Halfway through the Plastic-Free July Challenge and my journey has not progressed without peril. Every casual food outing, every corner turned in the supermarket and down every aisle, synthetic petrochemical-derived polymers are waiting in anticipation to dupe this poor, unsuspecting consumer. Every purchasing decision requires far more consideration than I am used to.
The other day I wanted to construct a sandwich for an easy beach-day lunch. Bread? Luckily I like nice bakery loaf bread, but when the gal at Cobs asked me if I wanted my pumpkin flax sourdough sliced, I had to graciously decline for otherwise they would have placed my loaf in a sack of plastic to keep it together. Which is cool, because I like slicing my own bread anyways, but this phenomenon never would’ve consciously occurred to me otherwise.
Other sandwich implements were equally challenging. I was unable to find a single cheese or cheese substitute that did not come sold in plastic wrap or some other plastic container. Leaves were limited to plastic-free bunches, which ruled out arugula, my personal favourite.
Then came the pesto predicament. Fortunately, I had a glass jar of pesto in my fridge, but this just happened to be a stroke of luck.
Most of the time I opt for the economic and delicious Kirkland pesto from Costco, which comes in a plastic jar. This led me to a slightly obvious but nonetheless thought-provoking realization; dozens of products out there are offered in both plastic and glass/ paper packaging depending on the brand. Generally, the more “fashionable”, “gourmet”, organic brands offer slightly more sustainable packaging, along with higher product prices. For a broke UBC student, the decision between a $3 and $10 bottle of olive oil of equal volume can be challenging. Whether or not the more expensive option contains a higher quality product is an entirely separate thing to consider. This phenomenon that sustainably packaged items are only accessible to higher-income consumers is a huge roadblock in trying to reduce our overall plastic consumption.
It also recently occurred to me that, to my horror, my daily contact lenses that I completely rely on to perceive the world around me come in single-use plastic packaging. Nay, they THEMSELVES are made from single-use plastic. What is a poor blind girl to do? Unfortunately I was not ready to take the leap in A) getting laser eye surgery or B) embracing the dorkdom with my glasses for Plastic-Free July. Terrible.
A Brief Word on the 3rd “R”
I’ve been asked on several occasions: “why do you need to avoid plastics altogether? Can’t we just recycle most of those things? So they won’t end up in our landfills and waterways anyways right?” …
Recycling is great, don’t get me wrong. But it must be treated as a last resort. There are energy costs associated with the transportation and recycling process itself; for a given crude amount of petro-chemical feedstock used to make plastics, several times that amount is burned in the process of synthesizing, transporting, and reprocessing said plastics¹. Even if we are perfect recycle-ers, their use in the first place is a major contributor to our carbon emissions footprint. Additionally, infinite closed-loop recycling of most grades of plastic is very rare simply due to the processing methods at our dispense. Plastics degrade with each recycling, such that at a certain point they can no longer be recycled and will end up in a landfill or somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
My plastic vs. glass container realization has sent me on an academic article quest to investigate the energy and monetary costs of manufacturing both. Stay tuned for our next instalment of the Plastic Free July Challenge blog to read about my findings!
- Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R., & Kosior, E. (2009). Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2115–2126. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0311
-Blog post by Keila Stark, Assistant Director External