• Ian McClellan

Week 34: I will pick a plastic free challenge.

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Life is sometimes about figuring out what you can handle.

Many of the choices to make each day we didn't realise were going to be choices when we woke up in the morning. There are so many threads in the day that we have to choose to follow, and the ones we do are usually the ones that are most important to us. But by the end of the day it can leave us feeling tangled. We all have limits to what we can handle. We can prioritise the things we want to do and justify the things we don't, but in the end we also have to decide what we can handle, and stop there, at least for now.

The threads we choose to follow consistently, are those that come from a deeper place. Maybe these are our values, or our dreams. But even when I think about these, I find have limits to what I can handle on any particular day.

This doesn't mean we don't set new goals and new boundaries for tomorrow or the next day, and figure it all out again. It doesn't mean that I think dreams are not achievable. It just maybe means that for me, dreams are not as simple as we're sometimes told. For me, achieving things is a continuous process of boundary crossing, re-grouping, effort, backwards steps, forward leaps and often in bursts of intense energy.

This project is a bit like that. The choice I made to try and be kinder to our planet was in some ways a dream of improvement and self-discovery, in small steps and within what I could handle. Small steps to make big changes. Small connections, to create a shift in habits, not just behaviour.

The prospect of making a positive change in the world or in my life is so exciting, but at the same time being kinder to the planet is a cause, and a cause can sometimes be perceived as a singular and disruptive thing. Following a cause, often suggests that you have to be all in, every day, forever. Being planetwise, has been a more subtle journey, and is a bit more ethereal and hasn't always followed the cause. It works for me, but I always feel the pressure of activism and have a feeling that what I am doing is probably slightly disappointing to some.

A good example of this is this month overall, which in case you didn't know is 'plastic free July'. This is a global movement, that began back in 2011 with the vision of living in a world free of plastic waste. It is a fabulous thing, and you can read about the Plastic Free Foundation here. I have also written about plastic before in week 3, when we switched our household to soap bars, and I also switched my own habits to shampoo bars.

My view on plastic also bears repeating. Plastic waste is a problem.

It is still not new news, and there is progress.

Fast-food corporations are discontinuing plastic straws, supermarkets are discontinuing plastic bags, multinationals are reducing micro-plastics in beauty products and clothing. There are many more positive stories, and many wake-up calls, that we can all use to learn about this important topic, by following accounts on social media such as @ecoway_ig, or hashtags such as #reducereuserecycle.

This leaves me feeling more hopeful about the ability for us as individuals to make a change that will help to eliminate plastic waste.

Yet plastic free July scares me.

In lots of ways, I still have an enormous sense of confusion and hopelessness about what impact we are actually having against the runaway juggernaut of a plastic problem by fiddling around the edges as individuals. A feeling of hopelessness that we can let our apples and onions roll around our shopping trolley in carefree abandon without a plastic tray or bag, but meanwhile we walk around the same supermarket on a 3-acre plastic floor.

Or that we refuse plastic straws in a bar, but at the same time we still rub shoulders in the bar with 200 people wearing enough micro-plastics to cause serious harm to 1,000 sea creatures. That by doing the small things, seems like an exercise in futility, or worse a self-aggrandising and empty gesture to pat ourselves on the back. That plastic seems to be in almost everything in one form or another, and that we have done this to ourselves.

I still feel that eliminating plastic is almost the same as eliminating consumerism, or materialism. If we want to own things, then we are going to encounter plastic. If we want to wear things, then our cheapest and easiest clothing solutions use plastic.

This would made the idea of a plastic free July, a daunting prospect, and an unachievable goal. More than I can handle.

However, as I have reflected over the last few weeks of July, and have read more about the movement, especially on their own website, I have realised that the good people at the Plastic Free Foundation have created an achievable movement and an accessible ambition through plastic free July - by breaking this down for literal minds such as mine. It has renewed my energy against plastic waste.

That is because plastic free July, does not mean you have to spend the month using pencil and paper only, or you have to feel a sense of guilt every time you glance at your child's action figure. It is about breaking down the challenge into achievable and understandable parts.

For example, it can mean giving up 'the big four' takeaway items. This is bags, bottles, straws and coffee cups. This is something I believe we all can do. It is starting small, but it is also perhaps at the very essence of the problem. The alternatives to each of these items are accessible and are easy attitude changes - because they can be re-usable items, or nothing - choosing no bag, or no straw. It is also the very essence of the plastic problem. We choose many plastic products or items because they are convenient. We choose plastic because we want stuff, we don't want to pay too much for it, and when we're done we just want to throw it away. This needs to change.

