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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Plastic Free July: the challenges of going completely plastic-free and zero-waste

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With plastic and waste ubiquitous, going plastic-free and completely zero-waste seems pretty impossible. But whose responsibility is it to change and how?

I’m always trying to be more environmentally conscious and make decisions that will benefit the planet, including going vegan, shopping more sustainably and buying reusable products.

For Plastic Free July, I initially wanted to go plastic-free and zero-waste myself, but I’ll be honest: I was quickly put off when I considered how difficult it would be. Living at home, where my mum does most of the shopping, makes it even more challenging, but the sheer concept of living a plastic-free and zero-waste life — in a world full of plastic and waste — seems pretty impossible to me.

Think about it. Everything includes plastic and waste in some way. From the food we eat, to the clothes we buy, to the products we clean with, and so on. Almost everything we use in our daily lives includes some sort of plastic and is then thrown away, creating waste, which is eventually sent to landfills. If you stopped to think about all the plastic you use and waste you create in an average day, you’d probably be taken aback like I was.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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This isn’t to say going plastic-free and zero-waste is completely impossible. But it is extremely difficult. Some things I have done to reduce my plastic and waste include:

  • using a reusable water bottle.
  • using bags from home when buying stuff.
  • reusing takeaway containers to store food.
  • using paper or metal straws if necessary, or no straw at all.
  • using a 100% biodegradable bamboo toothbrush.
  • using a reusable menstrual cup.
  • using reusable makeup remover pads.
  • using reusable earbuds.

Some of these changes might seem small, but the amount of plastic and waste I’ve reduced from it is huge. For the most part, these are all pretty simple changes to make too. However, going completely plastic- and waste-free in day-to-day life would be significantly harder.

plastic landfillBut why should we make all these changes when companies aren’t? This is a question that pondered my mind when planning this article. Why is it always the responsibility of the individual rather than the corporation?

Of course, companies must make some big shifts in the supply chain to create large-scale change. However, I’ve already addressed how hard this can be for individuals, so it’s likely that it’s harder for companies. Plastic and waste are unavoidable, to some extent.

Gosia Suchojad, founder of Bunch Skincare and Haircare, explains how she has found using plastic unavoidable as a small business owner: “I still haven’t found an alternative to plastic pump dispensers.” She discovered some that are made of solely one type of plastic, making them completely recyclable, but the minimum order quantities are not suitable for small businesses.

She adds: “It is very hard to get ingredients and product-making supplies [like bottles] to come in plastic-free packaging.” As a result, she usually has no choice but to use ingredients packaged in plastic because “there’s no other supplier on the market”.

Suchojad’s aim is to reduce plastic to the minimum and she has achieved this for the most part: “I managed to remove almost all plastic from product packaging. I sell several products in plastic-free packaging.” In addition, she has removed all plastic from shipping materials, which she says was rather easy: “There are a lot of choices and minimum order quantities are quite low, making them affordable for small businesses like mine.”

However, she adds that there is a lack of plastic alternatives for some things: “[The] pump dispensers used for the glass bottles of body and face oils are made of plastic. There is no alternative currently on the market.”

zero waste challengeOn the other hand, Louise Humpington, founder of zero-waste stores Grain & Sustain, argues that reducing your plastic and waste is “a lot easier than you think”. The aim of her company is to “empower customers to reduce their packaging consumption by providing products on refill”.

“You just fill, weigh and pay,” she says, adding that their scales tare off the weight of the container, so you only pay for the product itself. Grain & Sustain also has a “take our waste” table, encouraging people “to see packaging as having more than one life cycle”. She says that they return containers to their suppliers to refill.

In contrast, Sergei Zhogota, brand owner and chef at Maison d’Entremets, a British food startup producing homemade deli items, says small businesses are faced with challenges when it comes to reducing plastic and waste. For example, reducing plastic causes products to be more expensive. Recyclable packaging is “approximately 30% more expensive than plastic”, he says, adding: “Brexit made it a lot harder to find decently priced packaging.”

Zhogota adds that another challenge is people’s unwillingness to cooperate with eco-friendly initiatives. “We have a system in place where our customers can return glass jars in return of 50p credit each [for their next order]. [We] have about 50 returning customers who buy from us regularly. One person has used this option so far.”

recycling greenwashingFor smaller businesses, going completely plastic-free or zero-waste is less accessible due to them having less money, with less demand and plastic-free materials being difficult to source. “To be competitive and profitable, companies [are] forced to use plastic packaging,” says Zhogota. However, she argues: “We need to be prepared for higher costs of environmentally friendly options, at least in the short term.”

This is because ethical supplies are more expensive, as they pay fair wages and taxes, explains Humpington. The production of food and fashion isn’t cheap, so when they’re sold at a ridiculously low cost, “someone, somewhere is paying the price”.

This is an issue for consumers too, as, for example, people from low-income families are unlikely to be able to afford reusable products. She therefore notes that being able to buy reusable products in the first place is a privilege, and so, “we need to find ways to make the green and ethical space more inclusive”.

Moreover, individuals are often unaware of the effects of plastic and waste on the environment, and this lack of awareness causes them to not be as concerned. Zhogota says people are “getting very lazy”, although he also recognises that the issues surrounding plastic use are rather complex. “[It’s] hard to make people understand what plastic can be recycled and what [cannot]. There are so many types.” He adds that this also varies from place to place, with recycling regulations changing depending on what borough you’re in.

plastic recycling

Furthermore, greenwashing adds another layer of confusion as well as distrust. “When recycled and non-recycled waste goes in the same waste removal truck, people start to think: why should they bother?” says Zhogota. Humpington adds that “the amount of greenwashing that takes place can make it a real minefield to understand whether the choice you are making is really a sustainable one”.

While it might be possible for most of us to reduce our plastic and waste consumption, it isn’t possible to go entirely plastic-free or zero-waste for everyone— in some situations, plastic is unavoidable. Even when it comes to reducing plastic and waste, accessibility is a huge issue, with smaller businesses and people on a lower income unable to afford plastic and waste-free alternatives.

The best place to start is by reducing your plastic and waste. In the same way the Reducetarian movement works to reduce one’s consumption of animal products, it’s all about reducing your plastic and waste rather than trying to cut it out completely. As Suchojad says: “Even a small reduction will make a difference to the environment”. If we all work to reduce our individual plastic and waste usage, and businesses do the same — like these small businesses have done — the planet will thank us for it.

Chloë Morgan
Chloë is a recent English graduate from Loughborough University. She tries to use her writing to raise awareness of important issues in an attempt to help others. Her passions lie in social justice, mental health and sustainability. After taking part in 'Veganuary', she developed an interest in veganism and recently went vegan. She is also trying to boycott fast fashion as much as possible by shopping second-hand and more sustainably.