Is it terrible to say that I’m glad to see the end of Plastic Free July? As an advocate for sustainable living and someone who is saddened to see images of waterways and marine life choked with single-use plastics, I am inspired by the fact that such a widespread movement exists. But the frustration I ran into during my own 31 day challenge has shown me that no matter how successful this movement is at getting people to change their personal habits, it’s still damn near impossible to avoid plastic waste.
Despite being equipped with my plastic-free go-kit and spending the month of July in Scotland, France, and New York (all of which are places that manage their waste relatively well) and being mindful to avoid or use an alternate for single-use plastics, I came nowhere close to plastic zero. A plastic seal here, a bottle cap there, and more than a few forms of packaged foods riddled themselves throughout my days during Plastic Free July. While I will be the first to tell you that my efforts did make a difference - after all I avoided probably 30 straws and cups as well as countless plastic bags, bottles, and utensils - I still felt extremely frustrated. It seemed as if no matter how hard I tried, plastic still managed to sneak its way into my day somehow. Experiencing this reaffirmed for me a truth that bubbles up far too often when contemplating a frustrating problem: the fact that the fact that the world in 2018 is not ruled in the interest of people & planet, but in the pursuit of profit over all else.
It’s the rampant pursuit of profit that threw plastic in my path despite all of my best efforts to eradicate it from my life for just 31 days. I can bring my own straw, cup, bag, and bottle all day every day but at some point I’m going to have to purchase groceries, home goods, medicine, clothing...you name it, it’ll come wrapped in plastic. Big businesses choose to make their products and packaging from plastic instead of finding more eco-friendly options simply because it’s cheaper for them. Rather than put a dent in their profits, multinational corporations like Nestle and Unilever have decided that they would rather have their payout while the rest of us get plastic-clogged beaches and maimed marine life.
It’s not our fault that all of this plastic packaging makes its way into our lives, no, that blame lies squarely at the feet of big corporations who choose to wrap their products in this material. Yet it’s the consumer who is made to feel lazy for not recycling, the consumer who is seen as inhumane for the simple act of drinking out of a straw. You know what? I’m done feeling guilty every time I buy a bottle of aspirin or unwrap a plastic-wrapped package of toilet paper. It’s time for us to stop shaming ourselves and others for being imperfect and to place that shame and responsibility back on the big companies which are responsible for the scourge of plastic pollution on our planet (read EcoCult’s excellent summary of how big businesses shifted the blame onto us in the first place).
Personally, I believe that this is where the power of politics come in. Local and national governing bodies around the world can and should stop taking money from these big corporations so that they can be free from their lobbying and strong-arming. If a politician were not allowed to receive campaign donations from big oil or packaged food companies then perhaps they would not be so eager to vote against even the mildest of plastic bag bans (ahem, Andrew Cuomo). Imagine if, instead of leaving the recycling industry in the US up to private businesses (this article shows how that industry is failing anyway), the government took it over and required big corporations to fund it. Imagine if the production and use of plastic packaging were taxed. Perhaps if these companies’ bottom lines were in danger, they might be more likely to change their dirty habits.
So does this mean that you should ditch your plastic-free go-kit and give up? Definitely not. I, for one, will continue to bring my own straw, cup, cutlery, bag, bottle, and napkin along with me wherever I can, because they do help me live lighter on this planet and because they are the start of a larger conversation. For every moment of frustration during Plastic Free July, there was a moment where my diligent habits sparked something larger. When a cafe owner sees my reusable cup & straw and begins thinking about how they might incorporate environmentally-friendly materials into their business, that’s a win to me. When a friend asks why I carry this kit around with me, it’s an opportunity to educate and encourage them to take action themselves.
As with all things to do with sustainable living, it’s all about taking baby steps. If you are new to the conversation around plastic pollution and you’re not sure where to start tackling it, by all means, build yourself a plastic-free go-kit. If that's the best first step for you, then please do learn all about living a zero-waste lifestyle (Kathryn Kellogg of Going Zero Waste has endless tips for doing it right) and see how much of your personal waste you can get rid of. And don't worry if you aren't perfect, because no one is going to shame you or yell at you for slipping up sometimes, because we all do it. That’s just how life works. You can head here to read all about my own imperfections in the first week of Plastic Free July, plus see everything that is in my go-kit.
I firmly believe that small actions have an impact, so take them if you can (read an excellent reminder by Model4GreenLiving as to why this isn’t possible for everyone). But after that first baby step, we have to take another, and then another. Eventually, we come to a place where it’s just not enough to tote around a stylish steel straw, but that we feel the need to do something more. If you’re not there yet, that’s OK. But if you, like me, have reached your limit with plastic-free living, I hope you’ll join me in at least having a conversation with someone about these next steps in the fight against plastic pollution, corrupt capitalism, and climate change:
Vote for politicians who don’t take money from big business or oil lobbies. 2018 is a crucial election year, with 33 of 100 Senatorial seats up for reelection in November, as are all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Take a look at the congressional races happening in your state and make an informed decision on who you’ll be voting for this fall. Then, talk to your friends & family about their campaign and why you’re voting for them. If you feel like you want to contribute even more to a particularly awesome candidate, get out there and canvas for them! Making phone calls and knocking on doors is not as intimidating as you might think, and the reward of electing an ethically driven politician to Congress will continue to pay off for years to come. Check out Ballotpedia for information on who is running for what in your area.
Write a letter to a big corporation. Maybe it’s a brand that you just can’t live without, but you can’t stand how much plastic waste they generate. Or perhaps you want to add your voice to the thousands who already advocate against the biggest and most corrupt companies out there. Either way, put pen to paper and give them a piece of your mind. Kathryn Kellog of Going Zero Waste even has a great template you can use!
Contact your current representatives. From Congress to state Governor to City Council, call your representatives office and let them know that you care about preventing plastic pollution and that you will be paying attention to what they are or are not doing about it. If there is a current law in process at the time (like pending bag and straw bans, bans on fracking, or waste management improvements) make sure you tell your reps exactly how you expect them to vote on it. Keep calling them on a weekly basis, get your friends & family to join in, and remind them that their job is to represent you, not big business.