The lessons I learnt from Plastic Free July have been life-changing.
Before I took the challenge, I tried doing my best as a conscious consumer. I chose to buy from small businesses selling handmade, organic, vegan and ‘eco-friendly’ products when possible. And I recycled as much as I could.
One fine day in June 2017, I stumbled upon a video where a girl was talking about how she did Plastic Free July.
The Plastic Free July challenge began in 2011 when Rebecca Prince Ruiz, an Australian citizen and waste educator visited the recycling facility in her area. She witnessed the complex energy intensive process of recycling and felt overwhelmed. After reflecting on her experience, she decided to look at her own recycling bin and decided to refuse disposable plastics for a month.
It was the month of July when Rebecca started doing this and soon the word spread and before she knew it, 40 of her co-workers and friends were doing ‘Plastic Free July’.
7 years on, Plastic Free July has turned into a global movement that has reached out to more than 2 million people from over 150 countries who have taken concrete steps to reduce their plastic use.
It seemed like if so many people could do this, I could do it too. So I rolled up my sleeves and took on the challenge of not buying any single-use plastic and plastic packaging for the entire month of July 2017.
10 Lessons I Learnt from Plastic Free July
To be honest, I was a bit nervous when I decided to go plastic-free. But as I went along, I learnt valuable lessons that I want to share with you.
10. Understand how much waste you create
Before you jump right into the Plastic Free July challenge, look at how much and what kind of waste you produce. I hoarded my dry trash from June and did a household waste audit, which helped me re-look at the waste I was creating from a new perspective.
I created a list of materials the waste was made from and I started to look for swapping these items with plastic-free/zero waste options.
9. Recycling is not the right answer
I discovered that recycling is a complicated and resource-intensive process. Did you know that a whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled?
I realised that every month I was bringing both recyclable and non-recyclable plastic home. Stuff like cling film, non-woven bags and metalised film packets (like the ones that contain chocolate bars, cookies and chips) end up in landfills. I learnt to refuse disposables and choose recycling only as the last option.
8. Talk to your local grocery store
The first time I went to a kiraane ki dukaan (traditional Indian shop that mostly sells in bulk), I asked the shop owner if he could put the stuff in my reusable bags. After giving me a surprised look, he agreed.
It took some time for the shop assistants to get used to it but soon they learnt exactly how to weigh and pack the stuff I was buying. If you feel conscious about buying in reusable bags, find a moment to talk to the owner/staff at your local store. This will ease them into the process.
7. Prepare a set of basic reusables
I imagined that if I were to stop using plastic, I would need many storage containers, reusable bags and bulk stores around my house. I was proven wrong. I needed just some basic prep to begin.
To start, I got a bunch of reusable bags stitched by the local tailor. I began to reuse existing jars for storage and steel boxes for takeaway. Since I had never invested in any kind of storage containers, I also began to look for glass jars and steel containers on a budget.
6. Start with tiny habits
It was easier for me to go plastic-free for 31 days in a row because I had nurtured a few tiny habits over the years. For example, each time I left home, I always carried a reusable tote bag or a small backpack with me. I had learnt to do this when I used to live in a small village in the Himalayan foothills where plastic bags are banned.
If you already have a habit like this, then trust me, Plastic Free July will be easy for you. If you struggle with this, no worries, you can start today. Just keep a small foldable bag with you when you head out.
5. Bulk is beautiful
People across the world have understood the beauty of bulk since the good old days. In India, buying in bulk is totally possible. Whether it is your local kirana store, wholesale markets or organic vendors at a farmers’ markets, they’ll sell you stuff in your own reusables (some supermarkets might let you do it too).
4. Tap into your creativity
As I embarked on the journey of replacing everything that came packed in plastic, I turned my kitchen upside down. With a childlike curiosity, I began to explore DIY alternatives.
I made preservative free plant-based milk and nut butters at home. I started to make my own herbal hair wash and cleaning liquid. Once you start making your own food and other products, you realise how much time, energy and resources each process requires. You begin to value things more and waste less.
3. The withdrawal symptoms will pass
I admit that doing Plastic Free July requires extra time, effort and energy. There will be highs and you might hit a low. I did. Towards the end of July, I started to miss things that I eat regularly such as mushrooms and chocolate.
You might feel frustrated, unsupported or have doubts during Plastic Free July. Its normal. Just remember to take breaks, go easy on yourself and know that it’s okay to fail. If I can go through the ups and downs and still do Plastic Free July, I’m pretty sure you can too.
Watching this funny video surely helps!
2. Reach out to the zero waste community
When I took the Plastic Free July challenge, I committed to it publicly on social media. Whenever I discovered a plastic-free alternative, I shared it with my online community.
As this process of sharing started, I began to connect with people who’re also interested in plastic-free and zero waste living. Today I’m happy to be a part of such a global and local community that believes in the power of personal action.
1. Claim your power to reduce your trash
Skeptics will question your actions and impact. I don’t know how you feel about that but I’ve decided to take responsibility for my actions instead of waiting for a plastic-filled apocalypse.
In June, I generated 71 pieces of recyclable and non-recyclable plastic. In July, I ended up with 8 broken plastic seals and bits of plastic that I could fit into a small paper bag. These are from my reusable drinking water cans because I live in an area where often the tap water is unfit for drinking (even after filtration).
When you refuse single use plastic, you take the matter of plastic pollution in your own hands. Instead of waiting for the government, companies and others to do something, you claim your power and create ripples of change.
Plastic Free July is long over but it has had a positive impact on my lifestyle. I do all my grocery shopping in bulk now, make everything from my own deodorant to liquid detergent and even save money. I also started thinking about food waste and started composting at home.
However, I have come to understand that living circular in a linear economy is not possible. This means I am not tied to the idea of perfection and I still buy a few items packed in plastic (the ones which are not available otherwise without packaging).
I hope the lessons I learnt from Plastic Free July help you cut down the amount of plastic you use. If you’d like to start refusing plastic right away, here are 5 ways to beat plastic pollution every single day.
P.S. This article is dedicated you and every person who consciously wants to refuse plastic disposables.