Plastic Free July – end of month check-in

Plastic Free July went as expected: not bad, but I still need to work on changing some habits.

After some adjustments to accommodate my lack of interest in taking the garbage out and the summer heat, I think that I’ve settled on a garbage bag free scheme that I can live with (see below). I just need to get better about taking the garbage out as needed instead of waiting for the garbage can to be full. I never let it get bad enough to have a smelly apartment (I live in a small space, so I refuse to live with bad smells), but there were times when I pushed the limits and ross things grew in my garbage can.

But, here’s what seems to be working:

As I mentioned in my kick-off post, my bathroom garbage doesn’t accumulate smelly or gross things. Mostly, it’s just a place to dump my dental floss and all the dust and such that I sweep up. It gets dirty from the dust, but it’s not decaying or rotting, so it’s fine and doesn’t require a garbage bag.

In my kitchen, I did have some problems with rot, decay and food sticking to the bottom of the can (which meant having to soak and wash the can before using it again). Because of this, and because it’s summer, I decided to default to freezing everything food related. It’s still been a bit annoying, I miss garbage bags, and I miss being able to just toss something in the trash instead of having to open the freezer, taking a container out, etc. But, it works.

I did try a few other options over the month:

  • I tried to convince myself to empty the garbage every couple of days (2-3), but that will require a fairly big habit shift or maybe storing my garbage bin by the door (not ideal – I prefer not having to look at it and I live in a small space). Again, I know it seems silly, but it’s not like I’m just walking to the end of the garden (I’m several floors up and have to open a dumpster, which can smell really bad in the summer).
  • I tried lining my bin with flyers to keep food from sticking to the bottom. It was certainly better, but not by much and I would still have to empty the garbage more often. Also, that still requires extra resources (flyers).
  • I considered using plastic bags I had on hand (from things like frozen foods that I could only get in plastic), but I worried that this was just one very tiny step towards spiralling back into either buying garbage bags or using it as an excuse to allow myself to buy more things in plastic. Not to say that I’m completely plastic free (I still buy frozen peas), but I’m trying to avoid plastic.

This is definitely something that I still need to work on to find a solution that works best for me, but I have some large yogurt containers that I could use for perishables. I’m considering keeping one on my counter until it’s full and allowing myself to accumulate a couple containers in the freezer before taking the garbage out. I’ll still use the garbage can for non-perishables and plastics.

Speaking of plastic, I’ve been tracking my plastic consumption these past few weeks to see where I can make improvements. It’s been an interesting project and I’m pleased to say that my plastic consumption has reduced in the past few months.I still have room to improve, but I’m happy with the progress.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of things I had:

  • Labels from jars that I wanted to save. A couple of thelabels were made of plastic. Needless to say, I’ll try to remember to always look for non-plastic containers with non-plastic labels.
  • The mesh and label from a package of garlic because I could not find it un-packaged that day, despite trying more than one store. Usually, I’m well stocked with garlic, so this is rarely a problem.
  • A chip bag (or two). I like chips on occasion, but I know I can find good enough options (like bulk pretzels or popcorn bought in bulk, made on the stovetop, and flavoured with herbs or with bulk flavouring that you can get at the Bulk Barn). This was a case of letting a bad day supercede my good intentions.
  • The packaging from frozen peas. I’m just not ready to give them up yet and bulk peas from the market are expensive, if you can find them. I do try to buy the largest bag possible (even if it means separating them out into a couple of containers in the freezer to keep them from getting too freezer burnt).
  • Odds and ends of things that were small but represented other areas I need to work on. For example, plastic from a package. I could have bought that book with less waste overall if I’d gone to the store when the book was published instead of pre-ordering it online.
  • A wrapper from a chocolate bar. It was fair trade chocolate (yay), but it still came in plastic (boo). I could stop eating chocolate (as if) or I could just get off my lazy butt and go to the grocery store that has really great bulk.

Despite not being plastic free yet, I think that the Plastic Free July challenge was incredibly helpful and a useful challenge. It allowed me to recommit to the idea of living a low-waste life and allowed me to finally give up something I’d been really resistant to giving up (who knew garbage bags were so important to me).

