The problem with plastic

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Our family is taking part in Plastic Free July (PFJ). Our pledge is to attempt to not purchase any plastic at all and go completely plastic free for the month. The panic really set in last weekend on how we were actually going to do it. We all know that plastic isn’t so fantastic but it takes something more to get motivated to make the conscious effort everyday to make it a priority. I think the tipping point for us was this video taken at a really magic snorkelling spot we had been to and snorkelled there as a family. It really was quite devastating for us to see.

While we were in that same part of the world we went on a full day coast walk and came across a secluded beach that had quite a lot of plastic on it. There were no tourists there and it made me wonder how sanitised the beaches are on other parts of the island to hide the plastic that gets washed up on shore. Plastic is such a ubiquitous material that it’s not really noticed until you try to avoid it or see the rubbish like that.

The problem with plastic isn’t just the mess it creates. Plastic will usually end up having one of three journeys. Most plastic isn’t recycled and ends up in landfill. The plastic gets layered and compressed with other materials and as it rains the rain filters through the landfill it collects harmful chemicals. Those leachates seep into the soil and contaminate the water table which in turn affects the plants and animals.

The second journey is via wind or water into waterways making it’s way to the ocean. The ocean has very powerful and predictable currents that keep our planet habitable. These plastics have been accumulating in the ocean, most notably in the great pacific garbage patch. There is real risk that the patch will impact the currents that transport the cool water from the poles to the warmer equatorial waters and will interrupt the earths cooling system.

Finally, a small fraction of plastic will be recycled. However, plastic always eventually fatigues and breaks. It can only get down cycled it never goes away and will either end up in landfill or the ocean eventually.  While some scrunchable plastics can be put into REDcycle bins, it’s unclear if these end up in landfill or actually do get recycled. The ABCs War on Waste put a tracker into one of those soft plastic recycling bins and unfortunately found it went to landfill.

In the lead up to PFJ I also got the family to watch Plastic Ocean on Netflix which seemed to do the trick on re-enforcing the message to the family that plastic is not so fantastic. So in the words of Maya Angelou “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better”. This is easier said than done, plastic is absolutely everywhere, but I think half the battle is making it a priority when life is so busy. So here is how our first week of plastic free july went.

Most plastic consumed in our house is via the kitchen. So on Sunday 1 July the five of us sat together and planned out our plastic free meal plan for the week. We also did some food prep and cooking for the week to make it easier.

Weekday breakfast:

  • homemade sourdough fruit toast with butter
  • toast with jam, peanut butter, honey or eggs
  • porridge or homemade muesli

Weekend breakfasts:

  • Pancakes with maple syrup
  • Arepas with abuelitos eggs and honey

Snacks:

  • Seasonal fruit – eg apples, mandarins, oranges
  • homemade hommus or guacamole and vegetable sticks.
  • Date and ginger cookies
  • Apple and walnut cake

Dinners

  • Fish fingers with mashed potato and silverbeet
  • Spinach and ricotta ravioli with porcini sauce
  • Baked pakora with mango chutney
  • Baked lentil pasta
  • Heading out for dinner
  • Massaman curry
  • Minestrone soup

Dessert

  • homemade preserved apricots with macadamia mylk custard
  • dehydrated orange slices dipped in melted chocolate
  • hot chocolate

I always grow herbs, lettuce and silverbeet in the garden as this is pretty hard to get plastic free in the shops. I also have jars of homemade preserves and jam handy, but this is easy to buy in glass jars. The porcinis I collected and dried myself and store in glass jar, I don’t think dried porcini can be purchased plastic free. Part of the panic that set in on first day of plastic free july was having some meals the kids could cook that were quick and easy mid week meals, but we found some things they could manage.

We have almost run out of toothpaste so I had a go at making my own but it was a bit of a disaster. I found all the ingredients plastic free, mixed coconut oil, calcium powder, baking powder and peppermint essential oils and it set quite hard. It felt very good on the teeth when I used it before it set, so I am going to remake it without the coconut oil and use as a tooth powder and dip the wet brush in the container to pick up the powder.

On one of the days I forgot my keep cup for my almond milk cappuccino I treat myself to at work. I just grabbed a mug and took it to the coffee shop, without skipping a beat they made me a small cappuccino and off I went. Some cafes make their own nut milks for coffee and I’m hoping this becomes the new norm so that less waste is produced by us all. We also went to out to dinner one night. I just checked out the drinks in the fridge to see which ones were plastic free before ordering and made it really clear we didn’t want straws – easy.

I did have a couple of plastic free fails. I went to the kids uniform shop and was rushed and had about 10 other things on my mind and only realised when I got in the car that I had the clothes packed in a plastic bag, doh! I had also been making macadamia mylk from macadamia nuts I’d foraged. I love it but clearly noone else in the house does. They had been tucking into a can of powdered milk that we bought for a multiday hiking trip. So they decided that they would buy b.d. farm milk again. I’m determined to work on my nut milk recipe and try and make sure it doesn’t split and stays delicious and creamy and will try and win them back on that one.  Hopefully the plastic free gods will forgive us for the plastic bag and the 2L milk container. Wish me luck for week 2!

