Plastic Free July starts today! (Happy Canada Day!) The issue of plastic recycling is an international concern gaining more attention since China stopped accepting much of the world's recycling. Photos and videos of plastic floating in the oceans and animals killed and deformed by plastic waste are horrific. This is so upsetting that my reaction is often to click away and try to forget about it. Surely the actions of one person can't really make a difference anyway.
Then there are those model world citizens who can fit their full year's worth of rubbish into a small jar or plastic garbage bag. Those people seem extraordinary and their feat unachievable. Plastic Free July came on my radar a couple of years ago and I filed it under impossible.
According to Prochaska and DiClemente's Stages of Change Model (Transtheoretical Model), there are 6 stages of behavioural change. The first one is the precontemplation stage. People in this first stage aren't considering a change. They may be unaware of the problem or may be in denial. When it comes to plastic, I was in this stage for a long time. I was vaguely aware that plastic was a problem, but I didn't think a personal change in my usage would influence the global problem so decided it wasn't really worth any effort.
The next is the contemplation stage where people feel conflicted emotions about the issue. They begin to see the benefits of changing their behaviour, but also focus on the cost of making the change. When it came to plastic, I began to notice the plastic our family was throwing away and reflecting on the devastation of plastic pollution, but I focused on all the reasons why it would be too hard to change and all the things that might be difficult to source in an alternative material. Can you get toothpaste in a cardboard tube? What about the little bits of plastic that hold the price tags on clothing? And store bought hummus is so delicious and convenient! Despite my reservations and all the excuses, I began to see imaginary piles of plastic waste all around our home. How much space would be covered if we stacked up all the rice crackers trays we used in a year? Could we build an addition to the house with just hummus containers?
Have you noticed the "chasing arrows triangle" with the number in the middle, moulded into the bottom of plastic containers? The triangle itself is a symbol for recycling, but it's the number in the middle of the triangle that tells you whether or not the item is recyclable. (Here's a really detailed explanation). This will vary by location, as different regions are only capable of accepting certain numbers for recycling. For example, in Tauranga, only plastic #1 or #2 can be accepted at the transfer station or through curb side pick up.
The third stage is the preparation stage, which involves collecting information, making small changes, and experimenting with what works. That's where I have been the past 6 months or so, partly triggered by a recurring nightmare of being buried and lost in a sea of hummus containers overflowing from my garage. This stage is crucial for equipping yourself with the tools for sustaining change over time.
The idea of trying to go a whole month without any plastic at all seemed unrealistic, so I decided to focus on these items to change:
- Nut and grain milks in a Tetra Pak.
Our family goes through almost one litre (or one Tetra Pak) of rice, soy, almond, or oat milk every day. Everyday! Tetra Paks aren't recyclable in Tauranga. That means our family of four is responsible for putting over 300 Tetra Paks in the landfill site every year.
Instead, we're going to make our own nut milk. Or nut mylk, if you're a hipster.
I invested in a Vitamix and we've trialled homemade rice milk, oat milk, almond milk and cashew milk. Essentially, you put in a handful of nuts, a cup of water, whiz it up and it's ready to drink. (A dash of salt or vanilla is optional). For us, this experiment has been a bit of a fail because the kids hate all of the milks we made (despite liking the Tetra Pak version of the same thing). That seemed unreasonably and arbitrarily dismissive, so the adults have made the call - cashew milk is the winner for coffee and oatmeal, and almond milk for smoothies.
Tomato Sauce (pronounced to-MAH-to, not to-MAY-to) in plastic bottles, aka ketchup.
We don't go through a lot of ketchup, but it is a staple for the kids in BBQ season. The plan is to make our own and store it in glass jars that would have otherwise ended up in the recycling bin.
I've tried a few recipes and the simplest one has been the most popular with the kids. To put this success in perspective, I tried three other recipes, and all were flat out rejected by my 5 and 7 year old taste testers. This five-ingredient recipe (350mL tomato paste, 1/3 cup maple syrup, 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons onion powder, 1 teaspoon of salt) achieved an unprecedented acceptance rate of 50%. In the commercial, the voice over would say, "One of two children approve!"
The homemade versions make your taste buds dance with flavourful shades of sweet, sour, and spice, but without the sickening sweetness of the supermarket red stuff. Familiarity with the taste of commercial brands seem to have confused my children's little taste buds.
Hummus in plastic containers.
I've mentioned our abundance of hummus containers, which, if stacked up over the year that would surely become a precarious tourist attraction in Tauranga.
