Millions of people around the world will be pledging to do their part for our planet this month, signing up for “Plastic Free July”. In fast-paced, hyper-urbanised cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, is living plastic-free actually possible? Read on for a practical guide to living plastic-free.
What is “Plastic Free July”?
Plastic Free July is “a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution – so we can have cleaner streets, oceans, and beautiful communities.” It makes its rounds every year without fail, asking regular citizens, like you and me, to pledge to refuse single-use plastics. However, contrary to popular belief, it’s not as superficial as it sounds.
When you pledge to take the challenge on their website, they offer you a range of options. “I want to make changes…” it reads, followed by a list of possible avenues for change. The most basic, of course, is “Getting started”. If you’re up for the challenge, there are also options like “For business”, “My community”, and even “Local government”. Additionally, at the very end of the pledge are the words “I’m doing Plastic Free July for…” and you can commit anywhere between “1 Day” to “From now on”. Like every good environmental campaign, Plastic Free July offers you a sizeable range of actionables to make your commitment realistic. Also, they’re categorised into the different levels of commitment, meaning someone who’s just getting started doesn’t have the same suggestions as someone who’s trying to enact on a legislative level.
Now that we’ve gotten the introduction to what this is all about out of the way, let’s talk tangible steps.
Getting started: easing your way into plastic-free living
According to Plastic Free July, the top four most prolific single-use plastics are plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and plastic straws. (We’re going to skip talking about straws because we’ve all been there. If you’re able, you really don’t need that straw. If you have a bubble tea obsession, thicker straws are available at your nearest zero waste store – in Singapore and Hong Kong.)
Plastic bags are easy; most of us get them offhand when purchasing items, or in bulk when doing weekly grocery shopping. Obviously, you’d just need to ditch the bag if it’s an item you can hand-carry. If you really need the bags, carry a reusable bag or two when you’re out. And more if you are grocery shopping. Always plan before you head out – this also helps with preventing yourself from mindlessly consuming things that you don’t actually need.
The most sustainable option is the one you already have; and most of us have more than enough reusable bags lying around the house, so just use those. If you have to purchase, check out Pecobag’s reusable (and sturdy) bags made from recycled plastics, which can be conveniently folded and downsized.
According to the CDC, Singapore and Hong Kong are two of the six places in Asia where the tap water is safe for consumption. While many doubt the cleanliness of it, we’re certain you can just drink straight from the tap. So skip the plastic bottle, pick up a reusable bottle and refill away.
If you’re insistent on refilling from stations instead of getting hydrated from the tap – in Singapore, refill stations are everywhere: shopping malls, libraries, landmark buildings, etc. In Hong Kong, “撲水 – Water For Free” is an app you can download free across Apple and Android devices.
TAKEAWAY COFFEE CUPS
If you’re living in Singapore or Hong Kong, you probably get takeaway and delivery weekly (maybe even daily). As much as you’d like to have hour-long lunches or cook your own meals, the hustle and bustle of city life can really make those options a little too luxurious. For takeaway, we recommend purchasing a reusable, foldable cup from a zero waste store, and bringing around a set of utensils from your home, along with a reusable container. Which you probably also already have. Yes, this is going to add a lot of clutter to your daily life. We know the struggle – but think of how many times you’ve taken away food and drinks, and how much single-use plastics you’ve used. It really adds up.
As for delivery, try to opt for no cutlery, which some delivery services offer. While that reduces some of the carbon footprint, it’s certainly not the most sustainable. Search for food vendors who offer delivery in more sustainable containers (e.g. recycled plastic, cardboard, etc.). If you can spare some time on the weekends, try meal-prepping for the week, which reduces the need to cook every day.
LEVEL UP: GROCERY SHOPPING
Living entirely plastic-free isn’t just about ditching the Big Four. As with any sort of lifestyle change, some level of inconvenience is to be expected – so if you’re ready to crank up the difficulty, here are some grocery shopping tips.
> Search for bulk stores near you, for things like basic ingredients, sauces, snacks, etc.
> Take a walk around your neighbourhood and find your nearest local produce shop for a more wallet-friendly alternative. (Bonus tip: wet markets can be budget bulk stores – you can find fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, etc. all plastic-free.)
