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Plastic Free July 2022: A Step-By-Step Guide

Plastic Free July 2022: A Step-By-Step Guide

Jul 7th 2022

And just like that, it's July!

This means it is the start of Plastic Free July! For me, Plastic Free July is a time to take stock in my habits and business practices and take tangible steps to reduce unnecessary, single-use plastic (though we expand it to include all unnecessary single-use). It feels cleansing and invigorating (think New Years' Resolutions but more tangible), and I've found that a few new habits stick long-term each year.

A Brief History of Plastic Free July

In 2011, a group at the Western Metropolitan Regional Council in Perth, Australia, decided as an office to avoid single-use plastic for July. They kept plastic they used in a canvas bag and shared wins and ideas with each other. How awesome is this collaborative and positive approach?

Fast forward six years, and a campaign founder, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, helped form a non-profit called The Plastic Free Foundation, which spearheaded the now official, worldwide Plastic Free July.

Women With Plastic Free Book Cover

If you're looking for some excellent reading material, there is no better time than to read Prince-Ruiz's wonderful book: Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters.

Through  Plastic Free July’s website, you can pledge to avoid single-use packaging, avoid the top four single-use plastics (plastic bags, plastic bottles, straws, and coffee cups), or go completely plastic-free.

The Facts: Why Is Plastic Such A Problem?

When you say “Plastic Crisis,” most people envision sea turtles and the ocean. And ocean plastic pollution is undoubtedly a crisis that is front of mind for many of us. But to truly understand the challenges related to plastic, it is critical to look across the entire lifecycle.

The Plastic Lifecycle

Extraction and Production: The Use of Petroleum or Monocrop Inputs

While much of the popular conversation about plastics is related to ocean pollution, we believe some of the more problematic aspects are related to the extraction and transportation of the raw material that goes into plastic - fossil fuels.

The vast majority of plastic in use today is made from fossil fuels.

About 4-5% of oil consumption worldwide is used for plastics. However, if our current reliance on plastics persists, it is estimated that plastic will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050.

We’ve also seen that when demand for oil dips, oil and gas companies find ways to push more virgin plastic consumption, to help offset this reduction in their primary revenues.

BP forecasts that plastics will represent 95% of its demand growth from 2020 to 2040!

Oil Demand Growth Chart

From: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/21419505/oil-gas-price-plastics-peak-climate-change

This is problematic! Slowly (but surely!),  the world is making strides in replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. It would be a significant blow if we are successful on this front, only to find that fossil fuels continue to be extracted long-term to meet our growing need for plastics.

It is tempting to think that bioplastics can be a silver bullet solution here - an alternative to plastic not made from fossil fuel. This is not true.

When EcoEnclose thinks about “Plastic-Free,” we do not consider bioplastics to be a viable part of this strategy. When you consider the challenges posed by plastic across its entire life cycle, it becomes clear that  bioplastics are NOT plastic-free and are simply another type of plastic.

Unfortunately, the only truly viable options for bioplastics currently are made from corn, sugarcane, potatoes, and trees. However, producing and harvesting these crops to replace the volume of plastic we use today would have devastating consequences for our planet. These solutions will raze forests, destroy biodiversity, degrade soils, acidify our oceans, and require fossil fuels for fossil fuels fertilizers and pesticides.

When we make plastic out of corn, about  80% is made from fossil fuels because of how much oil and gas is required to power farming equipment and produce chemical fertilizers.

Extraction, Refining, and Production: Human Health Impact and Environmental Racism in Action

The extraction of oil and gas is also a significant problem in itself. Refining natural gas and producing plastic releases carcinogens and other toxins and pollutants into the atmosphere, creating health hazards for local communities.

This is a major environmental justice issue.

One of the most well-known examples of this environmental racism is “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana. This area is home to a predominantly Black community and expands for 85 miles along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The community lives in proximity to over 150 factory plants and refineries, referred to as “Cancer Alley” by the residents who noticed the overwhelming number of cancer patients in the area. The area is the second-largest producer of petrochemicals in the country.

The residents are 50 times more likely to get cancer due to the polluted air than the average American.

Use of Plastics: Human Health Impact

It’s not just the extraction, refining, and manufacturing of plastic that has negative health consequences.