 

 

Gearing up for plastic free July

Plastic Free July starts on Saturday and I’ve starting organising things so we’re ready to take part in the challenge. The idea of the challenge is to refuse single use plastic for the month and set goals to either:

  • avoid single-use plastic packaging
  • refuse the top four: bags, bottles, straws and coffee cups
  • go completely plastic-free.

This will be the third time we’ve done the challenge and I’m glad it’s coming up as we’ve had a lot of plastic sneak back into the house. If you start looking into plastic it’s a pretty dreadful environmental problem. It’s causing a great deal of harm in the oceans and will never go away. It’s also an endocrine disruptor and bad for your health. Our goal is to take more responsibility for our plastic consumption and reduce our use of single use packaging.

So here’s my top ten tips for getting the family ready for the challenge.

1. Find plastic free food

The biggest use of single use plastics in our house is from the packaging on our food. Have an explore and go to food shops in your area and see what they have in bulk. Take notes about what’s available and their prices. Often the bulk is cheaper but sometimes the prices can vary a lot between stores. For example, the exact same item was $9 a kilo at my local Foodland and was $24 at Goodies and Grains.

Take note which shops stock favourite items of family members or items they consider as essential – eg only one place sold bulk cornflakes. Make a game of it with the kids and see if they can find plastic free food. Find a good place to get your local fruit and vegetables as this will be the bulk of your shopping. The Adelaide Central Markets are a bit of a one stop plastic free shopping spot to go if there aren’t many options close by.

2. Find ways to bring the food home

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So now you’ve found your bulk food supplies you’ll need to get it home somehow. Get plenty of cloths bags to use in place of those thin plastic bags and packaging. These can be made, bought or repurposed. Save old bottles to bring home things like oil, vinegar and tamari. Some bulk places will sell you new bottles to refill and reuse. Bottles can also be bought at kitchen stores and places preserving items are sold. Wide mouth flip top jars are good for things like meat and cheese. Just make sure they tare the jar before weighing your items.

When you get home you’ll need to store the food in something. Save jars large and small for storing your food. I found gumtree and op shops were good for getting fowlers jars. These jars are really useful and used to be part of every home many years ago. Lids and seals for the fowlers jars can be bought at mitre 10. They can also be used for preserving.

The main thing is you don’t need to spend a fortune to get organised with containers. Reuse and repurpose what you can. One thing the family have made clear is that they need things labeled so they know what’s in the jars. I just use a bit of masking tape, stick it on the jar and write on that. To keep your vegetables fresh in the fridge put them in the crisper part of the fridge, get a pillow case, wet it then wring it out so it’s damp and lay it over the top of your vegetables. Keep it damp and replace it at least once a week.

3. Plan a plastic free menu

This is simultaneously the easiest and hardest part of the whole month. It’s easy because you have to work with what you can get and usually what’s in season so the menu is almost planned for you. The hard bit is making sure everyone knows what they can eat. On our first plastic free July I got a phone call from home saying they they were facing plastic free induced starvation because they had no idea what to eat. It only took me a minute to explain what was for planned for dinner and what snacks were in the house. They were then able to get dinner started. Unfortunately there are some things that you’ll just have to give up finding plastic free in the shops like potato chips, corn chips and berries.

4. Pack plastic free lunches 

Packing a plastic free lunch also needs a bit of preparation. As an adult it’s fine to take a jar with soup and your own bowl and spoon to reheat at work but for kids they don’t have that option. The focus of this prep is for kids lunches. Purchase a small food thermos for each of your kids so that they can take a warm meal of left overs or soup to school. Pack a fork or spoon in their lunch box.

Pack your own water. There’s really no need to buy bottled water, even less need to buy water imported from overseas. When your children’s plastic drink bottle dies, which it will, replace it with a stainless steel drink bottle. Kleen canteen has a good range and sell a plastic free lid made of bamboo, steel and silicone. I’d personally stay away from the aluminium drink bottles.

Pack a tiffin. Get some two or three tiered tiffins. If your child gets three breaks in the day get a three tiered tiffin. One level for each meal break -eg fruit time, recess, lunch. Stainless steel tiffins are a great investment, they will last forever and can be used to transport food when you have to bring a plate to share or are going on a picnic somewhere.

Pack using a cloth napkin. These can be used to wrap sandwiches, cake,  biscuits and any other dry food instead of using plastic wrap. I use the Japanese Furoshiki way of wrapping which is simple and effective. There are lots of products available, to wrap sandwiches etc, I used a fair few but I’ve found napkins go the distance and are easy to keep clean and double up as you guessed it – a napkin.

Again keep your eye out at op shops, I’ve picked up a thermos, stainless steel drink bottle and napkins from op shops. I don’t recommend packing glass drink bottles or glass jars in your kids lunch boxes – they’ll break and the school won’t be happy. For the grown ups, when your plastic containers die replace them with a good quality stainless steel lunch container. BYO cutlery and say no to straws. Take your own keep cup when you buy a coffee on the run.

