It’s been one week since the start of Plastic Free July, and our four staff members who have taken up the challenge – Helen, Hayley, Katja and Xavier – are, in a word, overwhelmed. They all cut out the top four plastic culprits years ago: straws, plastic shopping bags, takeaway cups and plastic water bottles haven’t been part of their daily consumption for a while now. So the challenge this month is to go that extra mile, getting rid of single-use plastic altogether.

Clockwise from top left: Hayley, Helen, Xavier and Katja

Easier said than done!

Week one has been more frustrating than expected. Finding food with less or no plastic packaging is one thing, but often they’ve made specific health and wellness choices that are only available one way: in plastic. Time restrictions have proven difficult to overcome, as many alternatives to plastic involve homemade substitutions that require hours to prepare.

Plastic is, therefore, extremely convenient.

“Having to think harder about what they consume has helped our challengers forge a closer connection with the things they buy.”

Our challengers have found that a plastic-free life is a lot more expensive than a “regular” one, making this a lifestyle choice that’s out of reach for the majority of the population. They’ve also had to sacrifice some of their favourite treats, and big life changes (like moving house) sometimes force them into plasticky situations. Then again, having to think harder about what they consume has helped our challengers forge a closer connection with the things they buy. From food to cleaning products and everything in between, there’s an almost inevitable emphasis on “better for you and for the planet in general”.

Helen Lockhart, Two Oceans Aquarium Communications & Sustainability Manager

I took my credit card out to pay for something and my partner quipped: “You should be paying by cash – that's plastic.” I retorted, “Ah, but it’s not single-use plastic!”

From food to cleaning and personal care products, medicines and even courier packaging, plastic is everywhere. I quickly realised that I was totally unprepared for this challenge, but it has radically heightened my awareness and made me think before I act. It has also made me realise that, whether I like it or not, certain sacrifices are necessary – am I prepared to make those sacrifices? Or is it less about sacrifices and more about changing habits?

I think it is the latter and while daunting at first, habits can be changed – with some willpower. It is also about slowing down and paying attention, e.g. if I really have to buy something in plastic is it at least recyclable or reusable? This means taking the time to read the label and to better understand the symbols on packaging.

Participating in this challenge has also highlighted that it is not just about plastic. While rethinking plastic, I also need to rethink the food I eat and the products I use. I need to confront myself with the question: “Do I want this or do I need it?”

In the first week:

  • I didn't find milk in anything but plastic. The cheese I bought was also wrapped in plastic.
  • I bought more organic vegetables than I usually do.
  • I had to undertake a special trip on a Saturday (changing a habit, as I generally try and do shopping en route between work and home during the week to avoid additional fuel consumption and carbon emissions – plus my Saturdays are sacrosanct home days!).
  • I cooked a large pot of soup at the beginning of the week so I didn't buy soup or any convenience meals. I also shared food with my sister.
  • I realised that in order to avoid more plastic I could start making more things myself – be it food, cleaning products or body care products. When I looked at the toolbox on the Plastic Free July website there are lots of recipes for making your own deodorant, toothpaste – but a lot of the products needed will probably be packaged in plastic! Plus given that I don't cook much, the likelihood of me making my own toothpaste is not very high.

Judging from our mid-week chat, all of us are feeling somewhat overwhelmed and already feeling like we have failed in some way or another. However, this is a journey and shifts are likely to take place slowly, rather than overnight. We’ll need to research more, share more ideas, visit different markets and try new things. I think if we see it as a journey we are more likely to continue with it after 31 July, rather than just feeling like it is an impossible task and resorting back to our old habits come the end of the month.

“It has also made me realise that, whether I like it or not, certain sacrifices are necessary – am I prepared to make those sacrifices? ”

Hayley McLellan, Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Campaigner

I really treasure my Saturday morning winter lie-ins, so I only made it to the Oranjezicht City Farm Market at the V&A Waterfront late on this first weekend of Plastic Free July. One of the first things I saw was this sign.

I come from a KwaZulu-Natal farming family and eating from our massive and organic veggie garden at home is such a privilege. Being back in town can sway us off this healthy path choice quicker than you can say “give peas a chance!” The presentation of organic, non-plastic-suffocated fruit and veg is even a treat for the eye.

