It may be halfway through July, but it’s not too late to take on Plastic-Free July—or try to keep your plastic-free ways going straight into fall.
This annual summer challenge of reducing plastic usage started as a grassroots movement back in 2011 in Australia, but now it’s a global movement. Want to take on the challenge? Here are 7 tips for taking on a low or no-plastics lifestyle this July, or anytime.
1. Understand why plastic is problematic
Before you begin, it’s probably a good idea to understand (or remind yourself) what the problem is with plastic in the first place. I’m sure we’ve all seen that video of the straw in the sea turtle’s nose, but let’s take it a step further.
Plastic is made from petrochemicals, which means fossil fuels. Since burning fossil fuels is a driving cause of climate change, it’s best to choose other, more renewable materials. Something that isn’t talked about enough, is how harmful the manufacturing of plastic is on surrounding communities. Case in point: St. James Parish in southern Louisiana (nicknamed “cancer alley”), where plastic plants have not only polluted the water and air, but also subjected the mostly Black residents to cancer, respiratory diseases, and other health problems.
And a recent study has revealed that only 5% of the plastic in the U.S. is recycled—compare that to paper (66% recycled, according to the American Forest Products Association) and aluminum cans (50.4%, according to the EPA).
2. Learn what types of plastic there are
There are seven types of plastic out there, and more often than not, this number is located at the center of the recycling symbol on a package and/or label. Of that 5% of plastic that’s getting recycled, it’s really only #1 and #5. The others are heading straight to the landfill.
Polystyrene (#6), also known as styrofoam, is kinda the worst. This material will never break down, not even after 450 years like its PET cousins. Keep your eyes peeled for those numbers so you can steer clear of #2-#4, be wary of #7, and avoid #6 like the plague.
3. Do a plastic “waste audit”
Now I challenge you to roll up your sleeves, dig into your trash and recycling bins, and lay it all out! When you check out what’s in your trash and recycling, you can identify the biggest opportunities to reduce. Some questions to consider:
What’s most common in your trash can? Is there a certain packaging that keeps showing up? For example, we love tortilla chips in our house, so we have lots of chip bags.
- What types of plastics can you spot?
- Could anything in your trash or recycling be reused? Don’t be afraid to rinse off an old Ziploc bag or food container to reuse it for future food storage.
- Do you see any room to reduce the amount of plastics in your waste bin? Are there items you could be choosing in more sustainable packaging or perhaps buying in bulk?
It’s completely fine to have items that you’re not going to compromise for their plastic-free alternative. Like I mentioned before, we love tortilla chips, and as many times as we’ve tried to make our own, it’s not the same, so we’ll continue to buy them at the store.
4. Check your cabinets
Now that we’ve looked in the trash, let’s check our cabinets. What are the most common items packaged in plastic? Snacks? Pasta? Nuts? Seeds? While some plastic is single-use (meaning after you open the package, it’s served its purpose), some are more durable and can be reused (like a large plastic bin or container).
Take a good hard look at what’s in your pantry, and start to brainstorm on ways you can choose plastic-free alternatives or reuse packaging.
5. Choose bulk and package-free when possible
I want to begin by saying that due to environmental racism and food apartheid, not everyone has access to healthy food, including plastic-free and bulk foods. For some, it’s nearly impossible to live life without plastic, which is why it requires systematic shifts away from it.
But if you’re in a position to access grocery stores with whole, bulk, and packaging-free foods and you can afford those items, then you can make that plastic-free choice. Some grocery stores offer grains, rice, seeds, nuts, snacks, chocolate, and even seasoning in bulk. The folks over at Zero Waste Home have even made this “bulk finder” for you to find your closest bulk foods shop.
You can bring your own jars or bags (make sure to find out their weight beforehand, this is called their “tare”) and fill up at the store. You can also bring your own reusable bags for produce (or forego bags altogether). Some stores are even popping up that offer household items like soap, shampoo, or detergent in bulk so you can bring your own containers to fill up (search for refill/zero waste stores in your area).
6. Make your own!
Another great way to avoid plastic (and save money) is to make your own food that would typically come in plastic bottles and containers. Veggie or chicken broth, nut milks, hummus, even yogurt—there are loads of from-scratch recipes out there.
7. Be kind to yourself
Lastly, but most importantly, be kind to yourself. Like I mentioned before, there are lots of systems in place that make it very hard to avoid plastic entirely. Corporations and businesses continue to use this material, knowing full well that it’s causing harm to communities and the environment.
There are several petitions you can sign to demand change from big corporations, like Target and Walmart, to eliminate plastic bags, and speaking up to Pepsi and Coca-Cola, who continue to be the biggest polluters of plastic.
Lauren Ferree is a Cotopaxi Do Good ambassador and plant-based environmentalist from Los Angeles. Follow along @ReLauren