Chapter 1: how it started
For many years, I’ve heard of people doing their ecological transition and never really knew what it meant. Since 2015, I started having a healthier lifestyle, buying biological food, consuming more responsibly, avoiding waste and giving up on over-consumption habits. At that time, I was 100% certain I was living in a way that respects Nature.
In 2018, I worked on a student project to analyse how to influence consumers to behave in a sustainable way. One of the professionals I interviewed raised my awareness about plastic use and the damage it has on the environment. He explained that it is hard for a person throwing away a plastic bottle in Paris to imagine the negative impact this action has on the environment. This same person wouldn’t throw that plastic bottle in the ocean because s/he is less distant from the environmental impact it would have. Nevertheless, from an ecological point of view, throwing a plastic bottle in the garbage in Paris can also have a negative impact on the environment since that bottle might end up being incinerated (1). Further research made me realise that some developed countries sell their trash to other developing countries and the trash (especially plastic) ends up in the ocean (2). I realized I was ignorantly polluting the environment every day. Therefore, starting in 2019, I gradually stopped buying water plastic bottles and habituated myself to always care my own bottle with me.
Later, following a very intense trip in Ecuador where I was completely immersed in Nature, in between volcanoes and the jungle, and after several conversations with local guides and hosts explaining the extinction of so many animals and destruction of natural habitats, I realised that I can’t keep living in a way that hurts Nature. They said “animals hate noise. They like to live in quiet places far from human civilisation. Because industries around make noise and pollute the air and water, animals either die or leave to other places. This weakens ecosystems”. “Yes, I remember when I was a child it was possible to observe animals in this zone but today there are none”; “Industries around extract raw materials”; “Yes, so that you can get a new smartphone”.
After this trip, I committed to change the way I live. What can I do to lower my own negative impact on the environment? Among several options, I chose to focus on the plastic problem. Therefore, I decided to use 0 plastic for a full year.
September 29, 2019 was day 1 of my personal plastic-free project. At the end of the day I went to ‘Galleries Lafayette’ to buy a barrette — a simple hair clip. Once there, I realised that all affordable ones (about less than 30 euros) were made in plastic. I didn’t want to spend 100+ euros on a plastic-free barrette. I knew I had several brand-new barrettes at home, so I decided not to buy a new one. Walking back home, I was impressed with myself for resisting that temptation.
Day 4, I went to the supermarket and noticed for the first time in my life THE PLASTIC INVASION. Almost every single product had a plastic packaging: salads, yogurts, cheese, pasta, rice, lentils, tea, liquid soaps, solid soaps, dentifrice, Q-tips, cotton, toilet paper, toothbrush, everything. PLASTIC INVASION. I was looking around and my heart was thumping. I left the supermarket breathless. Great, what am I going to do now? Am I supposed to starve? Should I really give up on everything I like? That special yogurt, my favourite mint sweet, pasta without grated cheese?!
I didn’t want to stop my project after only 4 days. It would have been a great disappointment. I committed to do this project for a full year. Let’s find ways to replace all those products.
Chapter 2: how I reduced plastic waste in the food
It took me 9 months to figure out how to replace all the products packaged in plastic I used to buy. Today, 95% of the food I buy does not have any plastic packaging. The remaining 5% would be, for example, a special traditional tea packaged with a plastic film around it.
Consuming plastic-free food has meant buying mostly unprocessed food, and therefore purchasing ingredients and then preparing them myself.
Plastic free and ecological food solutions:
- Vegetables and fruits: because my 0-plastic project was also about meaning, as a plus, I decided this year to buy vegetables/fruits produced locally and grown ecologically with gentle agricultural methods. During the winter season, buying local seasonable products means having very few options, but I decided it would be part of the experience. Eventually, I learned about the variety of seasonable products that grow in nearby regions.
- Cheese: replacing cheese packaged in plastic in supermarkets was very feasible. I started to always go to cheese mongers — better quality products and less plastic for the planet.
- Milk: you can find pasteurized milk packaged in cardboard in almost all supermarkets. However, a pack of 6 is packaged in a plastic film…
- Yogurts: in supermarkets, they are almost all packaged in plastic cups. Very few brands sell them in glass containers.
- Starchy food, lentils, seeds, dried fruits, and so forth: it took me a while to find a sustainable solution. Loose goods are accessible in many stores in Paris. However, before being displayed as loose goods, they are sometimes initially packaged in plastic bags — I asked store managers and they showed me how the food is packaged before being displayed. For me it sounded like handing off my plastic problem to the store. After several months, I found just two shops that sell loose goods not initially packaged in plastic: ‘Day by Day’ and ‘So Bio’.
