The ‘Plastic Free July’ Challenge – an interview with participants Maria and Shannon
– Killian Kelly
As the month of July comes to a close, so too does the ‘Plastic Free July’ challenge which saw people attempting to reduce, or completely eliminate single-use plastics from their shopping lists the entire month of July.
There’s been a lot of noise around plastic of late. So much so that McDonald’s are replacing their straws with paper ones in outlets across Ireland and the UK; Croke Park is phasing out single-use plastic items at their events; and more new and exciting initiatives and technological fixes are making headlines, presenting glimmers of hope amidst the grim and gloomy scenes of oceans filled with plastic.
While efforts are being made by companies and organisations, it must not be forgotten that consumers need to be at the centre of this change also. Single-use plastics are one of the main issues of plastic pollution, and if demand continues, so too will production. Ireland is the top producer of plastic in Europe, with the average Irish person generating 61 kgs of plastic waste each year. Almost double that of the UK. Ever since China has stopped taking a hefty 95% of our country’s plastic waste, Ireland has been left with a serious plastic waste problem. Now that we can no longer ship our plastic problems away, there seems to have been a sudden awakening, not only in Ireland but internationally.
Noticeable efforts are being made by individuals seeking to reduce their plastic footprint. Whether it’s buying a reusable water bottle or taking part the initiatives and campaigns such as plastic free July, more and more people are making conscious decisions about their purchasing choices.
I decided to interview two people who took on the challenge of plastic free July, both in different countries to compare experiences. Maria Kirrane, residing in Cork, is the sustainability officer for UCC, and Shannon O’Reilly, of Co.Waterford, recently completed her masters and is living in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
The answers to each question are given together for ease of comparison.
Did you find any big changes in what you were eating? Did you find yourself eating healthier foods?
Maria: Not necessarily, just less of everything! We usually eat a lot of spinach and it’s very difficult to get that without the plastic bag. Most meat and fish come in plastic so we have definitely been eating more veggie dishes – lots of sweet potato and aubergine.
Shannon: For sure! Living in the Netherlands bread and dip is a staple classic lunch. I realised once I started plastic free July how much plastic I was buying from hummus alone. The challenge forced me to be more organised and aware of what I was eating and how to alter my own habits.
Was there anything you had to give up/ couldn’t purchase as a result of going plastic free?
Maria: Yes, we usually buy frozen fruit and veg which I couldn’t due to the plastic packaging.
Shannon: Sweets! I couldn’t find Jellies that were suitable for vegetarians and had plastic-free packaging.
In relation to cost, was it much more expensive than before?
Maria: Yes, we have had to go to a lot of the speciality shops to get loose items e.g. coffee shop to get loose ground coffee, health food shop to get loose mixed nuts. On the other hand, though, refillable household cleaners seem to be cheaper than supermarket brands.
Shannon: Yes and no, but I don’t know whether this was from my own lack of organisation or the challenge itself. There were reduced costs in terms of coffees and drinks that a lot of cafes did as a result of having a reusable sustainable cup. I also never spent money on plastic water bottles as many people in the Netherlands have a classic reusable dopper water bottle (plastic or steel). But I did found myself eating out more which increased the cost of things, and the plastic-free aisle was also more expensive than usual, but then buying fresh produce from local shops definitely reduced cost too!
What did you find the most frustrating thing about plastic-free July?
Maria: Lack of choice. Also opening hours, there are only certain shops which do ‘loose’ foods, each of them closes around 5.30 mon-sat, so if you miss Saturday or are doing something else, you have to get to them on lunchtimes or over several evenings after work in order to get the bits you need.
Shannon: How inconvenient it could be at times. You really have to think about what you need and a lot of time it’s more effort in terms of time. It was also frustrating to see how much single-use plastic is discarded every day from the people around you when you’re making a conscious effort not to do so. There were also occasions when supermarkets didn’t have plastic alternatives to things like cutlery, or plates, that are easy to implement.
What did you find to be the most satisfying thing about plastic-free July?
Maria: Our rubbish bin did get smaller so didn’t need to be taken out as much. It is very satisfying when you find an alternative that works. In general, it has made us think a lot more about what we are buying and at least try to only purchase products in rigid plastic that can be recycled.
Shannon: The conversations I had with people. I’m also definitely more conscious of how much plastic I use daily which I had never fully registered. It also made me do more research into the plastic use and its pros and cons of plastic and the most successful way of solving the current issue.
If you were to give advice to someone trying to go plastic free for a month in Ireland/ The Netherlands, what would it be?
Maria: Set up a veg patch in advance for salad leaves etc. If you can find collapsible containers that would be great. In general, you just need to be really well prepared. I think we downgraded our ambition after about two weeks of not being able to find a lot of the foods we normally eat and busy weekends where we couldn’t get to all the different shops we needed to.
Shannon: Plan ahead, be organised! Purchase reusable cups, bottles, cutlery, and containers before starting the challenge!
What did you find to be the biggest day-to-day difficulty when doing Plastic Free July?
Maria: The guilt!! There were times where it was just not possible to be completely plastic-free, and the entire month it just showed how much plastics we use every-single-day without thinking. What’s more is that we found ourselves eating out a whole lot more, and I guess even though we didn’t see or handle the plastic in restaurants, the food we were eating still would have come to the restaurant in plastic. So it made us think a lot about it in general.
Shannon: Honestly, the biggest difficulty throughout the challenge was being organised and prepared. If I woke up late or didn’t have time to make lunch I had to think about what I wanted to eat/where I wanted to go for lunch in order to avoid plastic. Luckily, I live in a country with a lot of organic/Turkish shops close by where you can purchase fresh fruit and veg without any plastic. There’s also an amazing supermarket Ekoplaza which is has a plastic-free aisle which was also super useful!
If you could change one thing about your countries shopping facilities and services to make it easier to go plastic-free, what would it be?
Shannon: Have plastic alternatives available (for example paper plates, cups). Where possible removes single-use plastic. (Get rid of the plastic bags beside the fruit and veg).
Maria: Have picked up and drop off container areas in shops.
While Ireland may not have plastic-free isles just yet, there were many similarities between Maria’s and Shannon’s experiences:
In terms of diet; Maria began eating more veggie dishes while Shannon had to ditch Bread, dip, and jellies.
Cost wise; they both found it more expensive in general having to eat out and go to specialty food shops and store sections. There were, however, savings to be found with the likes of coffee discounts for reusable mugs, and refillable household cleaners. Yet, overall, the plastic-free lifestyle proved more expensive in both countries, highlighting a significant challenge when battling against the rising tide of plastic production.
Unsurprisingly, the theme of inconvenience seemed to shine through when asked about the most frustrating aspect of going plastic free. Maria and Shannon also found common ground when discussing the most satisfying thing about the plastic-free July, stating the benefits of being much more aware of their own consumption behaviours, and knowing more about the landscape in terms of alternatives and solutions.
When asked to give advice to people considering going plastic free, organisation and preparation were clearly stressed. We live in a world designed for convenience, and unfortunately too, disposable lifestyles. To go against the grain requires lots of organisation, preparation, and commitment. A huge well-done to Maria and Shannon and to any other people who took part. It certainly doesn’t sound easy; so keep it up!
What’s the longest time you have gone without plastic? Do you think you could go a month without plastic? Let us know in the comments below