Posted by Sharon on August 16, 2019


Plastic-free July has come and gone, The best story I saw during the month was Happen Films' Life with Less Waste, which I'm recommending wherever I can. AWESOME!!!

Slow and steady behaviour change

It's natural for people to change, to grow, to develop. It's inspiring when people make wholesale changes with dramatic, positive impacts--as does the family in Happen Films' short film. Me? Most of the time, I roll out new habits more slowly, coaxing myself into each new step. Here's my approach.

  • I raise my own awareness. I seek out new knowledge, but that's not all: I seek out success stories that increase my hope and my practical sense that "I can do this." I seek knowledge and stories both through the media and also through face-to-face community.
  • I explore achievable goals. Then I set small but firm commitments, working with them until they become second nature. I don't treat small infidelities like failures (that way leads to despair, for me); instead, I see them as learning opportunities and as chances to renew my priorities.
  • I declare my intentions publicly, to motivate myself. There's plenty of research that shows people are highly motivated to align their public and private selves. To go on the public record, I teach and I write. Talking to friends and eco-support networks is also effective.

Steps on a journey

Plastics reduction is currently one of my top-of-mind, personal eco-goals, in large part because of the positive pull of my public self. I was recently hired to facilitate an end-of-June workshop for the Palmy Plastic Pollution Challenge, and now I'm writing an Organic NZ article on microplastics. These opportunities are beautifully reinforcing my private views, transforming my personal values into personal actions and commitments. Here are some of the steps my family has taken since mid-June.

1. We now buy milk in glass bottles. Hurrah for our local organic dairy, which makes this easy for their financially-contributing community partners! (I'm referring to a legal agreement that looks like a producer-customer relationship, but isn't.)

2. I no longer buy coffee in takeaway cups. Either I remember to bring my own, or I take the time to sit down and have a break, or it's not that important. Since I can't be bothered to remember my own, this is benefitting my wallet and mitigating my caffeine addiction!

3. We have long been reluctant to buy takeaways in single-use plastic containers. We now refuse to do so. The unanticipated bonus? My teenager wanted a takeaway curry so much that she arranged a BYO container deal with the neighbourhood shop. I wasn't planning on a parenting win! I'm delighted to see my daughter finding high-agency ways to respect my values while pursuing her own desires.

4. I'm experimenting with writing more with pencils. I don't like this as well, but I feel an embedded change coming. I use, like, a zillion throw-away plastic pens a year. I know refillable fountain pens are another alternative.

5. We're raising our awareness of the health problems linked to plastic food packaging. I don't like throwing out or even recycling the plastic containers I bought years and years ago, but now that I've learnt the harm done by my son's black plastic lunch box, I need to replace it. (Black plastics are particularly harmful in terms of leached chemicals.) Same goes for other plastics in our kitchen. The result? We now have lots of small plastic containers for organising the garage. I'm not willing to throw out the plastics we already have when we can meaningfully repurpose them.

6. I've visited the newest bulk bin shop in town, and I've fallen in love. I'll be buying their legumes, spices, and edible seeds, for starters. I've limited my initial shopping-change commitments so I'll actually follow through. Once I've made a habit of stopping by the store ...

7. I've registered for a RECAP workshop called "Guide to low-waste living." Some of my friends have asked, don't you already know that stuff? Here's the trick. From the beginning, I've been involved in RECAP because I knew I needed community support for eco-living. I know I'll come back from the workshop committed to one or two new behaviour changes.

8. I've made my supportive submission on the proposed product stewardship guidelines that the Ministry for the Environment has released for public consultation. Submissions are due 4 October. My #1 point? Yes please to the proposal! The MfE have made the submission process easy: it would be possible to just go through and tick "YES" to each proposed priority project. I've added a few notes. For example, I've asked for the priority list to be expanded to include post-construction waste and treated timber.

9. I've left waste plastic packaging at a store, talking non-confrontationally to the staff about my reasons. The waste is still there, and the door staff aren't going to revolutionise the shop, but each exchange raises awareness, shares values, and inches towards culture change. I let another clerk know I chose their store specifically because they offered organic, 100% cotton options. I'm a scaredy-cat about rocking the boat, so starting conversations with strangers is actually a big step for me.

OOPS, challenges, and learning opportunities

1. The week after giving up takeaway coffees I bought a coffee at a busy cafe at about 2:30. Me and my people were staying to chat, but the staff still brought our drinks in takeaway cups. I asked why. They had an exhausting day (a holiday) and they didn't want too much washing-up at closing time. Sigh. I can respect that. So many of our challenges relate to choosing one good thing over another. What will it be today? Earth care, or people care? Hopefully we'll heal our planetary systems in ways that reduce these types of conflicts. Until then, it's better for me to avoid drinking coffee after 2:00 anyways.

2. I purchased glass milk bottles with square bottoms. These are hard to wash!!! Then one got stolen, and I absolutely freaked out, insanely. (You know what? Sometimes I think I hit an outlier challenge every time I make a new commitment.) The theft hasn't recurred, and I've repurposed the square bottles for dry goods, replacing them with round-bottomed ones for milk runs.

3. For years I have bought rice in cloth sacks. We then reuse the sacks for seed saving. Recently, I went to the same old shop, and they were so busy that they had left an unopened pallet of rice in the aisle. This meant I could see the gobs and gobs of plastics involved in shipping my cloth-packaged rice. As someone mentioned at the Palmy Plastic Pollution workshop, there is unseen "packaging behind packaging behind packaging." Stock room and transport commitments matter, too.

4. My daughter won a "guess how many widgets are in the container" competition. You know what? I hate hate hate swag and giveaways except when people sign up to win each individual item. Once my husband came back from a band gig with a plastic dinosaur someone handed him as a "thank you." DINOSAURS! The habit of giving away consumer "prizes" that people might not want has got to stop. That said, I've been involved in prize draws before: Win a fruit tree! A rainwater barrell! A beeswax wrap!

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Not there yet

If you look at my household waste stream, it's still dominated by single-use plastics. Each time I take out the rubbish and recycling, I can learn something new about my consumption patterns. I won't go plastic-free all at once like the people I most admire, but I'm writing this to make a new public commitment. I'll make the journey one step at the time, and as soon as one action is embedded, I'll start looking to the next.