- Condiment, sugar, oils, tea, coffee, etc.: there is always a plastic packaging alternative.
- Meat conservation: no need of freezing plastic bags, some baking papers have the same outcome.
To achieve a plastic-free lifestyle, I totally changed my relationship with food, spending more time carefully selecting ingredients and then cooking them. All of this took me a considerable amount of time, but the reward was in the quality of the food I ate.
Also, I had to change some habits. I started to bring my own receptacle when buying fresh food and to always specify to merchants that I avoid the use of plastic. Indeed, even when I was trying hard to avoid plastic, there were some unexpected surprises along the way. For example, I ordered online strawberries from farmers and when I picked them up few days later, I realised that they were packed in a plastic box. Likewise, I ordered some olives along with other things in a market. I realised only afterwards that the olives were in a plastic bag. Plastic is everywhere, so it was important to habituate myself to always specify “please no plastic”.
Along the way, there were some frustrations, but I learned to turn them into creativity. Once, I was traveling and had no choice but to buy bread packaged in plastic. All stores around were closed already and it was that baguette or nothing. The place I was renting was a little far from the city and there were no coffees/restaurants around. So, no baguette meant no breakfast for the next morning. I was tempted to just buy that baguette, but then I thought: What about making pancakes instead?
Chapter 3: The cosmetics journey: 0 plastic, 0 chemical
After a year, I managed to decrease by 70% my consumption of plastic
I eliminated 40% of the cosmetics I used to buy
I replaced 30% of the products by plastic-free alternatives
I replaced 10% of the products by chemical-free but not plastic-free alternatives
I kept 20% of the products I used to buy — because I haven’t yet found alternatives
At first, I thought I found the solution. I considered buying products from a famous “natural” brand that says it recycles its own plastic packaging when the client brings back the products to the store. Reading serious articles about the matter of closing the loop for plastic cosmetic bottles left me with doubts. I decided to walk away and look for other solutions.
I needed a shampoo and I didn’t know how to replace my favourite one. I went to ‘Sephora’ and once there I discussed with a seller. “Do you know any brand that packages its shampoo in a non-plastic recipient”. She said, “No I don’t know any. However, if you’re a green girl looking for green products you should make your own cosmetics”. “Making my own products, what do you mean?”. “Do it yourself (DIY). You should read blogs to learn how to do that.”
Learning more about this topic, I realised that the main motivation of some bloggers was to create natural and therefore chemical-free products. Are chemicals really bad for the body? I read the book of Rita Stiens ‘the truth about cosmetics’ (3) that tells about greenwashing in the beauty industry and gives a list and classification of chemicals used in cosmetics and the degree of risks they represent for the body. The book convinced me to stop using most cosmetics I used to buy and to start looking for natural alternatives.
Some stores, including ‘Mademoiselle Bio’ aim to sell natural processed cosmetics. Some of them are plastic free — such as solid shampoos or other hygiene products — others are chemical but not plastic free. In total, I have been able to replace a few products I used to buy.
To solve both the plastic and chemical issues, I decided to learn how to make my own cosmetics. However, this adventure took me time: there were so many books, so many blogs and so many contradictory opinions. I needed to sort things out. There is no single recipe that can be applied to everyone. I needed to find the right ingredients that fit to my particular type of hair or skin.
Finally, I discovered ‘Aroma Zone’, the Alibaba cave for anyone interested in the ‘DIY’ concept. I was waiting for the end of the lockdown to go to this store and buy some ingredients to make my own cosmetics. Finally, the first Saturday morning right after the end of lockdown I went to ‘Aroma Zone’ boutique.
What a surprise. I thought I would be alone in the store, but it seemed like all the girls living in Paris where queuing there. Is it that famous? On the other hand, half of the ingredients I wanted were packaged in a plastic bag or bottle. I had been waiting for 2 months to come to the store. Plastic was there! Again!
Nevertheless, I realised that the store’s concept was about “DIY” and not “plastic avoidance”. They fairly allow women to create natural cosmetics with good quality products; and several of their products are indeed plastic free. That day in ‘Aroma Zone’ I bought ingredients I needed to make few cosmetics. I thought at least I would replace few plastic products, I would learn how to make chemical free cosmetics and I would keep looking in parallel for natural plastic free solutions.
Chapter 4: Other products: the alternatives I did or didn’t find
- Households: There are plenty of green alternatives to classical households sold in supermarkets. Some contain less chemicals and are therefore less harmfull for lungs and water. However, the ones I found were generally packaged in plastic. For the sake of the experience, I decided to start making myself some household liquids in order to use greener alternatives and less plastic packaging. As a result, I decreased the use of plastic for the household category by 60%. As a plus, I decreased the use of chemicals by 80%.