So, you guessed it, I've been making my own. This has been a complete and utter failure, resulting in a hummus hunger strike for the duration of the homemade hummus trial. Jack and the kids would not touch it. I even resorted to making hummus and putting it in the manufactured hummus container. But they would not be duped and still they refused it.
For the sake of survival, I'm back to filling the supermarket conveyer with containers of mass produced hummus in a variety of flavours. For now.
We drink a lot of tea. Tea bags may be made of paper, plastic, or silk. The boxes are often wrapped in plastic, each bag may be individually wrapped in a plastic envelope, and there is sometimes a plastic tag attached to the end of the tea string.
More often now, I'm choosing loose tea leaves and brands that minimise packaging. I'm learning to use whole plants to make tea. The kids pick fennel and kawakawa leaves on their way home from school, ginger and turmeric can be sliced up for tea, and you can grow you own or buy chamomile flowers and peppermint leaves at food shops. A little goes a long way, so these kinds of teas don't need to be expensive.
Popsicles, aka ice blocks.
Purchased popsicles often come in a cardboard box, have wooden handles, and a plastic wrapper. We don't have them very often so they don't represent a large part of our plastic footprint, but still, the ultimate goal is to be plastic free one day.
Popsicles are so darned refreshing in the hot, hot summer, so we bought silicone ice block moulds. The kids pour in juice (often from plastic #1 containers - look at me being aware of plastic!) or homemade kombucha (one of the few homemade things that would allow the voiceover to accurately proclaim "100% of children approve!"), pop them into the freezer, and a few hours later, it's time to suck. Ours were used several times per day last summer and they don't show any signs of breaking down.
Bonus: Being able to monitor the sugar content.
Double bonus: Some kids (er, mine) are pretty thrilled with plain old frozen water.
Take away cutlery and containers.
Did you know most cardboard take away cups aren't recyclable because they're paper lined with a plastic coating? They may be compostable, though, so be sure to check before you put them into the bin destined for the landfill where they release methane as they break down.
We've put a picnic pack in the car consisting of:
4 sporks (spoons with fork prongs)
1 swiss army knife
4 tin bowls
2 reusable coffee/tea cups
2 reusable fluffy cups
4 stainless steel straws and 1 brush for cleaning them. We use glass straws at home.
Note that there is no legislation in New Zealand that prevents restaurants from putting food and drink into their customer's own reusable containers.
- Toiletries and hygiene - bottles, tubes, and brushes.
We don't use shampoo, conditioner, hair products, or make-up so that's been easy. If you're thinking of going "no poo," Happy Hair is a great book to get you started. We've switched to a bamboo toothbrush subscription and I'm still working on an alternative toothpaste. And what about sunscreen?
Grocery bags, produce bags, packaging.
My very thoughtful Aunt stocked us up with reusable LCBO moose bags, keeping us Canadian even when we go to the NZ supermarket in bare feet. I have a set of mesh produce bags, too.
I try to support businesses that make thoughtful choices about packaging. For example, I buy bulk organics from familypantry.nz who use compostable packaging.
My kids use metal lunch boxes and we avoid putting packaged foods into their lunches.
Try beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap for covering dishes and wrapping sandwiches. In New Zealand, you can find these are ecowarehouse.nz or get a kit for making your own.
Back to the stages of behavioural change, we're onto the action stage. It's time to do it! That's where I am today. My hope is that all my previous work has set me up for success in going plastic-free for this month and beyond.
After the action stage comes maintenance and relapse, the final two stages in the Stages of Change Model. The maintenance stage involves developing strategies to prevent relapse, reward success, and maintain your new habits. The relapse stage covers the inevitable relapse that occurs in any behavioural change, the feelings of disappointment associated with failure, and making a plan for getting back on track.
Hummus and I, we're in relapse. Due to a household of opinionated eaters and an abundance of extremely delicious, convenient, and affordable commercial hummus, I'm back to buying and throwing away about 12 plastic hummus packages each week. The model dictates that I should take a hard look at why I've fallen into my old habits, assess my resources, and work back through the stages to establish a new plan for success.
At this point, I'm focusing on the eight areas above. Two other big plastic problems for our family are gluten-free bread (purchased in plastic packaging) and tofu. Yes, I could commit to making bread with flour sourced from plastic-free shops. And maybe I can find soy beans and make my own tofu? That seems too hard to become a sustainable behaviour at this point - I must be stuck in the contemplation stage for those two.
All the best in reducing your plastic footprint, this month and forever! PlasticFreeJuly.org is a great resource. I'd love to hear what's working in your house.