My Plastic Challenge - what a journey!

This year I signed up for Plastic Free July, and I promised to share my story.

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This year I signed up for “Plastic Free July” and I shared this on the “Psychologies Subscribers Life Leap Club” facebook page, not because I wanted any praise for doing so, but because I wanted to stimulate a discussion.  It certainly did stimulate discussion, and proved really helpful in preparing myself for the challenge.  There have been amazing suggestions and thought provoking debate, and I’m still learning.

I signed up, because like so many others I’ve had a dawning realisation that much of the plastic I diligently place in my recycling box, isn’t actually being recycled.  And seeing the oceans full of plastic, I’ve felt responsible for the planet I’m leaving to my children.  I’ve also realised that when I felt I was being a good citizen by recycling, this was a story I had believed, but the actual truth is far more complicated.

I must admit that when I first signed up, I felt excited by the prospect of buying bamboo products, and switching to glass milk bottles.  As the discussions progressed, I realised that this was just me with my consumer hat on, enjoying shopping, feeling thrilled by something new.  What actually started to emerge was a detoxing from my consumer mentality.  Plastic is horribly complicated to recycle, but chopping down forests to grow bamboo doesn’t feel like a great alternative.  I began to realise that reducing consumption was going to be the most important part of my challenge.

This whole experience has been very much like the Hero’s journey:  setting off excited by the adventure, only to realise that the challenge is going to be much bigger than I thought.  Not only were the alternatives to plastic not simple to find, but also the whole subject seems fraught with contradictions.  How do we measure the impact of a material?  Is it whether it biodegrades, how much it costs to produce, its carbon footprint, its impact on wildlife, its impact on indigenous plants or other farming?  It felt like everyone I spoke to was measuring “impact” in a different way.  And I also realised how vulnerable we are to marketing – if someone tells us there is a great alternative to plastic, we all want it to be true!

And in the end, the journey became about so much more than just plastic:

How do we respond when those around us start saying that our noble ambitions are misplaced?  Or when there seem to be so many experts who know so much more about the issues, and who say we don’t know enough.  Do we give up and retreat into our lives, deciding not to bother?

For me the delight of the Hero’s journey, is in trusting my own judgement.  I’ve long known that most situations are more complicated than we would like to believe, so why would reducing plastic be any different?  Was I going to give up just because I heard that the situation was a bit complicated?  Of course not.  I was just going to have to find my way, rightly or wrongly, to make a positive impact on the world.

After weighing up my options this is where I’ve got to so far:

  1.  Read the book “How to give up plastic” by Will McCallum.  There are probably other good books, but this is short, well researched, and written by the head of Oceans at Greenpeace.

  2. Refuse straws, plastic bottles and coffee cups.  Straws aren’t really necessary for most, but those who need them (perhaps because of disabilities) could have a metal alternative. For bottles and cups carry your own, and wash it scrupulously so you don’t end up rejecting it after a few weeks!  I’ve got a lovely metal bottle that keeps drinks cool in the summer, and scrubs up well.

  3. Online shopping arrives with masses of packaging.  Choose shops that minimise their packaging, give feedback to those that don’t or shop local and take your own bag with you.

  4. Household products:  Oh boy I didn’t realise I had so many!  Washing up liquid is fine for all bathroom and kitchen surface cleaning, white vinegar is great for windows and washing the dog’s stinky bedding.  Most of the others I don’t really need and won’t be replacing, except furniture polish (in a tin).

  5. Solid shampoo bars are great. I got mine in a local health food shop. Find one that suits your hair type – rosemary is great for dark hair shine, lavender is soothing to scalps for example.  Choose one that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic, and consider hanging up your shampoo bar in a recycled net bag or tights, so it doesn’t just melt away on the floor of your shower (or get used as body soap by accident!).  I still like to use hair conditioner, but I use as little as possible which is actually better for my hair. It’s also been surprisingly easy to find a shop very close to me that refills all shampoos and household products.

  6. Get all those soaps that Auntie sent you for Christmas out of the drawer and try using them instead of hand wash.  They work fine.  I’ve saved money by using what I already have.