So, Plastic Free July was a success for me and I’m taking some new ideas and habits into August. My intention is to continue to be low-waste and work towards being as close to zero waste was I can.

Did you try giving up any plastic for July?

Plastic Free July – bamboo toothbrushes

Lately, the big buzz has been around banning straws as if banning just one thing will make the plastic problem go away. Well, what about all the other plastics we use? Disposable utensils, to-go cups for drinks, produce bags, tooth brushes, etc.

We have a long way to go (well beyond just reducing the number of straws we use) and in some cases there are still limitations that make it difficult for some people to switch to a plastic free or reusable alternative. I’m not even going to pretend that I can speak to the needs of people who are low income or who have disabilities – we should listen to them and make sure that they are still supported in whatever way we can (including allowing them to use disposable straws). But, I can share a bit of insight from my own experience with some alternatives, like bamboo toothbrushes.

img_20180715_131049

Toothbrushes have always been an issue for me. I have gums that are prone to receding and I’m a bit heavy handed when I brush. It’s hard to break out of a lifelong habit of being heavy handed, so I’ve always bought toothbrushes with soft or (preferably) ultra soft bristles. This, of course, seems left to the brand’s imagination – what some brands call soft is what I would call medium or even hard.

When I decided to switch to bamboo toothbrushes, I knew I’d continue to have issues, but I didn’t think that it would take me 2 years to find something that worked. I have tried every brand of bamboo toothbrush that I could find, including some that I had to order from out-of-country and as many variations as I could find (soft, children’s, etc.). These four are the most recent ones that I’ve tried.

InShot_20180716_062041618
  1. Brush with Bamboo

This is a standard, generic bamboo toothbrush. I’ve tried a couple of brands that were just like this and they typically only had one bristle option (medium to hard). Their children’s toothbrushes are the exact same, but smaller. I would rate the bristles are being equivalent to medium. If you don’t mind the standard toothbrush bristle stiffness, this would be a very good option to start with as this brand is relatively easy to find (even in Canada) and relatively affordable. They’re not perfect (the bristles are part plastic), but they are one of the better options available. In a 2016 post, Kathryn discusses some of the benefits, including the sustainable and pesticide free bamboo sourcing for the handles.

InShot_20180716_062227027
For the record, this toothbrush looks dirty because I was trying charcoal toothpaste at the time (this Canadian made brand). It’s nice toothpaste, but it was messy and it stained the bamboo.
  1. Senzacare

I bought this one specifically because the bristles were “ultrasoft”. While softer, I don’t know that the bristles rate as ultra soft. But, it’s a good option if you like a softer toothbrush. I used this for longer than the recommended 3 months and found that it stood up well to my rough use.

InShot_20180716_062142594
  1. Redecker

I decided to try this because it uses natural fibers (sterilized goat hair) for bristles. I should have done a bit more research before buying this one because I assumed it would be soft-ish or maybe medium stiffness. I was wrong. The bristles are hard and I found them to be painful, even after soaking them in hot water for a couple minutes. I would rate these bristles as hard or very hard. I love the idea of a fully compostable toothbrush, but I could use this to scour my grout or pots!

InShot_20180716_062330320
  1. Truly Bamboo

This was something I found by accident and immediately went to the website when I saw the tapered shape of the bristles. The last couple of plastic toothbrushes I used had the same bristle shape and I found them to be perfect for me – they clean well without damaging my gums. I ordered a box of 4 (they had a sale at the time, but I would have purchased them for their normal price, which his still fairly affordable for a bamboo toothbrush).

They’re from a company in the States, but they do ship to Canada. The bristles are nylon free (made of activated charcoal and bamboo). The bamboo is sourced responsibly and the bamboo handles are carved (i.e., not mulched bamboo fibers glued together).

img_20180715_131228
From top to bottom: Brush with Bamboo, Redecker, Senzacare, and Truly Bamboo.

While they’re becoming more affordable, bamboo toothbrushes will continue to be unattainable for some people because of the price. If you can afford it, I highly recommend switching to bamboo to eliminate a bit more plastic in your life. In all cases, you can either compost the whole brush or at least the handle (just use some pliers to pry out the bristles). Either way, that’s still a heck of a lot less plastic.

