My Plastic Free July in review

How was your Plastic Free July? I don’t usually do Zero Waste inventories as such, but Plastic Free July almost seems to demand it, so here goes. Follow along, then tell me how yours went.  

Day 1 – It’s Canada Day and we’re at a Canadian-themed bar in North Sydney. It’s all kinds of plaid, moose heads, and plastic. I pine for a caesar, but have an imported beer in a bottle instead. It’s hard to know if I’ve taken a step forward or back.

Day 2 – I’m sitting on the panel after a screening of The Clean Bin Project alongside Jean Bailliard of Terracycle and Dr. Mark Browne, marine plastics researcher at UNSW. It’s a Plastic Free July themed event and the audience is engaged. Mark points out that in Australia (or did he say NSW?), plastic is already classified as a pollutant, which should work to our advantage in pursuing legislative changes such as a bag ban.

photo credit: @SeasideScavenge

Day 3 – I eat a homemade lunch at work, as usual. Sundays I cook up a bunch of random stuff for easy assembly during the week. No two lunches are exactly the same. I don’t understand why some people don’t embrace leftovers, they are the best thing ever.

Day 4 – I go to a client’s office and to my delight, the name tag printer is not working. I skip the mandatory sticker printout.

Day 5 – I pay $5 for one avocado at a grocer near my work. It’s big, although not even the biggest I’ve ever seen (Panama), but at least it’s not suffocated by cling wrap. This particular business is obsessed with plastic and polystyrene. They will wrap cheese that already comes in plastic in more plastic and on a foam tray. It’s maddening. Obviously I don’t buy anything so grossly over-packaged, and yet I observe that so many people do. We have to set better defaults.

Day 6 – A client asks how my Plastic Free July is going so far. Great! At lunch I refill a litre of olive oil in a flip top bottle. You can always find this type of bottle at Vinnie’s or Salvos. There are two places on the same road near my work that offer olive oil refills. I go with the Australian sourced and pay $18.95 for the bottle, which is less than the cost of the same amount in a bottle in the same store.

Day 7 – It’s day three eating the same avocado, because it’s huuuge. We use a bokashi bucket for food scraps at work so that’s where the skin goes. I am reminded that I need to empty it. My boss once remarked on its seemingly magical ability to always take just a little more, even when you thought it was full. It’s because of the scraps starting to pre-digest and pack down. A misguided (a word I will use as a euphemism for the mean word I really want to use…) neighbour forced us get rid of the tumbler composter behind our building, so now we’re back to me taking the bin home to empty. Which is fine, because I have a little dirt patch where I bury bokashi bin contents, and I am one of the lucky buildings with food scrap collection by the council.

I’m craving chocolate and I take risk on a brand I don’t know – will there be plastic inside? I shake it but I’m still not sure… Relief – it’s foil, so I can collect it in the tin at home where all those small bits go. I wish packaging designers would stick to materials that are readily recyclable, rather than the so-called compostable plastic. Recycling infrastructure is doesn’t move quickly (large capital investment) and nowhere can really handle compostable plastic. Plus, recyclability is only one point – the recycled product also needs to have value.

Day 8 – It’s the weekend and we head down the coast to see family and surf my favourite spot. The water is so clear I can see the bright greens and browns of the seaweed on the reef while I’m on a wave. We get a coffee and lunch at the newish spot, Earth Walker & Co, which is half café, half general store. As the name suggests, locally made produce features, and I see a green drink served with a metal straw – nice. They also give $0.30 off your coffee if you BYO cup. It’s packed. Since we’re in the hood I stop in at The Flame Tree Coop to stock up on bulk nori.

Day 9 – There’s a beach clean up in Bondi put on by Responsible Runners and I chat with a council person who is confident of the inevitability of a state-wide bag ban. Afterwards I get groceries at one of the few supermarkets I don’t avoid actively avoid – Harris Farm Markets. I’m as cynical as anyone, but I appreciate the steps they are taking to offer unpackaged foods. You can buy milk in a refillable bottle, plastic free bread, bulk sundries like legumes and flours, and ugly produce in reusable green mesh bags. This doesn’t mean everyone shops this way though. I observe as a fellow shopper uses one plastic bag for one tomato, another for one lemon, and so on.

At home, someone is brewing beer. I take some of the spent grains to dry and blend into a coarse flour to see what I can make of it. The rest goes to a chicken we know.

