"Hygiene theater" generated tons of waste. Plastic Free July is our chance to fix it

This illustration depicts a plastic bag labeled Plastic Free July and other single-use plastic.
[Illustration by Maxine McCrann for Mic]

Over the past 10 years, the Plastic Free Foundation has invited millions of people to take part in Plastic Free July. Started in Australia, this now-worldwide event challenges everyone to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics and re-think the utility of these items that, unfortunately, probably won't ever go away entirely. But while Plastic Free July isn't new, in 2021, it does take on new meaning — and potentially, new power.

Last year, as millions of people across the planet went into lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, much was made about how clean and clear the sky and bodies of water looked without constant pollution. Unfortunately, whatever benefit we may have gotten out of that short-lived reduction in emissions was likely more than wiped out by the resurgence of single-use plastics.

Born from an abundance of caution, concern for safety, and a simple lack of information regarding COVID-19 (along with some heavy lobbying from plastic industry interest groups who saw an opportunity to sell more goods), people started using more disposable goods in an attempt to minimize the potential spreading of disease across surfaces. Grocery stores banned reusable bags and containers for bulk goods; restaurants churned out more food packaging as people increasingly turned to take-out orders; and just about everyone cranked up their cleaning habits and disinfected every surface imaginable with single-use wipes and other cleaning supplies. Add to that the major increase in medical waste as hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 patients and the need for masks and other personal protective equipment, and you end up with a whole lot of single-use stuff that likely ultimately made its way to a landfill.

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Of course, as we later learned, much of this was unnecessary. COVID-19 spreads via airborne transmission and is significantly less likely to spread from surfaces. And while the intentions of shifting to single-use items may have been good, the outcome on the environment was not. A study published in the journal Heliyon earlier this year estimated that we are producing globally an estimated 1.6 million metric tons of plastic waste per day. The total amount of plastic waste increased by an estimated 30% in 2020 compared to the prior year. And, because our recycling programs are often inefficient and already overworked, much of that plastic ends up being disposed of improperly, leading to lots of plastic ending up in waterways and oceans.

All of this is, in a word, bad. We are trapped in a world of "hygiene theater," doing the wrong thing because it feels like the right thing. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we're on a highway made of plastic.

"Plastic is so omnipresent in our daily lives that it is simply impossible to imagine a world without it," Nicola De Blasio, senior fellow at Harvard University's Environment and Natural Resources Program, tells Mic. "However, lack of post-use considerations, high costs of recycling, together with a significant carbon footprint have turned plastic into the victim of its own success and created a global sustainability and environmental crisis."

Put simply, we need to start kicking the habit, or at least reimagining the solutions to this problem. Enter: Plastic Free July. As many places across the United States and other parts of the world start to return to a new, post-lockdown normal (even as new coronavirus variants crop up and threaten restrictions anew), this event is the perfect opportunity to reset and shake free of our reliance on waste-generating goods.

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"Plastic Free July is great for anybody, no matter where they are in their sustainability journey," Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of the book Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, tells Mic. "The most impactful part of something like Plastic Free July is that there's a sense of collectivism to it. People feel like they want to jump on the bandwagon, but they also feel comfortable enough because they know that there are plenty of other people who are either going to help shepherd them through the process or who they can have solidarity with through the process."

Getting on board with a movement makes it easier to get swept up in the excitement of collective action and doing your part. But, with a problem as immense and daunting as plastic pollution, it can be hard to know where to start making changes.

"Sustainability gets really complicated for people," Piper says. "And over-complication is a form of procrastination." She notes that many people make the mistake of thinking they have to "get super creative ... in order to be a legit environmentalist." Instead of worrying about trying to come up with Instagram-worthy solutions, Piper says to start simple by thinking of the plastic you are already stuck with as reusable material instead of single-use and disposable.

Take plastic cutlery, for example. Forks, spoons, and knives get tossed in your bag just about any time you get food for take-out or delivery. You likely already recognize and know that plastic is a long-lasting, enduring material that doesn't biodegrade, but you might not think to actually treat these plastic goods like they can last that long. "You don't even need to re-imagine these as something else," Piper says. "These are items that largely can be washed and reused many, many times over. Having these plastic items and reusing them for their intended purpose is a wonderful way to conserve."

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Of course, if you're feeling creative, there are options for alternative uses, too. Piper says take-out food containers are great for repurposing. "I use circular food containers as dishes underneath plants to capture water," she says. These little shifts in how we think about "single-use" items can unlock all sorts of new functionality for the plastic that you get stuck with, and can help keep containers and other pieces out of landfills.

"There's a spark of imagination where people start to reimagine these items that are supposedly single-use in different ways that they can reuse them," Piper says. "That ember of having a new way of thinking about waste and our relationship to materials has a much more positive impact over time than just kind of the going through the motions."

These seemingly small changes in how we interact with plastic can also help disrupt our existing system, which has fallen woefully short of addressing the issue of waste generated by single-use goods. De Blasio says the current strategy for addressing this problem — "reduce, reuse, and recycle" — needs to be reconsidered, as just 9% of plastic actually gets recycled in the U.S. We aren't recycling; we aren't reusing; and, during the pandemic in particular, we absolutely have not been reducing our reliance on plastic. We need a reset. "The transition to a sustainable future must encompass every aspect of the value chain, from production to consumption to disposal," De Blasio says. "This will require not only a shift to fossil-free feedstocks and energy to produce carbon-neutral building blocks, but also the development of new plastic designs focusing on both material functionality and recyclability."

That overall change will require a concerted effort from every stakeholder — from policymakers, to manufacturers, to consumers. It will require developing better and more sustainable materials for products, improving and expanding recycling programs, and adjusting attitudes toward single-use products. It's not all going to be accomplished over the course of Plastic Free July, but adjusting your own relationship with plastic is a good place to start.