Here are some things to consider when looking for the bamboo toothbrush:

  • What are the bristles made of? You may need to remove them before composting the handle
  • How is the handle constructed? The carved handles will last longer and have a lesser environmental impact simply because they don’t require glues. They can also be used in your garden (as plant stakes or labels) without disintegrating too fast.
  • How is the bamboo sourced? Most companies use sustainable, pesticide-free bamboo, but it’s worth checking to ensure that you’re supporting sustainable practices.
  • Can I source them locally? It’s always better for the environment if you can buy something that was shipped in bulk.
  • Does it work for me? If a particular brand isn’t working for you for any reason (ex: the bristles are too hard), find the next best option. Finding an option that’s sustainable for you is just as important as choosing an option that has a low impact on the environment.

Plastic Free July – plastics I still own

Plastic Free July - Choose to Refuse 300ppi

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and lurking on zero waste and eco-living websites lately. One of my favourite resources is the Green Indy Blog, run by Polly who’s a zero-waster with a realistic view of life. She is open and honest about when plastic or waste happens and why. And, she’s unapologetically reasonable about her choices. For example, she talks a lot about how to make low to no cost changes and she admits to times when she’s allowed (not accepted, but consciously allowed) waste. She’s taken a very open and welcoming approach to zero waste that allows people to simply do their best, instead of demanding perfection.

I think that a lot of people are starting to take this approach because they recognize that demanding perfection is unhelpful – if people can’t be perfect and/or can’t sustain big changes, they’ll stop trying as hard or simply give up. If we can foster a community that shows people that it’s not about being perfect, but about being more conscious about our decisions, then we’ll make it easier for more people to start making those changes and, hopefully, keep working towards a low-impact. This means that we’ll be more successful at finding new community members or allies, and we’ll have a bigger impact.

So, to do my part, I’m going to start sharing how I’m working towards being plastic free or zero waste, where I need to make changes, and when I allow waste. I’m going to start with my farmer’s market trips simply because I happen to have a decent picture of my most recent market haul.

This is what I bought this weekend:

  • Beans
  • Raspberries
  • A dozen cookies (plus 2 bonus cookies because they were broken)
  • 2 dozen eggs
  • Peaches
  • Blueberries
  • Spinach
img_20180708_170232_054

Please note all the plastic. There’s loads of it! Let’s look at my haul from the perspective of packaging:

Beans, raspberries, and cookies

I bought these plastic containers about 2 years ago for market trips. I buy a fair amount and walk/bus to and from the market, so things get squished or bruised. These are cheap containers, but they’re lightweight and very useful. When not being used for the market trips, I use them to hold veggies. Ideally, I’d use something that isn’t plastic, but: (a) glass is heavy and breakable making it a difficult option for market trips, and (b) metal is expensive, so I’d need to save up for new containers.

I would like to replace these some day, but I have no problem with using them. I’d rather

img_20180624_114603
What my fridge typically looks like after groceries and market – my plastic containers are used for any and all veggies, fruit, etc. And, I do have a few glass containers that I also use, but they’re not convenient for market trips as they’re heavy.

use what I have to keep this plastic away from the landfill for as long as possible. And, if I lose or break a lid? No problem – I can either find another lid option (ex: reusable waxed cloth) or find another use (ex: using them as lidless containers in drawers or cupboards).

I can also use these for bulk or deli foods at the Planet Organic nearby.

Eggs

Stonepost Farms takes back egg cartons (theirs and others), so I return my cartons each week and will give them other cartons if I ever have to buy eggs from elsewhere.

In the winter, there’s another vendor that I can get eggs from who also takes cartons back, though I don’t think that they take cartons from other brands. But, egg cartoons are both useful (ex: crafts or sprouting seeds) and relatively easy to re-purpose (i.e., I generally don’t find it difficult to give them away – all I need is to find a parent/teacher).