Day 10 – At the butcher, a sluggish Frenchman helps me, but doesn’t really help you see. He uses a plastic bag to grab the sausages after I specifically describe what I’m trying to accomplish. There is a language barrier, so the other employee sees and comes to my aid, but not really, you see. He and I have discussed my desire for no plastic on many occasions before, with the result that he nearly always says ‘no plastic’ with a thumbs up when he sees me with my own container. But this time, when he sees what’s going on he chimes in to tell me that of course they have to use this plastic bag. He’s completely ignoring the fact that somehow all the other times they didn’t have to. The Frenchman smirks and tells me he has ‘very dirty hands’. I’m irritated at this procedural change and tell them it’s the only reason I come here (not strictly true – it’s the closest, they are independently owned and they sell biodynamic meats). Sigh. I’ll try contacting the owner.

Day 11 – After work I’m helping a friend with a very cool project she’s been hard at work developing.

Day 12 – It’s cold, and we go for ramen. I have a jar with me and I take the leftovers home. Have I told you how much I love leftovers?

Day 13 I stop at five separate grocers on the way home to find basil that isn’t wrapped in plastic. At the last shop, in a fit of frustration, I unsheathe the bunch and buy it naked. I’m not solving the world’s problems by doing this, and it occurs to me that possibly if I’d found the basil unwrapped…it may have come packaged in plastic before I got to it. It’s not always rational, what we do.

Day 14 – I’m celebrating more than the usual TGIF.  Woolworth’s announced their intention to remove bags from checkouts across the country and within hours Coles and Harris Farms have announced firm commitments of their own. Pressure on government is working, and the truth is that once a majority of states have made commitments to bag bans, it’s the path of least resistance for national chains to ban bags everywhere.

I squat down and rip the knee of my jeans. Great.

Day 15 – Halfway point. I enjoy a nice run around Centennial Park. I check on my worms, and distribute the worm castings that have accumulated over the past couple of months.

Day 16 – It’s a gorgeous sunny Sunday. Biking is a quick method to get around and it’s also very lovely as I can cut through Centennial Parklands. I pick up some jeans that were in for zipper repair, run a few errands. I travel through a new neighbourhood and come across a shop with gravity bulk bins.

Later I have a few friends over to make DIY deodorant and cocoa butter lotion bars that smell like chocolate and melt into your skin on contact. We then go see other friends for dinner, where I test the friendship by asking to take home the bones from the meal. I like to give my friend James some good stories to tell about me, and I have a feeling this could be one of them.

Day 17 – The bones go in the slow cooker for broth. I vacuum the house with a stick model that was donated to us broken. We bought a new part and now it’s got a a second life. The chamber is full of lint and that goes into my landfill container – electronic dust isn’t something I want in the compost.

Day 18 – Friends send an invite for a housewarming this Friday. There will be food and music and drinks…. and no plastic or else deal with Liz, or so it reads. My reputation precedes me, and I’m not mad at it.

Day 19 – Normally I use a ceramic cup to get my long black from the coffee shop near my work, but today I bring my metal travel cup. The baristas both love it. I get compliments on it wherever I go on this one. It’s insulated so my coffee stays nice and hot. It also matches my refillable pen!

Move over avocado, there’s a new toast in town. I make the tastiest chickpea salad open faced sandwich topped with sprouts I grew. What can’t you do with chickpeas?

Day 20 – Celebration event in Bronte with the local enviro groups. Council is doing a great job of working towards collaboration for impact.

Day 21 – We get our delivery of limited edition toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap for the office bathroom. Sustainability minded folks working in marketing (cough) can have moments of dark self-reflection, but how could it be all wrong when someone has created a toilet paper people can truly love and helps build toilets?

Day 22 – Hungover from a housewarming party the night before. Beer pong can be played just fine in real cups, and more people need to know this. We visit The Cannery for a late breakfast and I opt for laksa in a cardboard bowl, which works pretty well. There are maroon bins for organics instead of garbage and is a garden area out back (probably not where most of the scraps go).  I like the approach.

We venture on to Marrickville where I stop in at Village Wholefoods for some pantry staples and to drop some empty containers in store in the TerraCycle bins. I’m still using up makeup from years ago. Judge me. Terracycle is becoming more common in Australia since coming here from the US about 4 years ago. They specialize in hard to recycle items.

Day 23 – I willingly acquire plastic today, but all for a good cause – I found a library I didn’t know was only a few blocks from my house and I get a library card and eight books for the price of…none. One of the books is a digital copy of The Art of Fermentation, which I had as a hardcover, but left back in Canada with my sister in law. It’s a very handy reference and I am inspired to start a rye sourdough and also make saurkimchi. I also make jackfruit tacos for dinner. They taste a lot better than the last time I tried cooking jackfruit, maybe because I cooked them with a small bit of sausage, shhh. I do not reveal this to A (about the jackfruit that is), and if he has suspicions, he hides it well. I freeze the remaining chipotle peppers into single pepper ice cubes for future use. Freezer = magic.

The giant Moccona coffee container I was using to collect compost cracks, so I recycle the base and keep the top portion – it makes a perfect container for my mending kit.

