Friday Finds: How to Give Up Plastic (Book Review)

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life is a parrotfish. I was snorkeling with my dad on a vacation in Cozumel (we lived in Texas, so holidays to Mexico were frequent). I remember there weren’t many fish that day, and it was quite sandy where we were – just some tufts of brownish seaweed, a couple of little fish darting here and there. But then I saw him. He was huge, with a multicolored, almost neon, body and bright blue lips, like he’d smeared on some crazy lipstick. He was swimming slowly and I remember just staring at him: he looked hefty and majestic, gliding through the shallow water. I couldn’t believe how colorful he was – how big and strange and serene. If you don’t know what a parrotfish looks like, these are the little fellows I’m talking about:

A photo of a parrotfish, photo credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons

Seeing such a majestic fish was amazing but not rare. Off the beaches of Mexico and the Bahamas, in the clear water, I saw fish of all shapes and sizes, living amongst the colorful coral reefs. It was a beautiful place and I definitely took it for granted it multiple ways. I didn’t know that we lived close to some of the best coral reefs in the world, some of the most sought after beaches. And I didn’t know that, by the end of my lifetime (or much sooner than that), those reefs and many of those fish might be gone.

The book that I wanted to talk about this week is one that I’m actually in the middle of reading and have been reading for the last few weeks and months. I actually found it in a gift shop here in Edinburgh and it’s: How to Give Up Plastic: Simple steps to living consciously on our blue planet by Will McCallum, Head of Oceans at Greenpeace UK. Around the time I bought the book, my partner and I had recently seen an episode of John Oliver’s show where he really blew our minds, in a bad away, about the effects of single use plastic. I always knew plastic wasn’t great, but, you know, I recycled it! But I hadn’t known about how much plastic, even the ones we put in the recycling bin, end up in our oceans, simply because the waste industry can’t keep up with the amount of (needless) trash we’re producing. As McCallum mentions in the book, 1 garbage truck of plastic enters the ocean every minute. And, as you’ve probably heard, it takes hundreds of years for a piece of plastic to break down in the ocean. Hundreds. Of. Years.

And in the meantime, it hurts wildlife: they eat it by mistake or feed it to their babies (90% of seagulls have plastic in their guts now apparently!), they get tangled up in it and die. And research is even being done into how plastic picks up other toxins, then the fish eat it and we eat the fish. I always knew that climate change was affecting coral reefs, but I didn’t know how much harm our human-made plastics were also doing to our oceans.

Here’s the video from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that I referenced earlier by the way (if you want to know more about the harmful effects of plastics and why recycling sadly isn’t enough):

I won’t go on and on, but I’ll just say that my mindset has really shifted (quite late to the game, sadly) from ‘I’ll do my best to recycle it’ to ‘I’ll do my best to avoid it’. And I know that it’s the job of our governments and our corporations to do something about this, and I always try to vote for people who prioritize our planet, but I do think individual actions matter. McCallum actually points out in the book that the average person in Western Europe and North America uses more than their body weight in plastic every year. If even just a few of us stop doing it, for even just one year, that is a lot less garbage dumped into the sea. And that is something.

But HOW does one go about avoiding something that is quite literally everywhere (at least in the UK where I live)?

This book provides some interesting and helpful ideas for how to do that. It’s divided into different sections, with ideas about how to scale back your plastic use based around rooms in the house: kitchen, bedroom etc. What I liked about the book was that it was realistic when it offers advice like: don’t try to do everything all at once. Go slowly and take manageable steps. And even though it’s geared towards UK audiences, I do think most of it is applicable to at least Europe and the USA (I’ve never lived elsewhere). It’s also got helpful tables you can fill in with notes about how you are going to find a plastic free option for each item and lists out common items to consider like soap, shampoo, lipstick, shaving cream etc.

It was also full of surprising information to me: I’d never even heard of ‘microfibers’ which are shed when we wash synthetic clothes like nylon or polyester. I didn’t know these were also a major contributor to ocean pollution.

Throughout the book, McCallum also frequently asks you to share your thoughts on plastic on social media (let your voice be heard etc. etc.). I don’t have much social media, but I do have this blog and I felt inspired to share not only the book, but also a couple of small changes we’ve personally made to our lives here in Edinburgh, to reduce our consumption of plastic. They are small things. We aren’t completely changing our lives overnight. Many of you probably already do some or all of these things! But for us they were moves in the right direction, inspired by the book, and we feel good about them.

We started carrying around ‘keep cups’ and tote bags

You never know when you’re going to want a coffee (for me, it’s all the time) or when you’re going to buy something or stop off at the grocery store on the way home to just pick up a few things. So, just in case, whenever we go out, we bring at the very least tote bags so that we don’t have to use plastic bags. Tote bags are super light weight and they are always handy I think. And keep cups are accepted most everywhere now and you usually get a discount too so it’s a win win for everyone. (Also we always carry water bottles – but this wasn’t new!)

We started buying more local, fresh produce

There is so much ridiculous plastic wrapped around food at the supermarket for no reason – we’ve started going most weekends to a local market to get a lot of our food and, failing that, there is a co-op nearby that has a lot of good vegetables that aren’t wrapped in plastic.

A side benefit of this is that I realized how diverse real vegetables actually are. They don’t all look exactly the same, like the veggies in most big supermarkets I’ve been to. The same type of carrot can come in all shapes and sizes and all are perfectly natural and good to eat. This actually ‘changed my life’ in the sense that I had this maybe-quite-obvious-but-also-profound realization about how human bodies are similar: they come in so many unique shapes and sizes and that is so beautiful and so natural.

Also, vegetables are totally hilarious! Just look at this crazy squash I found last month. It could almost be a steering wheel!

We started refilling our soap and shampoo bottles (instead of buying new ones each time)

This was a bigger change for us and one that does require some planning and foresight, but we didn’t want to keep buying and chucking out shampoo bottles, so we decided to start refilling ours. We’re lucky enough to live near a place that lets you refill them right there, but McCallum’s book also suggests buying a big container to keep in your house to refill that way (or using bars instead of liquid soaps, shampoos etc).

A place at a local shop where you can refill your soap and shampoo. I wish big supermarkets had this!! I assume they do at places like Whole Foods?

As I said, these things are small but they have meant that we use less plastic. We’ve made other small changes too, but those are some examples.

The book also contains helpful advice if you want to get more involved in fighting plastic use. For example, if you want to organize a clean up of a beach, or write a letter to local government, or connect with other people online who are minimizing their plastic use. I’m sure that there are many similar books and resources out there, but this one is a good overview for the true beginner and I found it concise and informative.

This was a ‘different’ sort of post for me, but I was inspired to write this in honor of COP26 (happening in our neighboring city of Glasgow).

Let me know what you think of the book and also any tips for using less plastic you’ve found helpful! I’d really appreciate it. (And let me know if you’ve ever seen a parrotfish – they are truly amazing.)

As always, take care and have a wonderful weekend.

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