Rhiannon Spencer-Jones: Plastic-Free July is as tough as it sounds

Writer Rhiannon Spencer-Jones says you'd be amazed at just how much plastic you throw away

PLASTIC-FREE JULY is coming to a close. The initiative, which originated in Australia and now has more than one million signed up worldwide, is based on one simple idea: cutting out all single use plastic for one month. 

It aims to focus the mind on what you’re buying, and to educate us all in ways to tackle waste and environmental damage. However, when I explained it to my family, one of them likened it to tilting at windmills, a vain effort against an imagined foe. 

So, like any good contrary lefty I jumped on my horse, grabbed my lance, and set off to give the plastic giants what for.

There is now a swirling mass of plastic bigger than France in the depths of the Pacific Ocean; plastic has become so ubiquitous that birds are starting to use it to build their nests.

There were several alarming facts which led to this particular ethical consumerism tourney. To give you a taste: there is now a swirling mass of plastic bigger than France in the depths of the Pacific Ocean; plastic has become so ubiquitous that birds are starting to use it to build their nests; and all the plastic ever made still exists. 

To add to that, Greenpeace’s plastic calculator estimated that I personally am throwing away around 2,222 pieces of plastic a year, and I fear after what I’ve learned this month that that is likely a conservative number.

In reality taking part in Plastic-Free July has been a terrifying exploration into the disposable plastic we never see, often because it’s designed to be seen through to the products beneath. 

Within the first few days I hit major unconsidered snags: salad, milk, painkillers, cotton buds, cheese, toilet roll and dog poo bags (even the compostable ones come in a plastic packet) presented a challenge. The supermarket shop was almost impossible. 

Plastic-Free July very quickly became a game of chicken between what I could stand to live without versus what I would be forced to buy.

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As I watched my friends and colleagues continue to shop as normal, other issues began to stand out – one of the most grating being the industry that surrounds bottled water. Bottled water is a con – we all know it. We’re paying for something which is readily available out of our taps every day, and yet in the UK we now buy more than three billion litres a year (a huge increase from 800 million in 2005). 

The carbon footprint of bottled water has been calculated to be potentially 600 times that of the water coming out of our taps, yet major brands continue to evoke images of crystalline streams, blue mist-shrouded mountains and verdant pine for us to buy their product. They sell us on the image of the very thing they’re damaging.

This is why water is one of the 'big four' focusses for Plastic-Free July, along with coffee cups, plastic bags, and drinking straws. One-use plastic is all around us, and it takes a significant change in lifestyle to write it out of our day to day, especially when it comes to food.

However, these four are common one-use plastics we encounter every day and present easy ways to cut down consumption in a sustainable way. Go get yourself a re-usable coffee cup (a good one, that won’t leak and get abandoned after one day), a decent water bottle, a bag for life with a witty slogan, and say no to straws next time you’re in a bar. Yes, probably also a bigger handbag, but it’s worth it for a reduction of potentially 14-20 items of one-use plastic a week.

Going plastic-free isn’t all about sacrifice. One unexpected positive side effect has been discovering a host of small local businesses I’d never visited.

Going plastic-free isn’t all about sacrifice. One unexpected positive side effect has been discovering a host of small local businesses I’d never visited. I found local greengrocers and delis were much less likely to wrap everything in plastic – no big supply chains to manage – and were a lot more amenable to my weird requests to put cheese in tupperware or tomatoes in a lunch box. 

Hunting for local businesses who can accommodate your low-plastic practises helped me discover two gems I had previously ignored, and I suspect would reap the same benefit for anyone trying to do the same.

Plastic-Free July demonstrates that any small reduction – just carrying a water bottle - will go a long way to tackling one of our biggest damaging environmental impacts. Plastic waste is something we should all care about, all ask ourselves and brands about, and make changes where we can. 

Next time you head to the supermarket, look at your trolley and actively notice the packaging you’ll be forced to throw away, and if you can think about ways you might be able to change.

Picture courtesy of Mike Carney

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