We went plastic-free for 7 days… and saved the world!
By Ivy Pepin
“Littering is better than throwing it away,” my friend said when I remarked on the number of plastic bags floating along the side of the road. Shocked, I opened my mouth to disagree, but he stopped me. “Think about it! If people had to see their trash around them every day, they’d use a lot less.”
June 5th is World Environment Day. Environment isn’t just a generic word to conjure up images of the recycle symbol and a cartoon planet Earth. It’s the space around us, the space that shapes our lives! When we throw away a plastic bag, it’s no longer polluting our direct environment, so it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. But it’s really just “away,” polluting somewhere else. 8 million tons of plastic polluting the ocean each year, to be exact.
It’s not just a problem for marine life: plastics in the ocean break down into microplastics and enter our waterways and seafood.
When Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home came to speak in Cape Town, our office huddled around the computer to watch her TED talk. Inspired, we decided to try cutting out single-use plastics for a week in honour of World Environment Day. Some of us were all-in, and others were hesitant. Here are the highs, the lows, and the things we learned.
Every piece of plastic ever made still exists.
THE RULES FOR PLASTIC-FREE WEEK
Our team wasn’t allowed to purchase or accept single-use plastics in any form! This means all of the obvious things were banned, like plastic bags and water bottles, but also no packaged food, no twist ties, no coffee cup lids, no straws, no candy wrappers. We allowed ourselves multi-use plastics (Tupperware, toothbrushes, etc.) as well as plastic products we already owned.
OUR EXPERIENCE GOING PLASTIC-FREE
EATING OUT was by far the most challenging aspect of the experiment. And that was mostly because of STRAWS! They’re everywhere, they’re terrible for marine life, and they’re hard to avoid if you don’t keep on your toes. On the very first Friday of the challenge, we went for drinks after work and Zoe forgot to ask for no straw with her gin & tonic. But it was encouraging to see glass straws at La Cuccina in Hout Bay!
Zoe, sad because plastic straws follow us everywhere!
Irene and I, happy because glass straws are the future!
Justine says she realised that “just by being a little bit more prepared (with bags, tupperware, cups), a lot is possible.” The hardest part is remembering to be prepared! I kept a little container in my bag, and rather than ordering food for takeaway, it was simple enough to just spoon food into my own box. It was also easy to offer up a glass jar when purchasing a smoothie or juice. Functional and photogenic!
“The biggest difficulty I would say for me personally is seeing how often packaging and single use plastics are used,” says our coworker Jason. “I found myself noticing more plastic and waste this week and very often having the feeling that you want to jump in and stop someone from using something.”
When you’re trying to avoid it, you start seeing it everywhere you go – bags of crisps at the convenience store, containers at the salad bar, wrappers on the after-dinner mints you get at a restaurant. You can’t purchase food for takeaway without being handed a plastic-wrapped napkin, plastic utensils, packets of condiments. Our coworker Georgie gets an A for effort – “I ate a piece of cheesecake with my hands because they only had plastic forks.”
Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.
COOKING AT HOME was the thing to do, since it’s so hard to eat out and avoid plastic. And cooking plastic free is healthy, because guess what comes in its own natural packaging? Produce!
When you don’t have the option of heating up a frozen pizza, your inner chef really starts to emerge. Some people in our office noted that the challenge brought back their love of cooking.
As for finding packaging-free produce, try out a local farmer’s market like the Oranjezicht City Farm market. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday, and you might discover some veggies you’ve never even seen before!
Purchasing a CSA like Harvest of Hope is also a great option. CSA stands for community supported agriculture, and it means paying a local farm in advance for a weekly delivery of fresh, organic vegetables and even eggs. Not only are you avoiding plastic packaging, but you’re helping to combat poverty through sustainable micro-enterprises with farmers in Khayelitsha, Nyanga, and Philippi. If you don’t live in Cape Town, look online for a CSA in your area!
Enjoy fresh, vibrant veggies with a CSA!
When it came to RUNNING ERRANDS, the consensus was again that preparation is crucial. “If you forget to bring your anti-plastic kit (water bottle, shopping bags, Tupperware) you are screwed!” says Zoe. “I stopped in at the shopping centre to get a few things and got really thirsty walking around. I had to visit 3 shops before finding water in a glass bottle.”
Going plastic-free is tied with the minimalist movement – it means investing in long-lasting, practical items that you love. Our consumerist culture encourages us to cycle through so much stuff, making cheap purchases every season. This hurts the earth and our wallets! Instead, think about how you can green the items in your life that you’re using on a regular basis. For example, rather than picking up clothes from the laundromat in a plastic bag each week, DIY a cute cloth laundry bag out of some old pillowcases!
WHAT WE LEARNED GOING PLASTIC-FREE
1. You realise how much plastic you’re throwing away, and you also become conscious of non-plastic items that are being tossed! “I thought that I was a conscious consumer,” says Justine, “but through this challenge I realised how normalised our consumer habits are that we accept plastic into so many areas of our lives.” It’s the awareness that matters – you are no longer mindlessly throwing plastic into the bin every day.
2. You eat healthier! When you can’t buy packaged crisps, you find yourself eating far less processed food and reaching for whole foods like apples instead. I went down to the store after lunch seeking chocolate and left with an orange!
3. You save money. At the grocery store, you only buy the things you need – because unnecessary snacks are generally wrapped in plastic. When you have to think about everything you buy, you realise you don’t really need most of it.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO LIVE PLASTIC-FREE
1. The carry-everywhere kit. A jar, a fork, a cloth bag, & a reusable container for leftovers/takeaway. Bring them EVERYWHERE! As Zoe puts it, “If you want to make a change, you need to set yourself up for success!”
2. Make it a habit. Get in the habit of asking for drinks without a straw. They are the epitome of the “use once and throw it away” mentality, and they aren’t even necessary! Not to mention the heartbreaking impact they have on marine life. This means keeping on your toes; ordering a smoothie at a café or a drink at a bar should always include the sentence, “No straw, please!”
3. Shop local. Talking one-on-one with local business owners is more effective than trying to find plastic-free foods at the supermarket. For fruit and produce, seek out farmer’s markets and street stalls. Buy bread in a paper bag from a local bakery (or bake your own if you’re feeling adventurous)!
4. Invest in some jars. Mason jars are great for everything – carrying water, buying an iced coffee, bringing lunch to work. Break up with cling wrap and use jars for leftovers, or bee’s wrap makes a great alternative!
How Zoe brings her breakfast to work every day!
Maybe refusing one straw at a cafe won’t solve our plastic problem. But maybe the person behind you is listening, and that person tells a friend – and that’s how it begins. We think it’s impossible to change society, but we are society! So, we encourage you – act with confidence, raise your voice, be brave. Through our own daily actions and the choices we make, we can save the world.
In order to tackle the problems of tomorrow, we need to empower the next generation of environmentalists today. Support Greenpop in educating future environmental stewards!
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