Plastics can also leach hazardous chemicals that threaten human health, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). The Endocrine Society and the IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network) recently shared a summary of international research on the health impacts of EDCs, chemicals that disturb the body’s hormone systems and can cause cancer, diabetes, and reproductive disorders, and neurological impairments in developing fetuses and children.

Their report linked toxic chemical additives in the plastics we use every to specific negative health impacts on the endocrine system.

There are over one thousand EDCs in use, including bisphenol A and related chemicals, flame retardants, phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), dioxins, UV-stabilizers, and toxic metals such as lead and cadmium.

End of Life: Impact of Waste Management

Unfortunately, recycling rates for plastic - and, in fact, for all materials that we consider in the US (including paper, glass, and aluminum) - is still embarrassingly low.

This means that most plastic produced and used domestically is landfilled, incinerated, or littered.

Today, technologies that incinerate, co-incineration, or gasify plastics release toxic metals such as lead and mercury, organic substances (dioxins and furans), acid gases, and other toxic substances to the air, water, and soils.

This leads to exposure to toxic substances for workers and nearby communities, including through inhalation of contaminated air, direct contact with contaminated soil or water, and ingestion of foods grown in an environment polluted with these substances. Toxins from emissions, fly ash, and slag in a burn pile can travel long distances and deposit in soil and water, eventually entering human bodies after being accumulated in the tissues of plants and animals.

End of Life: Marine (and Land) Plastic Pollution

Over eight million metric tons of plastic trash are estimated to end up in the ocean yearly. At current pollution rates, the ocean will contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025 and more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050.

This is not just insanely gross and depressing! This plastic is also harmful to oceans and marine life in countless ways, which will reduce biodiversity worldwide and ultimately harm the health and food supply of us humans.

For example, fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, leading to intestinal injury and death (not to mention how this transfers plastic waste up the food chain). A quarter of the fish at California markets have plastic in their guts (largely microfibers). Some research indicates that half of the sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic. Thousands of seabirds eat plastic every year. Plastic ingestion reduces the storage volume of the stomach, signaling to birds that they are full and leading them to consume less food and starve. An estimated 60 percent of all seabird species have eaten pieces of plastic, which is predicted to increase to 99 percent by 2050. Marine mammals also ingest and get tangled in plastic. Plastic debris is rampant in the habitat of endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and entanglement deaths are undermining their recovery efforts.

It is important to note, however, that 80% of the marine plastic pollution in the world comes from a small set of countries: the Philippines, India, Malaysia, China, and Indonesia.

As you consider ways you can help reduce marine plastic pollution: while eliminating plastic from your life is certainly one step, recognize that so many other actions could have an even more significant impact. For example, consider donating to non-profits supporting plastic bans in  countries with poor infrastructure for waste management. In addition, prioritize using ocean plastic in your products or purchases, helping to fund systems and economies in these countries to clean up ocean-bound plastic.

Finally, for me, plastic is a tough material because it - in some ways - has become the poster child for our consumption-focused society. Because plastic is so cheap, so durable, and so “single-use,” it has played a massive role in what we expect as consumers - extremely inexpensive, overseas manufactured items that can be used for a short period and then (because of how cheap they are) disposed of without concern.

The “Dirty Four”

Plastic is a broad word. EcoEnclose  defines plastic as any synthetic polymer whose primary backbone is carbon (regardless of the raw materials used to generate that carbon).

But, not all plastics are equal!

Some pose far less of a health threat than others. Some are very easy to recycle. Some are very unlikely to become plastic pollution. Others are undeniably bad for human health. Some are highly likely to become litter.

In the world of produce, there is a concept called “The Dirty Dozen” - produce that is particularly harmful to the environment and humans when grown conventionally with heavy pesticides.

There is a similar concept of “bad plastics,” or plastics that are much more difficult to recycle and are likely to become litter.

Plastic by the Numbers

PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) are readily recyclable and have strong domestic markets. LDPE (#4) is thin-film recyclable, requiring its own, source-separated recycling stream; however, it is easily recycled with strong domestic markets.

PET, HDPE, and LDPE are also relatively safe materials. While you would not want to microwave them or put them on the bottom shelf of the dishwasher (because this can cause them to leach chemicals into the food you eat off them), they are relatively stable and not made with the EDCs that are so problematic.

