habit shift: plastic-free july.

July 3, 2018

We’re spending the week at my mom and dad’s house and even though I’m spending a lot of my time hiding out in my dad’s office trying to get my work done, I’m taking advantage of bare feet, and grass between my toes, and dips in the salt water (and the neighbors’ pool). 

It’s no secret that I love summertime. But a side-effect of the glorious sunshine and wanting to be outside so much, is that summertime brings with it a lot of so-called disposables. In the city, garbage cans overflow with towers of iced coffee cups. At the beach, picnic goers fill tabletops with plastic cutlery and cups. In my own life, there are plastic sunscreen bottles and marshmallows for s’mores that come in plastic bags. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s summer, but I do think it’s an especially good time for paying attention to the amount of plastic waste that we create and to make an effort to do a bit better. 

Inspiration abounds in the Plastic-Free July challenge. It was started in 2011 in Western Australia and has since grown into a full-fledged nonprofit aimed at reducing plastic waste. On their site they offer lots of really simple ways to get involved, including this handy checklist. We’ve already done a lot to incorporate what’s there into our everyday lives, but here are a few things I’m trying to be better about this month (and always):

Piping up: I’ve had a few accidental single-use plastic encounters lately, mostly caused by not being proactive enough about stopping the plastic from getting in my hands in the first place. This month, and going forward, I’m trying to be more vocal about my requests to go plastic-free. I think the best route to take is direct communication from the get-go. If I’m ordering a drink in a restaurant, especially anything frozen or on ice, I try to assume it’s going to be served with a straw and simply say, “No straw please” when I place my order. (This recently backfired when a server misheard me and presented my drink with a straw and a flourish that he had accommodated my request for a straw. Win some, lose some.) Same goes for kids cups at restaurants. In most establishments in the US, servers are trained to bring kids lidded plastic cups with straws from the start. I try to remember to simply say, “These guys don’t need kids cups—glasses are fine,” as soon as we’re seated. In sum? I’m asking for what I’d like clearly and tipping a bit extra for the kindness.

Coming prepared: I’m admittedly not someone who likes toting very much along with me, and I’d typically rather do without a straw than remember to pack one, but when approaching summertime dining out in particular—especially in the kind of summery establishments that serve casual fare on paper plates and with plastic utensils—I’m trying to remember to pack our family a few essentials, picnic-style. You can invest in special gear, or just remember to bring along a handful of forks, a few reusable straws, and a few cloth napkins. On my birthday, my family ate at a local seafood joint and we packed our own cups, utensils, napkins, and wine! It was so satisfying to know that when we left, we didn’t leave a collection of throwaway plastic behind.

Thinking small: Two years ago, the World Economic Forum put out a report stating that by the year 2050 there’d be more plastics in the ocean than fish. The problem with plastics is that they break down into increasingly microscopic pieces, but they don’t disappear. Cutting out single-use plastic is one huge step in the right direction, but thinking about other less visible sources of plastic pollution is another. In our family we strive to wear natural fibers, but summertime means bathing suits and rash guards and other things that are made from a combination of fabrics that are comfy to wear in water, but not necessarily the best for it. Fabrics like polyamide, polyester, lycra, and elastane are all made from plastics that break down as they’re worn and washed and end up in the sea. I’m trying to be more conscious of microplastics that end up in our water ways and I’m currently looking into options for better stemming that flow. I recently spotted the guppy friend in a story from Jess Carpenter. It’s a bag that captures microplastics and keeps them from getting emptied along with the rest of the dirty water draining from the washing machine. Other things that help? Generally, trying to be gentler with your clothes: Wash in cold water, avoid abrasive detergents, hand-wash when possible, decrease your spin cycle, and hang dry.

Encouraging friends: My efforts to curb our family’s plastic use are no secret in this space, but I can be a little bit more shy when approaching the subject with real-life friends. I worry about seeming judgmental or sanctimonious. But I also realize that getting your friends to get on board is one of the best ways to help along actual change. So, let’s lead by example. I’ve been called Mary Poppins on three separate occasions lately as I unpack our picnic basket filled with reusable supplies. (I’m taking it as a compliment.)

Other things:

+ Don’t forget to stay strong with your Plastic-Free Iced Coffees. There’s still a whole lotta summer left!

