Photo by Catherine Sheila
We’re already through July, but you can embrace a plastic-free mindset any time. In this beginner’s guide to going plastic-free, we’ll explain why reducing plastic waste is important for the environment, how you can get involved with simple swaps, and give you some ideas to inspire you to make a positive change!
We'll cover the following:
What is no plastic July?
The Plastic Free Foundation launched Plastic Free July® in 2011 to help people understand the impact of plastic waste on the environment and reduce their reliance on it. What started out as an awareness campaign quickly gained momentum and is now an annual award-winning environmental campaign with a worldwide following.
According to the Foundation, which is based in Western Australia, many people who take part commit to reduce plastic pollution after July has finished. This kind of commitment is essential, as the plastic crisis will affect every aspect of life unless society comes together to make positive changes.
Why is reducing plastic important?
Plastic pollution is not something new, but the need to find a sustainable long-term solution is growing in urgency. Back in 2018, the Royal Statistical Society named this as its International Statistic of the year: “90.5%: the proportion of plastic waste that has never been recycled.”
“Estimated at 6,300 million metric tonnes, it’s thought that around 12% of all plastic waste has been incinerated, with roughly 79% accumulating in either landfill or the natural environment.”
Photo by Sarah Chai
Before we even discuss the negative effects of the plastic in our homes and workplaces on the environment, we must first talk about the process of actually creating plastic.
There are two types of plastic that are manufactured, those that are bio-based and those that are synthetic. The latter makes up most plastic today, but it is made from fossil fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, or coal.
Something widely known about fossil fuels is that they are problematic because they release harmful gases when burned, including those that lead to global warming and climate change. The fact that they are used during the manufacturing practice and in the product means that plastic-production is not sustainable.
An article from 2017 entitled ‘Half of All Plastic That Has Ever Existed Was Made in the Past 13 Years’ highlights the way society has become dependent on plastic over the past 10-20 years. Before that, people used glass, wood, ceramics, and paper when purchasing goods. People are now asking ‘What can I use instead of plastic?’ and coming up with new and creative ideas that are eco-friendly and sustainable.
Plastic and the environment:
Burying plastic waste in landfills is simply a way of hiding the problem. The old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is particularly apt. Many types of plastic are not biodegradable. This means that the waste will stay buried in the ground for decades, and when it does eventually degrade, it will create lasting problems for the local environment.
When plastic breaks down, it leaches toxins and chemicals into the surrounding soil. This can get washed away when it rains, causing it to enter water systems. It could affect livestock and crops that consume the contaminated water.
Aside from causing issues on land, the levels of plastic pollution affecting the ocean are staggering. According to National Geographic, “8 million tonnes of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations” each year.
Plastic in rivers and oceans can easily become microplastics, which can have a devastating effect on marine life. As the plastic becomes smaller and smaller due to it being in the sea, it can cause death in sea creatures, including fish, and can easily enter the food chain. It has the potential to be more harmful than the plastic seen floating on the surface because it is essentially invisible.
Why is this happening?
The use, or rather the overuse, of plastic reflects how society has changed. Consumers expect convenience when shopping, whether for groceries, clothes, makeup, books, or accessories.
Fast fashion has gained a bad reputation and has highlighted the throwaway culture associated with ‘staying on trend.’ But if you look beyond the fashion industry, it is clear to see there are consumerism issues across society. Shoppers don’t just want their fashion fast, they want everything fast because quick service has become a key selling point of businesses, regardless of the environmental impact.
A side-effect of being able to make purchases quickly is the disposable nature of products. This article in The Guardian highlights the fact that recycling is not the issue, consumption is. And unless we, as consumers, change our habits, the single-use mindset will continue to cause problems for the environment.
For instance, the article cites a statistic that the average person in the UK throws out 400kg of waste per year. For perspective, that’s about as heavy as a riding horse.
As with slow sustainable fashion choices, the same principles can apply to any aspect of society. Instead of buying food packaged in plastic from a supermarket, opt for loose produce, the local market, or grow your own. Instead of buying new, buy second-hand, upcycle, or reuse what you already have. These may sound like minor changes, but if everyone were to make them, it would make a vast difference.
How can I reduce my plastic waste?
