Plastic Free July: A Wrap Up

Yep. Plastic Free July Was Really Hard.

Have you ever wanted to turn your weekly shop into an existential nightmare?

Last month, a dozen of us in the office decided to participate in Plastic Free July. As a side note, I also signed up for Dry July. Avoiding beer was not nearly as hard as avoiding plastic… though we didn’t have Besk Bar next door yet. 

Choosing to go plastic free is a genuine challenge.

It’s a sad state of affairs. If we’re going to keep this planet habitable for the next hundred, or thousand, years, it’s going to require behaviour change on a mass level; the Holy Grail of marketing. While awareness of the issue is growing, most people don’t give a flying… bag.

This isn’t about a war on straws, or banning the bag. Plastic is actually a fantastic substance for stuff that you want to last a long time. Things like a car steering wheel, or the keyboard I’m typing on. Where plastic becomes problematic is in single and short term use situations.

And single use plastic is everywhere in the supermarket. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Perhaps the problem goes back to the system of shopping made popular by Piggly Wiggly.

Piggly Wiggly. The world’s first self-service grocery store. Stay with me here.

Before Piggly Wiggly began in 1916, Tennessee, a visit to the general store would mean talking to a clerk and telling them what you want. They would go out the back to wrap up your groceries in butchers paper, jars, or paper bags.

Self service stores changed the game by letting customers browse the isles to pick out their own items. This meant that manufacturers started to care more about how their brand and packaging was perceived. Food makers began adding layers to their packets for the appearance of providing better value. 

Soon enough everyone was doing it, and often using plastic.

We’re tacitly told to believe that plastic use is our fault because we have consumer choice. However many don’t even see the problem or the options. Conspicuous consumption is super! Here’s a replica of a plastic product in mini plastic form, collect them all!

A lot of people don’t have a market, green grocer, butcher, fromagere, or a cleaning chemical refill station locally. Suburbia is more likely to have a Coles, Woolworths or Aldi.

While the major supermarkets have an array of fresh packageless produce, much of it is not available without plastic, like herbs or baby spinach. I personally caved on getting corn chips, the brand I chose looked like it was paper… it was lined with plastic.

The biggest hurdle many of us found was preparing and taking time to think about how to find a plastic replacement. Weird, because we got by pretty alright before Parkesine (nitrocellulose) was invented in 1856, considered the first man-made plastic. Here are some suggestions, a few products and a couple more here.

Our dependence on plastic largely comes from manufacturers leveraging our laziness. Packaging makes buying easy and prevents spoilage. Sales is all about limiting the friction of a purchase. If you’re weighing up the pros and cons of plastic, palm oil, animal testing, fat, sugar, ethical, vegan, free range, ad infinitum, you’ll never get past the bread aisle. 

(Paper-wrapped, local or organic?) 🤯

I’d also hypothesise that for some, our self image stops us from doing the right thing in regards to purchase choices. “I’m not a smelly hippy,” or “I’m too busy and important to stop for five minutes to enjoy my coffee, put it in my big-boy Sippee cup.”  

It’s a battle between convenience, habit and our better selves.

But if manufacturers continue to make the stuff, many believe they should wear the cost and be responsible for it’s recycling or disposal. 

In one positive news story, WA will soon have 10c container deposit system (which SA has had for years!). So… Dry July is going to be even harder next year if every tinnie of Terra Forma could be helping save the Earth. In reality, though, reduction is much better than recycling.

Now July is over, do I think the behaviour change has stuck? Can I continue completely avoiding plastic? 

No. Not while it’s so dang near everywhere. But, if nothing else, the experiment has brought the prevalence of this problem to a wider audience. I’ll continue to do what I can when I can. I will remember to take my canvas bag to the supermarket.

Being ecologically-minded is not about being ‘perfect’ but making small, manageable changes. With a critical mass is on board, we might have a chance. So, where can you have a small impact today?