+ We’ve been using the sweet drawstring bags that the kiddos’ swimsuits came in for toting takeout supplies with us! They’re the perfect size.

+ If you haven’t given them a try already, Plaine Products is encouraging folks to switch to reusable shampoo and conditioner (they also have body lotion, face wash) this week by offering a special discount. We’ve been using their shampoo and conditioner for months now and it’s been terrific. Use the code RMTLplasticfree to get 20% off through July 7, 2018!

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  • Reply Annie July 3, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Thank you so much for this post!!

    It’s hard to not to get discouraged when you see the city
    trashes filled and overflowing with disposables.
    This is a nice reminder that all we can do is control what’s
    in our life and hope to lead others by example.

    Thank you for your hard work and being such a great example!!!


  • Reply Elizabeth July 3, 2018 at 11:32 am

    Hi Erin — I see a lot of information about going plastic free in many ways, but haven’t seen much written about how to deal with garbage bags. I would love to stop getting plastic bags at the grocery story, but honestly, I like using them as trash bags. It takes our household a long time to fill up a conventional gallon trash bag and by then the stink is awful (esp during hotter days like the ones we’re experiencing in nyc now). The grocery store plastic bag is the ideal size for our trash, but I feel terrible about it. Any suggestions on the trash front? Thank you!

    • Reply Kirsten July 4, 2018 at 9:57 am

      What about paper bags? You obviously can’t throw out anything really wet in the trash that way, but if you’re already taking it out pretty frequently that might work! I also just use a small step top trash can with the removable plastic bucket (plastic, I know, but not disposable). I dump the trash in the collection bin and wash out the small bucket. If you’re not squeamish about washing the bucket, that has worked really well for us!

    • Reply Heather July 5, 2018 at 7:15 pm

      Someone pointed out in a parenting forum that any plastic bag can hold garbage–chips bags, frozen fruit or veg bags, etc. Could that work for you? Not as easy to dump stuff in, but it would relieve the awful feeling! If you move toward even less plastic waste in your grocery stream, maybe paper bags could work.

    • Reply Sam July 6, 2018 at 2:35 pm

      People might find this totally gross but I just don’t use liner bags at all. We have curbside compost now which goes in a different bin (our city requests that we line w / compostable plastic bags) makes our trash much less juicy. Like you we use a small trash can and just carry it out and dump it right into our curbside bin, and occasionally wipe it out and semi-sterilize it. It’s so much less gross than it sounds. I cook meat pretty infrequently and throw that packaging away immediately in our outdoor curbside bin because that would make things icky. (Of course then I had a baby and had to get trash bags for the diaper bin – we did mix of cloth through a service and disposable and both require plastic bags to store…)

  • Reply Tony W July 3, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    I usually carry a camping spork and knife set. Sometimes I forget to request not to be given plastic utensils but not often. I never considered getting a straw. I have to look into it 😉

  • Reply Cecily Graham July 3, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    I, too, am taking part in Plastic Free July and finding it a fascinating and liberating experience. Saying no to single use plastics is easier (on the whole) than I expected. I’ve been preparing and practising for a while now and been mostly successful, which feels so empowering. I’ve also had countless conversations about plastic through my blog and other social media, as well as face to face, and people are very open to the topic. Thanks for a great post.

  • Reply Amy July 3, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Individual habit changing is good first step, but public policies is what will have a real impact. Seattle just banned all plastic straws (plastic bags have been banned for years) and I am sure Portland, where I live, will soon follow!

  • Reply Sarah July 3, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    LOVE. I am working on the challenge too. My big one is being an apartment dweller with a dog. We’ve tried biodegradable bags before and they didn’t hold up (let’s just say things got messy). Will keep researching. Recently switched to the Lush shampoo bar and it’s great. Not a fan of the solid conditioner but they have a container re-use program at Lush. And I’m researching the Dame reusable tampon applicator as an alternative to the Diva Cup. 🙂 Small step, big impact.

