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Plastic Free July Series - Notes from California

Posted by Friends of the Earth on July 09, 2018 at 11:23 AM

plastic free july

Marion Briggs joined us earlier this year as a volunteer, due to her enthusiasm she quickly became the driving force in planning the Sick of Plastic day of action on April 21st. Marion has since joined our board, a joyful member of the team.

Along with a number of Sick of Plastic campaigners, Marion has taken on the Plastic Free July challenge to try and refuse single use plastics. Spending her Summer back in her hometown in California, Marion shares her ups and downs of trying to live without plastic.

Plastic Free July - Notes from California

I wish it were so easy. I wish that I could just turn my back on plastics, and find other alternatives quickly, easily, and at a reasonable cost. My intentions are great, but my results so far have been less than stellar. It all started on the first day of my "Plastic Free July", when I went camping with my friends and neighbours. It should have been relatively easy to avoid buying items in plastic while out in the mountains...until another camper drove by offering me their two styrofoam coolers. They were leaving and were going to throw them out. Now, while styrofoam is not plastic, I consider it even worse than plastic when it comes to environmental impact, as it does not break down at all, and is not recyclable. So what could I do? I took the two coolers in order to extend their usefulness a few more days, and went in search of ice. As far as I can tell, it is absolutely impossible to buy ice that is not wrapped in plastic, and since I didn't have a portable freezer with me (which of course would have made the styrofoam coolers redundant), I succumbed and purchased four bags of ice in plastic packaging. Not an auspicious start.

Next came breakfast for the gang. I was in charge of oatmeal and fixings for 60 (yes...60). I did as I always do, which was to get quick cooking oats in cardboard, and then to hunt around for toppings. Apples and cinnamon were easy to come by without plastic, but nuts and berries were impossible. Since I had promised berries, I again succumbed to the plastic clamshells surrounding the blueberries. Breakfast was a huge and popular success with everyone else, but I felt disappointed and frustrated that I couldn't produce what I wanted without plastic. 20180705_090116

I got home from my camping trip in slightly dimmed spirits but felt that being back in civilization would help me in my quest to go plastic free. Results so far have been mixed. 

As the first week has gone on, I have had several small triumphs along the way. IMG_20180706_142132 I found a lovely bamboo razor in the men's section (none in the women's section - only plastic razors), that even came in a paper package with no plastic wrapping.  The only plastic on it was the little cover over the actual razor blades. I've also enjoyed shopping at the big Californian grocery stores, with their piles of fresh, loose produce, and aisles of bulk goods at Wholefoods. I also found a really great shampoo bar in a little cardboard box, and I'm now a complete convert. The place where I was stopped short was when I tried to find berries of any kind again without plastic. No matter how holistic or green the grocery store, all berries were in plastic clam shells. The same went for pre-washed baby lettuce (something I am slightly addicted to...). 

Another downside to stores that offer package free is the cost.  Here in Silicon Valley people call Wholefoods "Whole Paycheck." The prices are so high that even the uber wealthy probably only shop here occasionally. I certainly couldn't imagine shopping here regularly. Whenever I've been tempted to do a real "shop" there (we're a family of 4), I've always been sickened by the cost at the till, and have sworn it off for months afterwards. I'm just not sure how this is helpful to society if most people can't afford to shop there.

So this morning I took myself to the local farmers market. This would be heaven, for sure!! I did find all the berries I could want in cardboard boxes. They were absolutely beautiful, sweet, farm fresh and ready to eat on the spot. I had even brought along my cloth shopping bags to put them gingerly into.  There were also lovely heads of fresh lettuce, and large bins with baby greens in them. However, to my dismay, if you wanted to buy anything loose, you had to put it in a plastic bag. They were everywhere. Since I haven’t yet had time to buy cloth produce bags (okay, I was ignorant and didn't realize I needed them), I was completely out of luck. There was exactly one produce stand that had plastic bags made from 30% recycled materials. Everyone else had single use plastic bags hanging from their stands. And all of the shoppers grabbed them without a second thought.


 This brings me to my what has me really churning and thinking this week. Trying to go without plastic, while a noble quest (and one I will continue on for the remainder of this month), is more like unraveling a sweater than I had realized. I am quickly drawn down the rabbit hole and into examining the entire waste management system both here and around the world. In Ireland, plastic is so ubiquitous and overwhelming that it is an easy thing to focus on.  Certainly, immediate measures need to be taken to reduce its use and impact. Here in California, however, with the scorching hot days, the previous years of drought, the millions of pine trees dying in the mountains (62 million in 2016 alone) and the constant reminder to save water, carbon is much more important to shoppers than plastic. Clamshells? You can recycle those!  What about that car you’re driving? Is it electric? Where did that coffee come from? How much carbon did it use? What about that milk? Glass bottles are great, but they are much heavier than plastic and use much more carbon to transport…

So at this early point in my plastic free experiment, I seem to have more questions than answers. I realize that one could easily fall into hopelessness and despair if one were to really examine our choices and our current trajectory. Instead, I will continue to believe that every person and every choice makes a difference. That doing something is always better than doing nothing, and when the statistics get too challenging, I will continue to take action in order to make myself feel better, and to help change the trajectory we are on. For in the end, that is all any of us can do. Our small part – knowing that if enough of us do even a little, we can affect huge change on a global scale. And that gives me hope.

Over the next week or two I intend to follow my plastic berry clamshells to their ultimate demise. I would like to understand what the California recycling program really looks like, and how California is dealing with both recyclable plastics and single use plastics. I'll keep you posted! 


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