Is ‘plastic free’ the right goal?

Jul 26, 2019 | Reducing Waste

As we approach the end of Plastic Free July for 2019, I’m looking back on a month of noticing all the plastics in our life and wondering if it is possible to be ‘plastic free’. Indeed, is that even what we want?

Where would we be without plastic?

Of course, a little more than hundred or so years ago, we did live without plastic. Before plastics, we made and used things from metals, timber, glass, paper, natural fibres. We can look back to those times for a lot of inspiration on changes we can make in our modern day lives. Human progress, though, hasn’t been all bad, not by a long shot. Plastics may have taken over where perhaps alternatives may have been better for our health and that of the Earth but they have also allowed advances that have improved the quality of our lives.

Few would advocate a return to life without plastic…

  • Can we imagine medicine now without plastic?
  • What about the technologies we use everyday? Our phones, our computers, our kitchen appliances.
  • And our more efficient vehicles?
  • Plastics have even made our sustainable technologies like photovoltaics affordable enough to be widely adopted.
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Living with the contradiction

We live with the contradiction that, on the one hand, our oceans are drowning in plastic, our body chemistries are being changed by plastic, our landfills are overflowing with plastics. And on the other hand, we actually don’t want to live without them.

Does Plastic Free July only serve to exacerbate our eco-guilt? Or is it an effective way to raise awareness about the things we can all do to reduce our reliance on plastic?

I think what might get a little lost in translation is that Plastic Free July is about single use plastics. It is not about demonising plastic as a whole, although I still believe that we need to keep assessing how and why we use plastics and strive to develop bio-friendly plastics.

When it comes to single use plastics, however, it is hard to argue that, where there is a sustainable and suitable alternative, we shouldn’t try to change our habits such as the ones I discuss in 12 Single Use Plastics Items to Eliminate. As Plastic Free July’s reach continues to grow, this message is reaching more and more people. That’s got to be a positive. My fear, though, is that the message might be misunderstood and that people feel the changes being asked of them are too much.

Photo by Charles from Pexels

Let’s be realistic

Making changes to the way we do things on a daily basis does take time and effort. To be altogether single-use plastic free takes a superhuman effort. Hats off to anyone managing that but I just don’t think it is realistic for most of us, certainly not within the course of one month. Setting the bar so high runs the risk of people giving up before they have even started. Rather than feel overwhelmed and throw in the (100% organic cotton) towel, we can give ourselves permission to be less than perfect and know that small things done over and over can add up to big results over time.

Rather than aiming for a ‘plastic free’ life, perhaps a commitment to keep trying to reduce unnecessary waste is the most we can reasonably ask of ourselves. And not just during July.

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