- Medicine: I don’t know if there is currently any alternative to products such as eye drops, antiseptics and many others. I asked some pharmacist, but they were not willing to have this long conversation with me.
- Electronics: when buying electronic devices, each component comes with a plastic film around it (strings, battery, screen…). To avoid plastic, the alternative could be to buy second-hand or repair.
- Other goods in general packaged in plastic: I tried to make the effort to always look for an equivalent good not packaged in plastic. It is feasible but it takes time to find alternatives.
- Other goods for long term use made in plastic:
I eliminated or decreased the use of some products made in plastic because the non-plastic alternative was easy to find and convenient to use (for example hangers).
I bought some goods made in plastic for long term use because the alternative was inconvenient or simply did not exist (for example swimming goggles).
Chapter 5: From 0-plastic use to 0-plastic trash. What can I do with the plastic I did not trash?
The hard things about my plastic free journey were:
Greenwashing: brands have very confusing messages. Moreover, there are so many contradictory opinions in so many blogs and books. At the end, sorting things out was a full-time job.
Learning process and time needed: learning how to prepare things took me a considerable amount of time. For example, to make my own cosmetics, I needed to find a recipe, then source ingredients, later test the recipe and finally improve my “production process” to get a better product.
Generalisation (/scale): replacing a few products was feasible but generalising to all products in a short timeframe was very difficult.
Consequently, during my project, I decided to have some flexibility and keep purchasing goods that are highly important (for me) and for which I cannot find an alternative in the short term.
However, I committed to never throw out the plastic I use. Therefore, my project turned into a 0-plastic trash one. For a full year, I stored all the plastic I would have normally thrown away. And I can tell you: accumulating trash in a cupboard was a great incentive to rapidly decrease, stop using and replace plastic products!
Why not throw out this plastic? First, it is important to mention that the plastic I kept was not dirty at all — dentifrice tubes, old shampoo bottles, plastic films… I was also aware that the recycle logos one can see in product packaging are misleading. They do not mean that the product will be recycled but that “the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe” (4). Finally, I asked professionals working in the recycling industry and they confirmed that only a very small proportion of the sorted plastic is indeed recycled (5).
Therefore, I knew that if I trash the plastic I had used, it was unlikely that it would be recycled and more likely that it would end up in the ocean or in an incinerator. I tried unsuccessfully to look for a solution to recycle the plastic I stored; I guess this will be my next challenge.
Chapter 6: Personal thoughts on how to reduce the use of plastic in our societies
When I started my personal 0-plastic project my goal was to decrease my own negative impact on the environment. I wanted to learn and explore alternatives to products packaged in plastic. As a result, this project has been an opportunity for me to do my ecological transition.
My project helped me find meaning. Eliminating the plastic whether in food or cosmetic brought me closer to my essence. I learned about how to prepare things myself, I discovered what ingredients I needed and where to buy them, I got to know more about short-distribution channels, and I found out more about old traditions and cultures. My project also changed my relationship with time. Instead of being a fast consumer, I acquired knowledge and became a “producer” at my own pace.
The key for this project was to be open to changing the way I was living and to give up on things I really liked. I did so for the sake of Nature because Nature was so important for me. However, this argument is not enough to influence mass consumers to change their own habits, even though plastic is a major pollution source and there is a real emergency to stop this disaster. How to change mass people’s behaviour towards plastic use?
I often wondered: Is it about changing mass people’s behaviour or changing what is available to them? To massively change what is available to people implies transforming the whole economic and societal model, doesn’t it? That forces us to think about the “how”, and the question becomes even harder to answer.
“Think big, start small” they say in the innovation world. If eliminating or decreasing plastic use has a very large impact on companies’ operations and business models, some companies could at least eliminate the unnecessary overuse of plastic. For example, vegetables/fruits in plastic bags or a 10-biscuit pack having each biscuit packaged in an individual plastic film. Likewise, at the individual level, if we apply the Pareto principle (6), why not start by eliminating or replacing just 20% of the unnecessary plastic products we buy each day?
To see change around us, we need to embrace it. Change is easy. Don’t do. Be.
Author: Lamiaa Biaz
(3) Read book: ‘The truth about cosmetics’ by Rita Stiens
(5) For more information, read the book of Flore Berlingen “Recyclage le grand enfumage” where she describes how the circular economy has become the alibi for disposables
(6) Pareto principle states that 80% of the effects come roughly from 20% of the causes