Hello, and welcome to month 1 of our Kind Consumer Challenge! We are kicking off the month not with new habits, but with a week of prep, as we research, define, and equip. This post is designed to help you do just that, so you’re motivated AND ready to take on the challenges that are right for you, starting on the 8th! So, take your time: print off your worksheet, sit with the research a bit, ponder what this may mean for you, and write down your plans and goals for the month. Then, make sure you have all the equipment, knowledge, and systems in place that you need to make it happen!
I'll be honest: this challenge is going to be a stretch for me. Although I can look back on the last few years and see some big changes I've made over time, plastic has been a hard habit to shake. Reminding myself of my "why," and typing out some suggested ideas, it helping me as I start to think about my own plans for the month. I'm all about practical but impactful change, and this is a great place to start!
If you’re like me, you have at least a general idea that plastics are bad for the planet. But let’s look a little closer at what exactly that means, to inform our response as kind consumers.
How is plastic made? Is it really so bad for the planet and its people?
Plastic production begins with non-renewable oil and gas; plus, the extraction process alone causes environmental harm, through toxic spills and emissions. Then, the carbon in fossil fuels is formed into tiny pre-plastic pellets called “nurdles” that pollute our oceans, accumulate toxins, and poison fish and, eventually, humans at the top of the food chain. Nurdles are then mixed with additives that often leech and cause hormone disruption. After consumer use, un-recycled or non-recyclable plastics pollute oceans, killing animals. And, although plastic isn’t biodegradable - all plastic ever created is still with us, except that which has been incinerated (thereby polluting our air) - it is photodegradable, meaning that light breaks it down into smaller pieces, increasing exposure into more of the food chain. (article)
Small plastic particles, such as plastics broken down through photodegradation and microfibers from washing of synthetic fabrics (3-minute video), are too small to be filtered out in water treatment processes. Fortunately, microbeads, which were small plastic particles used in products such as exfoliants and washed down the drain directly into waterways, were banned in the United States beginning in 2017 (the status of this movement varies in other countries). However, this did not eliminate the problem of pre-production and post-consumer microplastics that end up in our waterways and food systems.
So, if it doesn’t break down...how much plastic is out there?
In short, there is a ton of plastic waste for every person on earth. In 2017, researchers published the most in-depth answer to this question to date. Since 1950, the world has produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. “79 percent of that waste is sitting in landfills or the natural environment, 12 percent has been incinerated, and just 9 percent has been recycled. ...The world has made as much plastic in the past 13 years it did in the previous half-century.” (article and 90-second video)
The United Nations Ocean Conference estimated that our oceans might contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050. One very obvious example of the huge scale of this problem is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to Wikipedia, this is an area of highly concentrated plastics, chemical sludge, and debris estimated to be larger than the size of Texas. These end up in the stomachs of marine animals, such as albatross at Midway; five tons of plastic debris are fed to albatross chicks every year. Further, plastic debris acts like a magnet for pollutants that can have toxic effects when ingested, by an animal and by any other creatures further up in the food chain. Finally, “Marine plastics also facilitate the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize other ecosystems. Research has shown that this plastic marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide." (Wikipedia article)
But I recycle my plastics, so I'm good...right?
Recycling is of course better than throwing plastic straight in the landfill! However, the "chasing arrows" icon is misleading as it implies recycling is a closed loop of ongoing sustainability. In fact, recycling does not negate the environmental harm of producing plastic in the first place; many items are recycled into unrecyclable goods, so will end up in our oceans just a generation later; the recycling process itself consumes energy; and, many plastics aren’t recyclable - even if they have the “chasing arrows” symbol. This depends greatly on your municipality; “For example, few places will accept those black plastic #1 food trays that frozen meals come in. Yet they are advertised as recyclable because theoretically, they could be.” And, “Just because your city accepts certain items for recycling does not necessarily mean that they are actually recycled.” (article)
The information above can be overwhelming. But we can't just give up on making a difference, starting in our own home. The research hopefully can inspire us to be a bit more mindful about how we purchase, use, and dispose of plastic.
So, now it’s time to get busy and make a list of your goals for the month. And here's what I want to emphasize: whatever you go for, go for it 100%. It will be far better to choose one or two things to do, and do them well, than to start the month with a nebulous plan to "just try harder" and then fizzle out a week or two later. And if you go for 100% on your goals - not just 95% - then that last 5%...well, that's the good stuff. That represents the day that it was the hardest. But if you get through that day, and force yourself to do some troubleshooting and refining and tweaking, you'll be set up to hit at least 95% - or even 100% - in the future, when the "challenge" ends!
Myplasticfreelife.com has an amazing list of 100 ways to reduce plastic, including many product recommendations. That's a great list to go off of, but for starters, here are a few of my suggestions; you decide which one(s) you will tackle this month, and jot them down in your worksheet!
Disclosure: some links are referral links. One source of many plastic-free products is Life Without Plastic. You can also explore Thrive Market (get 25% off your first order here) or Grove Collaborative (get $10 off here). I haven't tried all products listed but have used many; check out the options and see what looks best for you!
