truly tackling plastic waste around the world will take more than small-scale changes: companies and governments need to make fundamental adjustments to the way they do business. But for many people, Prince-Ruiz notes, reducing plastic waste is a gateway behavior to an overall reduction in consumption. “Last year, [Plastic Free July] participants avoided 300 million kilograms of plastic waste,” she says. “They also avoided 2.1 million tons of global waste.”
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For Armstrong, who just completed her first plastic-free month of July, the month-long adventure was eye-opening. “I’m not the problem. I’m doing everything I can physically handle,” she said, adding, “I will, of course, keep going. DM/OBP