The plastic and waste free journeys are more a matter of inner revolution than packaging/product selection
I was not aligned. I was discussing, reading or advocating for environmental issues; however, my life was different from my words. I was becoming increasingly tired of saying things while doing the opposite. I was waiting for a solution that would come from the outside, until the day I understood that the answer comes from the inside.
In September 2019, I decided to start living without plastic. The transition to an effortless plastic free lifestyle took me a full year. By September 2020, I was 95% plastic-free in food, 70% in cosmetics and hygiene products and 60% in household products (1). I didn’t stop there though. I wanted to keep eliminating plastic use in my life, and now I’m 99% plastic free in food, 90% in cosmetics and hygiene, and 99% in household products. Also, this year, I only rarely purchased products made with plastic, for long term use. Between September 2020 and September 2021, I consumed less than 30L of plastic waste, 90% of which was in the first 6 months.
On top of this, in 2021, I started to behave “circular” instead of “linear”. As a result, I reduced all type of waste, moving from about 60L of total waste per week, to less than 20L of organic waste per week, less than 30L of cardboard and glass, and less than 20L of other waste per quarter.
What did I learn throughout this journey? How did I eliminate most of the plastic and waste from my life? In this article, I will share the most important learnings from my experience. In particular, that the journey to becoming plastic and waste free are more about behavioral and mindset change, learning and taking back autonomy than packaging selection or replacing one product by another.
The adapted 5Rs behavioral framework that I used to keep eliminating plastic this year
Avoiding plastic can feel like a deprivation journey but it is in fact the opposite. I am freer than I used to be because now I consciously chose what I buy. I no longer define myself as a consumer nor as the agent of an economics system.
I am Lamiaa and I CHOSE myself what I eat, what I use and what I put on my body. I prepare things myself, therefore I know “the how”. I prepare things myself, therefore I have taken back my autonomy.
Starting from end of 2020, to shift towards zero plastic, I started to use the 5Rs framework (2) that I adapted to the plastic case:
1- Can I Refuse this product?
When practiced in different contexts (e.g. at cafes, in social contexts or shops, etc.), refusing taught me to say no without the fear of being judged by others. Also, to avoid offending people, I learned to say no simply and kindly: “no, really thank you”. I avoid moralizing others and if asked I just explain in few seconds that I’m zero plastic.
2- If not, can I Replace the packaging or the product itself?
Sometimes I needed time to find an alternative and postponing a purchase to later was frustrating because buying used to be a sort of compulsory act for me. I discovered how to manage this emotion whenever I couldn’t get what I wanted through active mindfulness: by slowing down my breath, by avoiding listening to those thoughts generated automatically by my brain as a self-defense mechanism, and by telling myself “let it go”, “it’s okay not to have it” or more importantly “fish can get trapped in this”.
3- If not, can I Reduce the use of this product?
Sometimes, I was not able to find an alternative or a suitable product and it was something I needed. My only options were to reduce the frequency or quantity of use. For example, in the case of cosmetics where the non-plastic alternative is less functional than the plastic-based product, I started to rotate the natural home-made and the industrial products, forcing me to keep improving the natural product I make myself while decreasing the use of the plastic one.
4- If not, can I Reuse the packaging?
In cases where plastic free alternatives do not exist (yet!), I managed to reuse the plastic packaging instead of trashing it. For example, I reused body cream packaging for home-made cosmetics.
5- Can I positively React?
Recently, I made a list of all plastic products that I used this year voluntarily or not, and I’m currently writing to the brands producing/distributing them to encourage them to innovate around the plastic issue. In some cases, I even asked people I know to take positive actions. For example, a good friend works in a company that makes PCR tests and I motivated her to write to relevant decision-makers in her organization and suggest them to minimize or eliminate the use of plastic.
The plastic I ended up with this year: my solutions for the parts out of my control
In my everyday life, with plastic completely banned, I still managed to fill 30-liters of plastic waste in a year. Even worse, there are likely plastics I used directly which I am not even aware of, and those that I consumed indirectly. Every time I ended up using plastic, I recorded it in a notebook and looked for solutions. Here are my findings:
- Essential products with no alternative (e.g. eyes drops): the pharmaceuticals industry needs to innovate around the design of its products. The only option available to me was to decrease the quantity or frequency of consumption.
- Unexpected surprises (e.g. unnecessary plastic packaging from online marketplaces, unnecessary small plastic bags for each component of electronics or furniture, etc.): until the companies distributing or producing these goods eliminate plastic, I will buy from stores directly or second-hand.
- Gifts from family/friends: I was open with them about my mission to end plastics and why, it works! My family / friends now make efforts to decrease plastic use in their own life as well.
