what I learned during plastic free july
We are already halfway through August, and I have finally just finished processing everything I learned during Plastic Free July and my quest to participate in the plastic free movement.
Instead of taking the month to purge all plastic from my life, I did things a little differently this year. I decided to really get educated about the different kinds of plastic in my life. Part of me has a little resentment towards the month, with large corporations being major plastic waste contributors and some research pointing to the statistic that fishing nets alone make up to 46% of all ocean plastic.
Is me carrying around a set of bamboo forks going to make all that much difference? I am not sure. If you are looking for an article that will give you tips on how to eliminate plastic from your life, move on, this isn't that type of article. But, if you are looking to learn about all the hidden plastic in your life, and if your plastic free movement efforts are actually making an impact, read on.
what is plastic free July?
Plastic free July is a personal challenge that asks individuals to give up plastic for a whole month. The mission of the campaign is to encourage the school of that that if everyone makes tiny changes, all of those changes that reduce plastic will add up to make a big impact. The Plastic Free July website mostly gives tips on how to cut plastics, especially ones of the single-use variety, out of your life.
How I participated in plastic-free July
I decided I would participate differently in Plastic Free July though. Why? Well, I kind of feel like all these movements, the plastic free movement is getting a little too radical. I am a member of 20+ ethical and sustainable fashion, zero waste, and cruelty-free/vegan groups on Facebook. And, recently, I have not been liking the trend of what I have been seeing. The women (these groups are almost exclusively women) all seem like they are one plastic straw on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sometimes the things I read feel more like stories you might hear in an OCD support group than people trying to save the planet. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about and not liking. Interestingly enough both of these stories which stood out as the most extream are from moms - another key demo in the plastic free movement.
Eco-warrior or OCD?
In one post a new mom, I think she mentioned the kid was only a couple months old, was having a small meltdown over not having enough reusable diapers and having to use disposable. She used the group to repent for her sins of using something disposable and even going into detail about the guilt and stress she felt over the situation. To many women like her perfection is the only option when joining the plastic free movement.
Girl….. chill…. you just had a kid, your trying to be plastic-free, which is a lot more than most people - so give yourself some slack. And don't let this ruin your week.
In another example, a mom was complaining that her child was invited to a birthday party where there would be disposable plates and napkins. She approached the party-kids parents and requested that they serve the cake on reusable plates, serve drinks in reusable cups, and the cutlery not be single-use. I wonder if she requested cloth napkins as well?
Anyway, the parents that were throwing the party said no. And TBH I don't blame them. Kids are expensive and investing in a special set of dishes and cutlery for a party of 30+ kids is kind of a big ask.
But, this woman was not taking no for an answer, so she showed up at the party and insisted that her kid's cake be served on the reusable options that she provided. For them. Only them. Poor kid, who wants to be singled out in front of all your friends and made to feel different. Not to mention one paper plate, cup, and plastic cake fork are not going to change the world. Sorry, it won't. Not when large corporations are dumpling plastic into the ocean at the rate that they are. Or the fact that here reusable options were almost certainly packed and shipped in protective plastic pacakging that was thrown away before she could see it and protest.
There comes a point where you need to interact in society normally. And, in my opinion, this woman is crossing the line. Sure, it's great to try and educate people. I am constantly educating people all the time. But, if they aren't into it, you've to let it go.
My point is, most of these people in the plastic free movement are an extream. And, they are scaring a lot of people off who want to get invovled but, don't want to be held to rediculous standards. To get real, these extremists aren't really my people. In my opinion radical anything is never good. What happened to walking the middle ground?
I am not trying to throw shade at these women. My point is to relax. You alone won't save the world. If you use some plastic it's ok. Nobody is perfect, so don't hold yourself and your friends and families to impossible standards. You will drive yourself crazy.
So, that's why I decided to learn instead of stress over choosing between dehydrating or using a plastic water bottle when I forgot my reusable one.
the big four of the plastic free movement
Plastic free movement, and zero waste experts across the board suggest that people who are just starting on their plastic free movement lifestyle journey begin by working to eliminate the big four - straws, bags, coffee cups, and water bottles. Collectively these four make up a big chunk of plastic pollution so they alone can make a big impact in your quest.
Here is what I learned about the big four, and eliminating them from your life.
Paper straws are gross
There I said it. And I bet most of you were thinking it too. If it takes you longer than 10 minutes to drink your beverage then you have had the experience where the straw gets all mushy and your drink gets a subtle note of cardboard. Ewww.
