My Takeaways From Plastic Free July
Honestly, it was really hard.
I won't sit here on my high horse and tell you that I effortlessly floated through the month, avoiding plastic without any personal inconveniences while still enjoying all of my favorite foods because it didn't happen.
I already try to be pretty mindful of the amount of waste I create and plastic I consume, but it was very challenging to avoid it entirely.
In fact, I couldn't do it.
Among the many, some of my #plasticfreejuly blunders included: a few (paper) bags of tortilla chips that had little plastic windows, plastic poop bags to scoop up my pups' poops when I didn't have the biodegradable bags on me, and the time my husband "forgot" and came home bearing multiple plastic containers of various berries...
I didn't have a problem avoiding the typical single use plastic items we encounter most- things like straws and bags- because I've already made it a habit of refusing them or preemptively saying "no straw" when I order a drink that might come with one. I'm also already prepared with my own plastic free gear; reusable bags, produce bags, glass straws, and beverage containers.
But, it definitely took more planning and patience to avoid it entirely when I was food shopping.
This is where a lot of planning must come into play.
For example, I am a child and love cereals. Cereals come packaged in plastic. So, for the entire month I didn't buy any.
This is clearly not a huge sacrifice, to be sure, but I also don't have kids and really only have to worry about myself.
If I missed it that much and felt so inclined, I could have cooked up some of my own homemade granola. For a busy family with young children, however, that's not always a practical option. Maybe you have a kid who will only eat cereal in the morning and you don't have the time to just whip up homemade batches during your precious hours at home. You have to feed your kid. Cereal bagged in plastic, it is!
But, all joking aside, I took a lot more away from this past month than I thought I would have. And it got me thinking less about little ways I can personally make changes in my own life, and more about major structural issues - some that might not initially even seem related - that contribute to and are intertwined with all sorts of other problems.
It's pretty overwhelming when you go down that rabbit hole, which is why I think we so often focus on what we can do as individuals -- because the bigger picture, with all its structural and systemic problems, appear so impossible to address in a meaningful way.
So here is what I've been thinking a lot about - as it relates to plastic waste and beyond.
In addition to time and practicality issues, avoiding plastic is simply not accessible for everyone, period.
It's summer time where I live and I'm lucky enough to have a variety of farmers' markets , some within walking distance of my home, to shop at on any given day of the week. As a vegan, I can do most of my shopping at farmers' markets because I subsist mostly on fruits and vegetables. Plus, I already have a pantry full of grains, oats, and seeds that I buy in bulk, plus an assortment of canned beans I eat regularly because I have my own car and the ability to travel a reasonable distance once a month or so to a market that has an excellent bulk selection. I have a flexible job that allows me to take time during the week to do this, which helps to avoid traffic and wasting precious weekend hours. I am also gainfully employed, and, although I do have a budget, I have the privilege of choosing the foods I want to buy based off a number of factors, including freshness and quality, without being too deterred by price.
But, this isn't the situation for everyone.
Whether you are restricted to a very tight budget, live in what has been traditionally referred to as a food desert (although some food justice activists prefer to move away from that term, instead favoring "food apartheid" because it looks at the whole system , including race, geography, economics) or do not have convenient access to the types of markets - like farmers' markets or markets with good bulk offerings - because of limited mobility, lack of personal transportation, or lack of access to public transportation, shopping to reduce plastic use or minimize waste isn't always possible- in fact, it's a luxury to even consider it.
For individuals who lack access to farmers' markets or any traditional markets , for example, it is difficult enough to find fresh produce - let alone concern yourself with how it's packaged.
But access is only a part of the problem. The actual price of food is the biggest factor in determining what people buy, particularly those individuals who are on a very tight budget or who utilize programs like SNAP. According to a recent study, for a family of four (including 2 adults and 2 children) who receive SNAP benefits, it would cost the family $627 beyond their monthly SNAP allowance to eat a nutritionally sound diet (which includes fruits and vegetables) following the MyPlate guidelines.
It's often the case that the most affordably priced foods are prepackaged.
Lentils, beans, peas and those sorts of inexpensive yet healthy pantry staples are all packaged in plastic bags.
Inexpensive and much less unhealthy options that can be prepared quickly (because time also has associated costs), like the frozen dinners that can be found at any bodega or quick market, come with layers of plastic packaging.
