As someone who has a deep love for the environment and our wildlife, I always get excited to take on the Plastic Free July challenge. This year felt a little different thanks to our sticker collaboration with the wonderful people at the Plastic Free Foundation, but I felt as driven as ever. I’ve gotten back into reading (and have been diving deep into environmental books), I have a new favorite local eco-shop – what else would I need? Turns out, my plastic-free promise would be even more challenging than before. I thought the world would be more welcoming to eco-friendly living than it was than even a few years ago (you know, because the environmental crises we face are well documented at this point and international policies are at least starting to take things seriously), but cultural shifts had different plans.
I’d like to begin by saying that this is an honest reflection of my Plastic Free July. Spoiler alert: I didn’t go entirely plastic free, but as we’ll dig in here – it wasn’t entirely my fault. I don’t like to pass blame, but I do think the cultural shifts I noticed need to be talked about. I also want to note: I am writing this from the Midwest United States. These issues might not come to the surface in the same ways in your part of the world, but it may still be beneficial to know how other regions are taking/not taking action.
Of course, the biggest worldwide event to happen in the last 4 years changed the course of modern society. Lockdowns changed social behavior and vaccine requirements meant preventive healthcare became the norm. Some of the changes were good for the environment (overall, it was the largest carbon crash ever), but some made things worse. The pandemic put a halt on a lot of ‘reuse’ culture – no more refilling your cup, no more “bring your own bag” – and so, plastic became king. In the name of public safety, single use utensils, cups, and of course, masks, became our normal. The masks can stay (cut the straps when you’re done preventing the spread of germs, please!), but for these other single-use goods, the insanely slow transition back to where we were is frightening.
More than three years after the pandemic began, big chains that once offered reusable utensils and dishes are back to 2008: serving everything in plastic. This issue is only exacerbated by inflation (plastic is cheaper) and a diminished workforce pool (not enough staff to clean). We understand the struggle for small businesses – but in many cases, major chains are the biggest offenders. How long until we take the plastic crisis seriously again?
As the pandemic took over the world, a semi-hidden counterculture also started to flourish: the distrust of experts. Arguably, the doubt in climate science started much earlier (“Climate change is a hoax!”), but other fields of science had been largely left out of the scrutiny. That was, until politics created an environment where medical science was secondary. At first, this only applied to the Covid-19 pandemic, but as things started to look up, other sciences/issues seemingly came under fire. What does this distrust lead to? Not only ignoring these issues, but taking an exact opposite stance on them.
Let me paint you a picture: I went to the store with reusable bag in hand. I grab my items from the aisles and head to the register. I tell the cashier that I don’t need things bagged because I brought my own bag. They look at me, say “okay,” and then proceed to bag my items. In plastic bags. The audacity.
I’ll paint another picture. I go to the store to grab a couple of things and head to the register. I tell the cashier that I don’t need my items bagged because one of the items is itself a bag. She attempts to explain that she must put them in a bag in order to stop other shoplifters (I have been to this store many times, never had this type of interaction). In my rebuttal, I explain that it’s a waste of a bag and I really don’t need one. She decides that she doesn’t care, puts my items in a bag anyways, and counters with, “Oh hun, I want you to have one, it’s okay.”
I genuinely LOVE when I come across people that know environmental facts. There is nothing I love more than hearing a stranger talk about composting, endangered animals, or pushing their friends to follow environmental topics. However, there is a weird paradox (if it has a name, please let me know so I can research it more 😂) where people may be slightly knowledgeable on a subject like plastic pollution, understand that the long toted solution (in this case, plastic recycling) doesn’t match up with the solution’s promise (plastic recycling is far from reliable) – but instead of looking to other alternatives, the solution is ‘give up’ entirely. Recycling plastic isn’t going to fix the plastic crisis on its own, but that doesn’t mean to give up and just throw away plastic like there aren’t other options. Putting plastics in the recycling bin at least give it a chance to be recycled – plastics that go to the landfill have zero chance of becoming something new. But what’s an even better solution? Opt for plastic-free in the first place (the best solution, I’d say).
So, what now?
Obviously, the United States has a long way to go before it goes plastic free, as does the world. I’m far from a sociologist, but as many environmental experts have already said: “We have the technology to fix our crises, we just have to put them into action.” Political divides, societal norms, and misinformation have to be crossed in order for the world to have a fighting chance against these disasters. In order for something to change, we have to start.