Peaches

I have an abundance of re-usable produce and bulk food bags. I could easily sew my own, but I really like mesh bags and mesh is a pain to sew. The one I used for the peaches was purchased as a bundle of three years ago, but I often see them in places like Planet Organic (usually near the produce or bulk items). The mesh is quite fine, so they work for both produce and many bulk items (beans, nuts, pasta, etc.). I also own some Credo bags, which are great for produce.

Blueberries

I ran out of containers and couldn’t resist this giant box of blueberries (just $10!). I’ll find out if the vendor will take it back next week, and if they don’t, it’s compostable or I can see if I can find another use for it.

This was a “whim” purchase. If the berries had been in plastic, I wouldn’t have purchased them. But, I was close enough to home to feel confident carrying them in this open box and blueberries are awesome.

Spinach

This is one of my allowable exceptions. Finding plastic free greens is difficult for me. In grocery stores, my options are typically low-waste (a twist tie or elastic) greens, bagged greens, or greens in plastic boxes. Most of them are from California or further. In the grand scheme of things, I think that buying some spinach in a plastic bag that I can reuse (or, return, as Stonepost Farms will take them back) from a local farm is better than buying food that had to be transported from another country (remember, I’m in Canada, several hundred kilometers from the border). I spoke a bit about it that at the bottom of my post about what plastics I’m trying to avoid for July. Buying local is something that I consider to be very important. It supports local businesses/vendors and food security, and it’s often a more environmentally friendly option.

I’ve already found a use for the last bag (protecting some packages of butter that I’m storing in the freezer) and I have no doubt that I can find a use for this bag, without it going into the garbage.

This is how raspberries usually come, but with plastic bags to protect them. This photo is from 2015, before I had a large collection of re-usable produce bags and while I was still getting used to using the few I had, so I bought the peas in a plastic bag (the other items were already in plastic).

So, yes, I have and use plastic, but I’m also reducing a lot of waste: the raspberries would have come in boxes with plastic bags to protect them; the cookies would have come is special branded bags that are a weird size/shape, so hard to re-use; the peaches and beans would have come in plastic bags, and I predominantly choose plastic free options, even though there were plenty of foods I would have loved to buy if they weren’t in plastic (I really miss cucumber!).

This is real life and not perfect. This is the best that I can manage at this time and provides options that are sustainable for me (i.e., that I can sustain and that won’t make me want to quit and go back to buying things in plastic).

As I mentioned in my post about Plastic Free July, this isn’t about being perfect – it’s about making the best choices possible and trying to reduce single-use plastics over time (give up straws tomorrow, produce bags in in a couple weeks, etc. – do what you can, when you can).

Plastic Free July – what I’m giving up

Plastic Free July - Choose to Refuse 300ppi

I’m giving up garbage bags this month, and that’s actually freaking me out a little bit

I’m participating in Plastic Free July. I wrote a bit about it and zero waste in my last post, but as a quick summary, it’s an event originating out of Australia used to encourage people to rethink their plastic use, especially with regards to single use plastics. I’ve already eliminated a lot of plastics out of my life, but I know I can make some improvements with regards to garbage bags and food packaging.

Garbage bags

I currently use compostable bags for my garbage, but I had to go find them and do a bit of research to confirm that they were actually compostable and not just biodegradable. There’s a big difference – biodegradable plastics may look like they go away, but they may just break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastics (the microplastics that scientists are finding in the ocean and even in bottled water). My compostable bags are safe to put in the compost, so they probably aren’t doing that much harm (save for the resources needed to make them).

I use bags partly to avoid a gross garbage bin and partly because I typically only take trash out when I’m already heading out the door. That requires a bag or container of some sort that doesn’t need to be returned to the apartment. So, basically, I guess I’m lazy and grossed out by icky garbage.

I currently have 3 places where waste is collected: a plastic bin in my bathroom, a stainless steel bin in my kitchen, and a random (whatever I have available) bag to collect my plastic waste (I started tracking my plastic waste several weeks ago, so I’ve been separating it from everything else). I also have a large re-usable bag for recycling, but I don’t line it with a bag, so it’s irrelevant to this challenge (side note: did you know that blue bags aren’t recyclable? I learned that a year or two ago and immediately stopped using them for my recyclables).

