9 Tips for a Successful Plastic Free July

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Think about it…why would you make something that you are going to use for a few minutes out of a material that’s basically going to last forever. What’s up with that? — Jeb Berrier, Bag It movie

Plastic Free July kicks off Friday. For the entire month, tens of thousands of people around the world will forgo plastic. You can find out more about the challenge, sign up for it, and check out a toolbox and many helpful resources at the Plastic Free July website.

Why cut plastic? Consider this from the Plastic Free July website:

By 2050 it’s estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. Most comes from land and was once in our hands. Refuse single-use plastic and together let’s keep our oceans clean. Join over 40,000 people, schools and organisations from 90 countries and let those same hands be part of the solution.

If you want to participate but don’t know where to start, I’ve compiled the following list of steps, beginning with extremely easy, followed by easy and ending with still pretty darn easy.

1. Refuse the big offenders

The Plastic Free July website refers to single-use plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws as the “TOP 4.” Replace these items with reusables: shopping bags made of natural fibers; metal or glass water bottles; and a ceramic mug or metal thermos. Just ditch the straws. My daughter has a medical condition that makes drinking with a straw easier, and even she rarely deploys her reusable metal straws.

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Enjoying my Philz tea in my reusable thermos as I write this post

2. Build up your reusable arsenal

If you decide to graduate to the next step, cut more single-use plastic such as plastic produce bags. I applaud the worldwide plastic shopping bag bans, but most people still stuff their reusable shopping bags with piles of plastic produce bags. You can easily make your own cloth produce bags or you can buy them at a shop such as Life Without Plastic. If you need only a few onions or a couple of lemons, for example, you can skip the bag entirely.

Other reusable alternatives to single-use plastics:

Utensils. In my large-ish computer bag, I stash a set of inexpensive metal utensils that I took from my kitchen drawer. These really come in handy.

Metal tiffins and containers. We have several LunchBots, which I love, and one double tiffin. I use these for lunches, storage, leftovers and shopping.

Glass jars. Hoard these. You’ll use them for everything: storing food; shopping for food (get them tared first so you don’t pay for the weight of the jars, just for the weight of the food you put in the jars); making food (like fermented sauerkraut). I can never have enough jars. I am basically a crazy jar lady.

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The restaurant my daughter works for had been recycling these giant glass jars (!) before they hired her but now she brings them home and we fight over them

3. Eat real food

If you cut the plastic, you cut the processed food-like substances and eat the real stuff. My recipe index includes homemade versions of many processed foods you typically buy in plastic containers and packaging. The added bonus of these—or perhaps the entire point!—is they taste better than their processed counterparts.

You don’t need to cook for hours every day to eat well. Just stick with simple food. As Julia Child said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.” (She also said “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?“)

4. Ask

Forgot your own mug to bring to the cafe? Ask for a real one. Want your favorite take-out restaurant to put your food in a container for you? Hand the vessel over, ask your server to put the food in it and give detailed instructions about how to do that and why—most servers aren’t used to this simple request and some won’t know what on earth you’re talking about.

5. Google it when you’re stumped

I believe that most people who take the Plastic Free July challenge will enjoy it. Personally, I find problem-solving fun and like discovering alternatives to plastic snafus. If you can’t think of an alternative to a plastic item, search Google for a life hack. For example, just now I Googled “homemade sunscreen” and found this recipe.

6. Make your own personal care products

Here are my recipes for:

I have a large jar of coffee grounds sitting in my refrigerator at the moment and I hope to find many uses for them, including a microbead-free exfoliant. I plan to mix some grounds with coconut oil and use the concoction to scrub my face and rough feet. I’ll write a future post on that.

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Homemade mouthwash, diluted and ready to use

7. Take the challenge with a friend

I went plastic-free in 2011 and even after nearly five years, occasionally I can still feel like a bit of a weirdo when I hand over a metal container to someone working behind a deli counter and ask them to put my food in it, mostly if I attempt this in a store I haven’t shopped in before. At some stores, employees now actually thank me for bringing my own containers and jars. Or maybe they just want to keep the crazy jar lady calm…

If you take the Plastic Free July challenge with a friend, your school, or the organization you work for, not only will you have fun, you will also enjoy—and benefit from—the support of other like-minded people.

8. Don’t go insane

Once you decide to go plastic-free, you will see plastic everywhere. That’s because it is everywhere. You may start to feel disheartened and hopeless and wonder what’s the point. Birds eat the stuff and die, turtles get entangled in it and die, seals become trapped in old plastic fishing nets and die, fish (which we eat) are full of it and die (when we eat them). WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!

For me, taking action makes me feel better about this incomprehensibly huge problem. And just imagine if we all worked together on the plastic pollution problem, what a difference that would make. That’s what happens during Plastic Free July. Tens of thousands of people work together to tackle this problem. And from where I sit, the movement has grown exponentially. When my daughter started her blog, The Plastic-Free Chef, in 2011, I didn’t notice many people blogging about this, aside from the awesome Beth Terry. But now I’ve noticed a ton of zero-waste (i.e., plastic-free because almost all the waste is plastic) blogs and Instagram accounts.

