Going plastic-free is nearly impossible. These people are trying anyway

Jacob Fenston
Special to the Washington Post

Maybe you’ve done dry January — the trend that originated in the United Kingdom of cutting out alcohol for the first month of the year. Maybe this is the year to try Plastic Free July.

The idea took root in Australia more than a decade ago, and in recent years it has been gaining popularity in the United States. It all began when Rebecca Prince-Ruiz visited her local recycling sorting center in Perth, Australia, in 2011. She had always thought of herself as being eco-conscious, but after looking around at the heavy machinery sorting an endless stream of bottles, tubs, jars, cans and boxes, she had an aha moment.

“I suddenly realized that filling my recycling bin each fortnight didn’t make me the great green citizen I thought I was,” Prince-Ruiz says. “The most important thing I should be doing was actually reducing my waste in the first place.”

She decided to try to avoid single-use plastic for an entire month. The next month happened to be July.

Plastic bottles of water are seen for sale at a store Aug. 2, 2019, in San Francisco.

So Plastic Free July was born.

Since then, the idea has spread around the globe. According to the Plastic Free Foundation, the nonprofit that Prince-Ruiz founded, 89 million people in 190 countries pledged to reduce their plastic use during July last year. The countries with the most participants are China and India.

Over the last five years, participants have avoided more than 1.5 million tons of plastic waste, according to the campaign. That’s enough to fill about 80,000 garbage trucks.

Prince-Ruiz says the comparison with dry January is apt, but avoiding plastic may actually be a lot harder for many people than avoiding alcohol. Going plastic-free entails constant small decisions and complications throughout every day — and finding workarounds for nearly every purchase.

Why plastic? What about other waste?

Sending anything to the landfill or incinerator has a negative impact on the environment. But plastic is particularly problematic, experts say.

“Plastics are one of the greatest threats facing our planet today,” says Melissa Valliant, a spokesperson for Beyond Plastics, a plastic-pollution-fighting nonprofit.

Part of the problem is that plastics are not as easily recyclable as other packaging materials. In fact, less than 6% of plastic waste is recycled in the United States. That rate has barely budged in the past two decades. One peer-reviewed study last year found plastic recycling itself may actually be contributing to microplastic pollution in the environment.

At the Burbank Recycling Center in Burbank, California, workers separate trash as quickly as possible.

“We are not going to recycle our way out of this problem,” Valliant says.

Plastic waste chokes oceans and the creatures who live there. And plastic production is a major contributor to climate change: The industry emits four times the planet-warming emissions as the airline industry, according to a recent U.S. Energy Department report.

But from the beginning, the Plastic Free July campaign has focused on solutions rather than the problem. In fact, the campaign’s website contains almost nothing about the harms of plastic, other than its sea turtle logo — a reference to one of the animals most at risk from ocean plastic.

The website offers ideas for plastic-free beginners — small changes like using reusable shopping bags. There are also suggestions for those further along the journey — including making your own toothpaste, sans plastic tube.

Plastic-free doesn’t have to mean zero-plastic

Prince-Ruiz says that first plastic-free month was harder than she’d thought it would be. “I remember going to the supermarket for the first time and going, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s not much I can buy.’”

She came home with a box of pasta and a lot of tomatoes and bananas, and remembers thinking, “How am I going to survive this month?”

Her best advice for newbies: Don’t try to quit plastic cold turkey. Instead, start with a quick inventory of your plastic use — go through your fridge and pantry and trash — and choose one or two places to work on eliminating or reducing.

“Try it for a day, try it for a week, try it for a month,” Prince-Ruiz says. “We purposely make the barrier for entry easy.”

Sammy Harper, a graphic and web designer based in Omaha, says his first Plastic Free July, in 2020, was a flop. He ambitiously tried to cut out all plastic for the month and quickly became overwhelmed, beating himself up about it. In the Julys since, he’s focused on one change at a time, starting with replacing plastic water bottles with a reusable Yeti.

“Getting to a perfect state from the get-go is almost impossible,” Harper says.

Freweyni Asress, a D.C. resident who has written about living a zero-waste lifestyle, recommends finding a buddy or two to do the plastic-free challenge with.

“When there’s a community of people participating in something like Plastic Free July, it really reinvigorates you,” Asress says. “Try to do it with somebody, even if it’s just one person, because it really does make a difference.”

Of course, going plastic-free can be more challenging depending on your circumstances.

In the Midwest, for example, store clerks are not always receptive to the idea of skipping plastic bags, Harper says. On one shopping trip where he was only buying a few things and didn’t need a bag, the checker forced one on him, citing concerns about shoplifting.

“She would not let me leave without a bag,” Harper says.

When Asress started her zero-waste journey in 2016, she was working at a food co-op that had a large bulk section and many plastic-free products. But she found not all plastic-free products worked for her.

“A lot of the hair products that were sustainably packaged or provided in bulk bins were specifically for White people’s hair,” says Asress, who is Black. She ended up boiling flaxseed and mixing it with shea butter and essential oils to make her own hair gel and moisturizer. “It’s actually way more time consuming than it sounds,” Asress says. Plus, it still didn’t really work for her hair.

Ultimately, she says, going plastic-free or zero-waste shouldn’t just be about creating cute Instagram posts. “It has to be practical, and we have to be able to figure out ways to be able to include everybody.”

It shouldn’t be this hard

Disposable single-use plastic is so ubiquitous, it can be hard to imagine a world without it. Yet many people alive today grew up in such a world: Before the 1960s, for example, many beverages in the United States came in refillable glass bottles.

“We have the technology to make this easy and convenient for consumers,” Valliant says. The key is to move away from disposable containers and packages and go with materials that can be used over and over. Refundable deposit systems can make this economical.

Travel to Latin America, Africa or Asia, for example, and you’ll find refillable soda and beer bottles are still common — each one can be filled, purchased and returned as many as 30 times before it breaks or is worn out.

Valliant says similar reuse is possible elsewhere. A European company, reCIRCLE, provides reusable takeout containers to a network of thousands of restaurants and cafes. You pay a deposit for the reusable cup or bowl, then return it to any participating business to get your money back, or a fresh cup of coffee or bowl of pad thai in a clean reusable container.

In the United States there are some efforts to bring back the refillable glass bottle: Dozens of small dairies use refillable milk bottles, and in Oregon, a handful of craft brewers use refillable beer bottles.

Of course, the onus of creating change shouldn’t be on the consumer, Prince-Ruiz says. But these individual actions add up, she says, and that can help build momentum for more systemic change.

“We see time and time again, whether it’s a jurisdiction banning plastic bags, or introducing container deposit legislation, or a brand switching their packaging, or retail supermarkets introducing reuse and refill, it’s because their consumers and their customers are asking it of them,” she says.

Jacob Fenston is a freelance writer in D.C.