> Always be prepared with reusable bags. Cotton produce bags are aesthetically pleasing, but not always affordable – you can easily switch those out with containers and small tote bags. Don’t forget to weigh and mark them with a marker.
> Know what can be stored together and what should be separated!.Some fresh fruits and vegetables, when put together, can speed up the ripeing and rotting processes – here’s a guide.
BONUS TIPS: EXTRA THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR
> Baked goods almost always come in plastics. Go to the bakery prepared (and check out this cool Bread Without Bags campaign in Singapore to find participating bakeries that are #BYO-friendly).
> Avid tea drinker? Most tea bag brands actually contain plastic – go for loose leaf tea instead. Or, if you run on caffeine, avoid the single-serving coffee packets. Try loose coffee powder or grinding your own coffee beans. (Nespresso also has a pretty neat coffee pod recycling programme.)
> Plastic cling wrap is a killer – swap it out for reusable containers, reusable silicone bowl toppers, reusable cloth covers or even beeswax wraps. Or you could just use a plate.
> Skip the plastic bin liner! Line your bin with newspaper, go naked, and/or separate your wet waste from your dry waste, so that you don’t have to throw out the trash as much.
Going further: expanding your impact
Going plastic-free on your own is important because it’s a significant step towards living more consciously. Plastic Free July is a stepping stone to more high-impact actions. Like switching your electricity provider, going plant-based, flying and driving less, etc. But there are also more ways to expand your impact in the realm of plastic-free.
GOING VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN
Straws make up less than 1% of the ocean’s plastic waste. That doesn’t make straws unimportant, but it also points to the fact that we should be looking at more significant sources of plastic waste. 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone comes from discarded fishing nets (Ocean Cleanup). Which means, going plastic-free should involve some level of cutting out fish and seafood from your diet. Better yet, try going vegetarian, or even vegan. Here’s our guide to vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Singapore, and our mini-guide to restaurants for when you have people who swing both ways in Hong Kong!
IMPACTING YOUR COMPANY OR SCHOOL
The most straightforward way is to engage your co-workers and fellow students. Encourage them to take part in Plastic Free July with you, and talk to them about why it’s important to you. Too shy? Engage an external vendor to come in to speak about why going plastic-free is great. (If you’re in Singapore, barePack has a great corporates programme for offices.) Alternatively, arrange for a beach clean-up, and invite as many people as you can. Plastic Free July is the perfect time to start – many organisations are probably having massive clean-ups this month; look for one near you.
A major source of single-use plastics are company and school events. Seek out utensil and cutlery rental companies – think revolv for cups, for example, or simply encourage the events to be #BYO.
BONUS TIPS FOR WORKING FOLK
> If you can, get involved with your company’s procurement and supply chain team. Find out whether you can help to reduce plastic somewhere along the chain. Sometimes, one small piece can make a big difference, especially if it’s multiplied.
> Green up your workplace pantry. Replace single-packet snacks with bulk snacks in containers, and see if you can help your office purchase drinks in bulk or dispensed instead. Swap the single-use utensils and cutlery for reusable ones, or get everyone to bring their own for the office to share.
BONUS TIPS FOR STUDENTS
> Get your canteen or cafeteria to go plastic-free. Start by phasing out the use of plastic straws, then other single-use plastics like bags, containers, cups, etc.
> Vending machines are very energy and plastic-consuming, and ubiquitous on campuses. See if you can swap them out for bulk snack containers.
IMPACTING YOUR COMMUNITY AND GOVERNMENT
This is for those who dream big. Plastic-free shouldn’t just be limited to your own circles! Try your hand at engaging your community and even local government. Singapore and Hong Kong both have zero waste Facebook groups, but go further. Organise community events, like movie screenings about the plastic problem, beach clean-ups, plastic-free get-togethers (like picnics) and more. If you’re daring enough, consider starting petitions to businesses to get them to be more plastic-free too.
And finally, get involved on a policy level. Find out what your local representatives are saying and doing about plastic, then request for them to do more. Write in, or even meet with them. And be sure to vote for those who are heading toward change.
At the moment, Hong Kong is considering restricting single-use plastic cutlery, and Singapore still hasn’t yet banned plastic bags. We still have a long way to go in both cities, but getting aware of these issues is a solid start.