That Time When I Took the Plastic Free April Challenge
When I left for Nepal, it was at the conclusion of #plasticfreeJuly and #noplasticJuly that had been going on in quite a few Facebook groups worldwide! So I thought on my return from my travels, I’d write a little about my experience taking on a similar Plastic Free April Challenge the year before. The challenge month included a week of travel – which is a higher level of difficulty!
In the year after my first experience volunteering at the Blue Temple, some Blue Templars and ‘alumni’ initiated the Plastic Free April Challenge. Miraculously no one mistook it for April’s Fools (although measures were undertaken to ensure this).
The motivation for this is the well-known realisation among conservationists – especially marine conservationists – of how inundated the world is with plastic waste. We know too well the cruel and devastating toll it is taking in the ocean food webs and ecosystems. 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.
The Plastic Free April Challenge
You can’t take action effectively until you know what your baseline is – where the real problem is. Sure, if you want to start with just one or two things, then definitely you can be guided by the publicised consensus and aim to omit plastic grocery bags and bottled drinking water.
Beyond that, however, you start to need to know a little bit more about yourself, and your own lifestyle.
That’s where initiatives and challenges like this come in. Even if you fail (and you probably will), you will get to see where, and how. This information is what you can use to think about where you can make habit changes that have the biggest outcomes.
How to play :)
The objective is very simple: consume as little plastic as possible, aiming for zero.
But to make sure everyone is counting (“sampling”) the same way, and avoid double counting, our rule was that you count the new plastic ‘taken’ – bought, or otherwise accepted/used – even if the use is for later and even if the plastic would be re-used for something else.
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 to be the other way around – it doesn’t actually really matter).
Every piece of plastic is counted as ‘1’, no matter how large or small, to simplify the game. Each piece thus not avoided is worth $1 “fine”. The total at the end of the month becomes a donation we would make to Blue Temple Conservation.
Final note: It’s much better to take the challenge with a group that is supportive, not overly competitive, and happily transparent. While you don’t have to tell everyone everything you buy, it you feel like you can it makes for a much more fun and enlightening outcome.
See our Plastic Free April 2016 day-by-day shares on the Facebook event here.
I’m ready! Let’s play!
I was already reasonably aware on plastic waste reduction by that time. Plus, I was living in my own house, where I had more control over spending and consuming habits.
I also long ago lost the Asian compulsion of taking a free thing just because it’s free. It’s not free – it costs me storage space in my home, and it costs my time to dispose of it when I realise I didn’t really want it. Once you realise this, you realise it’s not you who is the rude person for refusing pointless plastic bits and bobs. It’s the person dumping garbage on you and our planet.
Anyway, I felt ready to be measured. I wanted 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.
Everyone braced for our respective grocery days. Even with avoiding plastic grocery bags, there’s still a substantial amount of plastic packaging involved. The question is whether they are truly necessary/beneficial packaging, or just convenience/indulgent.
Living in the most urban location (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.
2017 update: However, some nearby supermarkets have begun offering some vegetables loose. So I can now bring more bags from prior trips and re-use them for fresh produce purchases. Meats still come pre-packed.
For efficiency (of time and money) I tend to buy some things in bulk, for up to a year’s worth – ideally right at the time when there are deals. (Incidentally: being a daily life budgeting boss is one of the ways you get to have enough money left over to go travelling).
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 actually could easily live without some of it.
I am reminded of something my ex said, a long time ago. He said something of a basic simple – maybe un-PC – truth: the only side whose view matters on whether I’m feminine, is a man. Just like it is true the other way around. Because that is the very objective for that quality.
At the time he was saying that as long as a guy (like himself) found me feminine as I was, it didn’t matter if I don’t fit the supposed archetype.
But the bigger point here is, 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 partner – there’s really no limit to this category. Unless we collectively start to value things other than appearance in the opposite sex, the race – and the waste – will not stop escalating. Because the desire for affection and acceptance are incredibly difficult to walk away from.
But contentment with one another – nothing disarms the insecurity market like unconditional love.
I love you with things.
One of the hardest things about going zero waste in Malaysia is the sheer amount of things you get given.
The easy cases would be random things on the street and door gifts from events, because they’re from strangers. Depending on what it is, I tend to either refuse the entire door gift (hopefully signalling to organisers that they can in future cut back on this part of the budget or rethink it), or re-home the item on Freecycle. Some of this stuff can be pretty good – especially back then before the oil price crash. The irony of the world is that the already-privileged get more and better stuff for free.
The random stuff that appear on your desk at work from whatever campaign is going on is harder, since there’s no clear way to return it.
Then there are those things you can’t socially refuse. Like gifts from weddings and other personal invitations – no matter how tacky. Fortunately no such event occurred during my Plastic Free April.
And finally, I can’t stress the importance of a supportive family and friends network. 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.
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 – the stereotypical delicious catered buffet of food, with dispensers and jugs for pouring out drinks into glasses.
I knew, of course, that budget constraints and dismissal of support staff gradually made these harder to arrange. But I didn’t really put two and two together.
But during the challenge it clicked.
I noticed the implication of moving away from old-school catering to convenience catering, only when I started to scan everything for plastic. The lunches are now packed – often in plastic. Or at least the cutlery would be. The drinks are bottled in plastic, or at least canned.
And once, the lunch came with every single item individually packed in plastic. That one 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.
Apart from some small surprises here and there, Plastic Free April more or less unfolded as I expected. And even though I did less well than I thought once I began actually counting the pieces, at least I felt good about actually spotting the plastic and making an honest inventory.
But there were two events that I simply had not at all thought about.
I have a disability.
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 glasses. What I mean is, I forgot that I had chosen to live with the convenience of contact lenses. And I forgot it precisely because it was convenient.
The contact lenses are plastic, and individually packaged in plastic. Like my toiletries, I buy the year’s stock all at once, at the time when I do my eye checkup. There was some consternation in the challenge group, since they are vision correction aids. Plus being comprised of divers, and since clearly the contact lenses are needed in order to dive – we realised a dilemma that actually hurts. Giving up diving is just .. it’s like… how can it be contemplated.. just no. It’s inhumane. Cruel and unusual sacrifice.
But I counted at least the packaging. 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.
The time of day when I wasn’t counting.
By the middle of Plastic Free April I was happy with my understanding of my own plastic consumption habits.
Then one morning at the office when I was perhaps slightly more lucid than usual, stirring my coffee from the office coffee machine.. it dawned on me.. the creamer sachet I just used – did I forget to count that? The whole month?
At home, I’d already nixed all sachet-based drinks. 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 makes 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’.
I got sent on business travel.
I urge all travellers to observe just how much harder it is to decline plastic use while on the road, especially in Asia.
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. Many cafes and restaurants at transit points serve in disposable containers. Then there’s the inflight meal. 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 that. And then there’s the plastic minefield in the hotel…
I think it’s not too terrible that I only added $14 to the total from the ‘travel level’.
However I do have to give props to the Makati Shangri-La for taking pains to note my request to minimise plastic use, and delivering my laundry back without using plastic packaging.
I wonder if they might do that as a default.
Plastic Free April (or July, or whatever): Tips
- 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 – and what it would take.
- Have fun! Everyone is in this mess together!
Over the course of a year after that, I made further changes. They have been gradual.
I 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 to learn what others are trying to bring forward future ways of urban living that give better sustainability and livelihood outcomes.
My point is, take the challenge! Then do something! And find others to learn from and be part of. A community makes it easier.
It sounds simple – just a month and just something? But the space between something and nothing – is choice. And all difficult changes begin with a simple choice: to do something rather than nothing.