Here is something no one is talking about. I am pretty sure I am the first with this article. What about the dye and chemicals used to make these paper straws? As they disintegrate into our drinks, what are we consuming? What chemicals are in the paper? What chemicals are in the dyes that make them cute Instagram worthy colors? No one seems to know. And there doesn't seem to be any regulation on what can be used to make a paper straw. I can guarantee is in 99.9% of cases it isn't toxin-free vegetable derived dyes. Maybe these chemicals are just as bad as the BPA, BPS, phthalates, and xenoestrogens found in plastic straws… but we don't know yet because research still needs to be done.
metal straws are dangerous
Well, first off let's start with this summers viral article about the person who died by the death of metal straw. Basically what happened is that a 60-year-old woman was carrying a glass with a stainless-steel straw, she fell, impaled her eye with the straw, and the straw went so deep in that it ruptured her brain. Yikes. That is some seriously bad luck. This is an extream, probably one in a million tragedy. But, as metal straws become more and more popular more people are reporting injuries and chipped teeth.
And, this story did get me thinking about the downsides of using metal straws.
Here is the first thing, most of these stainless steel straws are cheaply made (even if they have a high price tag), and when some types of stainless steel is heated (think, if you drink hot drinks with a straw, like coffee to prevent staining your teeth) then this can cause a reaction and for nickel to leach out of the stainless steel, into the drink, and ultimately into your body. To be safe Elemental Bottles recommends "#304 or 18/8 food-grade stainless steel" only.
Also, some metal straws have a distinct smell or taste. I don't know about you, but I don't want to feel like I'm licking a penny every time I take a sip of water.
The nice thing about glass straws is that you can see into the middle and really tell if they are clean. When I get a metal straw in a restaurant, I don't trust it. Who knows how clean it really is. If you are someone that reads my blogging regularly than you probably know this about me, my standards for hygiene are pretty lax especially when I am living in India. But, for some reason reusable straws that I can't see into really skeeve me out.
The downside to glass is it would be a nightmare if it broke while you were drinking.
These are my favorite. The won't poison you, they won't impale you, and they last for almost ever. They are a little more flimsy than the plastic that most of us have spent a lifetime using. But, I think they are the best alternative. In general, I have been really into silicone, that can be used for years, replacing plastic mostly because it is so durable, and plastic-like. It feels like an easy transition into the plastic-free movement.
do we really need straws at all?
Not really. Unless you are part of the very, very small population of handicapped people that need to drink from a straw for whatever reason. It's just unnecessary. Seriously think about it. Do you so desperately need to suck your drinks up that you want to carry around a straw where ever you go? Then worry about sanitizing it so bacteria does not grow. Seems kind of obsessive when you think of it like that.
Could it be that these reusable straws are more of a status symbol than fulfilling an actual need? A very clear nonverbal indicator, I care about the environment.
My two cents is to just skip the straw altogether. Personally, I have never been in a situation where I could not drink or eat if a straw was not available, they are superfluous. And, I would love to hear peoples comments (from nonhandicapped people only, please) about a time they absolutely had to use a straw.
Reusable bags aren't even eco!
First, let's start with the clothing industry. Most brands that will ship you your order in a reusable tote instead of a plastic one, are hiding a dirty little secret. Their factory is shipping their order in poly bags. Every single garment gets its own clear plastic bag. It's almost impossible to find a professional (keyword professional) factory that will not pack like this. Why?
Well, the shipping process is a rough one. Containers are mumbled around, they get rained on, they face the elements.
Patagonia did a study that shipping without plastic bags was even more wasteful than then using plastic. How is that even possible? Well, there were so many damages to their order without plastic bags they ended up having to throw the garments away because they could not be sold. Polybags are necessary to prevent damages. There is no way around them.
What about biodegradable and compostable bags?
Did you see the news? Most of the plastics that have been sold to us as dissolving onto which they came actually don't work! For more info on why eco-packaging does not actually work and is mostly just greenwashing check out our blog post from a few weeks ago.
So, basically, eco brands have been lying to you. They use new plastic, they just never let you see it. It's kind of the same idea as my zero-waste friends who will go out to a restaurant. Behind the scenes, the tomatoes from their salad came in plastic wrapping, the lettuce came in plastic bags, and so on. But, because they never see it, somehow it doesn't count. Out of sight out of mind.
Now, let's talk about these reusable totes that the world has deemed eco.
Are they actually?
Sorry. Not really.
