How hard is it to minimize plastic use in modern life? In 2015, Emily Kerton and her spouse, Matt Roy, committed to a month-long experiment designed to find out just that. Would they be able to make it four weeks without bringing new plastics into their lives?
The ambitious project required a month of advance research — the pair examined every item coming into their home to find alternatives for those they couldn’t live without — toilet paper free of packaging; fresh, paper-bagged bread from a local bakery; and Mason jars for the bulk-food store.
Long after their plastic-free month ended, Emily and Matt continue to minimize or eliminate the plastic in their lives, a journey Emily documents on her thoughtful and entertaining Instagram feed, Plastic Problems.
We talked to Emily about the motivation behind their challenge (and her Instagram page), the hurdles to going plastic free, rejecting “mom guilt,” and the importance of using your voice for change.
What prompted you and Matt to try living plastic free for a month?
Matt and I had always been very interested in reducing our carbon footprint. Plus I’m a scientist with Science North in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and I’d attended a Science Café on microplastics in the Great Lakes — I’d not realized what a huge problem they are, and that spurred me as well. At the same time, Matt was working on his MEd, and decided to go plastic free for a month as a project in one his classes — so of course I was on board!
I wouldn’t say that we lived plastic-free, though. There was no way we could have eliminated plastic completely from our lives. I mean, plastic is really useful in many ways — the computer I work on, the phone I’m talking on. I don’t think anyone can look a foot around their house and not find something made of plastic. So our goal was to bring no new plastic in. If we wanted to buy a plastic toy for our son, it had to be secondhand. We could use up the ketchup in the plastic squeeze bottle we already had, but if we wanted more then we had to find a way to source it that didn’t involve plastic.
What are microplastics and why are they so potentially harmful?
Microplastics are just regular plastics from our everyday lives that degrade into smaller pieces that end up in our environment. That could stem from plastic bags or litter broken down by the sun or the fibres that shed from synthetic clothing and breach our wastewater treatment plants. Microplastics are also sponges for other toxins and pollutants in the environment. Rain washes these micro-bits of plastic into rivers which carry them into lakes where they are consumed or absorbed by tiny organisms, which are then consumed by the fish that land on our plates. There’s also evidence showing that even tinier bits of plastic — nanoplastics — can breach water treatment plants and our drinking water. Basically, if it’s on the land, it’s in the water, and if it’s in the water, it’s in our bodies. That’s really scary, and enough reason for me to try to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.
Was it hard?
There were absolutely challenges. We’re both busy professionals with active social lives. And we have a son (who at the time was 2 years old). So, we really wanted to do what was possible and then work on what wasn’t. One area we didn’t tackle was one of the biggest plastic offenders: diapers. We did the cloth-diapering thing when our son was a newborn and I was home on parental leave. It was easier then because I had time to do the laundry, deal with any leaks, etc. But once I went back to work and he was in daycare, it really wasn’t working for us, so we switched to disposable. We kept him in disposable diapers the whole time we were doing the challenge, just for the sake of convenience. It’s the one area that I’m disappointed we didn’t work harder to try to stay with an alternative, low/no plastic option.
But I do have to say this: we really wanted the habits we formed to stick. And if we didn’t make them reasonable, they never would have! Now, we’re here, 2½ years later, and we’re still doing a lot of the stuff we started during the challenge.
All kinds of things. We’ve given up straws and other single-use plastics — coffee creamers, bottled water, Keurig pods, disposable cutlery, take-out cups and containers, etc. I’ve always got a travel mug with me (I’m a coffee addict), and when I travel, I have a little kit that includes a wax wrap, a reusable water bottle, a stainless steel straw and a plastic fork that I’ve been using for years. We bring our own bags to the grocery store, but also bags for fruits and vegetables — and if we forget them, we go without and take home loose produce. Some think that’s unhygienic but we’re going to wash or peel the produce anyway, so it’s fine. We’ve ditched plastic wrap in favour of glass containers, Tupperware, or just putting a plate on top of that bowl of food. We’ve also started using beeswax wraps. They’re awesome, have a very long life, and will degrade without polluting the environment when their lifespan is up.
