Greenpoint: Taking on another plastics challenge

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It’s July, and therefore time for the plastic-free July challenge, an effort launched a decade ago by Australia’s Plastic Free Foundation. Organizations around the world have picked up on it, staging cleanups of shorelines and parks, advocating for laws that require plastic producers to be responsible for collection and disposal, and using the challenge to ask all of us to examine our own plastic consumption.

Years ago, I signed up for a plastic-free February challenge by an organization that had decided the shortest month of the year was the best month for a very challenging challenge. Because eliminating plastic from your life is really hard. But the problem of plastic pollution is really big and getting worse, not better.

You can start by vowing not to buy any single-use plastics — individual sized drinks and snacks, for instance. And refusing straws and takeout flatware, bringing your reusable bags to the grocery store and your reusable mugs to the coffee shop.

But that’s not nearly enough. You’d need to stop buying juice and milk and soda altogether, and skip most takeout food. And still most of your groceries will come wrapped in plastic, even when you try bulk buying — the 5-pound plastic bag of carrots is better than the individually wrapped European cucumbers, but it’s still plastic. You can make a concerted effort to shop exclusively at the kinds of stores that not only sell in bulk but also let you bring in your own containers to fill, but you’ll probably end up paying more. Anyway, what about your toothbrush, the containers that hold your shampoo and dish detergent, and the bag your dog food comes in? And your reusable produce bag and shopping bag. And all your clothing that isn’t 100% natural fiber.

The problem with plastics, of course, is that they never go away. You can recycle some of them into new or different products, but only 9% of all the plastic waste produced since 1950 has been recycled, according to Our World in Data. And even if it’s recycled — detergent bottles made into fleece jackets or park benches, for instance — what happens to those products at the end of their life cycles? Because in addition to the very visible plastic bags and bottles and fishing lines in the ocean, other plastics, including synthetic fibers in clothing, break down into smaller and smaller pieces that end up in our water, soil and bodies.

My own plastics-free February was a dismal failure, in that I did not come close to eliminating plastics from my life. It was successful in that it opened my eyes to how pervasive plastics are in our lives, even for people who try hard to eliminate excess, waste and pollutants of all kinds.

And as discouraging as it can be to hold up your own small life in the face of mountains of plastic, there are steps we all can take. Over time, swap out your plastic reusable shopping bags for canvas ones, which you can wash after using without worrying about them shedding microplastics through the water system. I pick up sturdy canvas bags when I find them in thrift stores, although I still have lots of woven plastic shopping bags.

See how you can swap out some of your personal care items to reduce plastic — bamboo toothbrushes, bar shampoo and soap that come with no packaging or in a piece of tissue paper. If you can’t avoid food or drinks packaged in plastic, buy the largest container you can use without waste, and portion the contents out at home. Look for produce that isn’t wrapped or bagged, or shop directly from farmers if you can.

And keep asking your stores and your communities to work to cut back on all kinds of plastics. Because we need to fight this one together — and not just in July.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on July 17. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

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