Get this. In a study commissioned by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food they found that plastic bags are actually more eco than the reusable cotton totes we have all been conditioned to believe are better. And, this conclusion is backed up by a similar UK study. And, an Australian study found that plastic bags are more eco than paper bags.
how is this possible plastic is more eco friendly?
We need to look at two different things here that are often confused and jumbled together.
The first is making the bag. The second thing to think about is what happens to it when we are done.
Making cotton and paper bags is much more resource-heavy, uses, more energy, and requires more manpower to produce than a plastic bag. If we are just looking at making each bag, yes, it seems like plastic is the least impactful on the environment… Think back to those brands swapping out plastic bags for reusable ones hoping you will never find out their secret plastic use. This is kind of the same thing. We need to think about the product before it gets to us. Not just once we have it and afterward.
The estimates of how many times that we would need to reuse a reusable tote bag for it to offset the resources to make it range greatly. No one seems to be able to agree on an exact answer. But the Danish study recommends 37 times for those plastic-ish reusable shopping bags that you find at the grocery store, 43 times for paper bags, and cotton bags 7,100 times. Wow, that's a lot. And, I am pretty sure the paper bags would fall apart around the 10th use, especially if you got caught in the rain. And, most of the cheap cotton totes I get from "eco" brands get holes and will fall apart in under a year if I really use them a lot.
Now, let's talk about the after-effects of plastic bags
Technically paper and cotton can biodegrade. Which takes about 5 months. Great, we can no longer see it, so it must be gone. Not really. According to this article in the Huffington Post as these things biodegrade, "they release landfill gas, a toxic brew of air pollutants that includes the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane". And, there is also the issue of the toxic chemicals dyes in the bags that leach into the soil and potentially groundwater.
Based on all of this science, could it be that getting a plastic bag and using it again, and again, and again, and again, could be the most eco thing to do?
Maybe, reusable tote bags made in heavy-duty plastic (or my current favorite silicon, which is technically a synthetic rubber/plastic hybrid), that won't fall apart are the answer environmentally.
But are they the answer economically? If we all had a few bags, that we could really truely use forever, well then there wouldn't be much market opportunity or money to be made by companies. Maybe the media has been pushing cotton and paper because they know those materials won't really last forever so we will keep coming back for more. Whereas if we had a great plastic bag, we might actually be able to be one and done.
plastic bag bans can cause increases in garbage bag sales
Check out this article by NPR that explains how in cities that have banned the plastic bag, garbage bag sales have actually skyrocketed.
Having a few plastic bags that you can use for your lifetime sounds kind of great. But, we still have the issue of microfibers. Those pesky little plastic fibers that are polluting everything from raindrops to the worlds deepest trenches. That is why I am proposing silicon, instead.
This is wasteful and unnecessary. The entire coffee shop industry is gross. Aside from the insane upcharge coffee companies make $5 or more for a latte here in New York, all while coffee farmers live in squaller, the entire industry is wasteful and unjust. Buy Fair Trade beans, and make your coffee at home people.
The coffee cup redesign
Let's talk about when companies redesign their products to try and appeal to the eco set. Spoiler, the eco-product sometimes ends up being more damaging to the environment than the original design.
To get started on this idea, let's talk about Starbucks going straw-free. And, their new lid design dubbed "say hello to the lid that will replace a billion straws a year"
I remember when the news broke and the eco-warriors I know on Facebook posted about how it was such a great win.
I don't trust it...
Anyway, I was super skeptical. My first thought was wow, these lids are really big and really heavy. They take a lot of plastic to make and they are still single-use. Yea, we got rid of straws but now we have these huge clunky lids which probably take twice the resources to make. A plastic straw would most likely use fewer resources than this redesign.
So I posted a few comments asking the people who posted the article their thoughts. Is this alternative lid really better if it uses more petroleum to make than a plastic straw". The overall response were comments ranging from why are you so negative to no you are wrong. So I shut up for a bit. Not one person took my question seriously or thought about it logically.
Then other people started to ask the same question I was. And, spoiler. All those people who basically told me to STFU and not rain on their eco parade began to post articles like this one.
So, is this type of thing more eco-friendly? Or, ethical? We are lead to believe corporations that we are minimizing our plastic footprint by skipping the straw. But in reality, much more plastic is being created as an alternative.
I'll leave this topic open to discussion.
I think here we need to change the narrative. And, start talking about the fact that most of us (except for Flint) have clean water that we can drink from our taps. There is really no need for plastic water bottles. And, switching to a reusable one will actually save you money. I feel like a lot of times in this plastic-free movement and zero waste initiative it ends up costing people more. But, a reusable water bottle is a sure way to save cash.