The fact that some people use products packaged in plastics is not so much evidence of their carelessness or unwillingness to do a supposedly easy thing to help our planet , but a major indication that this situation requires systemic change on a major scale on many different levels.
This can be addressed from so many different angles, but here are two in particular:
Firstly, access to fresh, healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, must be affordable and made available to everyone, everywhere.
This would require a paradigm shift in the way we view our entire food system and how it operates - particularly in the way the government provides subsidies to farmers.
Make no mistake about it, as long as farmers who grow commodity crops like corn and soy, and who raise livestock for dairy and meat (not crops - but still subsidized) receive the bulk of federal subsidies, while "specialty crops," which are literally just fruits and vegetables, receive no subsidies, unhealthy, processed foods that lead to diseases like diabetes will remain cheap and ubiquitous whether it's from a fast food restaurant, or lining the shelves at the local market.
Farmers who grow commodity crops and participate in subsidy programs have little incentive to diversify their crop by growing fruits and vegetables since they're actually prohibited from growing any specialty crops on land for which they receive subsidies.
Providing subsidies to specialty crop growers will not only make fruits and vegetables more affordable, it will encourage other farmers to grow those crops as well.
I know that this isn't directly related to plastic use, but it's most certainly indirectly related and we can't expect people to avoid overly processed, overly packaged crap foods if fresh and healthful foods are too expensive or inaccessible.
side note: The problem of the cost of food and access to food in United States is obviously a very serious conversation that runs so much more deeply than I am barely touching upon here. i am in no way saying that packaging and plastic are the most pressing problems related to these issues. obviously access to affordable, healthful foods and putting the power back into communities to run their own businesses, grow their own foods etc is the most important. food justice runs across so many different yet intersecting social issues including poverty, joblessness, race, healthcare, and geography. It's a conversation that should be happening on a much larger scale and is one I'd like to explore more.
Secondly, the burden of dealing with our plastic problem needs to shift away from the consumer and be put back on the corporations and industries causing it.
Reduce, reuse, and recycle is a mantra that is beaten into our brains from the time we're kids in grade school. Recycling programs have, admirably, become more commonplace, and now it's easier than ever to recycle items at businesses, cafes, restaurants, and in public spaces like parks and beaches.
We're told that one of the best and easiest ways we can reduce our waste and plastic pollution is by recycling what we use. This makes us feel better, but, sadly, recycling isn't as effective as we all imagine it to be, and you're probably doing it wrong.
Furthermore, the notion that the consumer must be wholly responsible for the fate of their plastic bag, bottle, fork or whatever misplaces the blame on our shoulders.
(And I totally fell for it, too. I was tricked into thinking that this problem was something that us regular folks should be solving. It wasn't until a couple of my fellow Ethical Writers and Creatives members brought this up as part of a conversation about recycling that I thought - duh! Companies need to stop using plastic in their products and the plastic manufacturing industry needs to be held accountable. )
Meanwhile, the industries responsible for it in the first place (and cashing in handsomely) carry on without any consequence. In fact, plastic manufacturers want to ensure that you continue to use their products and they're willing to put a lot of money into lobbying to do so.
For example, there is a group called The American Progressive Bag Alliance who lead policy initiatives to actually protect AGAINST plastic bag bans and taxes nation wide. Like their sole purpose of existence is to make sure you can't enact a plastic bag ban or tax in your city.
In 2014, they spent $3 million dollars while collecting signatures to oppose California's statewide ban on plastic bags an straws. These manufacturers don't care about the environment - they care about their bottom line.
So, rather than cast stones and demonize anyone who doesn't recycle, or wring our hands over the fact that we're pretty much helpless in the matter, we need to step up and lobby AGAINST these special interest groups to enact policies and regulations that restricts or reduces the production and use of certain types of plastics.
With all that said, I do still believe it's important that we all do out best in our day-to-day lives. Even though there are structures in place that make using plastic inevitable, we still need to take some responsibility and do our best to avoid it when we can. We can opt to purchase plastic-free products when we can, encourage local businesses to reduce their plastic use, and equip ourselves with reusable alternatives whenever possible, all while being aware of the larger implications and ways we might be able to make change on a more meaningful and lasting scale.