Rachel Dolecheck

www.racheldolecheck.com

Unsplash image of plastic bags

Some of you may know of Plastic Free July or if you are like me, you are just hearing about it this year. I learned about Plastic Free July at the start of the month, and it’s basically a global movement that started in 2011 as an initiative to eliminate single-use plastic and help to create a plastic free world. While a world that is completely plastic free is quite unrealistic at this time, it still motivated me to think about my plastic usage and reduce my waste when I can. And the best part about Plastic Free July is that it’s the start of a movement that we can all continue even after the month ends.

A little background on how single-use plastic is affecting our environment and health:

Did you know that plastics are contributing to climate change from the very beginning of their life cycle to the end? Brooke Brauman wrote for Yale Climate Connections, “Oil, gas, and coal are the fossil-fuel building blocks of plastics. Companies drill wells into the ground until they hit a rock layer, then turn 90 degrees and drill horizontally. Injecting sand, chemicals, or water breaks up the rock to release gas and oil, which are transported to other facilities via pipelines, trains, and trucks.” That statement, in particularly, struck me because I was completely unaware of the full plastic life cycle before doing this research.

This extraction and transportation of fossil fuels releases an estimated 12.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Extracting and transporting the natural gas is then used to create feedstocks for plastics in the United States. Land disturbance also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions associated with extractions with an estimated 1.68 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released into our atmosphere.

This statement basically means we are “taking all of the carbon from the trees and soils and removing that from the earth and introducing it to the atmosphere” said Matt Kelso, a manager of data and technology at FracTracker Alliance, which is a nonprofit that addresses the extractions concerns in the U.S.

Fast forward to the actual use of plastic: around 40 percent alone is used for packaging. Which will lead me straight into my first Plastic Free July initiative.

Conscious grocery shopping

Conscious grocery shopping is so important for our environment and super easy to do. Less than 14 percent of the nearly 86 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year is recycled, while the rest end up in our landfills or are incinerated. Waste incineration is the largest contributor to climate change of the three options, and it is an overall vast environmental injustice around the world. According to the CIEL report, U.S. emissions from plastics incineration in 2015 were 5.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. On top of these effects to our environment, incineration facilities are disproportionately built near communities of color and low-income populations (79% of them to be exact), which leaves workers and people near the facilities at risk to exposures.

My most recent farmer’s market trip I took.

Something I’ve done this Plastic Free July to combat these effects to our environment, is shop locally, package-free, at the local Jersey City Farmer’s Market. All you need is your reusable grocery bag and a creative chef mindset for some delicious plant-based recipes. Of course I still do buy some plastic grocery packaging, but the effort taken is what counts in my mind. 🙂

Reusables

Another plastic usage I knew I needed to reduce was my plastic cup/straw intake and an easy fix to this is reusables. I love my coffee runs, I can’t lie, but there are definitely ways to reduce your waste when getting your favorite coffee every once in awhile. I finally purchased some metal reusable straws and responsibly recycle all my plastic cups. I also use my reusable coffee cup when possible and always use my Swell or Yeti water bottle for my daily water intake.

This is a reusable jar I painted and now keep my metal straws.

Something important to remember about recycling is that less than 14 percent of plastic actually gets recycled. Of that, only 2 percent of plastic is recycled into the same products and 8 percent is “down-cycled” into something of lesser quality. There are also 7 different kinds of plastic that are marked accordingly on each product, and generally numbers 1, 2 and 5 are the easiest ones to recycle. Anything else is usually disrupting the recycling process, which puts a huge responsibility on the facility workers to sort out the waste.

Menstrual products

Women’s menstrual products are actually a huge contributor to plastic pollution in the world. In 2018, 5.8 billion tampons were sold in the U.S. with the majority of them ending up in the landfill as plastic waste. Tampons flushed down the toilet can also end up in oceans when sewer systems fail (Borunda, National Geographic). Plastic waste in women’s menstrual products has been an ongoing issue, with exciting alternatives that have surfaced in recent years: the period undies and the menstrual cup.

Sanitary items information on plasticfreejuly.org

I decided to try out the period undies that I see Instagram ads for on a daily basis. These panties hold up to 4 regular tampons and are washable and completely reusable. On average, women use about 3 tampons a day with a cycle lasting around 5-7 days. During my last cycle, I eliminated 80% of my plastic waste from tampons with these amazing, comfortable period undies. The other alternative is a little silicon cup, called the flex cup, which I plan on trying next month. Overall these alternatives are combatting amazing efforts against plastic waste from menstrual products.

That’s it for my guide to Plastic Free July, and while plastic free living definitely seems difficult, knowing how much a difference I can make alone motivates me. If I can take the effort, I believe anyone can! Education is such an empowering tool, and I only hope to continue learning to help make this world a better place.

Did you contribute to Plastic Free July? If so, what did you do? 🙂

-R

If you have time, I highly suggest reading this article about How plastics contribute to climate change by Brooke Bauman from Yale Climate Connections or this National Geographic article about how tampons and pads became so unsustainable.

Other references:

Plastic Free July

Plastic waste is everywhere in grocery stores. Can they cut down?

How much plastic actually get recycled?

Nearly 80% of US incinerators located in marginalized communities, report reveals

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