During September, I participated in the 1 Million Women Plastic Free Challenge. I’ve dabbled in challenges before, but this was the first time I got a little more serious. During the three weeks I failed a lot (you can read about that here, here, and here) but this also meant a steep learning curve.
I learnt a lot.
I also realised a lot of things. This challenge went far beyond simply avoiding single-use plastics. At least, it did for me.
Here is my roundup of lessons learnt.
Plastic Free is…
This one’s probably pretty obvious. In today’s world – even though plastic as an invention is less than 100 years old – we rely heavily on plastic to keep things fresh, safe, sanitary, and easy to carry. It has become part of our everyday lives, so much so that sometimes it’s not even about ‘choosing the plastic-free alternative’ – there simply is no alternative (eg, buying tofu without plastic?)
So finding an alternative for that thing you want, that doesn’t come with plastic, is often an inconvenience. Ranging from ‘oh I have to buy this other one on the shelf’ to ‘oh nothing exists, so I have to go without that thing, or make it myself from scratch’.
As part of a family where we share the grocery shopping and our toddler uses things that come in plastic, it’s not just a personal inconvenience. Sourcing alternatives means a different way of thinking about things, for my family. That’s a whole other story.
Other than that, sometimes it’s inconvenient for random people around me. The other day I was buying mushrooms from a market stall and they were in a knotted plastic bag. I started untying the bag to put them into my reusable produce bag (and give the plastic back to the stallholder) when I realised a woman was waiting in line behind me – so I took the plastic. I didn’t want to inconvenience her.
It’s a balance.
Old school, slow living.
It may seem obvious, but living with less plastic also means a greater focus on consuming more raw materials and making things from scratch. In a real sense, it’s going back in time to when things were simpler.
Depending on your point of view you may see this as a beautiful way to be more mindful in your consumption behaviours, or you may simply feel inconvenienced. Both are legitimate responses. Fortunately I’m the former. I enjoy the challenge of doing things the old-fashioned way (most of the time).
For example so many products we use come pre-prepared for us. Even if you consider yourself adept in the kitchen, I bet you’ll be surprised when you think about what you would have had to make yourself, just 50 years ago.
As a simple exercise, consider one meal you make at home. How many of those ingredients come in plastic?
All about being organised and well researched.
As per the first two points, it takes thought and preparation to do things without the plastic. If you’re really trying to limit your plastic usage you can’t just go to the supermarket with your usual grocery list and expect to pick up alternatives without the plastic.
This was probably one of the biggest takeaways for me. Living plastic free (or at least with minimal plastic) is possible. But it takes preparation and intentional action.
It takes deliberate thought and acknowledgement of what you use everyday and, more often than not, research into alternative options. Sometimes you can buy an alternative, sometimes you can make one yourself, and sometimes it takes an entire rethink about that item/ experience and whether you might need to replace it with something else.
Another benefit is that looking for alternatives sometimes means you have to ask the actual question! And it’s a great way to start a conversation.
For example during the challenge I spoke to a restaurant about bringing my own containers for takeaway, the bakery about bringing my own bread bag, the general store about buying their blueberries in a returnable bucket, even supermarket deli staff about bringing my own container.
Most were more accommodating than I expected.
Hopefully adding my voice to the conversation has a positive impact.
It’s another reason I think there’s a lot of benefit in doing a formalised challenge. It pushes you a little beyond your comfort zone for a short period, and gives you little incentives to live there permanently.
Let’s face it. Most of us live our everyday lives without really questioning the status quo. We grow up a certain way or are gradually introduced to something that becomes the norm, and we often have no reason to question it.
Things come in plastic. Things are made from plastic. That’s just how it is.
If you have an interest in plastic free or zero waste or sustainable living, you probably follow people who are living what looks like the ideal. It probably feels unattainable.
But you know what? Even for those who have nailed some aspects of their environmentally friendly life, I bet there are imperfect parts.
I’m here to give you permission to be imperfect (realistically you don’t need permission but if it helps, there it is).
Start where you are.
Do your best.
Improve something every week, every month.
Push outside your comfort zone and seek inconvenient alternatives that better align with how you want to live.
But be compassionate with yourself if you fail. Just learn from the failure and use it as fuel to move forward.
Gradual and evolutionary.
During this challenge I came across people who had completed several challenges before and were still making improvements to their plastic free living.
While it would be great to go from how we’re living now to being completely plastic free, I don’t think it’s realistic. Or sustainable. We will get there by taking little steps, making incremental improvements, and reaching new levels of sustainable living each time we learn a new lesson.
That’s how I intend to remove plastic from my family’s life, and I believe that’s the most responsible and committed approach.
If taking steps to remove plastic from your life is important to you, I hope you’ve found some value in my thoughts and lessons. If you have any specific questions about the changes I’ve made, don’t hesitate to ask. I’m still learning from others too, so I’d be humbled to pass on anything I’ve learned so far.