5. Slow the flow of plastic in the bathroom

If you are looking for some quick wins then this is your room. No need to get anything, just swap to plastic free alternatives as things run out. Check online for more plastic free alternatives and ideas when things run out. Here are some of the main things you might run out of during the month.

Soap – get rid of the pump pack. Since when did soap need to be pumped out of a plastic bottle? Swap it out for unwrapped bar soap, this can be easily bought.

Toilet paper – most brands are wrapped in plastic. Unfortunately I found out that the Safe brand that I thought was wrapped in paper has a sneaky layer of plastic under the paper. The only brand I’m aware of that’s plastic free and easy to get is ‘Who gives a crap’. We get it in bulk in a box delivered to our house.

Tooth brushes – there are a few brands of bamboo tooth brushes around. We get ours in bulk from Environmental Toothbrush, again delivered to our door.

Shampoo and conditioner – there are lots of blog posts around on diy shampoos and conditioners. I haven’t tried any of them. Shampoo bars are available and look much like a soap bar. The Honey Shoppe and Soapbox at the central markets sell bulk shampoo and conditioner so you can refill your old bottles. Take small jars and trial a few first to see what works best with your hair before filling up a big bottle. You can reuse an old shampoo and conditioner bottle.

Tampons and pads – Without getting up close and personal menstrual cups are a far superior experience than tampons. There are also plenty of tutorials around on making your own reusable pads. These can also be bought online at places like etsy.

6. Make your own cleaning supplies

Bicarb and white vinegar will become your new best friend. You don’t need all the cleaning products on the market. They’re expensive and full of toxins. If you do want to buy some they can be refilled at a bulk shop. Here are some of the main things that might run out during the month.

All purpose cleaning spray – can be made by reusing an old spray bottle and half filling it with vinegar and the other half water. Add half a teaspoon of eucalyptus oil.

Bathroom cleaning spray – can be made by tightly packing orange rinds in with white vinegar for 2 weeks and then decanting into a spray bottle without the rinds.

Use a cotton face washer to wipe up spills and to use as a cleaning cloth.

Glass cleaner – spray with vinegar and wipe off with scrunched up newspaper to stop streaks on the glass.

7. Ditch the synthetic clothes

If you need to replace any clothes during the month replace with 100% natural fibres like wool, cotton, linen or hemp. Plastic microfibres get washed out with each rinse and end up in the oceans and in the bellies of fish and then in your belly if you eat fish.

8. Ditch the plastic toys

You could be doing really well during Plastic free July and all of a sudden someone will give your child a plastic toy.  Even worse the kids will pester you for some plastic widget that all the other kids seem to have – think fidget spinner. It’s really surprising how these things weave themselves into the house. It takes active and sustained vigilance to stem the flow of plastic toys.

If people want to buy a gift for your child suggest things like books, Waldorf/Steiner style handmade toys, or an experience – eg trip to zoo, cinema ticket. Some kids ask people to donate items to a charity thats important to them. Older kids might ask for money. When your kids ask for plastic toys it’s a good way of having the conversation about plastic. When people offer you or your kids plastic toys as freebees politely say ‘no thank you’.

9. Go for cloth nappies

If your kids are young enough to be in nappies there are a few plastic free options available and I’ve tried them all. Mine are well and truly out of nappies so there may be some other alternatives out there now. Different things will work better at different times. Choose what works for you:

  • cloth nappies – a good option, cheap to set up, dries quickly but not so good if you have to rely on tank water in a drought to wash them
  • designer cloth nappies – fitted nappies that you don’t need to fold, look good but take longer to dry and can be expensive to get set up
  • elimination communication – when done well its a great way of toilet training babies, saves on nappies and boosts confidence of the child.

Rather than using polyester wipes to clean your babies bum use cloth wipes. These can be bought at baby stores but I’ve found that target and Kmart sell them in packs for a very reasonable price. Get a small tea thermos and fill with hot water. When you need to clean the baby use the hot water to damp the cloth. This makes for easy cleaning.

10. Start small

Start small, start with one thing then move onto the next – eg if you get bread in plastic get in the habit of buying loose bread from the bakery. Most bakeries will sell it in paper but you can take a pillow case or other large cloth bag to transport it. Then once you’ve incorporated it into your routine move on to the next thing.

The thing about plastic is that it almost always needs replacing, it weakens with exposure to light, breaks and can’t be repaired.  When a thing need to be replaced see if something else you’ve already got can do the job. Does it actually need to be replaced? If it does opt to replace with steel, wood or glass alternatives.

Another good swap out is to grow your own herbs rather than buying them from the shops in plastic. Salad greens and other greens like silverbeet are really easy to grow at home either in the garden or in containers, they are much fresher too and don’t need to be bought in plastic. If you can grow your own berries and enjoy them when they’re fresh and in season. Visit a farm and pick your own berries and take your own container.  Work out what is doable and go for it.

Read books like Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson to get more ideas about plastic free living with a family. Check out online – No need for Mars, Treading my own path, Trash is for tossers, Zero Waste Home, the rogue ginger for ideas. This is a big challenge but well worth the effort. Good luck!