Every morning I go to Dunkin’ Donuts and order a black iced coffee. “In the 20-ounce refill mug?” the drive-thru attendant asks. And as admittedly embarrassing as it can be to have a fast-food restaurant recognize your order, there’s something that bothers me a lot more: I’m the only one in line with a reusable cup. And, if I’m being totally honest here, even I forget to bring it sometimes.
Last year, I spent four months on the road working with various non-profits and community leaders on the frontlines of the plastic pollution epidemic to learn more about the obstacles they face and progress they’re making. My takeaway from that time is this: Plastic is not the enemy. It’s not a problem swirling on a convenient “trash island” half a world away. It’s a people problem, it exists in every corner of the planet, and not one of us is absolved from contributing to it.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit 5 Gyres went to Indonesia as part of the citizen-science-led leg of their ongoing Global Estimate of Marine Plastic Pollution, and among the obvious culprits like food packaging and water bottles, they found belts, plastic clips, zipper tape, and a mariners coat. They also found the ghost of a “100-percent” cotton T-shirt: a synthetic size tag and grey synthetic thread that was used to sew the shirt together. The cotton from this seemingly biodegradable shirt was gone, but the plastic remained.
Even though we dutifully clean and sort our plastics in the recycling bin every week, many of those items are ending up in landfills or being dumped in the ocean. China banned imports of most recyclables in 2017, effectively ending the market for plastic waste. The country had previously imported a cumulative 45 percent of plastic waste since 1992. That’s why the Plastic Pollution Coalition suggests a new set of rules when it comes to plastic called the 4Rs: REFUSE, reduce, reuse, and then, if all else fails, recycle.
So, this weekend, #PlasticFreeJuly is at the top of my mind. It’s a global movement that helps empower millions of people to be part of the solution to this issue. The premise is simple: refuse as many single-use plastics as you can for the month of July, ditching items like straws and water bottles and making the switch to plastic-free alternatives for products like toothbrushes, tampons, razors, balloons, and trash bags. I outlined a few ways to reduce your usage while traveling here, so let’s dig into three other practical ways to be part of the solution all year round. Because we don’t need a few people doing things perfectly — we need a movement of people doing the best we can.
Consider Offsetting Your Plastic Consumption
Similar to carbon offset credits available for frequent fliers or businesses looking to go climate-neutral, you can now purchase credits to go “plastic neutral.” rePurpose will help you calculate your plastic footprint and then invest in various social enterprises around the globe, like Aasra Welfare Association, which provides dignified livelihoods for workers in waste management.
Invest in Natural or Recycled Fibers
Plastic is used in everything from our skincare formulas to our workout gear. By opting to only buy textiles made from fibers such as organic cotton, hemp or Econyl (a regenerated yarn made from nylon waste like fishing nets and virgin plastics), you’re creating a market for responsible farmers and giving recyclable plastic waste a value. It’s easy to make the switch with brands like Reformation, Patagonia, Seea, Prana, Everlane, Athleta and Girlfriend Collective.
Sip Smarter with Refillable Bottles and Mugs
It’s not enough to give up single-use plastic water bottles anymore. Americans used approximately 50 billion of those last year, but we also consumed 25 billion Styrofoam cups and 16 billion disposable coffee cups. A forgotten mug here and there might not seem like a huge deal, but when you start considering the scale of our national and global consumption, it gets more serious. Invest in a tumbler, mug and a bottle — Miir just launched their straw lids — and keep them on you whenever possible (there’s often a discount on beverages if you opt to use your own container).
As always, make sure to do your own research and focus on progress over perfection.