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!

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