I Took the Plastic Free July Challenge... in April!
When I left for Nepal, it was at the conclusion of #plasticfreeJuly and #noplasticJuly initiatives which were spreading in quite a few Facebook groups worldwide! So I thought on my return, I'd write a little bit about my experience taking this on the year before - except that I joined a group that did Plastic Free July... in April!
- What is Plastic Free July?
- How We Did the Plastic Free July April Challenge
- My Plastic Free April Report Card
- Pro Tips on a Successful Plastic Free April (or July, or whatever)
What is Plastic Free July?
Plastic Free July is a movement that began in response to the plastic waste crisis in the world. Although environmentalists have known about this looming crisis for some time, the public awareness breakthrough happened after images of a plastic straw being extracted from a turtle's nose went viral.
How bad is the plastic pollution crisis?
The significance of plastic waste inundating the natural environment, of course, goes beyond just straws, and far beyond just turtles.
The longevity of plastic, and the inability of organisms to metabolise it, was a feature of the invention. Its improved sterility and preservation in medicine and food industries, and its versatility revolutionised many aspects of modern life.
They’ve eased travel into space and revolutionized medicine. They lighten every car and jumbo jet today, saving fuel—and pollution. In the form of clingy, light-as-air wraps, they extend the life of fresh food. In airbags, incubators, helmets, or simply by delivering clean drinking water to poor people in those now demonized disposable bottles, plastics save lives daily. ~National Geographic, Planet or Plastic? "We Made Plastic. We Depend On It. Now We're Drowning In It."
But this long-lived material was also quickly adopted for a completely opposite use - to enable a mobile, disposable culture. Concerns were lulled by assurances that the plastic could be recycled. And yet, decades later, while plastic use continued to increase, and its use embedded in ever more products, recycling capacity worsened instead of improved.
At no time was plastic waste ever fully recycled, and today only an abysmal 9% is recycled worldwide (Plastic Recycling is a Myth, The Guardian). Some of the rest are landfilled. However, the rest are lost to the environment. Due to the long-lived nature of this material, all of this waste has accumulated. Plastic waste disposed since the beginning of its invention still exist today, in much the same condition!
Worse, unlike glass, which simply acts as substrate like rocks or sand, plastic interferes with living beings, to fatal ends. Whales wash ashore, dead, with innards filled with plastic. Seabirds starve to death after ingesting the indigestible plastic waste. Turtles choke on plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish. Not only that, plastic also breaks apart into microscopic pieces, and are now found in seafood caught for human consumption.
Why Plastic Free July?
The ubiquity of plastic in our modern life today, makes the scale of the problem somewhat invisible to us. The problem is so overwhelming precisely because of how 'everywhere' trivial plastic use is. We have long gone past the point when it is tough to avoid. Now we are at the stage where we no longer even notice them.
It's difficult to be part of the solution to plastic waste, if you don't really grasp how much you're part of the problem. Sometimes, a lot of the wasteful plastic use is really just a habit we learned a long time ago, and don't really think about. Plastic Free July is an initiative to help us pay attention to where plastic waste is generated in our lifestyles, so that we can seek out alternatives, contribute and be inspired by others' solutions.
In the year after my first experience volunteering at the Blue Temple in the Perhentian Islands, the Blue Templars and alumni decided to take on this challenge. It was not July yet, but really, you can do this any time, so for us it was the Plastic Free April Challenge.
Miraculously, no one mistook it for April's Fools!
How We Did the Plastic Free
July April Challenge
The objective is very simple: consume as little plastic as possible, aiming for zero.
When we counted the plastic consumption
To make sure everyone is counting ("sampling") the same way, and avoid double counting, you need some ground rules. Our rule was that you count all new plastic items 'taken' - bought, or otherwise accepted/used - even if the use is intended to happen after April, and even if the plastic would be re-used for something else before finally being thrown away.
On the flipside this means, opening up a package or otherwise throwing out a plastic item that was bought prior to the challenge month, is not counted.
Obviously you can flip the rules the other way around, i.e. count when the plastic item is thrown away, not when it's accepted. It doesn't actually really matter. But I think our way is more useful, because it makes you count at the point when a different decision could be made.
How we scored the plastic consumption
Every piece of plastic is counted as '1', no matter how large or small, to simplify the challenge. Each score is worth a $1 fine, so the worse you do at the challenge, the more you have to fork out. The total at the end of the month would go to Blue Temple Conservation for continued plastic waste reduction advocacy.
Tip: It's much better to take the challenge with a group that is supportive, not overly competitive or judgmental, and happily transparent. While you don't have to tell everyone everything you buy, if you feel like you can, it makes for a much more fun and enlightening outcome!