    • Reply Kat July 12, 2018 at 11:22 am

      Hi Sarah! We had this same problem–I was originally trying compostable bags that weren’t cutting it. We started using Pogi’s Pet Supplies bags which have some downsides (not compostable and not made in the US) but they are biodegradable and they have held up fine for us. I’m not sure which ones you’ve tried, but I just thought that might help.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 12, 2018 at 12:43 pm

        We use compostable bags for the little bit of trash that we throw away. It’s a little silly because of course it’s going to the landfill and not the compost, but so far that’s where we are. Seriously contemplating switching to paper bags, though! There’s so little that’s actually messy in our trash these days that I’m sure it would work…plus, free!

      • Reply Gill F. July 12, 2018 at 1:24 pm

        What about cat litter? We have two cats and scoop their box daily, so we use a bag a day 😮 We only use plastic bags we get at stores, bags that would get tossed regardless, but I still hate the waste. Any thoughts?

        • Reply Alix July 15, 2018 at 12:05 pm

          We use World’s Best Cat Litter, which is flushable and septic safe! Flushing it directly when we scoop twice a day has eliminated the need for large plastic garbage bags. Since our cats are indoor-only and fully vaccinated, this seems to be a safe solution for us. We do occasionally reuse plastic bags from stores / takeaway orders when we clean the box and change the litter, but it’s a much smaller amount.

  • Reply callie July 3, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    I’ve been thinking about changing to Plaine Products for a while. The thought of streamlining shower products for all 4 of us feels like a win. Thanks for the reminder to sign up today! How often do you refill- every 2 months? Our family structure is like yours…just husband with not so much hair 🙂

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 3, 2018 at 2:45 pm

      Just tried to look at the dates! Looks like we started our first bottles in February! We’ve ordered just one shampoo refill at the of April! Still using that and the first conditioner!

  • Reply Mary July 3, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks for the tips!! You’ve encouraged me to finally start bringing my coffee carrier along with me when I’m getting it to go. At first I was a little nervous, but then I realized that it is no big deal. It was so easy that I also brought along a bunch of glass jars for getting bulk goods at the grocery. I bit my tongue from apologizing to the person behind me in line when it took extra time to check out because I thought – maybe cutting down on waste means slowing down, even if just for a few minutes, and maybe that’s a gift! Thanks 🙂

  • Reply Elizabeth Edwards July 3, 2018 at 2:56 pm

    We bought a second set of metal straws in June so that we could have them stashed everywhere – in my bag, in the car with the reusable silverware, in my office, etc. When a straw is offered (or given by default), I refuse it, even though (like this morning) that often means waiting another 10 minutes to have my iced drink (without spilling it on myself) until I can get home/to my office/etc where the straws are stashed.

    We always have a water bottle for our son with us, but despite this, the plastic kiddie cup of water always arrives, complete with straw. At a restaurant over the weekend, I pointedly said that I didn’t need a straw, only to have several left on the table. How do you handle these situations? I’m concerned that even though we didn’t open the straws, they’ll be thrown away anyway.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 3, 2018 at 5:25 pm

      I don’t think there’s anything to do but try our best to send a simple message at the beginning of the meal and and to be kind and gracious when or if the server brings one anyway! There’s years of training and habit at work, so all we can all do is our best!

      • Reply Sophie July 4, 2018 at 4:02 pm

        Agreed — it’s a habit! Chiming in as someone who grew up in France: Forks, knives and spoons have a specific use, but straws? That’s a largely cultural habit, and it’s just as easy to never adopt that habit in the first place. I rarely encountered a straw before coming to the U.S. And now, I’m raising my own child without them — one less implement to tote!

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 5, 2018 at 11:08 am

          Agreed totally. In our house the straws are mostly for fun. Our kids aren’t at all tied to their straws. But when we remember to bring them they make sipping smoothies and bubbly water a little more exciting.

  • Reply Julia July 3, 2018 at 4:46 pm

    Long time reader, first time commenter chiming in to thank you (all of you) for the on-going motivation to resist all the disposable plastic in our world! I thought I’d crowdsource one of my last plastic bugaboos:

    We make a lot of food ahead in my house–soups, broths, beans, pasta sauces–and freeze it. We’ve found the best solution for both freezer storage and ease of thawing on busy nights is to fill ziploc bags and freeze them flat; using our glass food storage containers takes them out of circulation for lunches and weekly leftovers, they’re too bulky for our stupid-small freezer, and they take forever to thaw out. Plus it’s economical to use a bunch of quart bags to store small volumes of broth etc. We try to reuse the ziploc bags, but the freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycles do them in fairly quickly. Has anyone stumbled on a re-useable solution? Long, wide, shallow food containers that would mimic our system? Reusable freezer bags? Another solution that we haven’t thought of yet?

