For years I’ve been trying to reduce my waste as much as possible, but recently I’ve been wondering, is it actually possible to live plastic-free for most of us?
Plastic-free July is officially over.
Someone get me a bar of Dairy Milk, a plastic straw and a Starbucks frappuccino in a takeaway cup, because it’s time to celebrate, baby. We’ve had our month of combating plastic pollution and now we get to relax.
Okay, obviously I’m joking. July may be over but there’s no doubt that I’ve learnt some lessons that I’m certainly going to be taking with me through 2019 and beyond to be more kind to the planet. On top of the whole thing being a huge learning curve, it was also incredible to see so many eco-warrior babes coming together.
If I’m being honest, it kind of restored my faith in humanity a little bit.
Let me answer the question you’re no doubt all wondering by now, though: Did I actually manage it? Did I succeed in going the whole 31 days without buying any single use plastic?
Short answer: No. Technically I failed in a pretty big way.
Longer answer: Still no, but I also didn’t expect to be 100% plastic-free for the whole month. So, I’m not quite sure if that counts as a “failure”. Having already done the challenge last year, I knew how difficult it was. And even though I’ve had a whole year of learning and getting better at being a conscious consumer, I still use some plastic on a weekly (maybe even daily?) basis. Therefore, whilst it wasn’t as challenging as 2018, I was under no illusion that it wouldn’t be a challenge at all.
I expected to slip up. And boy did I!
I got plant milks with plastic lids, a few packets of crisps without thinking, a punnet of frozen blueberries and, thanks to our on-going apartment decorating, the wrapping of two new sofas and 8 tins of paint. I know, hardly the beacon of eco-consciousness, eh?
I would love to write this blog post and tell you about how I’m full of regrets and disappointed in myself and how I’ve learnt my lesson and will do better going forward. Honestly though? I just don’t feel like that.
There’s no doubt that the month was hugely valuable, that I have learnt from a few of my mistakes and that I will be taking part again next year in some capacity. However, if anything, the biggest lesson that I learnt in PFJ was this: I don’t want to aim for being plastic-free anymore. Throughout my eco-living journey I’ve realised that doing so is one gigantic privilege, and last month just solidified that for me. Finances, free time, mental and physical health, location. All of these things have a HUGE impact on just how “successful” you can be at reducing your plastic.
So, is it actually possible to live plastic-free?
Privilege number 1: Money:
If you follow any low-wasters online, you will have no doubt heard them tell you that living the way they do has saved them money. I have no doubt that this is true, simply because being a more conscious consumer often means buying less in general.
However, I also have no doubt that buying things plastic-free is more expensive in many circumstances. Whilst I get a lot of my fruits and veggies loose, I also get some frozen – and so in plastic boxes/bags – for the sake of saving money. In my experience, even things like pasta can be far cheaper when bought in a regular supermarket than in a dedicated zero-waste shop.
If you already spend a lot of money on food, going plastic-free and being more conscious as you shop will likely save you money. If you’re not in that privileged position to start with, it may work out more expensive than your current spending or, at best, be the same cost.
On top of that, being able to invest in plastic-free “essentials” is a privilege. Suggesting that someone should be able to spend £10 on a stainless-steel container instead of a plastic one from Pound Land because “after 10 months you’ll have ended up spending the same anyway”, is like telling someone that buying a house works out a hell of a lot cheaper than renting for fifty years.
People know this stuff. It’s common sense. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone has the money to go making those sorts of investments.
Privilege number 2: Location
I mean, seriously, how many of us actually live near a zero waste shop?
I know I don’t! It would take me 45 minutes to drive to my nearest. That just isn’t going to happen (nor is it particularly good for the planet for me to do so!).
I’m lucky enough to live near to a farm shop where I can get loose fruits and veggies, plus baked goods, but I still have to go to a conventional supermarket. I have no bulk shop to get things like pasta, flour and cereal from. Sometimes you can get those products in cardboard, sometimes you can’t.
Basically, not everyone lives in central London or Brighton. Some people don’t have the luxury of even being in a country with these sorts of opportunities at all! We have to make do with what we’ve got.
Privilege number 3: Time
There are people all over the world who do not have the time to go between three shops to find which sells rice with the least packaging.
As much as it would be great if the minimum and living wages allowed people to have spare time to focus their energies on causes they’re passionate about, that’s just not reality. As it stands, people continue to have to work ridiculously long hours, whilst still finding time to do all of the “life admin” that comes with being an adult.
I’m sure that a lot of people would argue that it’s only a time-consuming lifestyle to begin with: Once you’ve found the shops, the products, the systems that works for you, you’re sorted. However, that also relies on people having a certain amount of free time to begin with. Like money, people need to have the time and mental space to invest in order kick off their journey.
As lucky as I am to have the time to do things like make a homemade meal, that’s just not true for everyone.
Privilege 4: Mental and physical health
Some people need single use plastic. There are several mental and physical health conditions that simply make it impossible for an individual to be plastic-free.
Let’s take the example of plastic straws: As Vivian Ho writes for The Guardian, in places where plastic straws have been completely banned, “people with disabilities who cannot drink a beverage without the assistance of a straw now have to navigate yet another obstacle to dining in public.” (Source)
And that’s before even looking into things like stoma bags which are made of single use plastic, or how ready made meals, and pre-chopped or peeled produce wrapped in plastic, can make cooking and eating on-the-go more accessible to some people with physical disabilities.
On top of that, mental health problems including OCD can lead people to rely on food and drink that comes in plastic.
With that in mind, here’s why I’m no longer trying to be “plastic-free”
The expectation that everyone can be plastic-free if they “try hard enough” completely ignores those who have no option but to rely on plastic. It comes from a huge place of privilege.
I’m fortunate enough to have many of the privileges that allow people to reduce their waste: I am financially stable, I live in the UK, I don’t have any mental health problems and am able-bodied, and I even have the free time to do things like make my own bloody hummus!
However, even I still have obstacles to being completely plastic-free: Sometimes I simply can’t afford it or it is not accessible to me. And, frankly, I’m bored of feeling bad about that.
Whilst I think we all hold a responsibility to do the best we can for the environment, I also know that there’s no use in being frustrated with ourselves over things we have no control of. It’s important to strive to be better, but you can’t expect yourself to be perfect. A proportion of your ability to reduce your waste comes down to external factors, including the choices of huge corporations and the government.
For a long time now, my distant end goal has always been zero-waste. Or, at least, super duper low-waste. However, I think it’s time to switch up how I think about eco-friendly living and instead set the ongoing goal to do the best that I can.
This is kind of what I’ve been doing already and is certainly what I encourage my readers to do. However, at the back of my mind I was still putting an unnecessary amount of pressure on myself to get a certain point. A point that, at the moment, is really not possible for me.
After reflecting on the whole experience of Plastic Free July – successes, “failures” and all – I’ve decided that I did a pretty good job. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up (no pun intended) in being the perfect zero-waster when you see people online who can literally fit a year’s rubbish into a mason jar.
But it’s a process. And it’s okay if that process doesn’t end in being 100% plastic-free.