3 Takeways from My Plastic Free July

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I've arrived at the end of Plastic Free July. It was a month that affected my life in meaningful ways. I've made it the whole month using very little plastic and I feel like I see the world differently. Recently, Ajahn Jayasaro used a metaphor that resonated with me: if you've lived in a dirty room your whole life, it's hard to forget a clean room if you see one. Seeing the abundance of plastic in the world has made the world feel a little bit like a dirty room and it has felt good to clean up the spaces I inhabit.

Here are three lessons that I have learned from reducing my plastic consumption this month:

1. Plastic Free Takes Some Effort

It's not easy to reduce plastic use. Duh! This month I have had to plan ahead. I did a lot more research before going places and often had to change course when I encountered unexpected plastic.

For instance, I could not just show up at the grocery store without a plan. Even when I did have a plan I still wandered around the grocery store. A lot. Earlier this month I made my own pesto from radish leaves and it was delicious, so yesterday I left for the grocery store with a plan to get lots of food, including the ingredients to make my own pesto again. Once I arrived at our local co-op — on my bike, with a grocery list and reusable bags and containers in hand — I got many of the ingredients and then realized that I had kinda cheated before by using Parmesan cheese from a plastic container that we already had in our house. I couldn't find any Parmesan cheese that didn't come in plastic, but I noticed I could buy ready-made pesto in a glass jar so I bought that instead and put back the ingredients I didn't need. It felt a little weird putting radishes back on the shelf to buy something in a jar. The pesto example is one of many, but the bottom line is that I have not allowed myself to just do what is easy.

Furthermore, July turned out to be an eventful month in my life and a roller coaster of emotions, so allow me a slight digression to give my Plastic Free July some context. The Irish novelist Edna O'Brien once said that "bad moments, like good ones, tend to be grouped together" (The Love Object). July seemed to group all kinds of moments together. My wife, Marnie, and I had a nice relaxing trip along the North Shore celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. We escaped WiFi and cell phone coverage for a few days at Naniboujou near Grand Marais and felt truly pampered at Solglimt in Duluth. When we arrived home, Marnie and our youngest child tested positive for Covid. My aunt Shari passed away so I spent five days down in Arizona with my parents and siblings helping to get ready for the celebration of life and playing my violin at the service.

During all of these events, the significant amount of plastic in the world kept me on my toes and there were a couple times where I lost my focus. One day I was walking around with my family in the 115° Arizona heat and my Dad and I ducked into a tea store to get something cold to drink. I was so focused on the beautiful smells and pleasant design of the tea store that I ordered a cold ice tea without even thinking about how they would serve that to me. I had a similar experience ordering a "nautical bowl" at a food truck when I was more focused on the yummy contents of bowl and totally was not thinking about the container required that would allow that food to get from the food truck to my mouth.

Other times I was mindful, but I still added plastic to the world. Down in Jordan, Minnesota, eating dinner at a fun local restaurant with my wife and kids, the server asked if I wanted water and I specifically asked if I could get my water in a glass. She said "yes" but someone else served me water in a plastic cup and also unnecessarily brought the food to our table in plastic bags. Shoot! I can recall two times when I didn't lose focus and knowingly purchased something packaged in plastic, and both of those times it was fruit because strawberries and blueberries only came in plastic (at least in our local grocery stores), the fruit was in season, and dang-o-rama I love eating fruit.

Aside from these times, during the month I remained committed to reducing my plastic use. I had two rather consistent voices in my head: the nit-picky, grumpy voice in my head saying I'm not actually "plastic free" and the kind, lovable, friendly voice in my head that contends my actions are more thoughtful, more considerate, and kinder to the planet. I went to a lot of familiar and unfamiliar places, and almost everywhere I went I noticed the plastic and thought about how most of it will be around for many generations after I die and most of it will never be recycled. More plastic in the world equals more effort required to avoid it. But I still have hope!

2. Plastic Free Aligns with My Values

On one hand, seeing the abundance of plastic in the world made me feel like my efforts would not make a significant change in the world, but on the other hand reducing my plastic use felt really good because the changes aligned well with my values.

As I write these words, the homepage of the Kripalu website states, "It's all yoga." Reducing plastic use felt a lot like doing yoga or meditation. Like other contemplative practices, reducing plastic requires paying attention to my actions. It forced me to notice causes and conditions. It helped shift my decision-making progress from a self-centered perspective to a process based on mindfulness and wisdom.

I did not spend much time trying to convince others to go plastic free this past month because for the most part I viewed Plastic Free July as a personal practice. My values have been shaped by countless teachers such as Jesus, the Buddha, Patanjali, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, St. Francis of Assisi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. All of these people promoted kindness, and reducing plastic made my actions feel kinder to the planet, animals, and other people.

In contemporary Western yoga circles, Patanjali is one of the most influential figures. Philosophically-oriented yoga teachers mention his ideas frequently in their yoga classes. Patanjali left behind many little nuggets of wisdom in his text, The Yoga Sutra. It contain the yamas and niyamas, which are ethical guidelines that I reflect on frequently, such as nonviolence (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), restraint (brahmacharya), purity (śauca), and contentment (santoṣa). Not to sound overly dramatic, but using plastic feels violent to our planet, and a truth I must shut out of my mind when I choose the easy route and buy goods packaged in plastic. Buying plastic feels like it saves time for me but steals from the planet, like I'm unable to exercise restraint, live in a way that feels pure, and content with what I have. It's pretty easy for me to imagine a "Plastic Free Patanjali."

Rather than a burden, reducing my plastic use has relieved some mental suffering. We all know that processed, packaged foods offer less nourishment than plant-based alternatives, so limiting my purchases mostly to unpackaged produce and bulk goods that I put in reusable containers feels more aligned with the yamas and niyamas. The time I purchased strawberries in a plastic container was the exception, not the norm.

3. Plastic Free Is Worth the Effort

Now that I have experienced a month limiting my plastic use — seeing the clean room — I can't imagine going back. It feels good for my well-being and for the well-being of others.

While I have avoided asking others to join me on this journey, I could not help but to notice the effects of my actions on others. Some of you wrote to me to let me know that you are going plastic free as well, which warmed my heart (and I would love to hear about your experiences!). I saw some of my family members make some choices to avoid plastic, or at least be willing to eat at restaurants that don't use plastic.

Although it has been wonderful to see other people make choices that align with my values, changing other people was never my goal this month and I have avoided focusing too much on the larger impact of my actions. In the same way I know that I, alone, won't likely be able to reverse climate change, end racism, or stop wars, I know I need to keep my focus on making the choices that feel right to me and not for others. Not everyone believes that "planetary care is self-care."

For now, at least, moving toward a "zero waste," "plastic free" lifestyle is working for me. I'm hoping this "break up" with plastic is permanent, but this isn't the first time I've avoided using plastic and I know it's difficult to maintain. At the very least, I've learned that making my own tahini, hummus, vegetable stock, soup, crackers, ginger beer, and pizza crust is a lot easier than I expected. I realized that I can put all kinds of drinks in my reusable coffee mug and that many stores will happily fill my reusable cup. I also noticed how I can buy a whole lotta food for less money when I buy in bulk and use my own containers.

I'm ready to make July 2022 one of the longest plastic free months ever.