At the grocery store, stop using plastic shopping bags, produce bags, and bulk bags. Get what you need, and commit to having them on you wherever you go. I just use a random assortment of tote bags (when I remember!), but the produce and bulk sections still get me, so I plan to start using reusable bags there as well, or bring my own glass containers for the bulk items so I don’t even have to transfer them over at home. See some options for bags here.
Buy in bulk. If you aren’t used to buying in bulk, this is also a great way to reduce waste and save money, so get to know your bulk section! For example, at my local co-op, I can get not just dry grocery items like grains and nuts, but also honey, peanut butter, spices, coffee beans, and liquid soap. But be sure to bring reusable bags or containers.
Ditch plastic drinking straws. Do you really need a straw most of the time, anyway? And when you do, there are great reusable options. I have 4 stainless steel straws I use at home, and a brush to clean them. To learn more about the staggering volume and harm of plastic drinking straws, see this 4-minute video. Purchase reusable options here.
Bring reusable mugs, cups, take-out containers, utensils, and straws with you. Where do you use these? At the work cafeteria, at your favorite restaurant? At a coffee shop, bring your own mug and opt out of the plastic-lined paper cup and the plastic lid. At a restaurant that usually serves smoothies in disposable plastic cups with plastic lids and straws, ask if they can use yours or use one of their own reusable cups. If using dishes at work, plan to have dish soap handy to wash and re-use these items.
Stop using one-time use plastic for food storage. Instead of plastic baggies and wrap, try a reusable cloth coated with wax, such as Abeego or Bee’s Wrap (one way to order is at Grove Collaborative; use this link for $10 off), mason jars, and glass containers with locking lids. For packing lunches, I’ve been happy with Planetbox boxes and accessories for my kids; other lunch options are here.
Quit plastic bottles. This is a big one. For example, bottled water costs about 2,000 times more than tap water, and is usually not of higher quality (8-minute video). Find a reusable bottle you love. A great selection of bottles is here. I also often use a mason jar with a sealable “poptop” lid from ecojarz to bring water or a smoothie with me; the lid takes up less room than a water bottle, since I use the mason jars for plenty of other purposes anyway . If you use bottled water due to concerns over your municipality’s tap water, consider getting a Berkey filtration system.
Make items from scratch rather than buying a plastic container - eg yogurt, hummus, salad dressings, granola bars. This is usually cheaper too!
Buy canned goods with no BPA in the lining.
Switch to cloth diapers. This one requires a bit more legwork, but just think of all the waste (including, often, plastic components) and money you could save over the years. My kiddos are older now, but when I made the switch to cloth when my first was a couple of months old, I benefited greatly from the awesome staff at Nicki's Diapers in Madison. Their Cloth Diapering 101 page is a great place to begin, and we can help you out in the KC Facebook group too. Cloth diapering became second nature before I knew it, and I figure if my foremothers did it without washing machines, I could make it happen.
Use environmentally-conscious menstrual care. Instead of generating all the waste of disposable tampons, pads, and liners, consider reusable options. I tried a DivaCup and did not like it, although many swear by them or other menstrual cups. However, I’ve been very pleased with my Thinx, which are reusable underwear that absorb my flow, feel clean all day, and wash clean. My faves are the Cotton Bikini and the Hiphugger. (Get $10 off here). Another option is reusable sponge tampons or cotton pads and liners (link)
Avoid the worst plastics. According to myplasticfreelife.com, “If you do nothing else, try to steer clear of Polyvinyl Chloride (#3 PVC), Polystyrene (#6 PS), & Polycarbonate (#7 Other). PVC is found in many, many products and causes a whole host of environmental problems. Read my post about the problems of PVC. PS contains styrene, which is toxic to the brain and nervous system. PC contains BPA. Read more about BPA here. If you must use plastic, make sure it’s not #3, #6, or #7 polycarbonate."
Recycle responsibly. Take some time to learn about what plastics your municipality accepts, and what is required. For example, they may not recycle a bottle if the cap is left on, thereby wasting the entire thing.
Reuse and repurpose. We've talked a lot about reducing and recycling, but let's not forget about reusing, which can prevent further purchases, prolong the plastic item's life before it ends up in the garbage, and save money. Use old plastic containers for storage all over your house. Or get really creative; see some great ideas here as a starting point and commit to looking at your home with fresh eyes. Are there problems you can solve, or creativity you can tap into, by repurposing your waste for storage, decor, kid activities, and more? Can you think of a project or two to take on this month that will be a new way of reusing plastic in your home?
Commit to ongoing change. When the time comes, replace plastic items with other materials. There are many, many companies out there making the world a better place through innovative (or old school!), earth-friendly products, so don't assume plastic is the only option! Examples are ice cube trays, blenders, cookware, clothing, razors, toothbrushes, floss, cell phone cases, markers, and packing tape. When you need plastic, get it second-hand or made of recycled plastic. Buy clothing made with natural fabrics, since many synthetic fabrics contain plastic that is released into our waterways when the fabric is washed (3-minute video here).
Other ideas? Share them over in the Facebook group!
So, now that your list is ready, have some to-do items emerged to the top? Will you be researching your municipality’s recycling rules a bit more closely? Will you be browsing Life Without Plastic to purchase some reusable bags, or finding which grocery store near you has the best bulk section? Create a clear list and plow through it, because in a few days, we’ll begin. See you over in our Facebook group as we share stories and ideas and cheer each other on!