It’s the global environmental issue at the top of everyone’s agenda. Angelique Ruzicka shares what she learnt going plastic free for a week…
Live without plastic for a week? How hard could it be? Surely, with all the publicity around plastic’s negative impact, retailers were cottoning on. But a quick sweep of my bathroom shelves, some supermarket aisles and clothing stores revealed most as sources of planet-wrecking plastic. Many products come served and wrapped in plastic – from water to toys, clothes, fruit, vegetables, bathroom products and more. It’s everywhere. And worse, it’s not going away…
Since the ’50s, around 8,3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide, and because none of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable, they end up accumulating in landfills and in the environment, where they take up to 400 years to degrade. And while South Africa recycles around 44% of used plastic into raw material – more than Europe’s recycling rate of 31% – more can be done. However, a large portion of plastic that could be reused often isn’t, either because it contains multiple materials or because it’s simply too small to collect and sort.
“Around eight to 12 million tons of plastic pollution enter our oceans annually,” says environmental campaigner Hugo Tagholm. At this rate, by 2050, there’ll be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans; a shocking thought! “Every year, plastic pollution is killing off millions of marine animals and birds, and breaking down to enter the human food chain,” explains Hugo.
GP Dr Dawn Harper explains why it’s alarming: “Chemicals like BPA and phthalates in plastic leach into our food from packaging and via the environment. These toxins have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, fertility issues and behavioural difficulties in kids.” GP Dr Clare Morrison adds that testing abroad has found over 92% of people – babies, too – had detectable levels of BPA and other plastic chemicals in their bodies. Call it the Blue Planet II effect (the iconic TV series’ images of an albatross feeding its chicks with plastic has arguably done more to raise awareness of the issue than any eco-campaign or political pledge), but change seems to be happening, even if it’s still quite slow.
Ultimately, it’s down to individuals, says sustainability expert Georgina Wilson-Powell. “Taking a reusable cup to a coffee shop, for example, has an impact. We need to reprogramme our thinking, so it’s less about convenience and a little more about the impact of our decisions.” We need to be more conscious of our plastic habit, breaking the pattern, one product at a time…
My week without plastic
Today, I plan my grocery shopping for the week ahead. After a quick ‘audit’, I realise how much I rely on plastic. Regrettably, I’ve paid for plastic bags when I’m in a rush and have left the reusables in the car. But I must start somewhere, so my first plastic-free act is to round up all reusable bags in the house and put them in my car boot.
What next? I feel out of my depth, so I take to the Internet and a quick search brings up ‘Zero Waste Journey in Southern Africa’ on Facebook; I apply to join the almost 5 000-members-strong closed group. Once in, I’m inspired. They share tips on everything, from making your own cleaning products to where to buy zero-waste goodies. Reading their posts, I make a note of online stockists like takeoutsfromnature.co.za for zero-waste cleaning products, and spices, coffee and organic popcorn in reusable jars; urbanearthmom.co.za that sells bamboo coffee cups, non-plastic straws and even refillable dental floss; and shopzero.co.za for vegan-friendly pantry essentials not packed in plastic, and biodegradable cleaning products.
I still need to go to a supermarket, though, and it comes as no surprise that many usual goods – cereal, toilet paper, cheese – come in the single-use plastic packaging I need to avoid. I buy what I can: recyclable milk cartons; tinned pet food instead of bagged; loose fruit like bananas and naartjies, which I ask the shop assistant not to drop in plastic bags after they’re weighed. She gives me an odd look, but obliges. I do the same at the deli counter with slices of cold meat, using the paper wrapping I brought.
I’m based in Cape Town, so head out to Zonnebloem, reusable bags and glass jars in tow, to check out the plastic-free grocery store, Nude Foods, in person. Their stock is impressive, from fruit, veg and bottled milk, to other necessities – like deodorant and toothpaste, both in glass jars, and bamboo toothbrushes in cardboard packs (I buy one of each).
Vitals like loo roll and milk are running low. I order old-school glass-bottle milk online at mooberryfarms.co.za and get sustainable sugarcane-fibre toilet paper from greenhome.co.za. I realise, too, that I’ve been using shower gel in plastic packaging. I can’t wait for an online order, so am thrilled to find Lush has stores at loads of malls. I head to my nearest branch to buy their shampoo bars and soaps not wrapped in plastic.
Today, bathroom and kitchen cleaning products are on my list. Many cleaning products that come in plastic claim they can be recycled, but I’m not taking any chances and, instead, go onto yourgreenbox.co.za for its eco-friendly and biodegradable products. I buy the Triple Orange starter pack, with 1l of detergent, 500ml of ‘Wonder Gel’ and 500ml of ‘Wonder Spray’, for R230 – a little pricier than what I’d usually pay.
I almost forgot nappies! Durban’s Atrium Medical Practice says one child goes through around 4 100 disposable nappies, generating almost one ton of waste by the time they’re potty-trained, while a child using cloth nappies only generates about 2,2kg of nappy waste. My child is two and almost potty-trained, but I reckon it’s better late than never, and am pleased to see yourgreenbox.co.za also sells an all-in-one bamboo nappy, for R285, that adjusts to fit from birth to potty-training. I buy two.
My family goes through a lot of fruit and veg, so I visit Food Lover’s Market and take my own reusable bags and glass jars. Pick-your-own venues aren’t only a good way to do plastic-free buying, they also offer a great family day out, I find. Polkadraai Strawberry Farm is 40 minutes away, but worth the drive.
Paying attention to my nightly skincare ritual, suddenly, my beauty buys don’t look so pretty – they all come in plastic! A frantic online search brings me to luluandmarula.co.za – natural skincare in glass and cardboard packaging. Sold!
It’s the last day of my plastic-free week, so we’re having a family debrief at Vida e Caffè. I bring my own eco-cup, bought at the Melissa’s shop opposite, and enjoy a R2 discount on my Vida coffee. After the initial panic, we’ve come up with a plan – avoid single-use plastic where possible, and buy items in glass or cardboard packaging, or recycled and recyclable plastic if not. Just then, I find a slice of ham in the bottom of my bag (it fell out of the wrapping!), but it hasn’t put me off – my plastic-free-lifestyle challenge is only just beginning!