  7. Reject processed foods that come in black plastic trays.  I’ve started to challenge myself each time I’m tempted by a ready meal – what alternatives would feel just as easy?  Spaghetti tossed in some garlic, chilli and olive oil and cheese, with salad?  Omelette? Cooking up a double portion of rice/grains one day, leaves an easy meal of grains, tinned beans, veg and dressing the next.  I realised that I was just a bit tired and a bit lazy but that isn’t a great excuse to pollute the planet.

  8. Getting organised was a big thing for me, as lack of preparation is the biggest contributor to my plastic usage.  Keeping the shopping bags in the boot of the car, with clean containers and greaseproof paper, means that even an impromptu trip to the supermarket can be eco-friendly.  My local supermarket were very amused the first time I asked the deli-counter to use my recycled paper food bags, but they all got chatting about how ridiculous their store waste is, and they now greet me like an old friend!  The paper bags I use for food, are then reused to line my compost caddy.  I’ll be honest, as a working Mum, there are many times when I am scrabbling around to find something for supper.  In the past I would have been tempted to pick up a ready meal, but now I just don’t.  Better we eat something simple like beans on toast or a boiled egg than keep my addiction to consumerism and plastic.

  9. Cotton buds.  Not recommended by doctors (because ear canals are easily scratched and cause painful infections) and yet there seem to be some in my bathroom!  We haven’t run out yet, but we are not buying them again!  Although we could buy paper or bamboo versions, perhaps we should just try without?

  10. Laundry.  Oh this is a big subject!  How did we get to having individually wrapped laundry capsules?  I’ve switched to powder (in a cardboard box that gets recycled), or refillable liquid detergent for certain clothes, and refillable fabric softener that I dilute 50/50 (most are way too concentrated).  And I use a laundry ball to increase the effectiveness of the wash.  And wash at 30degrees.  What I hadn’t realised is that synthetic micro-fibres get washed out into the oceans, causing about 1/3 of the ocean’s plastic pollution.  This shocked me, as I thought recycled plastic being made into fleeces was a great idea.  What to do?  There are two products on the market (there may be more I haven't yet discovered).  The first a “Guppy Friend wash bag” which costs £25, for you to put synthetic clothes inside when washing them.  Or the Cora Ball is based on how coral traps food, and can be added to your wash.  It traps 35% of microfibers, and is in development, but you can buy it for $29 at or look at the website to read more.   I did wonder whether you could try putting some 20 denier tights over the outflow pipe of your washing machine, to catch the fibres but my husband thought I’d flood the place!  Anyone tried it?

This journey has been about perseverance, and being prepared to try even if I don’t have the answers.  It’s been useful to be mindful of my own responses, and to be gentle with myself when I’ve felt deflated in my efforts.  I’ve chatted to friends and even strangers about it, and the responses have been mostly positive but not all.  A fellow air passenger started lecturing me that “it isn’t OUR plastic, it’s all those people in the third world who are making the mess”!  He possibly doesn’t realise that other governments, such as some in Africa, are way ahead of ours in tackling this issue.  And I’m not so sure that all my plastic ends up where it should, so perhaps it IS my plastic container washing around in the ocean?  Perhaps we, in the richer countries, could be doing more to support those who have so little?  I didn’t get into an argument about it, I chose to listen graciously and let it go.  I can pick my battles!

I recognise that the arguments are complex; that reducing all waste is a pressing concern, and that includes food waste (for which supermarket plastic was largely introduced). Complexity doesn’t have to be an argument for inertia, it just means we tread carefully and question as we go.

It has been exciting to involve our children in the debate.  When we looked at the challenge together, they are keen that we continue with our plastic free campaign.  They realise that you can make wise choices whilst still having more than enough of everything.  And perhaps having the choices reduced because of the plastics challenge, makes life a little simpler and a little less overwhelming.

Overall, I’m more aware, more thoughtful in my purchases, and I’m buying less stuff.  The latter is perhaps the biggest challenge for us all.

Nicola Harker

Coach and Mentor (ex-doctor) and teacher of Self-Compassion, Nicola Harker Coaching

Using neuroscience, self-compassion techniques and coaching as well as high-performance techniques I help my clients free their potential and get back to their true selves so that they can thrive in life.