How We (Barely) Survived Plastic Free July
By Bernadette Hopen (Community & Brand Manager) & Georgia Sherwin (Digital Marketing Associate)
For the month of July, we challenged ourselves to avoid using single-use plastics - think straws, cutlery, bags, etc. This is no easy feat, especially when living in NYC, the home of convenience culture. And now that July is over, we can proudly say we did it… we went plastic free! DISCLAIMER: there’s a lot of if, ands, and buts that come with that statement.
You might not have heard of Plastic Free July since it’s still making its way to the USA. The movement began in Australia, seven years ago, in an effort to save the oceans, and every year more and more people are taking the pledge to go plastic-free for a month. Of course, we wanted to be a part of it! Why now? Why this July? Well, if you’re reading the news you’re increasingly aware of ‘the plastic age’ and its detrimental effects on the environment.
In fact, tackling plastic has become the ‘sexy’ of sustainability. It’s front page news: Starbucks is pledging to remove plastic straws from stores, clothing stores are eliminating plastic bags, discounts are being offered for bringing your own reusable cups, and so on. Excessive plastic use is now one of the most visible and talked about environmental crises.
Single-use plastics are the perfect symbol of our throwaway consumer culture. They’re easy! Having an ice-coffee from Dunkin on your way to work, last minute shopping and you need a bag to hold your purchases, grabbing lunch with your colleagues, buying pretty much anything from a vending machine… all require the dreaded use of plastic.
While plastic can make our busy lives easier, it can end the lives of countless others. Horrifying pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean, of turtles choked by six-pack holders, of birds stomachs full of plastic, tell us we need to rethink our use of plastic. So, without further ado, let’s dive into our month of trying to avoid the stuff and talk about how we did it. How did we get nifty and thrifty so as to circumvent our cultural norms?
Here are five of our favorite hacks that we learned along the way:
1. Bring your own cutlery… everywhere! Working in an office, there seems to be an abundance of food that appears throughout the week. You want a slice of your colleagues birthday cake? Then you better have your own fork with you! Or a spork if you’re really on trend (a clever, minimalist fork/spoon that’s popular in the zero waste movement).
Anecdote: We forgot to bring our own cutlery on Day 5 of the challenge and had to get creative, FAST. After trawling our usual lunch spots for wooden or metal cutlery, we couldn’t find anything but disposable plastic options, that is until we realized that 98% of the time chopsticks are made of wood. So, we ate our salads with chopsticks, feeling very happy with ourselves, although perhaps not the most efficient way to consume a caesar salad.
2. Seamless who? Take out. By far, the hardest part of going plastic free. Grabbing lunch with colleagues because you worked a long day yesterday and didn’t have time to pack lunch? We get it! You work hard! You deserve that Sweetgreen. But that Sweetgreen comes in a plastic container, with plastic cutlery. That fresh iced tea that looks delicious? More plastic. Food delivery packaging is a main culprit of single-use plastics. Granted, having to prepare every single meal requires more thoughtfulness around meal prep, but the benefits outweigh the costs. Is it really worth using plastic cutlery for one lunch, which then gets thrown out and could take 500 years to break down? Was that 20-minute lunch worth it? No.. it’s nonsensical. Get in the habit of meal prep.
Anecdote: Day 12, we broke and ordered takeout. As much as we tried to pretend that the cartons from our Chinese takeout were plastic free (they DO look like they are, and are predominantly made of paper/cardboard), they were unfortunately coated in plastic on the inside. In fact, it’s exactly this kind of plastic that proves exceptionally difficult to recycle as it requires a complicated separation of materials.
3. Become a bag lady. Get up right now and put a reusable bag in your main work bag. Done? Great! You’ll be shocked by how often you’ll use it for errands and shopping! Make sure to return it to your daily bag/briefcase after you use it.
Anecdote: Inevitably, both of us at varying points (Day 14 and Day 20 respectively) forgot to pack our reusable bags, which lead to serious and in one case detrimental strain on our work handbags as we stuffed them with groceries. Equally, on another occasion, we were caught wandering back from the grocery store with eggplant and leeks in hand, perhaps spurring a few odd looks.
4. Say goodbye to Amazon. If you’re getting something shipped to you, you are basically accepting defeat. Amazon makes it so easy to get whatever you need delivered to your doorstep. However, it almost always comes wrapped in plastic, or in a plastic container or a giant box that has plastic tape on it. *Cringe* Try just walking down the street to the store to get what you need. Believe us, by avoiding the convenience of online shopping, you’re helping the environment and also your wallet!
Anecdote: Day 10, a particularly shameful moment in the month. Really there was no resolution here. Having ordered toilet roll in bulk on Amazon for my shared apartment, momentarily forgetting the packaging that this would entail, I had to shift responsibility and get my roommate to cover this month's cost of stocking the apartment.
5. Carry a travel mug. We recommend getting a Swell bottle or Klean Kanteen (shoutout to a fellow B Corp) since these bottles are perfect for hot and cold drinks. It was a pleasant surprise that so many restaurants were not only happy to fill up our own bottles, but some will even give you a discount!
Anecdote: Days 3, 17, 22 we wandered to Pret-a-Manger for a coffee break. Every time we showed up with bottles in hand, they were more than happy to fill us up. On Day 17 the Pret worker was so excited about our plastic-free journey, she gave us coffee on the house!
One of the greatest personal effects of this month was the platform that Plastic Free July gave us to spread the mission. Friends and family saw what we were doing – turning down straws, bringing our own bags, asking questions – and were curious. Partaking in this movement, we had the opportunity to teach others, and that was undoubtedly the highlight of this experience.
Most people thought we were crazy for doing this. But almost every time we explained what Plastic Free July was to someone, the next time we’d see them, they’d eagerly approach us and say that they’ve become more aware of their plastic consumption since the conversation.
Next July will definitely be plastic free for us too! But more importantly, we’re ready to take on a more conscious mindset as consumers throughout the year… it’s an ongoing process!