  • Reply Alex July 3, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    Food for thought: I discovered a brand, Ethique, based in New Zealand a few months ago. The company makes pH-balanced shampoo bars (no soap – other foaming agents are used (I’m a microbiologist working for a chemical company)) that work great on my fine hair and sensitive scalp. I’ve used their sample kits, and finally ordered one of their block bars (which is advertised to equal three shampoo bottles). All packaging is compostable, they’re B Corp certified, and they make products for face and the rest of you, too!

  • Reply linh July 4, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for sharing these resources! Seattle finally put a plastic straw ban into effect, after the vote was approved 10 years ago. Hopefully other cities will follow suit with all single-use plastics.

  • Reply Jenny July 4, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    I hated reading that there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. But its definitley kicked me up the bum and I am going to try harder with reducing/cutting single use plastics. I have started buying my fruit and veg from a grocers so have reduced there but I’m going to follow your advice now too. Great post 🙂

  • Reply Jay July 4, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    If it’s the environment vs business interests, guess who wins in TX?

    The Texas Supreme Court just ruled that several cities (including Austin) that had banned plastic bags were breaking state law. Disappointed, but not surprised 🙁

  • Reply MissEm July 4, 2018 at 10:53 pm

    Here are two things I’ve been pondering, and wondering what you do, Erin. The first is kids. The older my kids get (7 and 5) the harder it is to keep plastic out of our lives. And the more I keep it out of our lives, the more enticing the world of disposables becomes to them. We talk about pollution, they know about plastics in the ocean, and they do care, but it’s hard for them to let the caring about the big picture win when faced with: freezies at school, plastic cups and straws at breakfast with the grandparents, plastic treasures from the dentist, balloons from the bank, jelly sandals, their friends’ mountain of disposable bubble wands (I mean, I think a stick and wire bubble wand is beautiful, but they’re more partial to neon pink and “being like the other kids” now that they’re school-age). We do what we can, and I try not to be overbearing, but I have to admit I walk around with a heavy heart many days as I watch plastic just tidal wave into their little lives. The second issue is that I have relatives who feel that single-use plastic is their right, and that to desire otherwise is weird and offensive, or ruining the joy of childhood (that’s a big one – avoiding plastics = killing childhood in many people’s minds, I’ve found). I slipped my kids’ straws in their going-to-grandparents suitcase, and my father in law just…pretended not to see them? It’s so awkward. Have you run into any of these situations?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 5, 2018 at 11:07 am

      Totally. I run into this all the time. I think we just need to do our best as often as we can. I don’t think we’ll change everyone’s mind and sadly the amount of plastic foisted on little guys is truly astounding. We try to wade through it as mindfully, respectfully, and diligently as possible.

    • Reply Kelly July 5, 2018 at 2:44 pm

      Thank you for putting into words how I have been feeling. The heavy and helpless heart feeling is so real. And my child is only 2. I’ll add that I also feel this around gift giving. I have a number of nieces and nephews and I try really hard (and probably spend way too much time researching) to find ideas for low waste birthday and holiday gifts, but they always seem to fall flat. People are always appreciative, but I can tell that my wooden musical instrument and handmade clothes were not nearly as enticing as the plastic grill and bbq set that my sister gave my niece and nephew. To add to the issue, in many cases, the sustainable toys/clothes are so much more expensive. I definitely understand falling into the habit of ordering the plastic grill off Amazon and calling it a day. No answers here other than, as Erin said, continue doing our best and whenever there comes a need to purchase something, taking a beat and thinking through all the options and trying to choose the most sustainable and reasonable one for us. Thanks for letting me share/vent. 🙂

  • Reply PJ July 5, 2018 at 6:37 am

    Thank you, Erin! I have been trying to reduce or eliminate plastic use, and these resources will be helpful,