The stainless steel bin in the kitchen can be easily washed and won’t absorb odors. It also has a handy lid with an odor neutralizing carbon filter. The plastic bin in the bathroom is the only thing I’ve ever found that fits in the narrow space, which is the only reason I put up with it being cheap plastic. I rarely put icky things in it as I only empty it as needed. In both cases, I can easily live without a garbage bag if I’m willing to wash them out as needed. And, I have some old yogurt containers that I can use to store things in the freezer temporarily (ex: organics that are wet or prone to rot/mold). I should note that I don’t eat meat, but if I did, I would try to find a re-usable container or re-usable plastic bag to store meat packing in the freezer until I was ready to take it out.

My plan for July is to not use any garbage bags at all. The cans will be emptied when convenient or as needed, and cleaned regularly to avoid bad odors or built up ickiness. And, I have an extra can that I can use for my plastic waste, so that I can avoid wasting a garbage bag to collect plastic waste.

It sounds so simple and easy now that I’ve written it down, but this is something I’ve considered and been really resistant to for a very long time. Rotting food grosses me out (just thinking about it is making me a bit queasy), so I’m not looking forward to cleaning out the bins. But, also, for some stupid reason, going down and up 6 flights in an elevator just to take the garbage out seems like a big deal in my head. But, it’s not and that’s no excuse to avoid this challenge.

Plastic wrapped foods

I’m embarrassed to admit that 5 years ago I called myself an environmentalist, but still bought tonnes of food wrapped in plastic: frozen entrees, prepacked fruit and veggies, boxed or bagged rice and pasta, packaged greens, etc. And, while I rarely ate in restaurants, I was always guaranteed to take part of the meal home in those little Styrofoam containers they provide, because I always forgot an extra container.

I justified these bahaviours in a couple ways:

  1. Most of this packaging is recyclable, so it’s not that big of a deal.
  2. Other than this, I’m low impact because I use transit, etc., so I’m still more environmentally friendly than the average Canadian.
  3. I don’t enjoy cooking and I deserve to be able to escape a chore I dislike on occasion.

The truth is that I was just being lazy. I have no children, I’m not expected to take work home at the end of the day, I have very few external responsibilities, etc. I just wanted yummy food that didn’t require any time in the kitchen.

One day I quit frozen entrees cold turkey (with the exception of the occasional frozen pizza). I just decided to quit buying them. I wish I could say it was because I realized how much plastic I was purchasing, but I think it was mostly because of how expensive they can be (I’m a picky vegetarian, so I rarely found cheap entrees). But, I still bought a fair amount of things in bulk: bags of lentils, containers of greens, bundled onions wrapped in plastic mesh, etc.

Since then, I’ve made a lot of changes in what I buy and how I buy it. One of the very few exceptions has been greens (lettuce, sprouts, spinach, etc.), which I continued to buy in plastic containers or wrapped in plastic. Part of the problem is that I haven’t found many low or no plastic options. Kale, the occasional beat-up bundle of spinach and bok choy are the only consistently low-plastic greens I’ve been able to find, even at the market. In fact, kale with minimal packaging is abundant, but I hate kale (I’m sensitive to flavours, especially bitter flavours, so kale tastes bitter and horrible to me, no matter how it’s prepared).

Other exceptions have included: cheese, the occasional bit of yogurt, the occasion frozen pizza, various nuts or grains, etc. I’ve already switched to buying as much as I can in the bulk food sections and I’m trying very hard to resist cheese. I buy yogurt very rarely and always re-use those containers multiple times over, so I may allow it as an occasional treat, but not during July (except that I already have some yogurt that I bought in June).

The last exception has been local food from the market, which often comes in plastic. This one is a hard one for me because food in my city is predominantly shipped from other countries (not as much in the summer, but even then, a lot of things are shipped from other provinces). Is it better to buy something local that’s in plastic that I can reuse, or is it better to buy something plastic free that was shipped from California or Mexico? Honestly, I’d rather buy the local foods. Plastic free isn’t the only thing I advocate for (shop local, low impact living, etc.), so sometimes I have to pick the “best” option instead of the plastic free option. This will be the one and only exception I will consider making for July.

