10 things that I learned when going plastic-free for a month

In January 2017, concerned with an alarming statistic, Rhiannon Moore, former rare Conservation Ecologist Intern, embarked on a month-long quest to go plastic-free in her day-to-day life. Documenting her journey on social media, Rhiannon shared the highs and lows of her experience as she went grocery shopping, made her own toiletries and household cleaning products, and aimed to help spread awareness on how human interaction has impacted the global environment.

This concept is also wildly explored by rare International Ambassador Ed Burtynsky. At a rare event in October, Burtynsky presented some incredible photographs from his most recent film, Anthropocene. Combining hard science with stunning visual sequences, the Anthropocene film documents an historic moment in human history and brings a visceral and unforgettable understanding of our species’ reach and impact. During Burtynsky’s presentation the audience was overwhelmed with both a daunting sense of fear and palpable feeling of hope in that as he described the somewhat cliché theory ‘think global – act local’.

We urge you, if nothing less, to educate yourself on the facts of human impact on the environment.

By the year 2050, it is expected that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Plastic on the beach
Plastics found on the beach. Photo by R. Moore

This prediction made by scientists in a report published by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is something I always come back to throughout my work as an environmental professional. The ocean covers 70 per cent of our planet, and somehow, we have produced so much plastic that we have allowed it to infiltrate every ecosystem on earth. According to this report, we are finding microplastics along beaches, in fragile estuaries, at the bottom on the ocean, and even frozen in artic sea ice. Whales, fish and sea birds are found dead with their stomachs full of plastic. Within our ocean gyres, plastic has been found to out-number sea life six to one. How have we let it get to this point?

These sobering statistics, and through what I have seen in my own work along the Great Lakes, is why I challenged myself to go plastic-free for one month to see if it was really possible to live without plastic. Below are ten things I learned and experienced.

1. It was easier than I expected

When I first told friends and family that I was going to try to go an entire month without buying anything plastic, nearly everyone thought it was going to be impossible. What surprised me about going plastic-free for a month is that once you get in the habit, the whole lifestyle is pretty easy to accomplish without too much inconvenience! There is an alternative for everything, it’s just a matter of seeking out the alternative products that can be tricky.

With any lifestyle change such as this, there were easy parts and hard parts. The easy parts I found were in the shower—switching to bar soap, bar shampoo and yes even bar conditioner was a piece of cake.

2. But… I did struggle in the grocery store

Most of my challenges existed within the grocery store. So much of our food these days is packaged excessively. I found myself going to the grocery store to pick up several items, only to leave with a head of broccoli in my paper bag. The key to having a plastic-free grocery shop is being prepared.  Always have a re-usable bag in your car, stashed in your purse or backpack or at work. Instead of plastic produce bags, I used paper bags (or just let the heartier fruits and veggies roll around uncontained in my cart)!

3. I felt happier

Going on my “plastic fast” had a number of unexpected outcomes. Once I stopped buying things I didn’t need, only to toss and sit in a landfill for eons, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I felt happier and less stressed, and most importantly, grateful for all the necessities that I did have. Once you start going “back to basics” you end up appreciating the simple things in life. When you eliminate useless items, your life becomes less about stuff and more about… well, life!

4. I inspired others to make a difference

Another benefit of going plastic-free and sharing it over social media was the reaction from individuals. It was so uplifting to hear that my endeavor had inspired others to make simple switches and think more carefully about their purchases.

5. I met new people

Finding alternative products and doing things differently attracts interest from other people. You end up asking strangers or store owners questions, and vice versa. “Do you carry this product? I am going plastic-free,” can lead to, “lets grab a coffee and I’ll tell you all about!” (ok, maybe that’s a little too keener). I even had people I barely knew offer to pick up items I was running low on from Bulk Barn!

6. I embraced the “haters”

Going “plastic-free” sounds a little radical to some people. I had names thrown at me over social media, and strange looks from people in the grocery store. But those empty words and judgement was always silenced by those cheering me on. Most of the time, when people criticize you, it has nothing to do with you anyway. I learned to move past the judgements and educate others if they were willing to listen.

7. I ate healthier

Most processed and unhealthy foods come in plastic packaging. When you eliminate packaged items from your grocery list, you end up replacing them with healthy and fresh whole foods. Instead of chips and dip as snack food, I would have apples and peanut butter. Instead of salty crackers or sugar-packed granola bars, I would have roasted nuts or homemade granola.

8. I saved money

I ended up spending less money on groceries ($150 less to be exact!) and wasted less food because I was being more mindful of what I was purchasing. I used up what was in the fridge, and didn’t let cravings in the grocery store lead me to buy things I didn’t need. If I felt the urge to buy something, I would ask myself if I really needed it or if I could make do with that I already had.

9. I started thinking “big picture”

We live in such a throw-away society. Everything seems like it isn’t built to last anymore, and everything seems so short-term — including our personal outlook. As millennials, I think we really need to start thinking about what type of legacy we want to leave. I don’t want my legacy to be a pile of trash that outlives me, my children and my grandchildren. Going plastic-free was so much more than the simple act of saying no to plastic. It did open my eyes to the waste-management challenges we face in society and how dependent we are on plastic. More importantly however, it made me feel hopeful. Finding companies that are trying to make a difference, and feeling like I was making a difference myself, made it an up-lifting experiment that I continue to live by throughout the year.

10. It leads to greater things

Challenging yourself brings confidence, and confidence makes you do unique things! I looked into initiatives I could get involved with to turn my passion into action, and came across an organization called “eXXpedition”. After submitting some information about my work to them, I was asked to join a crew of all female change-makers to sail in the Atlantic and collect data on microplastics in the Caribbean Sea this year. I am excited to connect with like-minded women who are hungry for change like I am, and continue sharing my experiences to raise awareness to protect our water, wildlife, and communities.

Rhiannon with garbage bags full of plastic collected on the beach
Cleaning up the shoreline. Photo provided by R. Moore.

By: Rhiannon Moore, former rare Conservation Ecologist Intern

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