September 30, 2020
Amy Green, Marine Debris Intern, Summer 2020
Plastic Free July 2020: wake up, coffee, Facebook post, Instagram story post, then on to the workday. As a Center for Coastal Studies Marine Debris intern, I had the opportunity to share ideas on reducing single-use plastic with the Center’s following on social media for a month this summer. Generally, I’m a fairly social-media-less person, so it was a bit of a change in my daily routine to incorporate so much Facebook and Instagram. But in comparison to the actual information I gathered, the transformation of my daily life was just getting started.
In Australia, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz first took on the ‘Plastic Free July’ campaign in 2011, challenging her community to think critically about their single-use plastic use, and attempt to reduce it drastically for the month of July. This campaign is now global, and highlights the pervasive plastics problem in our society. The average American disposes of 1,500lbs (680kg) of plastic waste EACH YEAR, and every minute, the equivalent of a dump truck full of plastic waste makes its way into our oceans. Additionally, plastic never goes away. It simply breaks down into smaller microplastics that collect toxins, and make their way into soil, water, and the food chain. Although eliminating plastic use is nearly impossible in the developed world today, the purpose of this campaign is to help ordinary folks (in contrast to plastic-free fanatics like me) recognize the plethora of single-use plastics they use in their lives, from toothbrushes to takeout containers, and steer them toward non-plastic alternatives.
I was skeptical at first that we would be able to find a unique post for every day of the month. However, after a preliminary tour of my house, I was no longer worried. Instead, I was appalled. In my kitchen, I found plastic bags around my bread, and cheese wrapped in plastic. In my bathroom, I found a plastic toothbrush, floss and contact lens container. In my bedroom, I found plastic pens and a plastic deodorant stick. The list went on. As I documented it all, I realized that I also had many questions about what happened to these products after I tossed them away… Where does my recycling go? What happens to my plastic trash once it is whisked away on a truck?
Throughout July, I found answers to these and other questions, and highlighted alternatives to nearly all of my pesky household plastics. I found that the enormous quantity of toxins that collect on and leach from plastic frightens me most (after writing the July 17th post I hastily emptied my plastic water bottle and began using empty glass bottles from my recycling bin for water). To make plastic, byproducts of fossil fuel extraction are used to create pellets, which are melted and turned into flexible, durable materials. These plastics contain carcinogens and chemicals shown to have damaging effects on reproductive, endocrine and developmental systems. Once in the environment, the surface of plastic attracts Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic substances (PBT’s) like DDT, dioxins, and PCB’s. If plastic is incinerated as a method of disposal, the toxins are released into the atmosphere. If sent to a landfill, they can leach into the groundwater. Recycling isn’t much better; plastic must be washed before it can be recycled, and all of the water used for washing accumulates tiny microplastics and chemical toxins, which wash away with the soap into the surrounding bodies of water.
So what can we do? The best solution that I can come with is: Stop using “convenience” plastics altogether. The idea that I can lead a sustainable lifestyle and help prevent even a tiny bit of plastic from entering the environment has sparked my new ‘on-the-way-to-zero-waste’ life. I’ve found some changes easy, like avoiding the plastic-wrapped vegetables at the grocery store, or baking my own granola instead of buying it bagged. Some changes have been harder, especially due to the pandemic. I haven’t gone to a coffee shop in months because I know that I will not be able to use my own mug. When shopping online, I try to support small businesses and contact them to see if they can ship using plastic-free packaging (it’s often cheaper!). I’ve ditched my plastic floss and switched to silk floss in a glass jar, and I’ve tried out a few different toothpaste tablet brands. I’ve stopped buying any crackers because every box comes with a plastic bag inside. Most of all, I’ve begun saving every scrap of plastic I acquire, from take-out clamshells to bread bags, for reuse. Yet the biggest change I have found is that I simply notice it all. I see plastic everywhere, and I am so grateful to this campaign for waking me up to the disposable plastic lifestyle that I was entrenched in.
With the help of Laura Ludwig, coordinator of the Marine Debris and Plastics Program, and Cathrine McCourt, the director of communications, the Center for Coastal Studies has now shared over thirty posts about how to reduce one’s plastic impact on the environment, which remains on Facebook, Instagram, and is up on the CCS webpage HERE. The PLASTIC FREE JULY website also has an amazing collection of tips & tricks, and there are countless blogs like PLASTIC FREE MERMAID, ZERO WASTE LIFE that I like to check out when I find myself stuck. Stores like PACKAGE FREE SHOP, BOSTON ZERO WASTE, and TARE MARKET (in my hometown) can make it easy to buy products that use very little plastic. These efforts are what curb my hopelessness, and give me the motivation to continue. There are so many people doing their small part, and together, we can make a big difference!