- Travel in other cities or countries: compared to the places I visited this year, I realized how much of an effort Paris puts in to have plastic alternatives in several neighborhoods. With a minimum level of organization, it is possible to limit the use of plastic when traveling: (1) have a prepared list of items to travel with to avoid purchasing plastic products at destination (e.g. solar cream, lip stick, flip-flops, etc.).(2) Find a compact, minimalist and ecological technology/solution for filtering tap water. I unhappily ended up purchasing plastic water bottles during an island trip, despite the excellent carbon filter that I took with me; chlore odor was still very strong.
- The “indirect plastic” that others use to produce or distribute what I buy (e.g. food served in a restaurant, vinegar that I fill in my own bottle when buying from loose shops that sell unpackaged goods, etc.): a possible solution could be having subsidies for companies that ban plastic or organizing a circular distribution system in which companies selling unpackaged goods can return containers to the producer to clean and reuse them.
What about thinking circular and reducing all type of waste?
Thinking and behaving circular
Zero-waste is a mindset. It’s not about transferring waste to someone else; it’s about not wasting in the first place. The starting point of the zero-waste journey was to regularly audit my garbage. I took notes over many weeks and analyzed what I can refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle.
1- Can I Refuse?
I invested in long term reusable equipment instead of using disposable goods. For example:
- Instead of purchasing yaourts, I bought a yaourt maker machine and glasses
- Instead of using carboard bags for fruits / vegetables, I bought bags in tissue
- Instead of using aluminum, I bought reusable bee wraps
- Instead of using paper bags for bread, I gave the baker my own wrap
- Instead of using any sort of packaging for food takeaway, I used my own Tupperware, including when going to a patisserie
- Instead of using disposable coffee filters or teabags, I bought reusable tissue filters
- Instead of buying packed eggs, I reused an old package and purchased eggs per unit
- Instead of using cotton, I bought reusable tissue discs
2- Can I Reduce?
I aimed to have a minimalist behavior and reduce the quantities I purchase or use when I am home.
3- Can I Reuse?
I started to give a second life to objects. For example:
- Glass containers (honey, milk, etc.) can be reused to store loose goods.
- I repaired for the first time in my life a household electrical product.
4. Can I Recyle?
I sorted my waste and took care to always place glass in public glass recycling bins. I have downcycled old cotton clothes to make my own bee wraps.
5. Can I Rot?
I composted organic waste or gave them a second life:
- Coffee can be reused either as fertilizer or a cosmetic
- Some peelings can be cooked or upcycled as cosmetics or households’ products
- Some fruit/vegetable stones can be planted and grown inside an apartment or by the window.
Zero waste is also about not polluting water — I used 0 chemical and 100% natural products, and even reused cooking water for plants or cosmetics/households. This represents a water saving of 5 to 10 liters per week (when motivated).
I was born in the mid-eighties and I’m part of the last generation that witnessed the transition between the old world and the new one that is built upon a foundation of fast consumption. We live in a linear world based on a disposable economy: buy, use, trash and infinitely repeat. Since childhood, advertising hype shaped my behavior, and I grew up in a world where I learned that I had nothing else to do than to consume end-products over, and over, and over again. My brain was responding to multiple external stimuli and all my purchases were commended by the automatic mind (3). To transit into a circular life, I had to shift to the reflective mind and build new patterns in my brain. Today, I purchase out of a choice and no longer out of compulsion. I purchase when planned in advance so that I can bring with me my reusable equipment. I’m proactive and I don’t wait that others invent solutions for me.
Nevertheless, the circular life is not a perfect world either. There are traps everywhere: greenwashing and opportunistic people and brands that take advantage of those who want to buy responsibly; they market, sell high and push towards high levels of consumption. This is the reason why I believe that the circular life is sustainable only if combined with minimalism, knowledge and critical thinking.
OUR PLANET IS NOT A GIANT TRASH CAN.
RELY ON YOURSELF. Read. Reflect. Minimize. Think and behave circular. Love and respect the planet. Will you join me on my journey?
Author: Lamiaa BIAZ
(1) My article after one year living plastic free: https://lamiaabiaz.medium.com/my-personal-plastic-free-project-2901048b925a
(2) There are several versions of the 5Rs framework used by zero waste advocate. For example, the Bea Johnson’ framework: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot
(3) The automatic mind concept explained by Daniel Kahnemann. “When people make purchasing decisions, the process is unconscious — choices are processed by the automatic mind. Considering sustainable alternatives when making purchasing decisions may require a shift to the reflective mind. Therefore, cognitive biases could help people make better choices” Explained Daniel White during an interview in 2018.