Living Plastic-free is not as scary as it seems!
Hi! I am Cathy and I run the Instagram page @plasticfree.cath, which I started many years ago, and I am sharing my journey to live more plastic-free.
Why did you decide to go zero waste? Was there an event in your life that convinced you to take that step or was it more of a long term decision?
It all started when I went on a trip to Nicaragua, to do some charity work there with Me to We. We were working on building a school there and while I was there I noticed that they had a lot of toxic pollution around. I learned from the locals in the village, how they wish that it wasn’t that way but they don’t have the infrastructure to have waste management programs or recycling. They have to buy all their water in bottles, which is really expensive since a lot of the water that’s been in the area has been polluted by different structures.
So after that trip, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was living. In Ottawa, Canada, the capital city we had all this infrastructure for waste management programs and it made me think about how I had the privilege and the power to be able to do something about it. And I realized that I should be trying my best. Because a lot of people that I met in Nicaragua, wish they could do better but didn’t have the opportunity to do so.
So in my case, it was a specific event that made me take that decision. That was the moment where it just clicked. So then I started learning about it more and I started reading about the zero waste movement. I had heard about it before, but I just never looked into it too far so that was the turning point for me.
Did you start with small steps and easy swaps or directly went completely plastic-free?
It was definitely a process. I think that is really important to start with what you already have. For example, I had things like laundry detergent and toothpaste in plastic that I bought in bulk. So I needed to use that before I switched to a plastic-free alternative.
The first things I really started switching were things around in my kitchen. So the next time I went to the grocery store, I had bought a couple of reusable produce bags and a freezer bag. I started really rethinking my usual grocery shopping. Buying loose produce items instead of the ones that are prepackaged in plastic. Then figuring out where I can buy oil in bulk. As some things became more challenging, I did more research about where I could go to get things like that in my city. Next was my bathroom. A safety razor instead of a disposable one. Always take one step at a time. Even now there are still things that I’m trying to switch out like toilet paper and paper towels, which I haven’t quite figured out yet.
I recently got a puppy so I’m trying to figure out what to do for her. Good dog products are very challenging to find, so I feel like there are always new challenges as you go. It’s been about two and a half – three years since I started and I’m still not 100% plastic-free. It is definitely a process.
How does your location play a role in living plastic-free?
I used to live in a relatively big city where they have great public transport. So as someone who didn’t have a car, I would be able to ride my bike places, take the metro and be very location independent. Many cities have shops to buy plastic-free options but people might not be able to get there, as easily without traveling for an hour. For me, I was lucky that I was in a city and pretty close to everything. I could ride my bike or take the bus or walk to get what I needed.
But recently I’ve moved back in with my parents and we live in a suburb, and it’s definitely more challenging here. Most things I have to drive to get to. Other than the vegetable market there are not many options. In Ottawa, there was a zero-waste store so I could get some of these more specific items that were a bit harder to find package free. And that’s still Canada.
But in Nicaragua, and many other places around the world, it just is not an option at all. Most of the people in the village had to walk three hours just to get to the grocery store or get to the market. So I think it’s all about just figuring out what’s accessible to you, what can work for you, and then going from there because for some people in some locations it’s not going to be as easy as it was for me as someone living in a bigger urban city.
How do you see the plastic-free movement evolving in the future? Do you think it is just a trend?
I think two and a half years ago when I started, it was definitely more “trendy” rather than people actually doing it for the right reason. For example, Lauren Singer runs a zero-waste store in New York City and she was a big influencer for only having a jar of waste for two years. I always thought that makes it so not approachable. It doesn’t seem like something that a normal person can do. That always made me feel like I could never do that because it seems too hard and expensive and too much work for my average daily schedule. One of the reasons for me starting my Instagram account was to try and show that it can be accessible and it doesn’t have to be perfect.
I think in many ways, this became a trend of fancy mason jars and nice-looking products but it’s really not like that. The more I connect with people that are doing the same thing, I find that a lot of these people live pretty normal lives. They work normal jobs, they just try their best to like reuse what they have and go from there. Another example would be reusable straws becoming quite trendy. But then people aren’t really doing much else. On top of that, you’ll see people at Starbucks with reusable straw in a plastic cup when it’s just as easy to carry a reusable cup with you. Being trendy only becomes an issue when people stop there.
Now the challenge is with COVID around the world. There’s a lot of people who have asked me on my Instagram what I’ve been doing since grocery stores aren’t letting people bring their own bags. Now my family has this pile of plastic bags that we have not been able to avoid because we have to put produce in plastic bags. So the movement evolves as things in the world change. Right now it’s being challenged a lot because we were just at a point where people were really starting to work harder. I hope that it doesn’t backtrack too much because people were making pretty good progress before.
