Live for Less team member Mike Watson took on the challenge of Plastic Free July to see if he could live without any new single-use plastic. Here's what he learned.

Living without single-use plastic? Ha! I can do that. Or at least I thought I could.  It turned out that walking the walk was a damn sight harder than talking the talk.

Plastic Free July made me aware of some everyday habits I had largely ignored, despite thinking I was already a pretty eco-friendly hombre. On the upside, I did change some of my habits. But changing some others is going to take a bit more, um, long-term planning.

What’s it all about?

Plastic Free July is a global initiative that aims to raise awareness of the amount of single-use disposable plastic in our lives and challenges people to do something about it. You can sign up for a day, a week or the whole month and try to refuse ALL single-use plastic or at least try the TOP 4: plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws.

To track my progress I kept a diary for the month – here are some high (and low) lights.

July 3 – Getting on board

In my social feed this morning is a call to arms for Plastic Free July. I hit the PFJ website and sign up. I have a choice between doing the light version (avoiding with the Top 4 single-use items) or the hardcore version (avoiding all single-use plastic including packaging).

Now while I already use hessian bags for my weekend grocery shopping, and I sometimes remember my Keep Cup (I call them Smug Mugs) for takeaway coffee, I decide I still need to learn to walk before I can run. So I choose the Top 4 option as my minimum, and aim to reduce my other disposable plastic use as well.

I also buy a mini Smug Mug from my local cafe to go with my larger one – since coming back from Italy I’ve been hopelessly addicted to espressos.

July 4 – Sleepwalking

I go to the supermarket at lunchtime to grab some snacks and other stuff for my week at work. Without even thinking I put it all in a plastic bag and walk out. Damn.

Ooops! My secret shame.

July 5 – Top of mind

I go to the supermarket again today in my lunch break, this time with my reusable hessian grocery bag I brought from home. Now that have a bag at my desk, it should be more top of mind next time I go out to buy anything when I’m at work.

I also notice that my favorite takeaway Vietnamese place uses single-use plastic containers. So I find a reusable one in the cupboard at work that’s roughly the same size and take it with me next time and ask if they’ll put my lunch in it. They say yes. Win!

The lovely peeps at my favorite quick lunch spot were happy to put meals in my BYO reusable container.

July 8 – Bagging those veggies

It’s Saturday and armed with my well-worn reusable cloth shopping bags, I head off to do the weekly grocery shop at my local.

But hang on a minute – those bags I put my fruit and veggies in are single-use plastic bags, too. I guess I’ve been avoiding the issue and now its reckoning time. It turns out that these bags can be quite strong and easily reused for months, so this is my first step.

I notice there are few markets and supermarkets in Brisbane selling reusable produce bags made of cloth or netting, but not many.  I email by local IGA and ask why they are not selling them. With customer pressure more supermarkets might start promoting reusable produce bags and making them easy to find and buy.

Hessian grocery bags, good. Single-use produce bags, not so much.

July 10 – Responsible coffee

So far I’ve been getting nearly all my takeaway coffee with a reusable cup, instead of just occasionally. Progress! I’ve also noticed there are now many cafes in the Brisbane CBD that offer a discount if you BYO cup for takeaway coffee/tea/chocolate. Actually, there’s a map for that, maintained by responsiblecafes.org.

Good cup, bad cup.

July 14 – Bin talk

At home tonight I spend several minutes staring vacantly into my plastic-bag lined kitchen bin. Mostly food waste. What the heck am I going to do about this?

I talk about it with my partner. The fact is, there is not yet an easy low-cost sustainable solution for the disposing of food waste in bags in an environmentally friendly way, as this excellent article at 1 Million Women explains.

I see the current options as:

  • Lining your bin with newspaper. Eh…newspaper? What’s a newspaper?
  • Degradable bags – which are not biodegrade at all. They just break up into smaller pieces.
  • Biodegradable bags – which will degrade in about six months in perfect conditions – certainly not in oxygen-free landfill where food waste also produces the greenhouse gas methane no matter what bag you put it in.
  • Compostable bags – nice but will only biodegrade in a commercial compost facility.
  • Home compostable bags (Australian Standard number AS 5810-2010) which are a better option – if you own and manage a home compost bin.
  • Throwing food waste straight in your wheelie bin – which means a stinking mess in warm weather and possibly falling out with your neighbours.

