Plastic Free July: Our Successes and Failures

Plastic Free July Plum and Sparrow Market Basket

Plastic free shopping with the help of a market basket, reusable produce box, bulk produce bag and glass mason jar

Do something drastic, rid the world of plastic– Tim Minchin, Australian Musician + Comedian

I’ve mentioned a few times that July is Plastic Free Month. For those who are new around here, Plastic Free July “aims to raise awareness of the problems of single-use disposable plastic and challenges people to do something about it.” People are encouraged to refuse all single-use plastic for the period of a day, week, month or longer.  Alternatively, people can opt to refuse the top 4 single use plastic items, which are: plastic bags, water bottles, to-go coffee cups and straws. Sadly, it is estimated that by 2050, “there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. Most [of this plastic] comes from land and was once in our hands.” Together we can make small, but significant changes, by refusing single-use plastics to keep oceans and waterways clean.

A little truth to start things off: while I had heard of Plastic Free July in the past I never actively participated in it. I’m not sure why, it’s not that I think I’m perfect and it wasn’t for fear of failure. I guess I was just otherwise occupied with my thoughts.

Farmers Market Ottawa Garlic Plastic Free July Zero Waste

Compostable packaging courtesy of Mother Nature


So, this year I decided I would actively participate in Plastic Free July. I did not expect it to be hard, nor did I think it would be a total breeze. I knew that we brought home plastics fairly often, despite trying not to, and usually without any guilt because these plastics were recyclable. You know, yogurt containers, ketchup squeeze bottles, bottled hair conditioner and so on. For years now we’ve been focused on minimizing our waste, that is, garbage that ends up in landfill, but we hadn’t put a lot of effort into minimizing our recyclables. Although, had we stopped often enough to think about this, we would have realized that “recyclable” is not a free ticket. While recycling does keep significant amounts waste out of landfill, recycling is still a dirty process, meaning it still creates waste, pollutes water, air and soil, and overall is not as gentle as we’d like to think.

I decided that for Plastic Free July I was going to go full tilt: no plastic of any sort, single use, multi-use, recyclable or not.

Plastic Free July Zero Waste Plum and Sparrow Market Basket

Preparing for a trip to the farmers market with market basket, reusable produce boxes, cloth bulk food bags, mason jar and bees wax food wraps for baked goods


So, how did it go, you ask? Pretty well, but it was definitely an eye opening month. And, punchline: I did not succeed in going the full month without acquiring plastic. I failed around the end of week two when we went, rather unprepared, on a camping trip. And then I failed a few more times. Overall, though, I learned a lot about our habits and conveniences, and am a much better zero waste shopper now, and feel like there were many successes.

Like I mentioned above we have focused on zero waste shopping for a while now. But, zero waste for us was very simplistically applied: no landfill garbage. So, we did all the usual green shopper things like bringing our own reusable shopping bags, produce and bulk bags, shopping baskets (on Amazon here), including produce boxes and mason jars when we were being extra good. But…we did not refuse to buy things that were in plastic if the plastic was recyclable. Starting to say ‘no’ to these plastics really opened our eyes to how much plastic we were bringing into our home.

We realized that it’s pretty easy to say ‘no’ to produce packaged in plastic, because there are alternatives, like farmers markets. Other items like ketchup are easy to make, but when you start making these things yourself you quickly run out of time…no matter how delicious (and fun) homemade ketchup is, you can’t make ketchup and cream cheese and yogurt and all the rest of these items in the same day or week. This meant we had to opt to not buy some of these items; y’know, the good ol’ environmentalist practice of doing without. It’s not always the most fun, but it is quite instructive, you quickly learn how much you can do without, without this affecting your enjoyment of life.

Zero waste farmers market shopping ottawa canada

Another problem was the whole category of things you don’t normally make for yourself, like hair conditioner. While shampoo bars (unpackaged shampoo in a soap bar format) are pretty easy to find, I have never come across conditioner bars (if you know of one, please share!). My hair, and especially Ro’s curly mane, cannot go many days without a detangling conditioner after shampooing. I tried to go without shampooing my hair and within 5 days I could not endure the pain my scalp was experiencing from adjusting to a lack of washing. As it turned out, I had enough hair conditioner to last the month, but I’m fairly certain I would have bought some if I had run out. I will definitely experiment with some homemade conditioner recipes over the coming months, so that I can go plastic free for my hair care. I probably never would have thought to make my own conditioner if it weren’t for Plastic Free July, so thank you PFJ for that!

Ok, so aside from figuring out solutions to plastic packaged items that aren’t available in an unpackaged or glass format, we also found that the single most frequent problem for us was: lack of preparation (like bringing containers with us and packing snacks for outings). If you go to the grocery store without your reusable bag you will probably come home with a plastic one. That’s just the reality. But, the way to ensure this doesn’t happen is fairly simple: bring a cloth bag with you or always carry a cloth bag in your purse or backpack or back pocket, so that you can spontaneously shop without needing to take a plastic bag. This applies, in general, to living plastic free, a few moments of preparation and forethought, coupled with developing new habits (for example shopping at bulk stores) will keep you from taking home unnecessary plastic. By the way, in case it’s not obvious, bulk stores are perfectly happy with you bringing your own bags and containers to package food with (just remember to weigh your heavy containers first and note the weight before you fill them).