My Plastic Free April Report Card
See our Plastic Free April 2016 day-by-day shares on the Facebook event here.
I was already reasonably aware about plastic waste reduction by the time I took the challenge. In addition, I was living in my own house at the time, so I had more control over my spending and consuming habits than when I lived with my parents.
I had also long ago lost the Asian compulsion of taking a free thing just because it's free. It's actually not 'free' - it costs you storage space in your home, and it costs time to dispose of it when you realise you didn't really want it.
I felt ready.
I was keen to know where I'm missing out and how hard it would be to further improve.
How did I do for Plastic Free April?
.... worst of the group! :-p
The Blue Temple profited by $128.
Plastic Free Challenge: Groceries
Everyone braced for our respective grocery days. Even with avoiding plastic grocery bags, there's still a substantial amount of plastic packaging involved in shopping for groceries. The question is whether they are truly necessary packaging.
Living in the most urban location in the country (right smack in Kuala Lumpur City Centre) does not do great things for your supermarket options. It appears that fruit and veg are far more likely to come pre-packed in plastic in 'wealthy' areas than in markets of the lower income suburbs. Vegetable packaging hit me the hardest on grocery days.
2019 update: With the advent of zero waste groups in Malaysia since this challenge was undertaken, a few nearby supermarkets have begun offering some vegetables loose. I can now bring more bags from prior trips and re-use them for fresh produce purchases. Consumer pressure does make a difference, even if people are not 100% zero waste. More options opened up in less than 5 years!
Plastic Free Challenge: Toiletries/skincare
For efficiency reasons, I tended to buy certain things in bulk, for up to a year's worth - ideally timed to take advantage of deals. Some of you might have the same habit.
Unluckily for my Plastic Free April statistics, within the first week of the challenge I took delivery for a batch of toiletries. However, the rules are the rules, so I dutifully logged all of it. It did, however, make me think about whether I could easily live without some of it.
How much of it really adds value to my personal care, and how much is due to the social pressure on women to look a certain way? The pressure is intense in Asia, and even someone who is unconventional like myself does not completely escape its pervasive influence.
But as long as we feel we need the assistance of products to be acceptably attractive socially - or even just to retain the interest of our partners - there's really no limit to this category of consumption.
2019 update: by this time, even in Malaysia, there are zero waste options beginning to pop up for skincare! Check out my KL guide for the Sustainable Traveller!
'I love you with things'
One of the hardest things about going zero waste in Malaysia is the sheer amount of things you are given.
Typical examples which are easiest to refuse are things like free gifts from business or professional events, because they're from strangers. Depending on what it is, I tend to either refuse the entire door gift (hopefully signalling to event organisers that in future they can cut back on this part of the event budget or re-think it), or re-home the item on Freecycle. Some of this stuff can be pretty good, especially back then before the oil price crash.
But then there are those things you can't socially refuse. Like door gifts from weddings and other personal invitations, which increasingly came to have more and more plastic content. Fortunately, no such event occurred during my plastic free challenge.
And finally, I can't stress the importance of a supportive family and friends network during this challenge. It makes the difference between coming with a well-meaning delicious breakfast wrapped in plastic bags (because it's just two bags, how can that matter?), and sensitively showing up to dinner with a non-plastic packaged dessert - because your challenge matters to you, and therefore to them.
Plastic Free Challenge: Office meeting lunches
I hadn't noticed when the change happened. In my mind the image of the meeting lunch was still what it was when I began working. Stereotypically Malaysian delicious catered buffet, with dispensers and jugs for pouring out drinks into real glasses.
I knew, of course, that budget constraints and dismissal of support staff gradually made this harder to arrange. But I didn't put two and two together.
During the challenge, it finally clicked.
I only noticed the implication of moving away from old-school catering to convenience catering, when I started to scan everything for plastic. The office lunches are now packed, usually in plastic. At the very least, the cutlery would be (and are themselves disposable plastic). The drinks are bottled in plastic, or canned. It's horrific.
Once during the challenge month, the lunch came with every single item individually packed in plastic. That lunch involved accepting between 5-11 pieces of throwaway plastic in just a single meal for a single person.
I stayed committed to the challenge. I declined lunch.
The bombshell discoveries
Apart from some small surprises here and there, Plastic Free April more or less unfolded as I expected. I kind of knew where I would have trouble. And even though I did less well than I thought I would, once I began counting the pieces, I felt good about actually spotting all the plastic and making an honest inventory.
Until I realised I completely missed a couple things.
Disposable contact lenses
I had forgotten that I'm short-sighted.
Of course I remember it, each time I put my contact lenses on and take them off, and when I have to remember to pack my spectacles in my luggage.
