Plastic-free July: can life without plastic be a reality?

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Never one to shy away from a challenge, Matt Wood embarked on a month of no single-use plastic.  We asked him to share his thoughts now it’s over [Ed: I’d like it to be noted he’s mostly been complaining about finding cheese]

I don’t usually do the popular monthly challenges, like Movember, Veganuary or Stoptober (the latter not least because I don’t smoke), but my interest was piqued by Plastic-free July. I like to make my own food and I recycle as much as I can, but convenience stores mean it’s just too easy to buy a packet of plastic-wrapped pasta rather than spending several hours making your own and freezing it for later.

What’s the problem?

Plastic-free July (not to be confused with the Marine Conservation Society’s Plastic Challenge in June – maybe some coordination needed there!) aims to highlight the impact of single-use plastics, particularly on our marine environment, and encourage people to break their habits and form new, more sustainable ones.

But far from being a fuzzy, tree-hugging issue about saving the planet, it affects all of us. How?

OK hands up who likes eating plastic. Come on. No-one?

If you eat fish, you’re probably already eating plastic. Photos of the contents of dead sea birds’ stomachs and turtles with malformed shells from six-pack holders have been around for years, but it’s increasingly clear that this is just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg. Microscopic particles of plastic have been found in a third of fish caught in UK waters.

The health impacts of these particles of plastic could be very serious.

The plastic-free challenge

The official challenge of Plastic-free July is to avoid the use of single-use plastics. The top culprits are straws, coffee cups, bottles and carrier bags. The problem is, I don’t use these anyway, so it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge (If you’re just getting started, avoid these four – it’s pretty easy). So I decided to go the whole hog and avoid all single-use plastic.

As you might expect, it wasn’t that easy – these were the three main stumbling blocks:

1.Convenience stories

If you’re time-poor like most of us, convenience stores are great for topping up your weekly food shopping. But they’re a nightmare for single-use plastics. Pretty much all fruit and veg, milk, meat, fish, cheese, and bread is wrapped in plastic. So far from being convenient, I could really only buy beer or tinned tomatoes from my local shop.

This forced me to think about when I’m going to be at home and what I’d like to eat over the next week. It also prompted me to make my own food (something I wanted to do anyway). I have about ten meals’ worth of tortellini and gnocchi sitting in the freezer. Cheap, easy and quick to cook if I’m feeling lazy.

2. Environmental conundrums

I don’t often buy soft drinks, but I found myself wondering about the difficult choices I’d be making if I did. For example, I could buy a can instead of a bottle. But what about the carbon footprint? The production of cans, including the extraction of the aluminium that they are made with, is a carbon-intensive process. So while I might be helping fish by reducing the amount of plastic in the sea, I’d still be dissolving their bones by increasing carbon emissions and contributing to ocean acidification.

What if I choose a glass bottle? This carries its own environmental problems – for example, glass is heavier so requires more fuel to transport.

It’s just not as simple as swapping one form of packaging for another and comparing the three options is a complex business.

3. The cost barrier

Plastic-free food doesn’t have to be more expensive, but during my month of abstinence it struck me that it often is. Fruit and veg at the grocers is usually similarly priced to the supermarket and better quality. But I noticed that other foods that come in non-plastic containers were more expensive because they’re positioned as high-end products – like ‘artisanal pasta’, for example.

So as is often the case, people on lower incomes have no choice while the better off have the time and money to be green. I can’t imagine a family with children and both parents working have the time to spend hours making their own pasta. Cooking together can be a fun family activity, but it’s a lot of work to maintain that every day.

So what can we do?

Going plastic-free for a month (apart from having to resort to a pint of milk when a friend stayed) has made me think about the way I shop and make my food. I’m going to keep making my own food in advance and avoid plastic where I can, but I’m not going to worry too much about every little scrap of plastic.

The reality is that living a completely plastic-free life just isn’t possible for everyone yet.

Reducing the barriers to the majority of people going plastic free will involve systemic change. An important part of this change will be for manufacturers and retailers to make big progress in how they package their products.

As consumers and concerned citizens, we can help this happen by voting with our purses and buying items with less plastic. We can also be vocal with retailers about their over-packaging. We can also learn more about reducing our plastic use in a manageable way – My plastic-free life has some great tips.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy some cheese based on taste, rather than what it’s wrapped in.

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