July 12 2022
This July, join the millions around the world striving to reduce single-use plastic waste. Plastic Free July is an international movement that began in 2011, and provides resources and ideas for becoming part of the solution to plastic pollution. Plastic Free July encourages sustainable habits and challenges you to reduce your overall plastic consumption at home, work, school, and in the community, with the hope that these positive habits are continued beyond a single month. Even with small changes, we can make a collective impact in reducing our carbon footprint!
Embrace the 5 R’s of zero-waste:
- Refuse… what you don’t need. Simply say no to unnecessary items, like flyers and junk mail (stick a ‘no junk mail’ notice on your letter box), and marketing freebies. Just because things are free, does not mean we need to take them. Think ahead so that you are able to refuse some single-use items when given the choice, by always keeping a reusable bag, water bottle or cutlery on hand!
- Reduce… things that are no longer of use. Donate or sell unwanted items to give them a new home where they will be used. Additionally, reduce what you buy in the first place. Only buy what you need, and always take a good look in your fridge, freezer and pantry before grocery shopping to avoid over-buying and ending up with food waste!
- Reuse… for as long as you can. Think about how you can repair, mend, or patch up your items to get a little more life from them, before replacing them with something new. Also, prevent your belongings from prematurely breaking down in the first place by buying higher quality items (if in your budget) or taking care of them with proper cleaning and maintenance. There is a reusable replacement for almost every single-use item. Just a few of these include:
- Plastic straws – paper, silicone, glass or metal straws
- Paper towels – cotton cloths (or go for plastic-free packaging, like from Who Gives a Crap or Reel. These companies also sell plastic-free toilet paper!)
- Bottled water – reusable plastic (try to use BPA-free plastic), glass or stainless steel water bottle
- Recycle… only if you can’t refuse, reduce or reuse! This is the “R” that we have been made to believe is the solution for reducing waste. However, the value of recycling is far less than any of the first three “R’s”. New products are being produced way too quickly for the recycling infrastructure to keep up with, and recycling is a highly energy-intensive practice. Less than 10% of Canada’s plastic waste is recycled because the process is too expensive and ineffective to compete economically with newly produced plastic. Make sure to check with your municipality about what plastic can and cannot be recycled. For instance, in Toronto, all “rigid” plastics can go in the blue bin, except for black and/or compostable plastic, and many “soft, stretchy” plastics can be recycled, as long as they are rinsed from any product or food. It is important to recycle correctly, because wrong items placed in the recycling stream can damage equipment, and contaminated recycling currently costs the City of Toronto millions annually.
- Rot… in other words, compost. While this doesn’t apply to plastic, composting your household organic waste, or finding city compost bins when you’re out, is a great way to help reduce emissions from landfills. Check out these resources about how to efficiently and effectively compost in your backyard, or indoors if you don’t have a usable outdoor space.
While zero-waste movements are invaluable as we tackle climate change, they can often create an unreachable and anxiety-inducing vision of “zero-waste perfection”. It is important to remember not to place too much responsibility on yourself (the fact is, just 20 companies are responsible for producing 55% of the world’s plastic waste!), but to lead an environmentally-conscious lifestyle that is easy to maintain. For instance, you may decide to drive 20 minutes to a bulk store to save on plastic, or you could walk a few minutes to your supermarket with a reusable shopping bag and save on time and emissions! When it comes to saving plastic, don’t get too worked up – as Anne Marie Bonneau, Zero-Waste Chef, has said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
It is important to recognize that zero-waste movements often exclude underprivileged and minority communities. Reducing plastic waste by any significant amount is simply not possible for some people. For example, a complete ban on plastic straws is frankly ableist, as some people with disabilities rely on the plastic straw as an accessibility device for drinking. A straw made of any material other than plastic creates even more barriers for this population. Extra time and effort are needed to clean a reusable straw (which may not even possible, depending on the person’s level of mobility), there is an increased cost to source and buy specialty straws, the inability to have a straw that bends is a major detriment for those with limited neck mobility, and there is a safety hazard associated with hard glass or metal straws for people with muscle spasms. Read more about this issue here.
In addition, people in low-income communities may not have the means to purchase reusable items, nor live close enough to a market with plastic-free options, such as fresh produce or bulk foods. As written about in our Black History Month 2022 post, it is important to not just focus on helping the planet, but to also help its people by adopting an intersectional lens and learning about environmental injustice. For more information, check out the Intersectional Environmentalist website.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging to reduce plastic waste, although this has been crucial for public safety health. The increase in use of cleaning products, masks, gloves, and other single-use personal protective equipment has been vital to stopping the spread of infectious diseases, especially in healthcare settings. However, the World Health Organization has found that healthcare waste loads increased up to 10 times due to COVID-19, with much of that being plastic. As we continue to navigate the pandemic and learn more about COVID-19 protection, it is hoped that this plastic consumption will revert (safely) to pre-pandemic levels. We may be starting to see this already with the lifting of other waste-producing protective measures, such as the closure of dine-in services that caused an increase in take-out and delivery containers, the temporary banning of “bring your bags” to grocery stores, and halting the use of refillable mugs at coffee shops.
While we acknowledge that limiting plastic consumption is challenging, we encourage you to devote the month of July to educating yourself on plastic pollution (take this quiz) and accept the challenge to reduce plastic waste wherever you can (make it official, and sign up here). But remember, strive for new habits that are (perhaps imperfectly) sustainable!
If you’d like additional resources, check out the many posted by Canada’s Plastic Action Centre, categorized by topics like Circular Economy (such as this story about the University of Toronto’s Trash Team) or Facts & Stats (such as this infographic about bioplastics).
Have a safe and healthy summer. Keep it green!