It’s impossible to live without plastic, many are quick to point out. They’re not wrong. Some respond to this critique with, I’m low waste, not zero waste, I’ll never be zero waste or plastic free.
Consider this: if you can play tennis without being Serena Williams, then you can #plasticfree without being Bea Johnson. The threshold is participation, not perfection. The label isn’t the problem, it’s the expectation and judgement we heap upon ourselves and others for anything less than zero. Let’s keep the word and drop the apologies. Labels are just a way for people to find communities of interest to connect with – i.e. a good servant, but a bad master. I regret that #plasticfree sounds more like an arrival than an intention for the journey. Or that it provokes a comparison that can be demotivating to many who feel they may never ‘achieve’ to the same degree. However, I don’t think the solution is to split hairs, or to beat ourselves up.
The truth about zero waste and plastic free living is that it’s only partly about the individual. Success of these movements won’t hinge upon willpower and motivation, but upon permanently changing defaults. We must change paths, not people by providing the amenities (bike lanes, bulk shops, compost collection, effective recycling) and encouraging social norms that make good individual habits flourish.
What’s possible for me in a place like Sydney may not be to you, yet. A visit to Oahu years ago brought this point home when the vast majority of food at the only grocer near us was imported and over-packaged, and the other option was Costco (I’m crying). Our rental had no recycling or compost facilities either. Devastating. And a reminder that the barriers imposed by our surroundings can stymie even the most motivated.
The areas where I have the most success, are – no surprise – those where I have the most autonomy, choice and ease.
That’s how I got started. I vowed to never ask for a takeaway cup, bottle of water or grocery bag after getting involved with the Surfrider Foundation. Then I eliminated new plastic containers from personal care products when I discovered The Soap Dispensary. I learned about responsible problem waste disposal in my area. I started looking for refill options for food, and now I habitually live with less plastic than a decade ago. I have permanently changed my norms, over a long time, helped by amenities available to me.
Am I plastic free? No.
While I’m constantly curious about ways to further reduce packaging, I don’t stress about what I’m not able to control. Like when I replaced my burnt out oven light. I also don’t stress about the choices I make with eyes wide open. Like when I chose to eat tofu packaged in soft plastic, buy replacement electric toothbrush heads, and donate blood. Plus many other examples.
To me, #plasticfree means any of:
- Less plastic
- No new plastic
- Plastic free, mostly
- Better managed plastic
- No single-use plastic
- No non-essential single use plastic
- Reducing the impact of plastic on the environment
If you ever feel a pedantic urge to remind yourself that say, the lid of the glass jar you’re reusing may indeed be lined with a thin layer of plastic, take a deep breath and mentally swap #plasticfree to any of these alternative explanations. What we’re aiming for is so much bigger than perfect control over our immediate surroundings.
#plasticfree is about a future free from unnecessary plastic. It’s a shared vision of a future where new plastic is not produced in the quantities it is today, where the default option is unpackaged, and where the material is used only in intelligent, long lasting ways.
Consider too that plastic free living may involve avoiding new plastic, but we can deepen our practice in many other meaningful ways, such as:
- Reusing and finding creative uses for plastic we already have.
- Disposing of plastics in the most responsible option available to you where you live.
- Picking up litter.
- Learning more about the myriad impacts of plastic on humans, landscapes, and wildlife.
- Observing how other people shop and live.
- Supporting plastic reduction initiatives that make it easier for everybody to reduce plastic, like bag bans.
- Chatting with business owners about reducing or eliminating straws and disposables.
- Joining or starting initiatives and work or school to reduce plastic use.
- Starting a business that helps others reduce their plastic.
- Supporting a business that helps others reduce their plastic.
- Normalising the attention paid to waste management by chatting with friends and family.
I’ll share one quick example about my friend Bryce, a low key legend. One day on a hike he saw that park staff were using plastic as a fill material for trail maintenance. He contacted BC Parks to suggest an alternative and explained why he felt plastic was problematic. This led to a productive conversation that resulted in them changing to a better material. Proof that there are many ways to work towards a world with less unnecessary plastic.
I’d love to hear what you think. Do you find that labels, stories and symbols of extreme plastic free living inspire you, or demotivate you?