So, my plan for this part of the challenge is to avoid plastic (with the possible exception of local produce at the market, if I can’t find a plastic free alternative). Of course, I do have some plastics that I bought before the challenge: some yogurt, some greens, two chocolate bars, a couple books that were preordered and may come in packaging with plastic, etc. So, I don’t expect my garbage to be completely plastic free in July, but I do hope to have hardly any plastic garbage and I expect to be able to account for any plastic that I’m responsible for. More importantly, I hope to both find alternatives where needed and shift my habits.

So, those are my two Plastic Free July challenges – no garbage bags and low to no plastic packaged foods. I expect it to be challenging, but not impossible.

Are you considering reducing plastic use in your life?

Plastic Free July challenge

Plastic Free July - Choose to Refuse 300ppi

I’m participating in Plastic Free July, which is a challenge created to encourage people to reduce their use of plastics, especially single-use plastics.

I’m not plastic free or zero waste, but I would like to be, as much as possible. And, it’s something that I’ve been working towards, especially these past few months as it relates to my goal to be more eco-friendly, which is part of my slow year experiment.

What is zero waste? A lot of people assume that it means zero waste produced, which would be extremely difficult for most people, especially people who don’t have access to the types of resources needed to be zero waste (ex: a garden to grow your own food). Many also associate zero waste with tiny jars of garbage. Though it would be wonderful if we all strived to only accrue a jar of garbage each year, or even each month, this is also unrealistic for most people and it gives you a false sense of how much garbage is actually produced to support you and your lifestyle (ex: even bulk food is shipped to bulk stores in bags or boxes of some sort, so buying bulk in reusable bags or containers still creates garbage). And, then there are the zero waste lifestyle fanatics who, much like the minimalist lifestyle fanatics, portray zero waste as being a trend that requires bamboo straws and coconut shell bowls.

Zero waste doesn’t have to be any of those things. The important thing is to make as many choices as you can to reduce or eliminate waste, which is simpler, more attainable, and more useful than trying an extreme or trendy lifestyle that you can’t sustain.

Plastic Free July isn’t about being zero waste, but reduced plastic and zero waste endeavours support each other and promote similar actions. And, zero waste focuses a lot on plastic use because a lot of the garbage households produce are plastic – plastic wrappers, plastic straws, plastic containers, etc.

People are finally starting to recognize that plastic is a problem and that plastics can last for generations (that straw you used this morning? it could still be here for centuries). Worse, despite what we all think, a lot of plastic isn’t recycled or recyclable (check with your local waste management to see what’s recyclable in your area). There are also a lot of plastic sources that people aren’t aware of, such as paper to-go cups. Disposable coffee cups are often lined with a thin layer of plastic, so they aren’t recyclable or compostable.

Think of every plastic item you touch in a typical day – how much of that is recyclable and how much of the recyclable plastic do you think will find its way into a recycling bin?

I’ve already eliminated a lot of plastics in my life, and I’ve continued to work on avoiding or minimizing plastics as much as possible, with the exception of plastic items that I already own (sometimes the best option is just to keep using that plastic container that you already have). But, after taking the Plastic Free July quiz and reviewing their action picker form, I realized that there were a few areas that could use improvement.

The action picker is a good tool to use to get started with the challenge. Each row includes what to avoid (ex: grocery bags), how to avoid it (ex: take a re-usable bag), and a graphical representation of how much of an impact that option makes, based on the positive impact for the ocean, landfills and global warming. Most of the actions are focused on ways to avoid plastics (food packaging, microbeads in cosmetics, plastic bottles, straws, garbage bags, litter, etc.), but they also include making sure that everything that can be recycled goes in the recycling, instead of the garbage.

I’ve decided to focus on garbage bags and food packaging, as most of the other items are irrelevant to me (my cosmetics and such are plastic free) or rare (I rarely eat out, so it’s rare that I would need to worry about plastic straws and such). I’ll talk about my plans in my next post. In the meantime, I encourage you to at least take the quiz and consider what single use plastics you might be able to reduce or eliminate, regardless of whether or not you participate in Plastic Free July.