Another Reason to Cut Down on Plastics

A farmers’ market in Athens, Ga., in May.

Credit…Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald, via Associated Press

Greetings and welcome to Plastic Free July! This month, millions of people across 177 countries have pledged to cut down on the amount of plastic they use.

The movement started small almost a decade ago in Australia, but last year more than 250 million people pledged to participate. This year, the annual challenge arrives as plastic is making something of a comeback amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Efforts to ban plastic bags in cities across the United States have stalled and some grocery stores won’t allow customers to bring their own reusable bags. Many restaurants are open for takeout service only, and that means disposable containers and flatware. A lot of the masks people wear are laced with microplastics.

While health should be the primary concern during a pandemic, “Caring for the planet doesn’t mean we can’t care for ourselves,” said Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, who founded Plastic Free July in 2011 as a challenge for herself, her family and a few others. “We can do both at the same time.”

Even if this year is complicated, breaking free from our normal routines — whether by skipping the bottled water, cooking at home more or shopping at a farmers’ market — can present an opportunity, said Susan Clayton, chair of the psychology department at The College of Wooster in Ohio. “When you’re forced to think about your behaviors instead of behaving automatically on the basis of habit, that provides you an opportunity to think about how you behave.”

Group actions like Plastic Free July can also foster a sense of connectedness. “It makes you feel like you’re doing something good, in line with your values, and that’s good for self esteem,” Dr. Clayton said. “And it can make you feel more powerful. When it comes to global climate change, a lot of people feel so helpless.”

That was echoed by John P. Holdren, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: Even if climate change feels overwhelming, small actions can make a difference.

“It matters a great deal what people do as individuals to reduce their impact on the environment,” said Dr. Holdren, who also served as a science adviser to President Barack Obama, in an email.

The government plays an important role in regulation and clean energy research, Dr. Holdren said, yet personal decisions, from the appliances we purchase to the way we commute, can “add up to significant shares of pollution and impacts on global climate.”

If you want tips to help cut down, check out this plastic-focused issue of Climate Fwd: and the additional reader suggestions that followed. The Plastic Free July website has plenty of resources, too. You might even want to take the plastic-free challenge.


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