We spot whales off the headland. They wave. We wave back.

Day 24 – I finish the book Poisoned Planet and mull it over. The book is not just about plastic, but about many forms of pollution (phosphorus, CO2, etc.). Pollution is just stuff out of place, but my holy moly is there a lot of stuff out of place! And according to the author, it’s dropping our society’s average IQ by a couple points every generation through our inevitable intake of harmful manmade chemicals. Outtake: it’s impossible to contain pollution. Personal detox is a myth.

Day 25 – It’s Christmas in July. Nothing eventful happens.

Day 26 – The printer is still broken at my client’s office. Sticker free again!

Day 27 – Normal, no plastic day.

Day 28 Another zipper broke on me, on another pair of jeans. Good thing I’m wearing a long silk shirt (dress?) that I got at the Red Cross Op Shop.

Day 29 – If you need aloe, I can get you some aloe.

Day 30 – I spend most of Sunday hanging out with some girlfriends. It’s peak Bondi. ‘It’s like the last day on Earth or something’ notes my friend. There are humans everywhere, and there is a small mountain of trash on Campbell Parade in front of the McDonald’s, just a few hundred metres from the shoreline.

Day 31 – The end. I don’t remember what happened today, but it didn’t involve plastic.

The Plastic Free July tally:  

  • some produce stickers.
  • some receipts
  • a piece of plastic from the butcher
  • the darn piece of plastic from the basil
  • dental floss
  • vacuum lint

How it go for you?

Did you fail at Plastic Free July?

It’s Plastic Fee July and somehow you ended up with plastic you didn’t want or expect. Does it make you a failure? 

We’re nearing the midway point of Plastic Free July, and there’s this idea I see floating around that if we end up with single use plastic we didn’t want, we’ve failed. Ergo, we’re failures.

When considering starting this blog, I had the uneasy feeling that anything less than perfect achievement might make me less credible or invalidate my writing. I’d be a fraud if I couldn’t control all the waste, wouldn’t I? I let this delay me from getting started until I was able to pinpoint what was really going on: I was mentally shouldering all of the responsibility for waste produced in a system I occupy, but didn’t design.

Let me be clear, I’m all for taking personal responsibility for landfill waste. It’s actually surprising easy to reduce your waste by 90% in a place like Sydney without feeling like you’re swimming upstream. That last 10% though –  it can come out of nowhere.

When all of the waste avoidance ninja tricks in the world don’t seem to be able to prevent that errant straw in your water glass (whyyyyyyyyy do you do this North America?), we simply cannot blame ourselves. How can these bits of waste be considered personal failures, when countless others (who are also trying very hard) experience the very same situations, repeatedly?

I want to suggest an alternative view:

You were failed.

You were failed when you truly weren’t given any other choice than a wasteful one, when the only option you could afford wasn’t built to last, when you couldn’t predict that only your taco would be randomly served on a styrofoam plate*, or when you asked for ‘no straw please’ and got one anyway. When regulation wasn’t enacted that could have prevented your street from plastic single-use pollution. These are the symptoms of a system that bakes waste in by default. You did not fail, you were failed.

Get frustrated, yes! But channel this frustration where it’s warranted and productive. In our haste to beat ourselves up, we can lose sight of forest to find ourselves staring forlornly at the bark of a tree.

Personal responsibility for waste is an incredible concept, and empowering too, until we misuse it, twist it into too-moral territory and use it as an excuse to abuse ourselves or others. I reject the implication being that by not going all the way, and then further still, you’re not doing enough, and in fact you aren’t really Zero Waste. If only you’d planned better. If only you could have predicted every piece of plastic. Zero Waste shouldn’t be the exclusive realm of perfectionist obsessionists. It has to be the norm.

When you keep going in spite of your frustrations and challenges, you’re changing the world for the better. 

Next time you hear a voice suggest to you that you’re a failure, why not respond confidently that you are trying your best and you are currently being failed by the system that still finds the concept of waste acceptable. By taking part in initiatives like Plastic Free July, or living a Zero Waste lifestyle, you’re part of a growing collective that is working to address these failures by speaking up for less packaging, better designed products, less plastic, and smarter supply chains. There is no failure in this.

*bizarre true story from last years Plastic Free July – everyone else at the taco stand was eating from real plates!

Sorry, but takeway coffee cups aren’t recyclable.

#Sorrynotsorry if I shattered your illusions, takeaway coffee cups ain’t recyclable. Let’s dive deeper?

“But takeaway coffee cups are made of paper aren’t they?”

Yes, but the paper is lined with plastic or wax. Fusing two materials together requires unfusing to sort materials for their respective circular resource streams.  This is beyond the capabilities of the vast majority of recycling programs in Australia.

