Whether you are already living a low/zero waste lifestyle, or whether you are just now starting to be more aware of how much waste, and specifically, how much plastic you come into contact with everyday, here are some useful tips to make sure you succeed as much as possible in the 2021 Plastic Free July challenge!
Tackle the big four!
The ‘Plastic Free July’ website identifies the notorious ‘Big Four’ as being plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws.
Bags are usually the first single-use plastic item people who start on this journey part with, especially since the swap is pretty simple: reusable cotton bags. The only downside to this swap, as is for most swaps at the beginning, is to remember to bring them along, but don’t worry, once you get into the habit of folding them up into your purse, attaching one to your key chain, or leaving them in your vehicle, you’ll never be without!
A staggering 50 billion plastic water bottles are consumed and disposed of each year solely in the US, and although most of them are intended to be recycled, only 1 in 5 actually are! Water bottles are used all-year round, but of course during summer they are purchased more than ever, so July is the perfect month to start implementing this change! As with your reusable bag, buy a set of reusable bottles and create a system based on your routine to ensure you always have one ready to go (for the gym, the office, etc).
Keep and eye out for water fountains and water stations in case you need to refill your bottle when you’re on the go, and if you don’t particularly like the taste of tap water (although you should know that most tap water isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be - with some even being better than bottled water), consider investing in a filter. Reusable water bottles may seem like a complicated or time consuming option, but in the long run it’s actually the least expensive alternative.
Takeaway coffee cups were already a problem pre Covid-19, but things were starting to change with more and more people bringing their own on-the-go cup. As pandemic restrictions ease, ask your local coffee shop whether they have resumed BYO cups and do that (invest in a thermos, or an insulated bottle that could be used for water during the day). If not, take a bit of a longer coffee break and enjoy your coffee in a good old mug!
Last but not least, straws! Most of us can simply ditch the straws, but it is true that certain medical conditions make it easier to drink using a straw, as well as the fact that certain drinks (those served with ice for example) work better with a straw. In that case switch to straws made of bamboo or stainless steel - get more tips for cutting down on waste when dining out here.
The important thing for each of these big four, is to voice your request as soon as possible, most importantly to the cashiers, who otherwise will automatically start putting your items in a plastic bag, or to the bartender or waiter who will automatically put a straw in your drink.
(Find out more about the ‘Big Four’ here.)
Build up your reusable kit
Go through your daily routine and habits and try to figure out what you come across on a daily or weekly basis that you will need to avoid or to be prepared for.
For example, if you tend to eat out a lot in places where food is served along side single-use utensils, build your reusable kit with what you know you will need (reusable fork, knife, chopsticks etc). If you order a lot of take-outs have enough containers on hand (ask beforehand if this is an option and let them know not to set aside single-use utensils for you to take home). If you often visit a grocery store, or a farmer’s market where there’s a chance to buy nuts, fruits, vegetables etc package free (another crucial way to win your Plastic Free July challenge), make sure you have appropriate containers to fill (glass jars for example - just be sure to get them tased first so you don't pay for the weight of the jars, just for the weight of the food).
Watch what you eat and drink
Try as much as possible to shop package free and when you can’t find what you need package free, opt for items wrapped in materials that aren’t plastic (tins/aluminium is extremely recyclable, or paper boxes). For example choose laundry powder which comes in a cardboard box, rather than liquid detergent which comes in a plastic bottle. Liquid you can’t do without (water, juice etc) try looking into places that allow you to purchase them in a refillable bottle. Avoid pre-packaged (especially individually wrapped) snacks. Try out new recipes (bake in bulk if you’re short on time).
Last but not least, if you’re a tea drinker, say no to teabags, as most teabags are held together by plastic to stop them ripping when they’re dunked in hot water. Switch to looseleaf tea instead.
Whenever you do come across items that only come in plastic, try to buy in bulk so as to limit the quantity used.
Don’t be afraid to ask (or to Google it!)
Use whatever opportunity to share what you’re doing and why, to people around you. If you forgot to tell a waiter at your local coffee shop that you wanted your order in a mug and not in a disposable cup and they hand you a single-use cup, give them a heads up for next time, maybe they’ll remember that conversation, even if you’re a bit distracted. In the meantime if you’re on your way home with this disposable cup (or with the plastic straw they put in your drink because your forgot to tell them, or because they forgot you didn’t want it) use it, and if it can be washed and used again at home, do that. If not, make sure you recycle them properly, instead of throwing them in a passing bin where trash is mixed together.
Don’t be afraid to tell servers what you are doing, or to ask members of staff (whether it be at supermarkets or restaurants) if you can bring your own containers. If they say ‘no’ they say ‘no’, but at least you tried, and if more and more people keep requesting certain options maybe sooner or later they’ll say ‘yes’.
If you find yourself unable to find plastic-free alternatives to things you need, ask Google…there’s sure to be an answer somewhere out there!
Don’t do it alone!
Two minds are better than one… both when it comes to problem solving, and also when it comes to motivation. Join the challenge with a friend, or maybe extend the challenge to your office or school!
Do what you can
No one is perfect, and no one expects you or your friend or your colleagues or anyone else you choose to take this challenge with, to get every single thing right at the first try. You will come across some plastic, whether you forget to bring your reusable kit with you out to lunch, or a sales person gives you gift samples wrapped in plastic without you having the chance to decline, or whether there are no plastic-free options for what you need.
The truth is, once you decide to go plastic-free, you will see plastic everywhere (because sadly it is everywhere), but the whole idea of the challenge is to make you more aware of the quantity of plastic we all consume on a daily basis, and to start doing something about it (which you are)!
Don’t beat yourself up when you do go off course, after all, it's called a challenge for a reason!
Remember though, not all plastic is bad, we’re trying to limit single-use plastic (items that are used for a very short time, but that will continue to impact the environment for years and years afterwards) so if you are using a plastic lunchbox, continue using that, don’t waste money or resources buying a non plastic container. The point is, plastic lunchboxes are better than plastic baggies or single use kitchen film.
These are some tips for everyday situations you can come across in a typical month. We always push you to use what you have before buying new things, so if you have plastic kitchen utensils use them, if your bathroom is littered with plastic (soaps, deodorant, razors, toothbrush etc) finish those. But, if during the challenge you run out of certain products that need replacing, here are more in-depth tips based on different scenarios: