Living a plastic-free July

Reducing our plastic intake is more difficult than it should be

“The next time you slurp an ice-cold plastic bottle of San Pellegrino, remember that the organic polymer holding that liquid will be around for just under half a millennium.”

“There are free muffins at the canteen. Let’s go!” announced a colleague to an office of unpaid interns. Such treats were seldom available in our workplace, so the announcement excited the room. Once I reached the canteen my eyes caught hold of the bun in a sheet of plastic film. Disappointment engulfed me. The muffins were free, but not plastic-free, and so off-limits.

If I’m honest, I decided to take part in Plastic Free July on a whim. While I have long been a militant recycler, veggie-eating-animal-lover and all-around tree-hugger, I had not invested much time in thinking about how much plastic I, and everyone else around me, was using. I tried my best to have a KeepCup, a reusable water bottle, and a cotton shopping tote in my backpack at all times. Giving up all single-use plastic, however, seemed both extreme and impossible.

One Sunday afternoon, while hungover, eating a bag of Taytos, and drinking a bottle of 7UP, a video popped up on my Facebook newsfeed about a health and lifestyle vlogger who was about to embark on a month abstaining from single-use plastics. I began watching this bronzed and beautiful health enthusiast’s vlog. She detailed her reasons for participating in the challenge and I was instantly intrigued. Ending the vlog with a plea for me to buy her latest merch and subscribe to her channel, I quickly exited the video and began doing my own research on the topic.

My former self believed that as long as I recycle my plastic bottles and wash my yoghurt pots I could do no more. I was oblivious to how much plastic was being consumed. I never spent much time pondering our overindulgence in the substance. I can only assume that I subconsciously believed my plastic would be reused and reinvented – that I was saving the planet. This was, however, a deluded belief.

Plastic polymers are composed of a range of molecules that are almost impossible to biodegrade. In 2010, Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester published a study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology which revealed that it can take over 450 years for plastics to biodegrade. Thus, humanity’s compulsion to manufacture plastic goods, carelessness in their disposal, and deficiencies in waste management have resulted in an ocean swamped annually in 13 million tonnes of plastic litter, an ever-increasing number as our population grows.

While somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware of these facts, I still believed that my determination to wash my yoghurt pots and bring a KeepCup to Starbucks was effort enough to save the planet. I hoped the plastic goods I was using would be reimagined into a kid’s toy or a teenager’s sparkly phone case. If you were to sit down and list everything you purchased in the last week, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of goods that did not have some plastic component. In 2017, National Geographic reported that 91% of plastic waste has not been recycled since the genesis of its mass production in the 1950s. It has been estimated that approximately 8 trillion tonnes of this waste has ended up in our oceans.

So, if you were to recycle every item “perfectly”, do you really believe that all of it would be repurposed? The truth is, whether you throw it in the recycling bin or refill your water bottle a few times, the plastic will exist in some shape or form long after you and I have pushed up a garden full of daisies. The next time you slurp an ice-cold plastic bottle of San Pellegrino, remember that the organic polymer holding that liquid will be around for just under half a millennium.

I started the challenge naively and highly unprepared. The morning after I had announced my decision to take part in Plastic Free July I noticed that my underarms required some maintenance. I needed to find a plastic-free razor ASAP. I quickly found out that these are very difficult to get in Boots. So, either I had to embrace the Amazonian aesthetic or get on Amazon and search “metal razor”. Dictated by social pressures, I pursued the latter.

This initial purchase resulted in a subsequent splurge on all things plastic free. My Google search led me to bamboo, which is a biodegradable material that takes just over three years to disintegrate when submerged in soil. I bought bamboo toothbrushes, cutlery, bowls, sanitary towels and straws. I had gone plastic-free mad and it felt amazing: like a churlish young beauty pageant queen, I felt, once again, like I was saving the planet. I wanted to share my plastic-free lifestyle with anyone who would listen.

My Facebook newsfeed became inundated with plastic free articles, and the more I read the more terrified I became about the impact plastic was having on our environment. Zalasiewicz’s study found that since 1945 humans have manufactured enough plastic to coat the entire Earth in cling film. The accumulation of microplastics in our oceans kills thousands of aquatic wildlife creatures every year. Microplastics comprise 236,000 tonnes of the plastic in our oceans, and these tiny fragments of human waste are being consumed by animals who end up starving because of their subsequent inability to eat actual food. In 2015, a study published by Jambeck et al. revealed that the amount of plastic in our oceans is set to increase tenfold by 2020 if we don’t start finding alternative materials to use.

Whether or not we want to believe sensational articles about how every minute a truckload of plastic is dumped into our oceans, or just choose to ignore the problem completely, at some point plastic will no longer be available to us and the problem of finding an alternative is inevitable. As a derivative of oil, plastic is non-renewable. Thus, we only have a limited supply of it. Plastic is imparting irreparable ramifications on the world we inhabit and the animals that innocently dwell in its oceans. I’m not saying that going plastic-free makes you some sort of ethical angel, but it’s certainly more fruitful than the alternative way of living.

People are finally waking up to humanity’s selfish ways. It’s time for you to wake up, too. It’s time we all opened our eyes and started making small changes to save our planet.