Plastic Free July 2022. ‘For the love of plastics’: reflections on a challenging month.

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As we learned from our 2021 experience of Plastic Free July (PFJ), reducing our reliance on plastic packaging is challenging. This continued to be the case for PFJ 2022, with new challenges linked to the wider re-opening of society following the Covid pandemic. With Covid-19 restrictions lifting in many countries, travelling for work and conferences resumed. Several of us travelled for academic events, and we discovered that these large events were not particularly conducive to plastic-free living. There were specific challenges associated with food and catering at large conferences and other academic events, where they did not tend to prioritise reducing or avoiding plastics (especially when catering for large numbers). A few of us attended one specific conference, where it was notable that the conference organisers were making a commendable effort to avoid single-use plastics for the main meal events (i.e., by using bamboo wood for plates and cutlery). However, such attention was not given to the refreshments offered at break times, with biscuits portioned and wrapped in single-use plastics, leaving us a bit disappointed. The choice we faced was to have a snack or refreshments while networking with the other participants or leave and hope to find a plastic-free alternative. While the responsible action might have been to avoid the single-use plastic packaged snacks, the days were long and tiring, and we found ourselves a captive audience for these packaged snacks that quickly relieved our hunger and low energy levels.

The end of the state of emergency imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic also meant a return to normalcy, or the “new normal”, as several media outlets have called it. For many of us, life has returned to the hectic, time-constrained lives previously characterised as ‘normal’. As the 2021 PFJ blogs point out [see “Keep Calm and Carry On: Our reflections on participating in Plastic-Free July”], going plastic-free requires money and time to explore and visit different supermarkets and grocery shops to buy diverse types of loose products. For some of us, we found we had continued with some of the changes from PFJ2021; these changes had become (or were already) ingrained in our lifestyle habits, accompanied by a form of mindfulness to avoid or reduce plastic packaging. Examples included carrying our own reusable water bottles and coffee cups, habits we had formed that did not feel inconvenient when going to work or for short trips. Other instances of such ingrained habits include using the refill stations for washing up liquids, floor cleaner and body soap (provided by some shops in Lancaster), as well as buying shampoo bars wrapped in paper or without packaging, which are thus easier to recycle than plastic bottles.

Another good practice for some of us is collecting the different types of flexible plastic packaging from various items (food and non-food). For example, although collected from several councils, plastic trays cannot be converted into food grade as recycled plastics and are not suitable for food packaging. Other packaging materials we usually collect are thin plastic films to take to a recycling point in a local supermarket, empty pill packets to take to Superdrug and crisp packets for Terracycle. However, recycling points in supermarkets and shops can sometimes "disappear" without the staff being aware of the current situation regarding in-store recycling points.

Although several of us resolved to go to the local market to have more options for loose fruits and vegetables, life often got in the way, stopping this from happening – we couldn’t find the time to make that trip or found ourselves overly tired from work and other commitments. In these cases, supermarkets were often the favoured place to buy our produce. Supermarket shopping often feels cheaper and faster, and many chains are committed to the plastic-free agenda, with several chains working to reduce the number of products wrapped in plastic packaging. However, as one of our team members pointed out, the packaging not only protects the product but also serves marketing purposes, such as attracting and directing consumers to make purchases. “For instance, ‘fridge baked beans’ that are actually more expensive than the usual tins of beans [photo 1]; and vegan chocolate in ‘plant-based’ packaging, which I had no idea what to do with (I threw it away in the residual waste bin) [photo 2]”.

beans Photo 1. Credits: Clare Mumford

vegan c Photo 2. Credits: Clare Mumford

Despite having less time than last year for plastic-free shopping, some of us were able to avoid some types of plastic packaging. One of our team described purchasing a whole melon (rather than the pre-prepared one), which allowed them to avoid the single-use plastic tray and plastic film covering usually used for chopped melon portions. Avoiding plastic packaging was extended to the consumption of other vegetables and fruits, as well as some herbs, spices and bread, whenever possible.