As the 1 Million Women article says, the best solution for some of us might be simply to keep focusing on reducing household waste by following the 5 R’s:  refusing, reducing, reusing, repurposing, and recycling.

In other words, prevention rather than cure.

Another alternative if you can’t easily compost at home but like the idea: if you join a community composting hub in Brisbane they’ll give you a free kitchen caddy to help you collect and transport scraps to their local hub.

July 17 – Munchie time hazards

3pm at work and I’ve got the munchies so I walk down to the supermarket and grab some strawberries. Now a punnet of strawberries contains plastic, but what choice do I have? There’s a reason they are not sold loose, including at many farmers markets: they would spoil in days.

Then while heading back to work I also grab a rice paper roll, in a container I could have easily avoided if I had planned a little. But that’s just it – the roll was a passing impulse buy, so no planning happened. I ponder how deeply embedded one-use plastic is in our convenience culture and start feeling a bit sad and useless.

But at least I carried it all in a reusable bag, and those two containers have gone in the recycling bin. So, WINNING.

Accepting the rice paper roll container was just my lack of planning. The strawberry container was much harder to avoid.

July 21 – Not so humble tea bags

Did you know that tea bags contain plastic? No, neither did I. There was an article on the topic on the Plastic Free July social feed. Turns out that many teabags are actually only 70-80% biodegradable because they also contain polypropylene. See also this article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I’ve a couple of single infusers at home, as I used to buy loose leaf tea. Once the current supply of bags gone, I’ve decided to go back. All the black tea brands I like are available loose leaf anyway. So: no excuse, really.

Most brands of tea bags actually contain 20 to 30% heat-resistant polypropylene.

July 24 – Disposing of old single-use bags

Cleanaway has put together this short and informative video on plastic bag use in Queensland. If you’ve stopped using them, it shows you how to dispose of your remaining bags responsibly.

July 29 – Shoes, groceries and planning ahead

It’s Saturday. I take a trip to the legendary Downes Shoes in the Valley to replace my ancient pair of Doc Martins. They come in a cardboard box and I don’t ask for a bag. No plastic for me today.

Then on the way home I decide to get a few groceries at my local and – dang! – realise I have none of my reusable hessian bags in the car. So after I get home I find a spot to permanently store some reusable bags – in the storage pouch behind the front seat.

A plastic-free trip to see Dr Martin.

How did I do?

First, let’s look at how I went with my pledge to avoid the single-use plastic “TOP 4”: plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws.

  1. Straws – Avoided these completely.
  2. Water bottles – Stopped reusing my single-use commercial bottled water container due to a possible nasty called BPA; switched to a dedicated BPA-free water bottle.
  3. Takeaway coffee cups – Had a few lapses but used my Smug Mug about 95% of the time. Also saved money on my coffee by buying from cafes that offer a discount for coffee in reusable takeaway cups.
  4. Single-use plastic bags – This was the hardest, even though I had a head start using mostly reusable grocery bags for the last 10 years or so.  I’m now keeping and reusing plastic produce (fruit & vege) bags; when these are gone I plan to replace them with non-plastic produce bags.  Reusable bags now also have a permanent home in my car.

Still works in progress

  • I need to find a compact foldable reusable bag to carry around in my shoulder bag for unplanned purchases of anything from groceries to clothes.
  • Food waste. I’ve bought some big planter boxes to plant a veggie garden in the spring, so now I have a good reason to get a compost bin.
  • Tea bags. Amazed and disappointed that these one-use items contain plastic. I’ll return to using a metal infuser once my current stock of black tea bags runs out. Buying loose leaf tea (unless its the posh boutique kind) is cheaper too.
  • The OTHER plastic bag: produce bags.  In line with soon-to-be-enforced government bans including Queensland in 2018, during July Woolworths and Coles announced a phase out of single-use plastic grocery bags nationally, choosing instead to sell more durable plastic bags and hessian bags to customers who don’t bring their own. So that’s some progress. But why are supermarkets and governments not talking about the single-use plastic produce bags in the fruit and veggie section? I did some research and turned up little. Seems that action on this one has been left to us customers. So, who’s with me?