Plastic Free July, an initiative started in Australia in 2011, is making its global debut this year. It’s a campaign designed to make us think about how we use plastic in our daily lives in an effort to get us to eliminate single-use plastic from our routines. There is no doubt that plastics play a significant role in improving our quality of life (i.e., bicycle helmets, hearing aids, etc.), but our growing reliance on single-use plastics is not only creating environmental problems (six of the top 10 items found during the Ocean Conservancy’s 2012 Coastal Cleanup were single-use plastics), but it’s perpetuating this myth that there are unlimited natural resources on this planet, so therefore we can feel free to use and dispose of them as we wish.
We know this is not the case, but our routines continue to support the disposable lifestyle – and many of us find it difficult to break bad habits. The Plastic Free July initiative challenges people to make a commitment to eliminate single-use plastics from their lives for one day, one week, one month or longer. If it becomes too difficult to go cold turkey, they suggest that you tackle the top 4 (straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles and coffee cup lids).
During last year's International Coastal Cleanup, approximately 1,019,902 plastic bags were retrieved. If you ate jellies, could you tell the difference?
Any contribution to the effort, they say, is a step in the right direction. They are right. As the Director of Conservation at the National Aquarium, I’ve been involved in our cleanup efforts at Fort McHenry for more than a decade. More than 95 percent of the debris we remove from the wetland is plastic or foam and an overwhelming majority of that is single-use. This debris affects the health of our waterways, the health of our wildlife and the health of our communities – and it’s preventable. On one end of the process, we can get much better at waste disposal and recycling in our region. At the other end of the process, we can take steps to dramatically reduce the amount of single-use plastics that we use, keeping it out of the waste stream altogether.
There are several good resources out there if you would like tips on how to take the first step, like living plastic free, My Plastic Free Life and the Ocean Conservancy's smartphone app called Rippl. A couple of years ago, I began my own journey to eliminate the top 4 from my daily routine, and while it has been mostly successful, it hasn’t always been perfect (hint: you can’t take a stainless steel water bottle into Camden Yards to watch an Orioles game). I have reusable shopping bags stashed in my car and my purse and carry an insulated mug with me just about everywhere I go, but more than half the time, I still forget to inform restaurant waiters that I don’t need a straw before one is automatically plopped down on the table. I know changing habits takes time, so I try to give myself a break. More importantly, I know that the real success is not so much when you reach your goal, but when you start making conscious decisions that rely less and less on convenience and more and more on responsible consumerism.
Have you gone plastic free? Are you participating in the Plastic Free July challenge? Share your experience with me in the comments section!