Another good option for avoiding excessive plastic packaging consumption is to use reusable plastic bags or paper bags that some supermarkets and grocery stores provide in their fresh and loose goods section. Reusable plastic bags can be refilled and are thought to last longer than paper bags. Although this requires the use of plastics, it also results in less paper being thrown away. “The difficult part”, one of us observed, “will be remembering to take the empties with me”.

tea leaves Photo 3. Credits: Clare Mumford

Another good practice adopted by some of us was to buy the packaging materials that are most widely recycled in the UK (United Kingdom). For example, getting cordial in glass bottles rather than plastic (although glass bottles were smaller and more expensive) or finding strawberries in cardboard packaging rather than in plastic trays. To some of us, cartons for beverages, like TetraPak, appeared as a good solution, as they claim to be largely recycled. However, after a careful investigation, it seems that only a small percentage of cartons get recycled in the UK due to infrastructural challenges; currently, only one plant manages these. Consequently, on this occasion, this meant going back to buy some products in PET-based bottles or aluminium cans, more widely recycled than cartons.

Even though there are options to go plastic-free in supermarkets and shops [as discussed in the blog “Going Bananas” from PFJ 2021], having access to an allotment to grow fruit and vegetables or knowing someone willing to share what they grow (e.g., a budding gardener) is another route to going plastic-free. Some of us were able to reduce our plastic packaging consumption by growing our own greens and fruits or by having someone in their household who does that. This means that most meals are free of plastic packaging. Yet, plastics can be a valuable ally in gardening. For example, in winter, greenhouses are useful for growing plants that require some protection from the cold, which is usually provided by polyethylene (PE), a plastic film sturdy enough to last for at least a season. Vinylacetate ethylene copolymer (EVA) sheets are used as heat shields in hotter geographies, thus, preventing plants from drying out or getting “burnt” by the sunlight. Without these plastics, gardeners would have to use more water than usual just to keep the plants alive, an impractical option given the water crisis in some geographies this summer.

Overall, although some good habits are with us all year round (e.g., reusable plastic bottles, buying loose products, researching the most recyclable packaging materials, gardening), we realised that during PFJ, we might need to try harder than normal, e.g., abstaining from consuming certain types of food that largely come sold in plastic packaging (e.g., plant-based meat). Despite the compromises in place during PFJ, we found ourselves reverting to our normal diet and shopping habits at the end of the month. For example, one of us admitted that once they finished their stock of “free flowing” tea, they went back to consuming tea bags (that are made of plastics and not recyclable) as “that is significantly less hassle than cleaning the tea infusers/sink and disposing of the spent tea leaves (which I don’t have the opportunity to compost)”.

Our PFJ experience this year confirms some of our ideas from last year and gives some new insights for rethinking the consumer attitude behaviour gap.

Firstly, it is important to maintain the right balance between (a) buying surplus foods that are free from plastic packaging but could potentially go to waste and (b) buying foods in quantities more suited to our needs that come sold in (potentially unrecyclable) plastic packaging. Having more whole fruits and vegetables also means learning to reconfigure our storage spaces and/or eating healthier or going back to meal planning and shopping more frequently, something that we noticed at the end of last year PFJ as well [see “Keep Calm and Carry On: Our reflections on participating in Plastic-Free July”].

Second, as consumers, it seems we are not as much against plastics as we were before. By taking part in PFJ and working on the PPiPL Project more broadly, we are finding alternative reuse of plastics, e.g., finding value in using certain types of plastics for gardening or preferring to reuse sturdy plastic bags to buy loose vegetables and fruit at the supermarket. As one of us reflected, “I […] found my behaviour fascinating as I realise I am not finding single-use plastics repugnant as before. In fact, our research is making me further understand that all can be recycled (despite not having the infrastructure for some), reinforcing a bit of complacency and unintentionally passing the responsibility on to the system”.

Third, although some of us kept up some of the good practices learnt from last year’s PFJ (e.g., collecting and dropping off certain hard to recycle plastics in supermarkets points or refilling our washing-up liquid), we realised that, after all, we are creatures of convenience. Our consumer behaviours relate to what is convenient for buying and having at home (e.g., tea bags versus loose tea leaves). Whilst some of us feel embarrassed, as we see ourselves being accountable for our behaviour as part of working on this Project (that encourages others to rethink their relationship with plastic packaging), others prefer not to feel too guilty. We are “inching closer” to being plastic-free, one small, good practice at a time. What we found important after this PFJ is to identify a way to stop making unthinking decisions, i.e., just do what is convenient without thinking of the consequences. This way, we continue to challenge our everyday choices and consumption behaviour to promote a more sustainable relationship with plastic packaging in our lives.

Authors: Prof. Maria Piacentini, Dr Clare Mumford, Marta Ferri, Dr Alison Stowell, Dr John Hardy, Prof. Linda Hendry, Dr Savita Verma, Dr Charlotte Hadley, Dr Alex Skandalis, Dr James Cronin.

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