Want to Go Plastic-Free? Start With One Thing.

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Slow, incremental changes are more effective than trying to do it all at once.

Millions of people signed up for the Plastic-Free July challenge this summer, pledging to avoid all single-use plastics for 31 days. The idea behind the challenge is to give people a set amount of time to explore plastic-free living and to find support in knowing others are doing the same thing. An accompanying website offers ideas for eliminating plastic in all areas of one's life and stories about other people's successes.

It sounds wonderful. I've written admiringly about the Plastic-Free July challenge in past years, but have never actually done it myself. That, perhaps, is telling. Why would a lifestyle writer for TreeHugger not jump aboard this challenge with enthusiasm? The reason is that I don't think a one-month dive into the plastic-free world is particularly effective. It's the equivalent of a crash diet, of tweaking one's lifestyle so abruptly and extremely that it's probably impossible to maintain. August 1st would roll around with a sense of relief, and most of the previous month's efforts would be forgotten.

Don't get me wrong – there is value in trying to weed plastic out of one's life, but I believe that the kinds of changes that stick are incremental; they are introduced slowly and steadily over time, accumulating over months and years to a point when you can state confidently that you live (almost) plastic-free.

Guardian columnist Van Badham discovered how hard it is to cut out plastic during her own Plastic-Free July challenge. She wrote,

"Dairy was a disastrous prospect. The supermarket sells seven brands of cream; they’re all made locally – and every single one comes in a plastic container. I ordered silicon containers to freeze leftovers in – they arrived padded with plastic bubbles. A tin pot of cream deodorant came wrapped in plastic security stickers. Imaginative schemes for waste minimisation were met with pre-emptive defeat; the attempt to cater a dinner party from a medieval (!) cookbook demanded ingredients that only came plasticised."

Perhaps it was challenging because Badham did not have the chance to research, create, and build alternative supply networks. This takes time, not a single month. One commenter put this well (edited for brevity):

"Going plastic-free for a month is like telling an alcoholic to go sober for a month. It's the wrong approach. You need to change your habits for the long term, by increments. Make one single change per month, establish it, and don't change it."

My own household is far from plastic-free, but over the years I've managed to figure out where to buy milk in glass bottles, eggs from a farmer who accepts old cartons for reuse, meat and cheese wrapped in paper, and pantry items in glass jars. I've learned how to pick my own fruit and freeze it, how to make yogurt and bread from scratch, how to wash my hair with shampoo bars, and always remember my reusable coffee cup. I've gradually accumulated a collection of zero waste tools, such as stainless steel food containers, zippered cloth food bags, glass jars of all sizes, cotton mesh produce bags, water bottles and travel coffee mugs and more.

These little habits and practices take time to form, and if I'd tried to do everything at once, it would have been a discouraging failure. It also would have been expensive to buy the tools and containers up front.

So, rather than giving plastic-free living an all-out effort for one month, pick one aspect of your life that you'd like to make plastic-free and focus on that for a month. Then, choose something different the following month. In a year, you will have transformed your shopping habits and greatly reduced the amount of plastic in your home.