At the risk of making this post too long, I will leave my advice on how to adapt to plastic free living to the above, however, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section found at the end of this post.

Overall our experience with going plastic free distilled down to: preparation, adaptation and refusal. I haven’t touched on refusal yet. So, yes, the reality is that not everything (but almost everything) we ordinarily buy and consume can be acquired in a plastic-free way. But, not everything… For example, conventional vegan hotdogs and sausages are not available unpackaged, and while these are only borderline healthy, my children really enjoy eating these at barbecues with friends. This was something we would have to refuse to buy to be 100% plastic free. There are other examples too, but to be frank there were so few I’m having a hard time remembering them. In general, you can go plastic free by opting to package your own foods, whether buying in bulk or going to a farmers market, or opting for foods packaged in paper products or metal. (Paper is much better because it is compostable, whereas metal must be recycled).

Plastic Free July wasn’t all problems and adaptations, though, it was also really fun and filled with pleasant surprises. For example, when we went to the store to buy some gummy treats for Sen and brought a cloth napkin to wrap them in, instead of using the compostable plastic bags they offer, the store found this so charming that they gave him his gummy treats for free (…we explained about Plastic Free July, and of course, it’s much cuter in Sen’s sweet voice). As you can imagine, this made quite the impression on Sen! He definitely had good incentive to remember his cloth napkin the next time.

At the farmers market, whereas in the past when I ran out of my own bags for purchases I would often still buy a few things packaged in plastic, I refused these items. However, a few of the farmers and bakers gave us the item for free when we explained why we were skipping on a usual purchase from them. We found that these interactions often led to great discussion about plastics and recycling, and many people were really receptive to trying out plastic-free shopping themselves. We’re not the evangelical types, we try our best to live sustainably and make good choices, but we don’t broadcast these decisions – we do, however, engage in conversation when people ask us how we do things or why live the way we do. In the case of Plastic Free July, we had great conversations in local shops and chain stores too, with farmers and bakers, baristas and lots of other interested folk. I feel like this was the greatest benefit of Plastic Free July. It wasn’t keeping plastics out of landfill and recycling bins (which was, of course, IS a great benefit and the goal), but it was the conversations we had, the sharing of information and growing awareness, the daily activism it encouraged, that was the greatest benefit. If my small changes coupled with some good conversations lead to a few other small changes and conversations, the effect becomes exponential pretty quickly. At least I hope it does. Someone check my math on that, okay?

Farmers market zero waste shopping basket cherries

So July is over, but plastic free shopping will continue for us. The minds behind Plastic Free July were smart because they know that if you commit to something for a month you will probably stick with it over time. It’s hard for me to imagine going back to mindlessly acquiring plastics simply because they are recyclable. That said, I know we won’t be totally plastic free. Like any big change, it is best to start small, forgive yourself for missteps, and keep going. Personally, I have to be sensitive that my interests and values shouldn’t dictate how my whole family behaves and so I have to let them figure out their own way of living. Which might mean more packaged vegan hotdogs are in our future, because so far my homemade sausages are not as delicious I’m told, and some things, like summer barbecue traditions, are pretty important to 5 year olds.

Zero waste shopping farmers market ottawa beet root vegetables

A few things and places to check out for more plastic free inspiration, resources and entertainment:

  • Watch (and share) this video by Tim Minchin Canvas Bag – watch it to the end, it’s worth 3 minutes of your life.
  • Litterless Blog, a great resource for making less waste, practical and achievable. And read my interview with Litterless blogger Celia here.
  • A great post for beginners is over on Less Makes Happy where you will 5 tips for getting started.
  • DIY: How to make your own milk, the recipe is for cashew but you can use oats, almonds, sesame seeds, rice, and it works just great.
  • The Beauty in Simple, another great blog with practical tips for how to live a busy life with kids and make zero (or close to) waste. You can also read my interview with Julie here.
  • Resource: The book ZERO WASTE HOME by Bea Johnson is a resource I refer to every week to solve simple zero waste problems, so far I haven’t come across a problem the book couldn’t offer a solution to.
  • How To: A simple tutorial for wrapping gifts with fabric instead of paper and plastic tape.
  • Inspiration: The original source of my inspiration to live zero waste was the amazing Devine Family from Australia. Read about them here.
  • Real talk: I have been really enjoying the Petalplum blog lately, Ellie has been sharing her month of plastic free in a funny, practical, humble and achievable way. Read this post and this one too.

Let’s be friends! Please come find me in other places:

9 thoughts on “Plastic Free July: Our Successes and Failures

  1. Minna (I Basically Travel) says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and learning about both your successes and failures. Some of it sounds soooo familiar! I’m trying to reduce the amount of plastic in my life and although I have made progress, I haven’t been able to eliminate it completely, not even near. But I also believe that every step in the right direction is great, and we can all do something.

  2. Elyssa says:

    If you’re ok with buying glass, you can buy apple cider vinegar for conditioner! It works to detangle and soften wonderfully when diluted in cold water, massaged through ends of hair (probably avoid direct scalp contact because it may either sting which I’ve never had a problem with or it may make your roots oily, which I have experienced). You can also make acv or other fruit vinegars very easily but it takes a little more effort than buying obviously !

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