Anyone can embrace a plastic-free lifestyle. All you need to do is think consciously about your choices and the impact of them. Instead of completely overhauling your life, you may find it easier to take one element at a time. For instance, if shopping is your hobby or passion, consider going to clothes swaps or buying second-hand from charity shops, car boots, or online marketplaces that give old clothes a second chance.
Alternatively, consider upcycling what you already have. You can read our in-depth guide about upcycling here. If you aren’t feeling confident in your abilities, find a local clothing alteration service that can help you transform your garments into something different.
If clothing isn’t your thing, think about your food shopping habits. Do you usually end up throwing food away? Do you order takeaways in plastic containers? Have you considered growing some of your own food? Thinking about your current processes and what you’d like to change can give you direction and a sense of accomplishment when you reach your goals.
Here are some of our favourite ideas to help you reduce your reliance on plastic:
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch
Invest in a reusable coffee cup
If you can’t function without first getting your caffeine fix, have you considered buying a reusable cup to take with you? This will go someway to reducing the UK’s massive use of disposable coffee cups, which stands at 2.5 billion and is predicted to increase year-on-year.
Get a reusable bottle
In the UK, 7.7 billion plastic bottles are purchased every year. According to Water UK, “if just 1 in 10 Brits refilled just once a week, we’d save around 340 million plastic bottles a year.” Many businesses and shared community spaces are embracing bottle refilling and provide a space for individuals to do this, but it does need improvement.
Switch to paper or metal straws
Back in October 2020, the English government brought in legislation that banned the use of plastic straws, cotton buds, and stirrers that are used once. Plastic straws became infamous after an image surfaced of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. In addition, turtles can mistake floating straws for food, which can cause starvation if consumed because it can make the animal feel full and damage their stomach.
Take a shopping bag with you
Whether you’re a fan of the fabric tote to carry your books and charity shop clothes haul, or you take bags with you to the supermarket, it all makes a difference. In 2015, the Government rolled out plans in England to introduce a 5p fee for purchasing plastic carrier bags. “... since the fee was introduced in England, an estimated 15 billion bags have been taken out of circulation,” according to the BBC, which is why the fee increased to 10p per bag in April 2021.
Smell good and save the planet: Switch to natural deodorant!
There are many retailers that now sell natural deodorants instead of a roll-on that sits in plastic casing or aerosol deodorants that could be inhaled by users. Wild natural deodorant sells a reusable metal case for customers to easily carry their deodorant, as does Lush. While natural deodorants may appear to cost more when first purchased, they last far longer than traditional options.
Grow your own and/or avoid pre-packaged fruit and veggies
Have you ever planted fruit or vegetables from seed and eaten them? The satisfaction is immense. Not only can you watch your crop progress, but you get to enjoy it once it’s ready to harvest. Not everyone is fortunate to have the space or time to grow their own, so an excellent compromise is to buy loose produce. This reduces packaging and you get to choose the veg you want.
Exchange your cling film for Beeswax Wraps
How do you wrap your sandwiches? It may come as a surprise, but cling film cannot be recycled. Although foil can, one of the best (and most sustainable) alternatives is Beeswax Wraps. You may have heard of them because they are growing in popularity and now come in an array of designs. For the ultimate upcycling project, why not take your favourite fabrics or tea towels and give them a new lease of life.
Ditch your traditional sanitary products and choose period pants
So many sanitary products available on the market contain single-use plastic, and many of us who are fortunate enough to afford them have perhaps never considered this flaw. In addition, many of these items are wrongly flushed down the toilet, which can cause them to enter the waterways. Now more than ever, there is an array of sustainable options to choose from, including menstrual cups to period pants, eco-friendly tampons, and sustainable pads.
Find DIY alternatives
This applies to natural cleaning solutions such as using limes to remove limescale from draining boards or an all-purpose cleaner made from only four ingredients. This can also apply to natural health remedies such as picking fresh lavender and creating your own pillow bag to aid sleep.
Rethink your gift wrap, gift bag, and card options
Instead of buying gift wrap for every holiday or occasion, have you considered making your own? You could use recyclable brown paper and create your own print, or you could use scarves or material to wrap it. You might assume all wrapping paper is made equally, but that is not correct. Anything featuring foil or glitter cannot be recycled. It is therefore classed as general waste.
We hope you have found this guide to Plastic-Free July helpful and will embrace some suggestions long after July has finished. We would love to know if you have any other #SimpleSwaps or recommendations to reduce plastic pollution!