Tips on “Packing” for your Plastic-Free Journey

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Moving from Cairo to the small seaside town of Dahab meant a huge change in lifestyle for my husband and I. To us, Dahab meant fresh air, magnificent mountain views, and dips in the spectacular sea – a much-needed break from the noise, crowds, chaos, and pollution of the city. It was exactly what we needed!

But as we settled in to our new town, we couldn’t ignore the realities of living in this still-developing neighborhood. Streets weren’t paved, the power supply was unreliable, and trash collection was intermittent at best. Dahab, like many places in the developing world, is a work-in-progress. Our neighborhood streets, thanks to broken dumpsters, strong winds, and roaming goats and sheep, are littered with trash, most of it plastic.

Shortly after moving here, I came across Beth Terry’s blog Fake Plastic Fish (now My Plastic Free Life). I started reading and researching more about the health and environmental hazards of disposable plastic. Inspired, we decided not to wait for our city government to do something about our trashy streets but to do something ourselves instead. We decided to work on eliminating, as much as possible, plastic from our life. Our thinking was that if we, personally, produced less waste, there would be less waste for the trash collectors to deal with and less trash blowing around our town and into the sea.

After several years, we still don’t live a 100% plastic-free life, but we have learned a lot on the way and “throw away” A LOT LESS trash than we did several years ago. In 2013, we started the Don’t Mess with Dahab blog in an attempt to share what we had learned, hoping to inspire and teach others in Dahab how to reduce their plastic footprint.

There are many hurdles along the journey to a plastic-free life but none are insurmountable. Here are a few things to consider while “packing” for your own journey.

Priorities

Our priorities determine a lot of the decisions we make in life. Know yours. Make a list if you have to. These will hold clues as to what hurdles you may have to overcome or changes you have to make. For me, making our health and the health of our environment some of my top priorities was an essential step. When I decided to care more about my health and the environment, it was easier to refuse disposable plastic. I am willing to give up some of the packaged food I enjoy if it means I am eating something else better for my body. I am willing to pass on treats offered in plastic when I know that the plastic will be bad for the environment, wherever it ends up. We have to be aware of our priorities and find a balance between them that works for us. For those just starting out on a plastic-free journey, arm yourself with information so you can make informed decisions. Read about the effects of plastic on our bodies and our natural world. Read about the benefits of a more sustainable lifestyle. Then decide how important it is to you.

Time

So many people have little to spare. But if you’re serious about working towards a plastic-free life, you’ll need to reserve a bit of time for this endeavor. Choosing healthier plastic-free options may indeed take more time and be less convenient than buying items in plastic packaging. Finding this time might mean realigning your priorities. You might have to exchange an hour in front of the television for an hour of bulk shopping. It might mean trading in an hour of computer time for a home-cooked meal. This is, again, about finding the balance that works for you.

Habits

Early on in our attempts to give up disposable plastic, I read Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” It shed a lot of light on habits and what it takes to change them. So much of what we do throughout the day is actually done through habit. We don’t even think about it.

If we want to stop a negative or harmful habit, it’s best to have a more positive habit to replace it with. Instead of relying on the plastic bags provided by the supermarkets, we had to change our shopping habits. We learned to plan better so that we would make less shopping trips. We learned that we needed to keep our cotton bags in several places – in my husband’s backpack, in my purse, in the glove compartment of the car – so if we hadn’t planned, we were still ready to shop and refuse the plastic bags.

Habits don’t change overnight. It took many months before we were able to switch from plastic to reusable bags. And we focused on only that one habit. Once we were confident with our new habit, we chose another one to tackle – plastic packaging of food. You’ll never succeed if you try to change all your plastic habits at once. Choose the one that’s most important to you and add another when you are ready. Adopting new habits is easier if there is some sort of “reward” in it for us. For my husband and I, we focused on the satisfaction it brought knowing that we were keeping plastic from the landfill. This may not be enough for everyone. Feel free to “reward” yourself in other ways. Treat yourself to an ice-cream cone if you remember your reusable bags for a week. Allow yourself extra time doing your favorite activity if you return from the store without plastic shopping bags.

Kindness, fun, and creativity

First of all, be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget your reusable bag. Don’t feel guilty if you end up with plastic unintentionally. Acknowledge the situation, learn from it, and move on. But don’t give up. Remind yourself of all the times you DID remember and vow to continue trying.

Kindness is also important when dealing with supermarket staff. Make your requests friendly and always with a smile on your face. Going plastic-free doesn’t need to be boring. Make a game out of it! This is especially a great strategy if you have young children in the house. Remember those rewards I mentioned? They could also be prizes for the family member who remembers the reusable bags or refuses disposable plastic at home, school, or work. Keep points as to who in winning – your family or the “Plastic Monster.” Be creative! Not only with the games but with your attempts to find alternatives to disposable plastic. Challenge yourself and other family members to find different plastic-free ways to pack lunches, host parties, give gifts. You’ll feel a sense of pride and satisfaction when you do.

Like, Dahab, I am a work-in-progress. And probably always will be. I continue to learn from my mistakes and from others on a this journey. Will you join us?

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle

Visit the Don’t Mess with Dahab blog for more tips and inspiration, like us on Facebook, or find us on Twitter.

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