Plastic free July can also mean avoiding single use plastics more generally. The attitudinal change to single-use plastics, is a great example of how a large part of the population can make more effort, and how this can have a direct impact on our planet. The increasing rage against plastics, even if it is a small part of the larger issue, is a great example of how we are all connected, and how we can all make a difference.

But it can also mean setting yourself a new challenge, and a new stretch, and this is where I think we can really make a difference and can start to step outside of the feeling of futility that I sometimes have about plastic. It can be about thinking about what we do, and choosing just one thing that is hard, but can make a change at a deeper level. At the very essence of being planetwise is the principle of really thinking about what we consume, and what we do, and try to make it better. About breaking habits.

And so for my first ever plastic free July, I have chosen to go back to the bathroom, and continue the path that I began back in December. This week, I am taking the challenge to remove all plastics from my toiletries.

This might seem like a small change, but when you break this down into the deodorants, moisturisers, hair products, toothpastes - it is harder than it seems and bigger than it you might think. We might not be able to immediately reverse the use of industrial plastics, but toiletries are products that are in everyone's bathrooms to an extent, which makes them good connection and a good small change that we can all make.

For me, it is second base rather than first. It is proof actually that I can handle more, by doing a little bit more than before, and then a little bit still.

It is hard because it speaks to many hang-ups we also might have about our appearance. We all might have that wet right armpit when we get nervous, or that rogue fringe that won't behave itself. We have our go-to products that we might have used for many years because they fix these cosmetic issues even though they might contain plastic or have plastic packaging. We trust them, and so breaking this cycle is going to be hard.

It also doesn't help that many of these products that help us, are really really good. It would be more convenient for many environmental activists if this wasn't the case, but the reality is that the science of keeping us clean and smelling good, has made some amazing breakthroughs in product quality and effectiveness. The reality is that many of the products that we use to care for our skin may contain stuff that grows in the middle of rainforests, or has been dug up on remote mountain-tops, but they frankly make our skin glow like a lantern and make us smell good enough to eat.

However, I am here to tell you this week that it can be OK. That I have been experimenting for a few months with various items, and there are steps you can take that are positive, and products available that will not leave you anxious about your outside appearance. I know it sounds shallow to say this, and I know that many reading this will consider that real friends don't care about our appearance. That the planet doesn't care. But I don't think it is as simple as that.

My advice is therefore to do exactly that, to experiment. I can't give you a list of products to buy, but I can say that I have been using a natural deodorant for about 6-months now, and there has been no difference to any of the hang-ups I had before. I have been using bar soap, bar shampoo, solid toothpaste, and most recently discovered a moisturiser that is natural but also packaged free of plastic. Brands such as Upcircle and kutis, or products such as bamboo toothbrushes or closed loop toiletries are alternatives. Many mainstream brands are beginning to consider natural ingredients, vegan products, and packaging that leaves a smaller footprint than before.

Through replacing all these products, I have made a pledge to plastic free July, that can handle. And more than that, I have made a pledge for the future that I am unlikely to reverse. I didn't yet find an alternative to all the products that are in the bathroom cabinet, but in those that I've discovered, my skin does smell good enough to eat and I perhaps glow a little bit more now that I know it is being kind to the planet too.

Taking this further, and with holiday season coming up, I realised this has an additional benefit that it removes duplication. By using bars, natural deodorants, and other non-plastic toiletries, I no longer have to think about having one wash-bag for home and one for travelling, because when you use bars or other natural products, they tend to be both solid and below airline limits right now. I don't need to grab miniatures because I forgot to pack something on an early morning work trip, or need to spend hours decanting large shampoos into smaller plastic bottles. This is perhaps a first-world benefit, but I guess in many ways, toiletries are like that. They are a luxury of sorts, that help us on the inside by giving us a good feeling on the outside.

This change is not going to silence the background hum of plastic that has been in our lives for decades, but it is a start in the long journey to try and stop things floating around in our oceans or piling up on our lands and creating a problem that will still be around for our grandchildren's grandchildren to try and solve. It helps me separate the fact that many things that are made of plastic are things that are doing good, because I am starting to see more places where it is being used in a lazy way. Plastic was an invention that was made for good, but as humans we have the knack of using these things for bad when we want things cheaper or quicker.

It helps me contribute to zero plastic in ways that I can handle. And by doing it, send ripples of intent to those who are reading this, or to the producers that we longer support, and to the children that we hope will continue to find us alternatives. It is one toothpaste tube at a time, one aerosol at a time, but it is a start.

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