For the entire month of July, tens of thousands of people around the world will forgo plastic. You can find out more about the challenge, sign up for it, and check out a toolbox and many helpful resources at the Plastic Free July website.
Why cut plastic? Consider this from the Plastic Free July website:
By 2050 it's estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the world's oceans. Most comes from land and was once in our hands. Refuse single-use plastic and together let's keep our oceans clean. Join over 40,000 people, schools and organisations from 90 countries and let those same hands be part of the solution.
If you want to participate but don't know where to start, I've compiled the following list of steps, beginning with extremely easy, followed by easy and ending with still pretty darn easy.
1. Refuse the big offenders
The Plastic Free July website refers to single-use plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws as the "TOP 4." Replace these items with reusables: shopping bags made of natural fibers; metal or glass water bottles; and a ceramic mug or metal thermos. Most of us can simply ditch the straws. My daughter has a medical condition that makes drinking with a straw easier, and even she rarely deploys her reusable metal straws.
(Enjoying my tea in my reusable thermos as I write this post!)
2. Build up your reusable arsenal
If you decide to graduate to the next step, cut more single-use plastic such as plastic produce bags. I applaud the worldwide plastic shopping bag bans, but most people still stuff their reusable shopping bags with piles of plastic produce bags. You can easily make your own cloth produce bags or you can buy them. If you need only a few onions or a couple of lemons, for example, you can skip the bag entirely.
Other reusable alternatives to single-use plastics:
Utensils. In my large-ish computer bag, I stash a set of inexpensive metal utensils that I took from my kitchen drawer. These really come in handy.
Metal tiffins and containers. We have several LunchBots, which I love, and one double tiffin. I use these for lunches, storage, leftovers and shopping.
Glass jars. Hoard these. You'll use them for everything: storing food; shopping for food (get them tared first so you don't pay for the weight of the jars, just for the weight of the food you put in the jars); making food (like fermented sauerkraut). I can never have enough jars. I am basically a crazy jar lady.
3. Eat real food
If you cut the plastic, you cut the processed food-like substances and eat the real stuff. My recipe index includes homemade versions of many processed foods you typically buy in plastic containers and packaging. The added bonus of these—or perhaps the entire point!—is they taste better than their processed counterparts.
You don't need to cook for hours every day to eat well. Just stick with simple food. As Julia Child said, "You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients." (She also said "How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?")
Forgot your own mug to bring to the cafe? Ask for a real one. Want your favourite take-out restaurant to put your food in a container for you? Hand the vessel over, ask your server to put the food in it and give detailed instructions about how to do that and why—most servers aren't used to this simple request and some won't know what on earth you're talking about.
5. Google it when you're stumped
I believe that most people who take the Plastic Free July challenge will enjoy it. Personally, I find problem-solving fun and like discovering alternatives to plastic snafus. If you can't think of an alternative to a plastic item, search Google for a life hack. For example, just now I Googled "homemade sunscreen" and found this recipe.
6. Make your own personal care products
Here are my recipes for:
I have a large jar of coffee grounds sitting in my refrigerator at the moment and I hope to find many uses for them, including a microbead-free exfoliant. I plan to mix some grounds with coconut oil and use the concoction to scrub my face and rough feet. I'll write a future post on that.
Homemade mouthwash, diluted and ready to use.
7. Take the challenge with a friend
I went plastic-free in 2011 and even after nearly five years, occasionally I can still feel like a bit of a weirdo when I hand over a metal container to someone working behind a deli counter and ask them to put my food in it, mostly if I attempt this in a store I haven't shopped in before. At some stores, employees now actually thank me for bringing my own containers and jars. Or maybe they just want to keep the crazy jar lady calm…
If you take the Plastic Free July challenge with a friend, your school, or the organization you work for, not only will you have fun, you will also enjoy—and benefit from—the support of other like-minded people.
8. Don't go insane
Once you decide to go plastic-free, you will see plastic everywhere. That's because it iseverywhere. You may start to feel disheartened and hopeless and wonder what's the point. Birds eat the stuff and die, turtles get entangled in it and die, seals become trapped in old plastic fishing nets and die, fish (which we eat) are full of it and die (when we eat them). WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!
For me, taking action makes me feel better about this incomprehensibly huge problem. And just imagine if we all worked together on the plastic pollution problem, what a difference that would make. That's what happens during Plastic Free July. Tens of thousands of people work together to tackle this problem. And from where I sit, the movement has grown exponentially. When my daughter started her blog, The Plastic-Free Chef, in 2011, I didn't notice many people blogging about this, aside from the awesome Beth Terry. But now I've noticed a ton of zero-waste (i.e., plastic-free because almost all the waste is plastic) blogs and Instagram accounts.
9. Do your best
Don't beat yourself up if you fall short. I see lots of confessions on social media from zero-wasters feeling terribly guilty when they slip up (and have posted them myself). You can only do your best. Just keep trying. It's called a challenge for a reason. However, cutting the plastic is easier than most people realize.
Happy Plastic Free July!
Anne Marie Bonneau writes the blog The Zero-Waste Chef. She runs her kitchen following three simple rules: no packaging; nothing processed; no waste. Anne Marie lives in Northern California, where she teaches fermentation workshops, speaks on zero-waste and plastic-free living and hosts webinars on these topics. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @ZeroWasteChef
(Header image: Zero Waste Chef)
Read Next: Last Year I Failed Plastic Free July on the First Day. Here's How to Avoid My Mistakes