9. Do your best

Don’t beat yourself up if you fall short. I see lots of confessions on social media from zero-wasters feeling terribly guilty when they slip up (and have posted them myself). You can only do your best. Just keep trying. It’s called a challenge for a reason. However, cutting the plastic is easier than most people realize.

Happy Plastic Free July!

This post contains affiliate links to Life Without Plastic, a great small business I feel good about promoting.

13 Comment

  1. Nadine says: Reply

    Reblogged this on The Zero Journey and commented:
    With Plastic Free July just around the corner (yay horray!), I am gearing up for a successful round 2 of this awesome awareness campaign. I am hoping more people take on the challenge, including some of my friends and family (hint hint). Some people may be stumped or need some tips to get started. I came across this post from Zero Waste Chef, which I will share with you now to get you started. Good luck on your Plastic Free July challenge! Share your experiences here 🙂

  2. Nadine says: Reply

    *Reblogged*!

    1. Thank you for the reblog! Happy Plastic Free July!

      1. Nadine says:

        Happy indeed 🙂 Yet another helpful post.

      2. Thank you 🙂

  3. Liz says: Reply

    Great tips for beginners! I must share that I was about to start doing more bulk bin shopping when I came across a road block. the stores are all saying that you can’t use your own containers and must use the ones provided (all plastic usually, although there was one offering glass for olive oil…). They will cite FDA regulations, or just store policy. Any way around this? I find it to be a hugely annoying thing. There is of course, an easy solution that none of the stores will see: Use reusable glass jars that people pay a deposit on and they will bring back so they can be taken by the store to be sanitized and reused by the customers. Credit given back to the ones who remember to return their jars. How would this be so burdensome to the stores to implement?

    1. Thanks Liz. That is very annoying. Can you reuse the stores’ containers? They would probably say no but how would they know? About the FDA thing, that doesn’t make sense because stores in some states allow it. It seems like a lot of these rules are arbitrary and depend on who is working in the store that day. If you can’t buy in bulk, you can try buying in larger quantities when that makes sense. It will reduce your product to packaging ratio. I buy flour in bulk but when I do a lot of baking, I sometimes think I should just buy a 50 lb bag of flour and split it with a friend who also bakes a lot. The bulk store I buy my flour from would sell me the entire bag (so I deal with the empty bag instead of the store). I hope that helps. I like the idea of stores using glass jars and charging a deposit. Stores could also pre-fill jars for customers and then customers could just grab the jars. That would save everyone time. I bet a lot of people would love that. Then they return the jars for their deposit–or just hoard them. We should just open a shop 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  4. Reblogged this on freedombyanymeans.

    1. Thank you for the reblog!

  5. Emilie says: Reply

    I am really enjoying your blog and finding myself re-motivated to change our ways. 10 years ago I was a much better steward to mother earth, but 4 kids later things have changed – although we did ditch the car and now use foot/peddle power to get around for the most part.

    I buy in bulk but at Costco, not from out co-op’s bulk bins as the cost is much less at Costco and we are on a very tight/small grocery budget.
    I do make most things from scratch but could make more.
    For a family of 6 we are down to one trash bag a week, and some stuff in there could probably be recycled/composted but sometimes the kids forget. I try my best to lead by example but vow to do better.

    Wold love to start a dog waste compost system in our yard but space is small. I currently use the biodegradable baggies into the trash bin, usually I use one bag for several “piles”, seems really nasty to put it in the landfill but really not sure what else to do as our yard is so small and really dont want the kids to have a run in with composting dog poop!

    I have been wanting to open a bulk store that either lets customers fill their own containers or offers a filled container for a small fee/deposit. We would offer a huge variety of dry goods and even have online shopping options so you could just pick up your order or get bike deliveries to nearby neighborhoods. Possibly expand to include a local dairy farmers products in bulk/reuseable packaging, or be a pick up site for a dairy farm share/csa. Would find a location near one of our towns year round farmers markets to really make it a one stop sort of shopping experience. This has been a dream of mine for over 10 years, of course you would think it a good idea! My kids are gettng older maybe now is the time to really try and make it happen, if I can only get financial backing…..

    Time to get back to the lifestyle of less waste and more from scratch!

  6. Christina says: Reply

    I love the idea of going off plastic but realistically this is not going to happen any time soon. We may be able to make significant strides in some pockets of the world where people are afforded the luxury to plan around it, but for the world over, plastic is ever present and there are few signs of this abating. What I can’t understand is why we aren’t capturing all this plastic waste – and finding foolproof ways to ensure recapture is as close to 100% as possible – and converting it all into new materials! I see examples of new technological materials coming from all sorts of waste – this morning it was recycling egg shells to add strength to plastics, for example (https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jun/30/scotch-egg-company-cracked-eggshell-waste-problem-recycling-plastic) – so why isn’t the same happening for plastics on a local to global basis? If recycling/upcycling is not the best case scenario, it is a realistic one, no? And one that should give rise to all sorts of sustainable entrepreneurship everywhere this ubiquitous product exists.

  7. Hi, this is a great blog post, we just shared it and it has had a great response. For UK shoppers wanting to go plastic free A Slice of Green has lots of options! http://www.asliceofgreen.co.uk/

    1. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m glad the post had a good response. Happy Plastic Free July!

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