Cleanaway’s Education Officer, Mikaela Orme is an Eco-champ – everyone recycles in her house and she puts the right things in the right kerbside bin to prevent contamination. But plastic pollution has inspired her to take her eco game to the next level – by going plastic free all July.
Have you ever stopped to wonder how much plastic you use? Plastic is so woven into our everyday lives that it’s found in almost everything – furniture, electronics, food packaging, health and beauty products, and even our clothing.
Series such as the ‘War on Waste‘ and ‘Plastic Ocean’ have brought plastic pollution to the forefront of conversations and if we dig a little deeper, the statistics become even more distressing.
For example, did you know that of all the plastic ever created, only 9% has actually been recycled?
Some plastic waste is incinerated, but around 80% ends up in our environment – either through landfill or littering. Plastic doesn’t break down in the same way as organic material, which decomposes into usable organic molecules. Instead, it forms microplastics, or essentially just smaller plastic particles.
These microplastics make their way into soil and waterways, and even all the way to the Arctic ice. Around 25 million tonnes of plastic packaging are dumped in our oceans every year, and if nothing is done to reverse this trend, it’s predicted that plastic could outweigh fish in just 30 years’ time.
With these thoughts swimming in my head, I made the decision this year to go completely plastic free for the month of July.
Taking stock of plastic waste
We already recycle a lot in our household – through our commingled bin, and separately for paper, cardboard, and food waste. I am also fairly mindful about reducing single-use plastics in my everyday life – swapping plastic bags for reusable ones, takeaway coffee cups with reusable cups, and plastic wrap for beeswax wraps.
But in planning to go completely plastic free, I wanted to know just how much plastic I would be removing from circulation and the plastic free alternatives available to me. So to measure the average amount of plastic waste my two-person household generates, I siphoned every piece of plastic – recyclable and non-recyclable – into a separate rubbish bag for a week.
At the end of the week, the bag held approximately 60L and 430g of disposable plastics. For an average month, this would equate to a full 240L sized kerbside bin and almost 2kg of plastic in weight!
A lot of our plastic waste was milk bottles, plastic trays, yogurt containers and herb containers, all of which are recyclable in the yellow commingle bin. But a decent chunk was also soft plastic, which is not recyclable through the kerbside bin. But I found that I could recycle some soft plastics at my local grocery store.
Going plastic free
Prior to July, I already had reusable shopping bags, produce bags, beeswax wraps, a KeepCup, a reusable water bottle, reusable cutlery and shampoo bars. What I needed was a reusable straw, glass containers for grocery or take away items, a safety razor and bamboo toothbrushes.
I managed to purchase glass containers from a discount store and everything else from the Biome website – who also ship everything plastic free! At this point, I was fully prepared, and all that was left was putting myself to practice.
Grocery shopping was not so much challenging as it was frustrating. All my pantry staples including oats, rice, Greek yogurt, milk, cheese, tofu and bread had to be crossed from my list because of plastic packaging. And while this meant I was buying more fruit, vegetables, and canned foods, I also had to travel further to source nude food.
I made trips out to Manly to purchase package-free tofu (probably one of the more surprising finds of the month), to Harris Farms who sell milk in glass bottles, to bulk food stores for grains and nuts, and to my local butcher for meats (as I found the major supermarkets were a bit hit-and-miss on letting you use your own containers). It also almost tripled my grocery bill for the month.
Going plastic free for July applied to absolutely everything – an important lesson my partner learned one day buying bread from the bakery and then trying to hide his mistake by sneaking the bread into a bread bag before I saw the plastic, or one night out for dinner when I myself forgot to ask for my drink sans straw.
Despite these initial challenges I found that going plastic free was incredibly rewarding as well. I found that I made more food at home, and was inspired to be more creative with my meals. It also meant that I ate healthier.
When I did go out to buy food or drinks, I made sure to take the time and eat in the café or restaurant. Instead of rushing through a takeaway coffee on-the-go, I enjoyed my coffee which was a really nice change of pace to break up the work day. And when I couldn’t be bothered to eat out or cook, it was a massive relief to know that wine, pizza and Lindt chocolate are all plastic free!
What I learned
As my journey comes to an end, I ask myself, “Come August, can I remain completely plastic free?”
To be honest, probably not.
Buying plastic-free regularly can be expensive for many families and while making things from scratch can be a fun and healthy experience, it isn’t always convenient.
But the important thing to remember on any plastic free journey is that just by starting, you have already made a difference. Tackle the ‘low-hanging fruit’ first by creating a plastic free pack for everyday use (i.e. reusable bags, containers, drink bottle, coffee cup and cutlery set). Then look into additional items like reusable straws, beeswax wraps and safety razors. Try shopping locally at the bakery or butchers in your area with your own containers. And, finally, accept that some things are out of your control.
Industry and businesses too need to do their part to ensure that more recyclable and reusable packaging options are made available to consumers. But while we are waiting for this change, any small act that you can take to reduce your consumption will help. Many people think that refusing one plastic bag or straw won’t solve the larger plastic problem – and it won’t. But it is one less piece of plastic waste that’s going into the world.
The point is that a small positive impact adds up to a large positive impact over time. So I encourage everyone to do what they can, one small act a day, to collectively make a meaningful impact on plastic pollution.
Mikaela Orme is our Education Officer in NSW, just one of the many men and women who are passionate about making a difference to our environment through sustainable waste management.