How to take the lessons from Plastic Free July forward to the rest of the year
Plastic Free July is over.
Somehow, July has been and gone and we’re a few days into August. Some of us will be glad July is over; some will be proud of their achievements and look forward to next year.
But some of us will ask: What next?
There are two important things to do as we move into August; the first of which being to not backslide. Don’t let the gains we’ve made belong to July only. Think of our new reduced-plastic existence like puppies at Christmas: Plastic-Free is for life, not just for July.
It’s understandable to want to relax and breathe. But as much as I want to have a week off, I understand I must be vigilant. The problem hasn’t gone away just because I’ve flipped to another page in the calendar.
The other important thing is to take the lessons we’ve learned about reducing plastics and apply them elsewhere. Because here’s the critical point: we must use all resources more deliberately. I’ll give some examples later, but first, let’s recap what those lessons are.
- Be conscious of what we buy. Are we buying other things that are destined for only a single use? Plastic is the most important because of the devasting, lingering impact it has, but we shouldn’t use any item just once if there’s a reusable option. I look at the wooden forks at takeaways, all other food packaging and all that discarded PPE, and I realise the war is far from won.
- Be conscious of how we use things. Are we respecting the items we own? Storing them correctly and keeping them clean? I ask myself, am I acting like this cost me hard-earned money to purchase, no matter how little, or like it’s something of no consequence?
- Be conscious of how we dispose. Are we sure that everything we put into the recycling bin is accepted by our local facilities, or are we wishcycling? Are we cleaning our recycling? Forget what our mate told us about not needing to rinse that can out. Dirty items will contaminate the recycling to the point where it all has to be thrown away.
- Look for the added benefits. Tell ourselves: Not only have I chosen a sustainable product, but I’ve supported the local economy / promoted a good cause / bought something that will last / got something that will look cool on Instagram.
- Don’t aim for monumental change. Make small incremental changes that will stick. Small changes to behaviours pave the way for more fundamental changes in our attitudes and beliefs.
- Forgive yourself. We will all slip up. Don’t beat ourselves up. Move on, learn your lesson and resolve to do better next time. None of us is perfect. And following on from this …
- Be supportive. Encourage others to make changes. Be supportive of their efforts and not judgemental. Don’t write off those who are at a different point in their journey than we are, and don’t be smug.
That list alone is well-intentioned but not particularly helpful, so here are some examples of how we can apply these lessons to other resources.
We take fresh drinking water for granted, which is ridiculous. We’re all aware of the impact drought has on other parts of the world, some of us will even have experienced it. Most of us in the UK will have lived through hosepipe bans, yet the second we’re released from one we get out and water our lawns. We never spare a thought to where that water has come from or the work that is required to get it to our homes in the first place.
The truth is water supplies in some parts of the UK (and other regions globally) are very constrained. We’re forecasting to need an additional 4,000 megalitres per day by 2050 (National Infrastructure Commission). There’s a plan in place to address these shortfalls, but it relies on massive infrastructure investment and behavioural changes. That’s a 30-year forecast, but it’s important to understand that we need to change habits now. We’re already taking as much as we can from our natural environment.
And if the thought of lightening the burden for future generations doesn’t sway you, think on this: In my corner of the UK, we get government assistance with our water bills (South West Water). Our water is so expensive the government has to offset our bills, yet we water our lawns and hose down our cars with it.
Applying the lessons to water
- Capture rainwater in a water butt for watering the garden
- Install a cistern displacement device (CDD) in your toilet. Just less than a third of all our drinking-quality water gets flushed down the toilet (Water Wise). A CDD will help reduce that with every flush.
- Turn off the tap when we brush our teeth. This could save up to £46 per person per year (South West Water)
Here’s an easy way to encourage a reduction in food waste. Every time we scrape food into compost or the bin, picture ourselves throwing money away. That’s money spent on something unused and to which we have ascribed no value. A typical family of four in the UK wastes about £840 of food per year, about two thirds of which is edible (Which?).
Globally about a third of food produced never gets eaten, much of it never even making it into our homes. This equates to about 10 % of global greenhouse gas emissions (feedbackglobal.org).
Applying the lessons to food
- Plan our meals better. Planning meals enables us to buy less, and because we’re only buying what we need, less gets thrown away.
- Get more creative with leftovers, and if we get stuck use the internet. Let someone else be creative for us.
- Seek out funny-looking or misshapen veg! Vote with our wallets and let supermarkets know that we’ll accept less-than-perfect produce
Electricity, but also the gas that heats our homes and the fuel that runs our cars. None of it is free. There is always a cost, even if we’re generating our own electricity and living peacefully off-grid. To recycle the example I used above: wasting energy is throwing money away.
Like drinking water, energy is finite. Even with renewables, there is only so much energy we can capture with current infrastructure.
With growing populations, none of us can afford to waste energy. The more we use, the more likely we are to use all that can be generated by renewables. When that happens we fall back on non-renewable sources.
Applying the lessons to energy
- Turn our appliances off at the walls. All of them. Incredibly, all those little stand-by lights are costing us up to £35 a year per person (Energy Saving Trust).
- Invest in wall and roof insulation, if we can. Roof insulation alone could save up to £250 a year, depending on the type of house (Energy Saving Trust)
- Drive efficiently. Steady acceleration and no harsh braking. Don’t carry more than we need, and don’t leave our engines idling (Money Saving Expert)
I’ve deliberately picked three resources here that I personally struggle with. I’m rubbish at conserving water, I waste food and I forget to turn appliances off at the wall. But I want to get better. I will get better and I will drag any of you who want to get better up with me.
The simple truth is we can apply this approach to practically any material.
Clothing? Buy to last and only buy when we have to replace something. Furniture? If it’s time to get rid of something, can it be reused or repurposed instead of recycled or thrown away? Gift-wrap: do we need to buy plastic covered paper knowing it’s going to be thrown away after a single-use?Stationery? Do we need that new pen?
(the answer to that last question is yes, I do. You probably don’t)
I’m positive that if we all lived just a little more intentionally, the overall societal change could be vast. We could take only what we need, use it as much as we can, and then dispose of what remains responsibly. It’d be fantastic.
Before I go, a few follow-ups from Plastic-Free July:
- Shampoo bars are awesome. If you’re still sceptical, be assured that it couldn’t be easier.
- The veg box has got me trying new recipes and rediscovering creativity in the kitchen. My partner’s still away, so it still needs to be stress-tested for two busy people, but I’m sure it’ll be here to stay.
- The oat milk is tasty and, critically, doesn’t separate when you add it to a hot drink. It’s expensive, but I’m going to choose to view the extra cash as tax for all the plastic I’ve bought over the years. Tax or penance.
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