We should avoid PVC (#3), PS (#6), and “Other” (#7)! Note that #7 captures a lot of different plastics, including PLA (a corn-based bio-plastic that can sometimes be industrially composted). So unless you see a BPI Compostable Certification logo on a #7 plastic - landfill it!

PP (#5) is an interesting case. We have coded it as “red” for now, but this may change as our domestic reclaiming markets for the material grow. Polypropylene has historically been hard to recycle in the US; however, its market is growing. It is recyclable in some municipalities (like ours here in Boulder, Colorado) but is not necessarily “readily recyclable.”

As you think about your actions this Plastic Free July, we strongly encourage you to start with the “bad” plastics, identifying ways to remove these from your business and home before moving to the more readily recyclable plastics.

Making Thoughtful Swaps

Unfortunately, many of the challenges posed by single-use plastics are present (though in different ways) in many of the potential materials you might consider swapping your plastic with.

For example, many will replace their plastic with aluminum or glass. While aluminum and glass do not carry the same end-of-life concerns as plastic, both are made from non-renewable resources, are highly energy-intensive to produce and transport/store, and aluminum in particular, is very hazardous for the communities that live near mining and smelting facilities.

We know there are no truly regenerative materials today, so it is impossible to swap plastic with something “perfect.” But the following can help guide your decision-making.

Eliminate

The best change you can make is to eliminate the use of the material. For example, if you use single-use straws, consider not using straws anymore! If you are reconsidering your plastic shopping bag, consider simply carrying your items out of the store if you have a small load.

Seek Durable and Long-Lasting Alternatives

If elimination isn’t possible, reuse is second best. But, be very analytical when finding your reusable swaps. For example, let’s say you are replacing your single-use plastic grocery bag with a reusable polypropylene bag. Most studies show that you need to use that polypropylene bag 20-40 times (depending on how much recycled content is in it) to ensure it has at least the same carbon and waste impact as the single-use bag you are replacing. So, you’ll need a reusable bag that is durable enough to withstand 20-40+ uses, and you need to make sure you are reusing it this many times.

Consider Non-Plastic Single-Use Alternatives

If you are most considered about ocean plastic pollution, you’re likely focused on paper and other natural fibers. Source these thoughtfully! The worst thing you can do is replace your plastic with a virgin paper alternative that comes from unverified sources (and can therefore be from ancient and endangered forests!). If you take this step, your choice will likely have a worse impact on the planet than the plastic you are replacing.

Use this hierarchy to help you responsibly navigate the world of sourcing natural fibers.

Natural Fibers Hierarchy of Inputs Chart

If you are considering non-renewable, non-biodegradable alternatives (such as glass or plastic), we recommend doing a lifecycle analysis of these alternate materials. Do this analysis with an open mind about the results and then make a thoughtful choice from that point on.

In some cases, you may find that the plastic single-use is better. If you find yourself in this position, read on, as you’ll find it empowering to know that you can have a very big impact only on our footprint and on the plastic crisis but sticking with plastic and opting for 100% recycled content.

Prioritize Recycled Content

Ultimately, building a truly circular economy will be a large part of how we will address our overall environmental crisis - from biodiversity loss to climate change to waste to air pollution. This is one in which everything we produce and use is either made with reclaimed/recycled materials or comes from truly regenerative virgin inputs.

Eliminating plastic alone will not get us to this future. It can move us farther away from this end vision if done poorly.

No matter what material you use - whether you have to stick with plastic or you move to other renewable or non-renewable alternatives -  look for as much recycled (post-consumer!) waste as possible. This decision will have a massive positive impact on your carbon footprint, the waste crisis worldwide, and your contributions to building a truly circular economy long-term.

Prioritizing Recycled Content Chart

Summary

  • Research so you know the issues and why you are eliminating plastic from your home and business this month.
  • Recognize the hierarchy of plastics, and focus on eliminating the “bad” plastics first
  • Remember the following order of priority when reducing plastics:
    • Eliminating materials altogether
    • Replacing plastics with reusable alternatives
  • Recognize recycled content is critical! Eliminating plastic is no excuse to disregard the amount of recycled content used.

Other Resources

Plastic Free July: A Guide to Help Your Business Ditch Single-Use Plastic

Plastic-Free Packaging Resource Center

EcoEnclose's Plastic-Free Packaging