Plastic Free July In A Time Of COVID-19?

by Alex Spott on 07/29/2020 | 7 Minute Read

As I inhaled the sushi I just ordered, I took a look at all the plastic containers it arrived in, everything sprawled across the counter, and a rush of blood shot through my body. 

Fuck.

It’s July 1st. Not only do I need to pay rent, but I’m supposed to be excelling at Plastic Free July, a month-long initiative where you don’t use single-use plastic, which I’m currently not doing at all. 

To be fair, being in a global pandemic has added a layer of complication to something that’s already complicated. You have to take food to-go, you can’t fill a reusable drink container when you're out and about, you may have to ship instead of shop IRL, and, like me, a Brooklynite without a car, you might only have access to the corner bodega, not a bulk or sustainable grocery store. After hearing about my somewhat-sustainable lifestyle, someone called me an “above-average plastic-free citizen," which made me feel both depressed and good about myself. As my therapist says, it’s all about holding two emotions at once, like yin and yang, so I guess I’m doing GREAT?

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My delivery fail.

Everyone trying to do plastic-free forever, or even just Plastic Free July, including myself, are doing the best they can, and that’s really all anyone can do. It’s not about being perfect for a week and then trashing the world the other 51 weeks out of the year, it’s about working it into your life in a way that’s realistic. Then, it becomes a part of your lifestyle and not just a trend. 

That said, we live in a capitalist society, and we're not built for sustainability so, honestly, if you’re living a totally plastic-free life, you’re an anomaly. So what am I doing here? This past July, I wanted to find more simple ways to be plastic-free and incorporate them into my lifestyle, while also locally sourcing any new plastic-free items I could.

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Local bakery pick-up.

So, yeah. I started Plastic Free July off eating sushi out of multiple plastic containers, but then I remembered that I was currently bleeding into my Thinx, and I felt a little better about my attempt at saving the world.

For the past two years, while living in Brooklyn, I’ve tried to infuse more package and plastic-free living into my lifestyle, especially as I now have more access to package-free stores. At the very least, I carry a canvas tote (which, in NYC, is a totally normal thing), at the most I bring my Tupperware filled with food on a plane when I travel, but having everything closed because of COVID-19 has brought on a new layer to this constant question of how can I be more sustainable? How does a “plastic-free above-average citizen” adhere to that title while living through a global pandemic?

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Bodega fail.

Because this isn’t brand new to me, I’m getting it in where I can fit it into my life. My plastic-free world was already running on reusable tea bags, bulk spices, teas, and tinctures, bulk body washes, beeswax wrap, Tupperware and mason jars to store food, (but if you get plastic containers from to-go stuff, use those until they break), reusable cotton rounds, refillable cleaning products, repurposing old towels into rags, using shampoo bars, carrying a reusable water bottle whenever I can, and (a small thing) asking to-go orders to forgo utensils.

Now, enter COVID-19, which I blame for my never-ending anxiety and having to rely on more plastics than I did before. Everything from restaurants and bars is now to-go, and most likely in plastic. I’m no longer able to shop at whichever grocery store I want, I meditate by wiping down everything with Clorox wipes, I’ve swapped out carrying crystals with carrying tiny hand sanitizers, I wear masks (mostly reusable with disposable filters in them), and everything gets shipped to me now. The more disposable something is, the better I feel. 

Alex Spott

It’s hard to imagine life pre-lockdown and how much plastic I was using then, but my roommate and I probably fill up a small plastic bag (leftover from to-go orders) worth of plastic weekly. Honesty, I think I’m using the same amount of plastic I used before lockdown, just in different ways, since having to adapt to COVID-19.

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Editorial photograph

I want to keep being sustainable, but I also want to avoid my crippling worries about catching the virus, so it’s tough. The other day, I treated myself to a massive vegan ice cream in a cone instead of the cup because I’m obviously package-free, duh. While eating it on the way home, I started wondering, one; why did I get the limited-edition flavor because I don’t even like that flavor for more than one bite, and two; not everyone walking around is wearing a mask. What if COVID-19 FLIES into my cone and I get sick!? Why did I get a cone? I should have gotten it in a protected container like a cup. 

My mind went into a COVID-cone k-hole, and I threw the ice cream away after eating most of the top scoop, which was honestly the better flavor anyways. I felt really bad about throwing a perfectly good $10 cone away, which is something I would never do. I mean, I totally believe in the 10-second rule, but this anxiety has got me going crazy. 

But I digress.

I guess packaging makes me feel more protected while COVID is still going strong, and although I try and avoid it, sometimes you can’t. The eco-guilt is real.

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Drinks out.

Based on my experience with vegan ice cream cones, package-free shops, and buying in bulk, I thought that going plastic-free was a privilege, but when talking with my friend Lola Mendez, a sustainable writer, she countered with, “plastic is the privilege." Many people, including myself, were brought up reusing, recycling, or making their own products instead of buying them. Among other things, my mom would wash all of our ziplock bags until they got holes in them and turn all of our jam jars into cups. We’d compost, shop at second-hand stores, and we weren’t allowed to buy light up shoes because they “were bad for the environment."

As an adult, I assumed that in order to be plastic-free, I had to buy tools. And, of course, there are certain things you need to buy, but I’m forgetting people have been doing this for eons without these products on the market.

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Protest attire.

And don’t worry if you’re a plastic-free noob. I’m not asking you to wipe your ass with towels instead of toilet paper, but I do think there are a handful of super easy ways you can change your lifestyle without sacrificing much. Brew your own iced or hot tea and coffee (bonus points for using loose leaf tea), and then, get a canvas tote and a reusable water bottle. Better still, buy one of those from a favorite artist or brand and make it a fashion accessory. Or find something with a statement on it, so people know what’s up. Try to shop at your local farmers markets or buy as many loose produce and grains as you can at the grocery store (you can wrap greens in tea towels and put grains in jars at home). Get a reusable mask, or make one yourself (look chic saving lives AND the environment), and, if you’re feeling crazy and want to level up and impress everyone, get cloth napkins—they'll turn you into an instant adult.

Quarantine hasn’t been the downfall of me attempting to be plastic-free, and I think I’ve accomplished what I set out to do this July. A lot of it could have only happened in lockdown because it forced me to look to my community for help since we’re kind of stuck here. I feel lucky to be in Brooklyn because local independent organizations have changed the game for me, and I hope everything they are doing now they continue to do. For example, I’m still able to compost, and while the city has shut down it’s composting service, I drop mine off with an independent group. I got free planters and now have an herb garden and, no big deal, it turns out I’m pretty good at gardening (I saved my plants from aphids, and only my cilantro and dill are currently dead). I get a weekly box of groceries from a cookbook store who gets produce straight from farms who can no longer deliver to restaurants, and I'm going to join one of the handfuls of groups who now do neighborhood garbage clean-ups.

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Editorial photograph

Of course, the plastic struggle with groceries, restaurants, and bars is real, but it’s also out of my control if I want to go out and support businesses in my neighborhood and not sit in my house spiraling about if I’ll ever get the opportunity to see Britney Spears in concert or have another human touch me in the near future. 

I have to remind myself that it’s not “go big or go home." We can't all dedicate our lives to going plastic-free, but every little thing we do to avoid packaging and plastic means something. 

Even if it’s just eating an ice cream cone. 

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