It’s Plastic Free July, which has become more popular in the last few years. A lot of companies and people that usually are not actively living plastic-free are talking about it during this month and trying to raise awareness for this.
How do you view companies campaigning for this?
I think it’s important that it gets a lot of awareness.
The first year of Plastic Free July when I started, really motivated me because it was an opportunity to see normal people doing small things like bringing their own lunch to work, or how they went grocery shopping. For me, it was a big motivator and helped me see how the average person might do it. So I think it’s important that it gets the coverage. But it can be a bit misleading and some companies piggyback on it, even though they might be some of the most wasteful companies that exist. That’s definitely complicated because it can go both ways.
It’s worth it for getting those people motivated that will stick with it and who will continue to be low waste after July. Even if there are not many, at least some is better than nothing.
As you mentioned before, living zero waste can look very intimidating. Studies show that many people would like to live more sustainably but the higher costs are keeping them from doing so. How has your experience been in regards to costs? Are you spending more money?
When I started working towards this, I was just in university full time, and I didn’t have any part-time job or anything so it was all just my savings. Therefore I was on a pretty strict student budget. I found it actually helped me save money. Because buying in bulk tends to be cheaper since you can buy the exact amount you need. Also using reusable products saves you a lot of money in the long run, even if they’re more expensive to start out. My reusable razor for example costs about $60 CAD. Whereas before that I was spending around $10 CAD every couple of weeks to buy new razors. So in only a couple of weeks, it already makes up for it. For example, with produce rather than buying a big bag of apples that you might not eat, you can buy them loose. Even when I was working, I was able to invest in some more products that might seem a bit expensive now I still have them, and I use them all the time. Now I’m not working at the moment, I feel like I’ve invested in all these products that are saving me money every week and every month. You can look at reusable products as an investment. Whereas disposable products they’re just wasteful- you just basically throw money out.
How would you say that going plastic-free has affected other parts of your life? Job, relationships, going out with friends, and getting take-out?
The thing I was most worried about in the beginning was that other people would feel like I was preaching to them that they had to do this too. So I tried really hard not to do that. Most people’s reaction when I tell them is very positive and they’re usually curious. I’m always happy to talk about it if people are willing to hear it. For example, when I started working again, people noticed I had my own cutlery when we went to get takeout for lunch at the office. Small things like that stand out.
It stands out not just to the people you’re with but the people around you, like the server. I think it took me a long time to get over the awkwardness of it like being at the grocery store and pulling out my reusable produce bags and people would think it’s kind of weird. Or I take my bike with all these mason jars in the back of it and they’d be clanking around so people were always kind of taken aback by it. So it did take me a while to get over it being a little bit awkward in some social situations. But generally, I think people are interested, and I don’t think it’s affected my life that much in terms of my social life. So I think in a lot of people’s heads they think it’s gonna be this massive life-changing thing but I feel like I haven’t really had to adjust too much. It’s just been little bits at a time until it seems pretty normal.
Would you say you have to restrict your life in many ways and stop doing things that you enjoyed before?
I’m someone who really loves food and trying new things. Ottawa is a city with lots of different cultures so when I hang with my friends we might want to order takeout. Every once in a while I would just accept that I’m not going to be perfect. I’ll put a note for them not to include plastic cutlery, but if it comes in a plastic container, it is what it is. I’m not perfect so when food comes in a package, it’s not the end of the world, especially if you’re doing everything else you can in a lot of other aspects of your life. I accept that I tried to do the best I could.
Is there any advice that you would tell people who are considering living plastic-free or zero waste?
Don’t be so hard on yourself. My approach was to start in one room of my house at a time and see what I could change there. It’s definitely overwhelming to try and do it all at once. It makes it really intimidating. Take it slow and look for easier things to start doing. Once you start forming those habits, they start kind of applying to other areas as well.
I didn’t realize how much plastic I used until I started trying to actively avoid it. When I first started, I’d go to the grocery store and I’d reach for a product and would have to tell myself that I can’t buy that anymore. I would have to take that time to research what can replace it and see if I can make it myself. No one’s going to be perfect, especially in difficult times like now with COVID. I really struggled with it personally. Trying to not feel guilty for having to buy groceries and plastic. I don’t think guilt should ever be people’s motivations. It shouldn’t be something they care about. And that nobody is going to be perfect because that is really hard, and expensive and can demotivate you.
My main message is that it’s okay to take it slow. Start with one thing at a time because it’s really not as intimidating as it seems. I think that’s the most important thing. You’re not going to be perfect and that’s okay. I’m still far from perfect myself.