We shop local wherever possible. Partly to reduce the carbon footprint associated with transporting food long distances and partly because that allows us to connect with local producers and growers, who support our efforts. But I understand that shopping local isn’t an option for everyone because it’s often much more expensive.
Most local places will bend over backwards to help you! The Bulk Zone was SO HAPPY to have us use our own containers (we bring mason jars). The Bulk Barn wouldn’t let us, although that has changed since starting this challenge: kudos to Bulk Barn for listening to their customers’ demands! Also, George’s Market in Thunder Bay would put a loaf of bread aside for us in a paper bag so that we didn’t have to take it in plastic. Both Hands Bakery sells their bread in paper, and many vendors at the Thunder Bay Country Market will let you take their products in your own bag. The Thunder Oak Cheese Farm will also let you bring your own containers, but you have to go out to the farm store to do that — you can’t do that at the market.
So far, we’ve been talking about things that individual people can do. What about at a societal level?
If you’re able, one of the most effective is to give money to groups working on legislation or lobbying government for better environmental protection laws. It’s not super tangible, but in terms of efficacy, it’s the best move any one person can make. These groups are the real changemakers — they fight on a scale everyday people can’t. Environmental Defence is a Canadian organization working hard to protect our water and land. They lobbied hard to get microbeads banned. The David Suzuki Foundation does tons as well. And there are many great local organizations, like EcoSuperior here in Thunder Bay, who are working hard on environmental issues.
What about the project was most valuable to you at a personal level?
Talking to our friends/family/community about the challenge kept us accountable and allowed a knowledge exchange. Lots of our friends had great advice!
Social media has been big, both on Facebook and with the Plastic Problems Instagram account. We used Facebook to report on what we were doing and engage in conversation. A lot of people still come up to me today and say, “Thank you so much for all of the information you post on Facebook about where to buy plastic-free products. I use that resource every day and I appreciate that you’re encouraging people to do this.”
I just had a wonderful exchange with the owner of a local farm. We ordered a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box, and when I opened it everything was wrapped in plastic. I took a picture and posted it to Instagram to ask why and it ended up being a really rich dialogue. I learned so much about how and why they package and market the way they do — the owner had given the issue so much thought! He explained the various alternatives and the benefits and drawbacks of using them. It’s a really complex issue he was completely open to discussing. Someone actually commented, “I love this: an Internet discussion that is respectful and informative.”
Later, I met the owner at the Thunder Bay Country Market, and he showed me they’re starting to offer some food in bulk. So it’s clear that speaking up and opening dialogue can make a difference.
I’m looking around at all the plastic in my life, and it can feel overwhelming to try to make significant changes. Or I’ll forget to bring my own bags at the grocery store and feel guilty for taking the plastic. How can people cope with the fact that they can’t do everything?
A lot of guilt comes with being a conscientious person in today’s society. I would say that this overwhelming feeling of guilt is something that all new parents have to deal with, and unfortunately, it’s usually the mother who bears the largest burden. Momma guilt is a real thing! We can feel guilty about our impact on the earth. We can feel guilty that we didn’t cloth diaper our baby. We can feel guilty that we didn’t feed our children all organic food. We can feel guilty that we put our children in this school instead of that school. And it goes on and on and on. I reject this notion of guilt. Being human IS unsustainable — being alive takes resources. Doing our best to reduce our impact is really important, but we shouldn’t feel guilty. There are so many small acts that we can do every day to help people and the planet.
My best piece of advice is to do what works for you and your family. If you try to go completely zero waste and it’s not reasonable to do so, you’ll just end up bitter and frustrated. You’ll give up before you even get started. Make small changes every day and stick to them. Those small,consistent efforts make the biggest impact.
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has
appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, includingChasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.