Here’s what happened when I went plastic-free

With plastic bags finally banned from major supermarkets and calls for further bans in single-use plastics on the horizon, Emily Dufton wanted to see what a world without plastic might look like. What followed was an eye-opening insight into how much she relies on single-use plastic.

After lagging significantly behind the rest of the country - and much of the world - Woolworths and Coles have finally banned the use of single-use plastic bags in my home state of NSW, with the WA and QLD governments following suit from July 1.

I'm pretty passionate about the environment but am acutely aware I could do much more when it comes to reducing my waste and plastic usage, so when I was challenged to take part in plastic-free July, I decided to take a long, hard look at my plastic consumption for seven days.

It wasn't easy or cheap, but I discovered a community of people committed to reducing their environmental footprint and picked up some great tips along the way.

The rules

First, I'd use no single-use plastic at all. Secondly, I wouldn't purchase any products containing plastic or wrapped in plastic packaging.

The only caveat to the plastic-free rule was I'd continue to use any plastic items I already owned, since it seemed counterintuitive and wasteful to purchase brand new items just for the challenge, provided I replaced used plastic items with non-plastic alternatives.

I told as many people as I could about the challenge, partly because I was excited, but also to make myself more accountable and less likely to take shortcuts.

First impressions

My friends at Banish sent me a plastic-free starter kit with a reusable coffee cup, bamboo toothbrush, bamboo straw and a lightweight netted bag for weighing fruit and veg in supermarkets, setting me on the right track for the week ahead.

The first real obstacle was grocery shopping and I was amazed to discover how many products I couldn't buy. It didn't take long to realise I'd need to be adaptable and, while I usually like going into the shops armed with a grocery list, find alternatives when my first option wasn't available.
 

 

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The wins

I began my first plastic-free day in earnest, politely declining the free toothpaste samples being handed out at the train station while sipping tea from my reusable glass and silicone coffee cup.

For breakfast, I ate porridge nearly every day. Oats in cardboard boxes and milk in cartons are easy to buy, as long as you’re prepared to pay a slight premium. On the weekends, I love scrambled eggs and sourdough - if you buy bread from a baker or get the individual rolls at the supermarket, you can opt out of plastic-wrapped loaves.

Creative dinners weren't always easy, but I found sticking to fresh vegetables, canned goods and boxes of pasta and rice pretty straightforward, and bulk food stores have an abundance of foods to choose from.

I also have a small herb garden at home, so would cut what I needed and add them to dishes for extra flavour.

If you take your own reusable containers or beeswax strips to the meat, seafood and deli counters and ask staff to place your food straight into these, you can avoid the abundance of cling wrap, plastic and Styrofoam when purchasing pre-portioned items.
 

 

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When I forgot my reusable produce bags, I used the paper bags meant for mushrooms to scoop up loose veggies like lettuce leaves and green beans, rather than the single-use plastic bags the supermarket provides.

Lunch was usually leftovers from the night before, taken to the office in a well-loved reusable plastic container. Otherwise, I’d eat in at a café or ask for my food to be wrapped in paper, so I wasn’t using plastic takeaway containers.

When it came to disposing of rubbish, I used compostable garbage bags and relied on beeswax wraps and Tupperware containers to store leftover food.

Challenge or no challenge, I always carry my own bottle of water with me - 370 million plastic water bottles end up in Australian landfill each year - and it's become second nature to have a canvas bag on hand for unexpected purchases.

When it came to feminine hygiene, I am already a huge fan of silicone menstrual cups and will tell anyone who'll listen how much better these are for the environment, your body and bank account than tampons and pads.
 

The challenges

Personal hygiene was definitely the most challenging part of going plastic-free for a week. As outlined earlier, I decided not to go out and replace all my plastic items with non-plastic alternatives, so I still made use of my regular deodorant, toothpaste and body wash.

Bamboo toothbrushes are quite easy to come by and I found some charcoal-infused bamboo dental floss that was even better than the regular stuff. Lush has a great range of plastic free body washes, soaps and hair products, but many members of the plastic-free community choose to make their own toiletries.

Combining baking soda, coconut oil and peppermint oil (for that minty-fresh feel) is said to make an effective toothpaste, given it's nearly impossible to buy plastic-free toothpaste.
 

I take regular medication and was unable to find an eco-friendly alternative to the plastic and foil blister packs these are administered in. Similarly, if you've got an ache or pain, I don't know where you'd turn for plastic-free paracetamol.

I also found it surprisingly difficult to stay mindful about avoiding plastic throughout the challenge – so many daily routines and conveniences use plastic in some way and it's easy to accidentally consume the stuff if you're not paying attention.

I experienced this after ordering a latte at a café – I remembered to give the barista my reusable cup but when it came to pay, I impulse-bought some lollies wrapped in plastic. I didn't even register I'd broken the ban until I was halfway through eating them: That's how easy it is to slip up.

Petcare is also made more difficult when going plastic-free. Most pet food comes wrapped in some sort of plastic and I couldn't completely avoid it while dog-sitting for my sister. One solution to this would be to make your own or source fresh meat from the butcher (BYO container), but I confess I didn't do this myself during the challenge.

Getting takeaway and home delivery was another casualty of the plastic-free challenge. While many restaurants are getting on board the plastic-free train with gusto, it's a little tricky to identify which restaurants do and don't offer delivery sans plastic.

Whose responsibility is it?

Plastic-free July is a fantastic grass-roots initiative which encourages consumers to reduce their eco-footprint and avoid landfill waste by making changes at home, but some feel it's not solely up to individuals to spark change.

While I remain committed to cutting my plastic usage and am particularly conscious of avoiding single-use plastics after just seven days, the challenge cost significantly more money than a regular week. Shopping at specialty stores and stocking up on plastic-free alternatives is expensive and time-consuming, and I understand why going plastic-free is a luxury many can't afford.

At what point does it stop being a consumer's responsibility to curb our reliance on the prolific material that takes at least 450 years to decompose and start being up to governments and large corporations to facilitate weaning us off our plastic usage?

Earlier this year, the Federal Government pledged to ensure 100 percent of the country's packaging will be recyclable, compostable, or reusable by 2025 or sooner, and there's been a visible change in the public attitude towards plastic. 
 

 

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More and more waste-free bulk food stores are popping up – even my small, relatively unprogressive hometown on the Central Coast has seen a Source Bulk Foods store recently open – and big corporations are increasingly championing plastic-free initiatives.

Sports clothing giant adidas recently launched a range of shoes made from up-cycled plastics and each pair prevents about 11 plastic bottles from entering the oceans. 

But while we need local governments to step up, it's important to remember small changes can amount to seismic shifts.

If you use reusable bags, cups and steadfastly refuse single-use plastic, you're not only having a positive impact on the environment but are encouraging your friends and family to question their choices around plastic, too, and that message will continue to spread.

It's not easy, but with our incredible planet depending on our actions, I think it's completely worth it.

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