What I mean is, I forgot that I had chosen to live with the convenience of contact lenses. I forgot it precisely because it was so convenient. Contact lenses are made of plastic, and individually packaged in plastic. Like my toiletries, I buy a year's stock all at once, at the same time as when I do my eye checkup.
I was due for a checkup that very month.
There was some consternation in our Plastic Free April group, since contact lenses are vision correction aids. It's like a wheelchair or hearing aid. Does it count?
Most - if not all - in the group are divers, and since the contact lenses are needed in order to dive, we finally realised a disposable plastic dilemma that actually hurts. Giving up diving in order to avoid plastic contact lenses... felt inhumane, a cruel and unusual sacrifice.
Indeed, that is something that everyone embarking on a zero waste lifestyle will discover. Not everyone can avoid all things, and the price to be paid for a plastic sacrifice is not the same for everyone.
But I counted at least the packaging that the lenses came in. A challenge is a challenge.
2017: I have yet to give up the lenses. I confess it makes too much of a difference over glasses, and I haven't yet been able to bring myself to go for lasik treatment.
There was a time of day when I wasn't counting.
By the middle of Plastic Free April I was happy with my understanding of my personal plastic consumption habits. Until one morning at the office, when I was perhaps slightly more lucid than usual, stirring my daily morning coffee from the office coffee machine...
It slowly dawned on me, as I finally noticed the creamer sachet I just used - did I forget to count that? Worse - Did I forget to count the creamer sachet for the whole month??
You see, I'd already nixed all sachet-based drinks at home. But without at all realising it, I hadn't changed the habit at work.
We have blind spots about things. And mine is when I am too tired and sleepy to be switched on.
This is why the whole system of goods packaging needs to change. Not only is it much harder to change habits when you're already swamped with other stresses, tiredness can make us not notice those habits at all.
Plastic Free April: The Travel Level
Like all good games, near the end you reach the 'boss level'. During my challenge month, I got sent on business travel.
Now, business travel is much harder than your usual routine, if you're trying to avoid using plastic. You have less control over what is offered to you, you don't even get to choose where you stay, so you have to change a lot of habits to prepare to travel on business without contributing to the plastic problem.
It's not everywhere that you can refill your water bottle - many airports do not have the facility, while at the same time forcing you to empty it out before boarding. Then there's the inflight meal...
Many cafes and restaurants at transit points serve in disposable containers. At the time I didn't know that paper cups have plastic in them - but in any case the lid for hot drinks is plastic, and it's easy to forget to tell the server not to give that.
And then there's the plastic minefield in the hotel... Even if you have your own toiletries, and avoid the complimentary bottled drinking water (which is often offered even in countries where the tap water is safe!), I realised that a lot of random things in a conventional hotel can only be accessed by opening some plastic thing or other.
So, I think it's not too terrible that I only added $14 to the total from the 'travel level'.
However, I give props to the Makati Shangri-La for acknowledging my request to deliver my laundry without using plastic packaging. I wonder if they might consider doing that as a default.
Pro Tips on a Successful Plastic Free April (or July, or whatever)
- Take the plunge. Don't be self-conscious. Don't worry that you won't do well. Just be honest about yourself and to yourself. You have to start somewhere.
- Prepare a little knowledge. Have a gut feel for where you're at. Read up a little so that the first week doesn't slam into you so hard, that you give up.
- Choose a supportive challenge group. Associate with supportive people. If you have to, tell people upfront about your challenge. Don't be shy to reach out for tips and encouragement.
- Don't panic about how many things you have to change. The point of getting information is so you can decide which one to do first. Nobody changes overnight.
- Have fun! Everyone is in this plastic mess together!
How doing Plastic Free April changed my habits
Plastic Free July sounds simple - just avoid plastic for a month? It's the same criticism that people level at Earth Hour. A month doesn't make much difference! What is the point of doing something, that doesn't make a difference?
But the space between something and nothing - is choice. And all big changes begin with a simple choice: to do something rather than nothing.
Over the course of a year after the challenge, I made further changes. They have been gradual. That's intentional, because I wanted to make changes that are permanent.
I also started sharing sustainability knowledge on Facebook to friends.
I started this blog to write about the interface between travel and sustainability. Then I found other travellers and bloggers that have tried different things, whose experience I could tap into.
I found local networks of people trying to bring forward future ways of urban living that give better sustainability and livelihood outcomes.
So, take the challenge! Then do something! Find others to learn from and be a part of. A community makes culture shifts easier.
Because a lot of people did something, even though they couldn't do everything, in just a few years more zero waste options have appeared. Who knows how much change can result with continued momentum?
Inspired to take on the Plastic Free challenge? Pin this article!