  • Reply Gill F. July 6, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Hi! I have a question. I’d love to cut down on plastic, and I’m trying! We use reusable water bottles at home and I bring reusable cups with me when going out for coffee and I’m getting better at bulk shopping and such, but can anyone offer suggestions about balancing being eco friendly while also not spending a ton? My gf and I don’t have a lot of money, we’ll both be in grad school as of this fall and we aren’t working full time yet, and while I’d love to, for example, support a company like Plaine Products and use aluminum bottles or go to my coop and use refillable bottles or buy shampoo bars at Lush, I can’t afford it. We use good healthy products, we hit up Trader Joe for shampoo and conditioner and use all natural cleaning supplies, etc etc etc, but it’s still coming in plastic. But it’s what we can afford. Any one have suggestions for how to balance lessening your footprint while also not having $30 to spend on shampoo? Thanks!!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 6, 2018 at 2:51 pm

      Hey Gill, I really get this concern. And as someone who’s *still* paying for my graduate education, I especially appreciate that some of these choices weren’t then and aren’t now possible given a particular budget. I think the only answer is to do our best with what we have. There are always more affordable options, but some of them require compromises you (or I!) might not want to take. Folks abound who opt out of shampoo altogether (see also my past posts on shampoo)! I have a sister who uses just baking soda, which is cheap indeed, but not my particular preference. And there are certainly more budget friendly shampoo options in the forms of small-purveyor shampoo bars (there are tons of options on Etsy, for instance). I think it’s all about striking a balance and choosing what we as carefully as possible. Hope that helps some!

  • Reply emzi July 6, 2018 at 5:14 pm

    I really wanna get reusable straws! I think they look so much better than plastic ones and of course are better for the planet 😀

  • Reply Pamela July 7, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    While taking part in Plastic Free July I have noticed I have become more mindful about my lifestyle. I usually carry a water bottle but keep forgetting to get a cup for my iced drinks as result I have just stopped having any unless I can take the time and drink it in the shop; it has also stopped the amount of takeout I had become used to get on the way back home. (It has does wonders to my savings account too 🙂 )

    About a year ago, we started to switch from bottled shampoo and soaps to bars, paper napkins to cloths, and by now my partner and I keep at least a cloth napkin, a tote bag, chopsticks, and our water bottles with us every time we step out. We are trying to incorporate coffee cups, straws and small food containers for take-out, but these 3 are still hard to incorporate when our bags get heavier.

    Slowly I have been better at approaching the topic with real-life friends, I actually have found it easier than just holding my thoughts and cringing when I see them produce the unnecessary litter. For some, it’s a welcome concept that they start to add to their lives and for others is just an extra layer of oddness to my already minimalistic lifestyle.

    Out of curiosity; What did you use to bring wine with you? Just the bottle and small cups or transfer the wine to insulated bottles for easier access? Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 7, 2018 at 4:13 pm

      Either or! If it’s just me and James we often bring a smaller portion with us in an insulated thermos, if we’re headed to a BYOB spot with friends, the whole bottle!

  • Reply Robyn July 8, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    What about packed lunches? My 5 year old just started day camp and has to bring his own lunch. I’m struggling! We have all glass containers, but they are super heavy when he has to lug his lunch with him on hikes and other adventures. I thought about one of those cute metal bento boxes, but I’m concerned they won’t be the right size or will just go unused. And there are so many easy to-go packed options that he LOVES (yogurt in a tube, snack packs, etc.)–I’ve always said no to these things, but packing lunch that he is excited about every morning is hard! I’m thinking maybe some cute metal storage containers?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 8, 2018 at 7:24 pm

      We’re going to go the bento box route in the fall when we have to start packing lunches for both kids!

    • Reply Meagan July 9, 2018 at 12:51 pm

      We got the Planet Box metal lunch boxes (Rover Box with bag) at the beginning of last school year and it was LIFE CHANGING! No more rummaging through the kitchen to find just the right containers–it all just goes in the Planet Box! It’s a good amount of food for our 3 & 6 year olds and you can tuck a snack in the outside pocket of the bag if needed. They are an investment for sure, but totally worth it given how convenient it is and that there is no waste! We even made some homemade beeswax wraps to use instead of plastic. 🙂

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE July 9, 2018 at 1:50 pm

        So glad to hear! That’s what I’ve been thinking of for Faye and Silas, too!

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