If reusable water bottles are so great, then why re people still using disposable ones?
I forget my reusable water bottle all the time. I also lose them all the time. And then, need to replace them (which also isn't eco-friendly coming from a resource standpoint just like the cotton tote bags, these bottles need to be reused basically forever to actually make an environmental impact).
What's the solution for people like me?
WTF is performance water?
We also need to talk more about safe water. I think one of the most interesting things about the plastic water bottle business is how they have changed their marketing. In the early 2000's when it seemed like every celebrity was photographed holding a plastic water bottle while on the run, these bottles became a status symbol of health and staying hydrated.
Since then as we have slowly started to learn that plastic water bottles are probably the worst kind of water, that is chemically treated and has leached plastic in it. The powers that be have changed their messaging. Now we need PH balanced water, and better performance waters. WTF? They have realized that they can't compete with the stuff that comes from our taps, so now they are trying to sell us franken-waters made with reverse osmosis and other sciency terms. Again, claiming their plastic bottles will make us healthier.
choose the tap
The fact is, we have safe water to drink. So we all need to start drinking it. But, if you forget your reusable glass or bottle, and you feel thirsty, don't feel ashamed about buying a plastic water bottle. Like I said earlier, no one is perfect. Just try.
Ok, so we went through all of the very obvious plastic free movement swaps
And, their pros and cons. Now, let's talk about all the plastic hiding in our lives that we never see. The stuff that we probably never even knew had plastic in it.
Even when you think you are doing it right you are doing it wrong
Sadly, even if you think you are part of the plastic free movement, you might not be.
Back in the day gum was a type of latex sap, aka chicle (so that where the name chicklet gum comes from) from the Central American tree the Sapodilla. Other gum basses like sorva and jelutong were also used. And, even sometimes bees and paraffin wax.
Gum chewing really became popular in 1818 when Thomas Adams invented a way to mass-produce chewing gum. And, we all know what happens when things become popular, companies try to find a way to make them cheaper and increase their profits.
After World War II, around the same time, synthetic fibers were gaining momentum in the fashion market, scientists discovered a way to make synthetic rubber using polyethylene and polyvinyl acetate. Some of the same ingredients that make plastics.
So, when you chew on a stick of gum today, you are essentially chomping down on straight-up plastic!
This video recently went viral. The experiment uses a drain cleaner to dissolve the metal component of the can exposing the plastic underneath.
The truth is, soda ( which contains phosphoric acid and citric acid) is much too acidic to be stored in direct contact with a soda can. The acidity of the soda would cause a reaction with the metal. The plastic lining, which essentially acts like a soda condom, prevents this from happening.
And according to Treehugger.com, all beer cans are lined with BPA plastic (which has been banned by most water bottle companies for its toxic effects on the human endocrine system)!
Even glass bottles have hidden plastic. (I know I was promoting glass bottles earlier, but even they aren't perfect) The lining of bottle caps that creates a tight seal have foamed polyethylene or plastisol. Back in the day, the caps were cork, which is much more eco, but today, because of price and performance plastic is the preference.
What about paper cups and plates?
Most paper cups and plates contain a thin coating of plastic. That is what helps them to not dissolve as you use them.
Even if you skip the plastic produce bags, and skip the plastic packaging by only choosing package free fruits and veggies can sometimes come in, if they have a produce sticker on them, you are buying into the plastic lifestyle.
The tea bags you are buying from the grocery store are most likely are a plastic/paper hybrid. The best way to avoid plastic in your tea is to buy a reusable tea steeper, like this adorable one, 60+ others, here.
The first time a saw a tetra pack I think was vita coco. A beverage that could cure my hangover, and not pollute the earth. Sounds great. But, I was wrong.
Just like the soda can, tetra packs contain hidden plastics. Tetra packs are layer paper, polyethylene (plastic), and aluminum.
Sorry, "boxed water is better" is really just greenwashing.
And, of course, disposable wipes
Which I did a whole blog article on the hidden plastic in disposable wipes here.
My plastic free movement conclusion
The point of this post isn't to get you to use plastic. It's to help people understand what it is they are really doing. If you are going through all the effort of changing your lifestyle to help the environment, well then it might as well be making a real impact. If you don't get your 7000 uses out of a cotton tote, are you really doing better than the person using plastic?
how to prevent plastic free greenwashing
As conscious consuemrs, I think we have all gotten really good at asking, where does this end up when I am done with it. But, to prevent greenwashing, now we need to start asking, how was this made?