This is a largely plastic bag-free market. The only fresh produce I saw in transparent bags were the kumquats, which could be avoided.

My purchases for this day cost me R95, which included Happy Hens eggs. It is important for me to be transparent about my Plastic Free July experience and say that I did find shopping organic a tad expensive. Carrots, for example, cost me four times what I would pay in a retail store – munch on that! Next week I will go for the “two for one” specials at the end of the market day.

My taste buds simply love plain, natural, Greek/Bulgarian yoghurt. I never buy any other style. The Camphill brand is superb with a silky texture and a far superior taste than any commercial brand. Again, it also comes at a premium price.

My challenges this week:

  • I came to the end of my block of cheese and can’t do without that. I will have to seek alternatives in a mad rush!
  • Ready-made soup, which I add a mountain of veggies to, comes in non-recyclable plastic so I won’t be buying it again. Brown onion soup powder will suffice for now and, no doubt, encourage me to become more creative as the weeks go by.
  • I occasionally indulge in a packet of cookies so I will be visiting the bakery section for loose cookies in a brown bag from now on!

“Eating from our massive and organic veggie garden at home is such a privilege.”

Katja Rockstroh, Two Oceans Aquarium PA to the Head of Education

I think I went into this challenge with blind optimism, thinking that avoiding single-use plastic cannot be that hard. Turns out, it’s hellishly hard and overwhelming.

A few points from this week:

  • My chocoholic self is weeping inside. All “cheap” chocolate comes in plastic. If you truly want to live a chocolate life without plastic, prepare to fork out much more than before. There are only a few (expensive) brands that wrap their chocolate in foil and paper, or just paper. Also, I really enjoy those chocolate milk drinks you can buy, which of course come in a plastic bottle, with a plastic lid. So none of those for me either.
  • Moving house and attempting to be plastic free doesn’t work. This is not because of elaborate plastic packaging for your stuff, but because you move into a new area that might be unfamiliar and you have to get acquainted with all of your new shops, which may or may not sell everything in plastic. Also, after an exhausting day of moving, we decided to buy some delicious Woolworths soup with some nice Woolworths rolls. Both come wrapped in plastic, which isn’t recyclable. What’s up with that? Bad start to Plastic Free July.

“My chocoholic self is weeping inside.”

  • I live with a carnivore. You cannot buy meat wrapped in anything but plastic. Even if you buy it at a meat counter, it will still be put on a polystyrene tray, covered with clingwrap. Ugh. Unless you start butchering your own animals, plastic-free meat is not a reality.

Truth be told, being plastic free during the week is doable. Take leftovers from the night before for lunch, and drink tea/water from reusable containers (those things called mugs and glasses). When it all goes to shambles in our household, is the grocery shopping on the weekend. This week will be better. I hope.

Xavier Zylstra, Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Education Centre Senior Teacher

I have realised that a plastic-free month is totally beyond me. So much of what we buy is packaged in plastic and no other option is available. I am trying to avoid single-use plastic unless I am sure that I can reuse it in some way. I normally buy groceries on my way home, so everything gets popped straight into the rucksack I use to commute by motorcycle.

Barrier bags have become my target for the month, and also the plastic baggies that veggies go into once they are weighed at the shop. I am going to try to coax the shop to allow me to put all the veggies into one reusable bag, onto which all the price tags go. These can then be removed before the next shopping trip.

My big decision for the month: The decaf coffee I have recently discovered enables me to curb my caffeine intake (which may have contributed to migraines), is a water decaffeinated product (safer than chemically decaffeinated) and tastes really nice, unlike many other decaf blends. Sadly, the good stuff is sold in paper packaged pods (for a particular machine) - no real problem as the pods can be torn open to empty the contents into a normal espresso machine – but … each pod is individually packed into a foil plastic packet! The product is also sold in bean form in much larger packets, but the coffee is not as flavourful. I have decided that the totally wasteful packaging is simply not acceptable and will request beans for future orders.

I have also managed to find yoghurt, part of my daily breakfast, sold in glass jars as opposed to plastic. It does cost more, but is organic, free of added chemicals and preservatives, and it’s yummy! A small price to pay for the added benefits.

“I am going to try to coax the shop to allow me to put all the veggies into one reusable bag, onto which all the price tags go.”

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