Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Plastic Free July challenge

A couple of days ago, I discovered the "Plastic Free July" challenge. The idea is that, for the month of July, or some portion thereof, you pledge to do one of the following:
  1. Avoid plastic packaging;
  2. Eschew single-use plastic takeaway containers (bags, bottles, cups, and straws); or
  3. Go all out and attempt to remove all single-use plastic from your life. 
This challenge really sounds custom-made for me, doesn't it? I mean, I'm all about living sustainably and reducing waste, and I also love lifestyle challenges of all kinds. I've already taken the SNAP Challenge, the Live the Wage Challenge, the Rationing Challenge, the Macklemore Thrift Shop Challenge, and several others of my own invention, such as the IKEA Challenge, the One Harvest Challenge, and the Local Shopping Challenge. And I certainly support the stated goals of "raising awareness of our growing plastic waste problem" and "building a global movement that dramatically reduces plastic use and improves recycling." Yet after examining some of the materials about the challenge, I'm not sure it's something I'm prepared to take on.

The first problem with it is covered in this Guardian article, which is where I learned about the challenge in the first place: plastic is so ubiquitous that for most people, giving it up simply isn't practical. The only people who can really aspire to go completely plastic-free are the "lucky few" for whom money is more or less no object, who can afford to do all their shopping from the bulk bins at Whole Foods and send away for biodegradable dental floss made from natural silk that costs $10 a jar. Spending that kind of money to avoid throwing away a few grams of plastic floss is not what I consider a wise use of resources.

Furthermore, no matter how much money you're willing to throw at the problem, sometimes going plastic-free simply isn't feasible. When I contemplated taking on the challenge, I quickly realized that two of the items I was planning to buy that very day were packaged in plastic:
  1. A prescription for clindamycin lotion, which I need to use daily for my rosacea. This is simply the way the drug is packaged; there's literally no way to get it without the plastic. So to avoid one tiny plastic bottle that weighs less than an ounce—most of which is recyclable—I'd have to go against my doctor's orders.
  2. A bottle of conditioner. This isn't a medical necessity, per se, but it's something I absolutely need if I don't want to look like the Bride of Frankenstein (which, you could argue, makes it a necessity for my emotional and social health). I have finally managed, after extensive searching, to find a brand of conditioner that works reasonably well on my hair, is cruelty-free, and isn't terribly expensive, and I'd hate to give it up—but even if I were willing to switch brands for the sake of avoiding plastic packaging, I've never seen any conditioner that was packaged in anything but a plastic bottle. (I checked the "Personal Care" section on the challenge website, and it offered some plastic-free alternatives to shampoo, but none for conditioner.)
But the most fundamental problem for me is that in some cases, fixating on plastic can drive you toward alternatives that create environmental problems of their own. (The author of the Guardian article touches on this problem too, saying "choosing plastic-free can often mean sacrificing other values – such as not buying things that contain unsustainably sourced palm oil or choosing the locally made option.")

For instance, the site suggests that instead of using plastic "bin liners" for trash, you should "Line your bin with several layers of newspaper." Now, I guess if you already get a newspaper, this isn't such a bad idea; it is a bit of a waste sending your paper to the landfill rather than recycling it, but that's offset by the waste you don't generate buying and dumping plastic trash bags. But what if you prefer the greener alternative of reading your news online to save paper (which requires not only tree pulp, but also lots of water and energy, to produce)? Should you start subscribing to a paper, with all the extra waste it creates, just so you'll have sheets to line your bin with? Is it worth it just to avoid dumping one plastic trash bag per month (which could be made from recycled plastic, at that)?

Likewise, the site's "action picker" suggests replacing plastic milk jugs with "waxed card" cartons. Except here in the USA, those cartons aren't coated with wax, they're coated with plastic—which means you can't compost or recycle them. The plastic jugs contain more plastic, but they can be recycled, while the cartons have to go straight to the landfill.

In other cases, it's not the health of the planet you're putting at risk by ditching plastics; it's your own health. For example, the site suggests avoiding sunscreen by "covering up" or "making your own." Covering up in July may be a reasonable option in Australia, where it's the middle of winter, but if you try that in the kind of weather we had here in New Jersey last week, you're putting yourself at risk for heat stroke. And a homemade sunscreen is not a reliable way to protect yourself from sunburn and skin cancer, any more than a homemade toothpaste (which the site also recommends) is a reliable way to prevent cavities.

Now, obviously, there are some plastics it makes sense to ditch—if you can do so without too much cost and effort. There's no real downside, for instance, to carrying a reusable shopping bag, or making your own seltzer instead of buying it in bottles. And while making my own deodorant didn't actually work for me, it was a worthwhile experiment, and it wouldn't hurt me to try getting creative with some of the other plastic-packaged products I buy now.

So I've decided that my personal version of the Plastic Free July challenge is going to focus, not on  plastic per se, but on "stupid plastic"—the plastic items I know I'd be better off without, if I could only figure out a reasonable way to do without them. Watch this space throughout the month for news on which plastics I attempt to cut out or cut down on, and to what extent I succeed.

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