I’m composing this post on August 4th, a few days after the time was up on my Plastic Free July “adventure”. I still don’t know the right word to use for it, whether it’s an adventure, or a journey, or an experiment, or all of the above. The bottom line is that it’s up, so I need to reflect on what my experience was like, and to set a path as to where I go from here.

Admittedly, I wasn’t as active on social media concerning this experience (is that the word I’ve settled on?) as I would like to have been. And there are many factors playing into that. First and foremost, I’m not that great at sharing my day-to-day experiences online when it comes to things that aren’t my recipes or impromptu meals. I have Ben to help me with my weekly recipe videos,  so when it comes to turning the camera on myself, or turning my camera on my mundane practices, I have a bit of a hangup. I need to get over it.

But another factor, speaking about mundane practices, was that it never felt like that big of a deal. I just did it. From a teaching or instructional standpoint, that’s not very beneficial to anyone looking for help or guidance, but at the same time, it is a testament to what not a big deal it was. I was stressed and anxious for the first couple of weeks because I was still using a lot of plastic, but that was due to the fact that I allowed myself to use what plastic-packed items I already had in the house. I felt defeated because here I was being conscious about not purchasing anything in single-use plastic, yet my plastic stockpile kept growing.

However I did keep going, and things seemed fairly effortless. For the most part.

Let’s review my rules:

  • Do not purchase anything in single-use plastic.
  • You can use anything you already have in single-use plastic,
  • But if you do use it, you have to save the plastic as a visual reminder.

So here we are at the end. How did I do?

Did I manage to avoid purchasing anything with single-use plastic? No. Do I consider myself a failure? No. I can actually count on two hand how many times I broke my first rule, and I made myself save the evidence as penance. I love chips. Health and diet wise I should be eating a lot less. So, in the course of the month, I had two bags of chips. I also purchased a glass bottle of sunflower oil, and a glass jar of coconut oil, both with metal lids, but they did have the shrink wrap seal around the top. Additionally, I purchased a few items that came in plastic packaging that helped me to be more efficient with my waste reduction practices. I bought a paper shredder that had a few plastic bags inside, and I purchased a drill bit that was sealed in plastic. These were both used to convert an old plastic tub I had in the garage into a composting bin.

I wasn’t perfect, but I was conscious. Every trip to the grocery store, for better or worse, was a mind fuck. On one occasion I went to WinCo to get a few bulk items, and I stepped into the deli/meat/cheese section. Why? I don’t know. 100% of the items were off limits to me as a vegan, but as I stood there, turning, I had this very cinematic moment as I noticed that  that everything as far as the eye could see was wrapped in plastic. All of the lunch meats and all of the cheeses and all of the clamshell containers of various cold salads. It was honestly like a horror movie, or even better, like The Matrix when Neo can suddenly see through it all. It was a true anxiety-inducing moment, and I wasn’t sure that I was better off for having the consciousness that I now have.

In that moment I did feel defeated; seeing that the problem was way bigger than myself and bigger than anything that I could possibly help or solve. Just because I wasn’t buying it didn’t mean that all of the smiling faces around me weren’t picking the items up as fast as they could put them on the shelves. Plastic is just the way of the world. And this was just one section, of one grocery store, in one city… You get the picture.

In terms of saving the plastic that I used, I did really well for the first two weeks. Plastic piled up in my office, and so did the guilt. But in hindsight, I think this was a very important step in the accountability process.

When we use a single-use plastic item, we just throw it away, or we throw it in the recycling bin. It’s gone. Done. Out of our lives. We never have to see it again. But when I forced myself to live with it, I was way more aware of the impact that just one person, even a conscientious person, was making. And it helped me to notice all of the little things that on occasion I instinctively just tossed in the trash. Making myself hold onto the plastic forced me to face what I was contributing to. I purchased it. I paid money for it. It was mine. Why would I then make it someone else’s responsibility to deal with it when I no longer wanted it?

After the second week, I did recycle the items that could be recycled, and although recycling is an imperfect system, it was still better than throwing them in the garbage. The items that could not be recycled I have still held onto (and are pictured above this post, and those items are currently hanging out in one of my empty chip bags. Those items that have no hope of being recycled or reused will not go anywhere. Their job is done, yet they will live on forever.

So, what did I learn about myself from all of this, what permanent changes have I made, and where do I go from here? Here’s a list:

  • First and foremost, it was anticlimactic. Once I set the intentions, it was fairly easy. I know that it’s not that easy for everyone because things do take a bit of extra time and research. Not everyone has the same access, and so not everyone will have the same ease as I did. However, other than having to shop at multiple grocery stores, and having to drive further than I would have liked to, things were pretty easy. I learned what stores (Sprouts) were the best for bulk buying, and I learned where I could go to buy the things that I needed that weren’t in plastic.
  • It didn’t start with Plastic Free July, but my practices of using reusable items were strengthened. I use metal straws, and verbally refuse straws when I go to restaurants.  I have sets of silverware wrapped in cloth napkins in my glovebox and in my backpack. I bring my reusable coffee mug with me whenever I get coffee. I bring a water bottle with me most places. I have another reusable drink container that I keep in my backpack just in case. I use canvas bags at the grocery store. If i just need to run into the store for a few items, I’ll just carry the items out in-hand. I use reusable produce bags when purchasing fruits and vegetables or items from the bulk bins.
  • Buying from the bulk bins made it all possible. I was even able to get coffee beans from Sprouts in my reusable bags. Having a store with good bulk bins is a necessity to make this lifestyle work. Whole Foods has seriously cut back what’s available in their bins at the store near me, but luckily I have a Sprouts in the same general area. As long as they keep those bins alive, and so long as they don’t give me any hassle for using my own bags, I’m good. WinCo has a much large bulk section, but I’m still learning the ropes with them.
  • Convenience foods are difficult. So many of the world’s most delicious snacks are packed in plastic. Vegan meats and cheeses, tofu, tempeh, tortillas, and pretty much any prepared product is sold in plastic. And most of that plastic is not recyclable. So, it’s a bit rough sometimes when you just want to eat something quick, or just eat a fast meal. I realized that so many of the convenience foods I once ate were off the table, and I needed to find alternatives. This is definitely going to be the biggest obstacle for me as I try to continue this lifestyle.
  • Additionally, I feel like my impulse buys have been limited. I have to ask myself if it’s in plastic packaging and then balance whether or not it’s worth purchasing it if it is. This is not only in convenience food items, but all other impulse buys as well.
  • Reusable containers make it all possible. I couldn’t use the bulk bins if I didn’t have my reusable bags. I’ve saved plastic bread bags for a while now, and I use those to store bread that I make, or breads that I buy from the bakery. I use a ton of mason jars to store bulk items and liquids at home. Some bulk liquids can be purchased, but they require you to use the store’s plastic tubs. Those can be washed and reused so that although you are still using plastic, you’re reusing it over and over again.
  • I have noticed that overall, as a household,we are producing less trash. Already, we were maybe taking the trash to the curb every three weeks to a month, but now, we take the indoor trash out to the garage maybe once every couple of weeks.  I don’t live alone, and I am not the sole purchaser of products. Although I do most of the food purchasing in terms of “groceries”, I am not the only one bringing items into the house. For our lifestyle, some trash is inevitable.
  • I have started composting. I’m about three weeks into it, and so far I’m still a bit uneasy about it. I don’t know if it’s working, and I don’t have a plan yet as to what I will do with it, but in terms of an experiment, I think it’s going ok. I chop kitchen scraps up and put them into a small compost bucket in the kitchen. I shred boxes and any “brown” packaging that we purchase. Again, I don’t know if it’s going to be good compost, but I am no longer throwing any food in the garbage, and any paper products that can be composted are being put into the bin. This had greatly helped with the amount of trash we produce, and eliminated and garbage odors so that our indoor trash can stick around indefinitely.
  • I have two farmers markets near me. One is on Friday, and one is on Sunday. I have set reminders in Google calendars to remind me. If I can purchase my weekly produce there, then I can save a ton of plastic. So far I’ve been loving going to them, and the food does taste much better.
  • I have been making a few of the pantry staples that I once purchased. I think that the items that I make taste  much better, however sometimes that convenience factor can outweigh everything. I spent about 3 weeks without flour tortillas before I finally made them. I made my own bread a few times, but the sandwich bread recipe I was making used soy milk. I was out of soy milk, which I’m also making, and I didn’t feel like making it. So without making soy milk, I couldn’t make bread or burger buns, and so I just went without. There were a few moments like that, but overall, I have loved learning how to make new things, and like I said, most of the items I make are way better than store bought.
  • In the end, I’ll probably buy some tofu, and some tempeh, and a the occasional vegan meat products. I have been unable to cook anything with tofu (Unless I wanted to make my own, which I haven’t.) or tempeh. I have been craving the new Beyond Sausages, and Tofurky, but I’ve had to abstain from purchasing them. Ben loves the Beyond Burgers, and if keeping those on hand keeps him out of the drive-thru, then it is worth it to me.

I’ve have been changed by the process. I am more conscientious, and more aware. However, I am nowhere near perfect. August 1st, I bought a package of Tofurky and Chao cheese so that I could make sandwiches with my homemade bread. The sandwich was amazing. The guilt was not.

Making everything from scratch is not sustainable for me, but I love doing it, so I will do it when I can. I will buy things in plastic because some things are just in plastic. I have to learn to balance out my efforts to be better, with my personal guilt about not doing enough, with the futility of trying to go plastic free within our current convenience-based food system. How much responsibility is mine? How much weight do I need to carry on my shoulders when I’m not the one packing the food in plastic?

There are people out there in social media land that are living as close to zero waste or plastic free as possible, and I applaud their dedication and resourcefulness. , But for me, in my life right now, where I live in 2018, I will not be anywhere near 100%.

Sorry.

And I know that the feeling of futility is not an excuse to not do better.