“The cafe I go to uses compostable coffee cups.”

Okay cool, they’re clearly trying to do the right thing in the face of additional expense, but let’s be real, are you actually composting your cup or just tossing it in the landfill? If it’s the latter, that’s not actually helping. You have to compost to collect your brownie points. You can help your local cafe owner reduce the impact of cafe operations by bringing your own cup.

eco coffee cup
Not all eco cups go to Heaven.

“What if the barista refuses my reusable coffee cup?”

Sydney’s coffee scene is too competitive to piss off a regular. To smooth the transition, ensure your cup is fit for purpose (mason jars are not the best choice for hot drinks you plan to carry) and bring it in clean. And smile that charming smile of yours as you explain to them that you just can’t abide wasted materials.

reusable cup

Now, the rewards don’t stop with gaining a smug sense that you’re helping reduce landfill waste – you can also save cold hard cash. Many a cafe will offer a discount for those who bring their own cup. Check out Responsible Cafes’ map of participating locations Australia-wide to find the cafe nearest you. You could save up to $0.50 off your long black!

“It makes me look cool”

Think about how silly that even sounded to read. Granted I don’t think anyone would admit to believing this, but monkey see monkey do, and we live in a visual culture, friends. As long as Pinterest lifestyle blogger types glorify the single use cup as prop (or boxed water for that matter, don’t get me started..), we’re going to be battling the the trickle down effect of this absurd aspirational cachet. Don’t fall victim to this fashion crime. Choose to reuse instead. It looks better on you.

What are nurdles, and what are they doing on my beach?

This one time I found nurdles on a beach I really like visiting in Oregon. Nurdles are a sneaky type of marine plastic debris. 

The Oregon coast is wild and beautiful. The water is dark and sharky. Seals often surface next to you in the lineup. Foggy mornings give way to sunny afternoons and long summer evenings.

One of my favourite haunts is Ecola State Park, just north of Cannon Beach. The drive to the bluff overlooking the water takes you through the most beautiful moss forest. You can easily spend the whole day there surfing, playing frisbee, petting all the random pooches and taking in the surroundings.

The Pacific ocean swells that crash into the shoreline bring with them all manner of marine debris. Old rope, shoes, bottles. broken pieces of plastic.

I went about picking up pieces of trash, as you do. When I looked under a rock I found these smooth plastic pellets, which are called nurdles.

Nurdles are raw plastic resin pellets, generally under 5mm in diameter, that are destined to be melted and moulded into plastic goods. In contrast to much of the beach trash we’re used to picking up, nurdles are pre-production. They haven’t even been transformed into a straw, grocery bag or coffee cup lid yet and they’re already polluting the ocean. Ugh.

Toxic (s)pills

Spills happen when nurdles are transported from the place the are made to the place the product they’ll become is made. In our tangled, globalised supply chain, it’s no irony that cheap oil enables the transport of cheap petro plastic across oceans and back again. This leaves ample opportunity for spillage.

When small pieces of plastic get into the ocean, they cause all sorts of physiological problems for animals, including starvation, digestive system damage, choking and even the inability to evade predators. Charles Moore’s book Plastic Ocean is well worth a read for more detail. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, he is also rather delightful in person and will pair a tuxedo with a tiki hat made of up-cycled plastic bags. But I digress.

Plastic pieces in the ocean are also a sponge for persistent environmental pollutants. Marine plastics can have up to 1 million times greater concentration of PCBs, DDT and than the surrounding water.

Fish and marine animals eat the plastic pieces because of mistaken identity or because they’re simply unavoidable where they outnumber food sources. Ever seen a whale shark eat dinner? Not unlike a vacuum, they take in whatever is in their path.

Even animals living in the most remote deepwater ocean trenches show PCB contamination.

As one fish eats another, toxins accumulate in the food chain. It means that plastic, including these nurdles, can be thought of as distribution method for toxic chemicals.

How big is the issue?

Nurdles may be small, but the threat they pose is large, mostly because they’re next to impossible to clean up.

To give you a sense of scale, this particular beach in Oregon is about a mile long. A swath of these smooth stones runs the length of the beach and is several metres deep from the forest line to where the sand begins.

Under every rock I looked I found nurdles. All the rocks people.

Avoiding plastic is worth the effort

All this to say that whenever it seems trite to avoid new plastic, think of the nurdles. Or the turtles. Or yourself. Because we’re all living in the same habitat that is becoming more plastic polluted all the time. 

Demand for plastic goods, which are often used just once and tossed, encourages the transport of this substance that is pretty much impossible to scrub out. Any small effort to stop the demand for plastic is worth it, whether you’re fully plastic free, or just working your way through worst single use offenders.

Next time you’re at the beach, have a look around and see if you can find any of these tiny plastic polluters.