Could you live your life without plastic? Your answer to this will depend on your lifestyle, where you live and the kinds of things you like to do, the places available to you to shop and how much time you have. Whatever your situation is, I guarantee that you will be able to live with a little less plastic!
How much you choose to eliminate is up to you, but it all makes a difference.
Many people feel overwhelmed before they even start… and so they don’t start. Or they make a mistake early on and give up, deciding that plastic-free living is something for the “too hard” basket.
The truth is, there is no need to panic, or to feel overwhelmed, or to do nothing simply because we can’t do everything. Change takes time: months, or even years. There is no rule that says everything must be successful on the first day!
There is no all-or-nothing approach to living without plastic: it is a sliding scale, and we just need to find out where we are personally comfortable to sit on the scale. We need to find our happy place: where we’ve made changes we’re comfortable with.
With Plastic Free July approaching, I like to spend time reflecting on my journey and the lessons I learned. This year is my 5th year of supporting the challenge, and I love to share what I’ve experienced with those that are just starting out, or taking it to the next level. If that’s you, read on!
1. Don’t try to make ALL the changes on the first day
It’s unlikely that you are beginning your plastic-free living challenge with a completely empty pantry, fridge and bathroom cabinets. It’s far more likely that you’ll already have food in the cupboard and toiletries in the shower.
Even if they are overpackaged in plastic, this is a good thing (for now!). It means that you can make changes slowly, one by one: as items are used up you can replace them with plastic-free alternatives.
When I signed up to Plastic Free July in 2012, the first things I had to buy were milk, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables. Cheese and yoghurt came later. Pantry staples like pasta and rice came later again. Condiments and specialist ingredients were further down the track.
I had so many products stockpiled in the bathroom (that I hadn’t really been aware of) that I didn’t replace anything here for a few weeks. In fact, it took me 18 months to use up every plastic-packaged item in my bathroom. Plastic-free living is a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Don’t think about the money – for now
If you’ve signed up to Plastic Free July, then you’ve committed to 31 days of living without plastic. I’m going to challenge you for those 31 days, not to think about the money you spend on groceries or toiletries.
Or not to stress about it, at least – there’s enough to worry about for now without having extra stress!
Plastic-free living can seem expensive at first, because buying food from deli counters or Farmers markets or in glass often does cost more than their cheap, lesser quality, plastic-packaged supermarket counterparts. Wholefoods and vegetables are more expensive than processed junk food, but they are also far better for us.
For these 31 days, give yourself a free pass. Open your mind to the possibilities. If your budget is small, maybe tighten the belt somewhere else – reduce how much you spend on alcohol, movie tickets, eating out or takeaway coffee for the month.
The truth is, in time, you’ll decide which things are worth spending the extra money on, and which things you’re happier without. The things you buy will change as you start to find new places to shop with different products on offer.
You’ll adjust your shopping and eating habits, and most people who live plastic-free and zero waste lifestyles find they actually spend less. But again, it takes time: I think it took us around 6 months to notice that our food bill had reduced.
3. There’s no need to rush out and buy anything new
There’s something about starting a new challenge that makes us want to rush out and buy new “stuff”. It’s because changing habits is hard, and buying stuff is easy… and by making a new purchase, we can feel that we’ve started on the journey.
There are a few things in the plastic-free living “toolkit” that make things easier, but you do not need to go out and make a purchase on the first day. Or even the first week. Or even at all!
Before you buy anything, you need to figure out if you are going to use it, and if you have something suitable at home already that you can use or repurpose. Take your time so that you can make the best choices. (This especially applies if you are concerned about your groceries budget.)
The only thing I purchased during my first Plastic Free July was a KeepCup (a reusable coffee cup), made from plastic.
A few weeks later I began to wonder whether buying a plastic cup for a plastic-free living challenge actually made sense (of course it doesn’t). I started thinking about combining plastic with hot liquids. I noticed the plastic started to absorb the coffee flavour.
Eventually I decided to replace it with a glass one (which I still have). Had I taken my time to think about it, I could have saved myself a wasted purchase.
4. Life from scratch…or not?
When I started down the plastic-free path, I had no intention of making my own bread or yoghurt or pickles. However, I began making all of these things, and for different reasons.
I used to buy bread at the Farmers Market, which meant I had to purchase my bread between 8am and 12noon on Saturdays. This meant that the rest of Saturday was put on hold until I’d secured the golden loaf of sourdough. Freshly baked artisan sourdough is delicious, but it’s also expensive. The Saturday morning stress and the money led me to ask myself the question – could I bake my own?
Once I tried baking sourdough for the first time, I was smitten. Freshly baked bread straight from the oven – there is no comparison. Now I have freshly baked bread whenever I need it, rather than just on Saturdays.
I started making yoghurt when I realised how simple it was. It involves heating up milk, cooling again, adding a small amount of culture (meaning old yoghurt) and placing somewhere warm for 12 hours (you can find yoghurt-making instructions here). Why was I buying it, carrying it home and taking the empty glass jars back when it took less time just to make my own?
I really enjoy cooking ,and baking, and making stuff from scratch. The more I’ve tried, the more I’ve got into it. But I don’t have time to do everything.
I don’t make my own pasta, for example. We can buy pasta from the bulk store, so why would I make my own? I tried making passata once, but it was so laborious I declared never again (or not for a long time). I don’t can my own tomatoes. I use the lazy person alternative – chopping up and using fresh tomatoes instead. It works well enough for me.
If something is impossible to find without plastic, or too expensive to buy, then I consider that I have three choices. Number 1: make my own. Number 2: find an alternative that I’m happy with. Number 3: go without.
Of course there is a fourth option – compromise – but I prefer to stick to one of the first three. That is enough choice for me.
5. The 80/20 Rule
I have a theory that 80% of everyday plastic is easy to eliminate, and the other 20% is the hard stuff. The easy things like plastic bags, plastic straws, takeaway packaging, disposable coffee cups, water and soft drinks bottles, multipacks, individual portions and serves can all be removed from our lives without too much stress.
It just takes a little bit of remembering, and maybe some practice, but not too much change.
The other 20% is the stuff that requires compromise, or bigger changes. Don’t worry about the hard 20%, at least not at first, and don’t give up on reducing the easy stuff just because you know the hard stuff will probably elude you.
Focus on the easy changes that have big wins.
There will always be people ahead of us on the journey, who have achieved things that we can only dream about. We can learn from them, and speed up our own journeys. The truth is, they all started at the same place.
They all started at the beginning.
They chose to make one change, and purchase one less plastic item, and then one more, and they just kept on going. Small steps, in the right direction. That is all it takes.
As always, now I’d love to hear your thoughts! Are you someone who has been on the plastic-free living or zero waste journey for a while, and if so, what tips would you give to someone starting out? Are you embracing the Plastic Free July challenge for the first time this year, and if so, do you have any concerns or questions? Which one of these lessons stands out most for you? Do you disagree with anything? Are there any other lessons that you’d like to add? Any other thoughts about plastic-free living or zero waste living, or the Plastic Free July challenge? I’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment below!