In the land of work-life balance, the Dutch PR pros must be working overtime. Before I moved to the Netherlands, I kept reading about all sorts of eco-friendly projects that this country was proud of. And hence the ‘PR machine in action’ conclusion.
Excited to be relocating to the land of sustainability and eco-consciousness, I clung to this idea with every fiber of my being. You see, I was coming from the United States, where being allowed to bag my own supermarket groceries in canvas tote bags had been a weekly challenge.
I was thrilled that reusable shopping bags were encouraged in the Netherlands. Together with a strong biking culture, ease of commuting on public transportation and the availability of recycling (compared to where I was moving from), it had made this country look like a sustainability paradise.
But it didn’t take long for the eco-friendly veneer to wear off. Yes, I could dispose of my plastic recycling in the orange bin on the street corner. However, the frequency with which I had to do this was astounding if I didn’t want my apartment to turn into ‘plastic clutter central’. And even if the canvas tote bag (or the faded Albert Heijn blue bag) was in everyone’s hand going into the supermarket, by the time the shopping trip was done, that reusable bag was chock full of plastic packaging.
All good changes in my life had stemmed from temporary challenges that stuck.
That’s when I knew that doing Plastic Free July was a good way to challenge ourselves to cut down our family’s single-use plastic consumption. All good changes in my life had stemmed from temporary challenges that stuck. There’s something about putting a time limitation on finding a solution or changing a habit that works for me. That’s because I don’t do well with absolutes such as “I will never buy [insert problematic item] again.” My philosophy goes more along the lines of “Let’s try it for a month and see what happens. Maybe I’ll learn something new.”
Embarking on Plastic Free July
It was with this mindset that I embarked on my first Plastic Free July challenge in the Netherlands. Throughout this one-month endeavor, convenience would come second while questioning the status quo would come first.
My family was already doing a few things before we committed to this project:
- We were already using stainless steel water bottles and avoiding plastic bottles.
- Carrying our own canvas tote bags had been a deeply ingrained habit for years.
- We weren’t using a lot of takeout containers or plastic straws.
Here are the changes that I made to reduce using single use plastic during my first Plastic Free July challenge in the Netherlands.
I BROUGHT MY OWN REUSABLE PACKAGING
In our household, we do the bulk of our fresh veggie shopping at the weekly outdoor market. We just use the supermarket to top up the produce between market trips. It’s easier to shop for unpackaged produce at the market than at the supermarket, where even the tough-skinned aubergines are treated to a coating of plastic film. I felt I was fighting a losing battle every time I unpacked my groceries and noticed that there were very few things that didn’t come in plastic packaging.
The first thing we did was invest in a few mesh produce bags. These can be sourced from Ekoplaza and a few local small businesses on Etsy. This allowed us to avoid using those flimsy produce bags that were impossible to reuse more than once. We also brought our own canvas bread bags and a separate pastry bag for croissants.
Pushing the limits
The more I used my own packaging, the bolder I got in pushing the limits:
- I asked the dried fruit vendor at the market if I could use my own bags. He had no objections, so I used the separate bags I kept for this purpose and dumped the contents in glass jars at home.
- I asked the baristas at three cafes to use my own insulated travel coffee cup. They had no objections (although COVID-19 may now have changed that), so I avoided the disposable aspect of getting my coffee to go.
- My partner even brought our own container to the cheese store and took home some packaging-free cheese.
- And I refilled bags of bulk cereal and pasta at Ekoplaza. Yes, it was a little more expensive than the pre-packaged options, but I was also paying for better quality.
There were a few things I didn’t buy in July that I normally would have because they were impossible to find unpackaged: berries, grapes, hummus and olives were a no-no.
Quick tip: Look for the Zero Waste Nederland sticker on storefront doors or windows. That means the store will accept your own containers or they reuse containers. For example, at Boerderijzuivel on Oude Kerkstraat you can reuse containers for milk, yogurt, vla and eggs.
For a few more tips on sustainable eating, have a look at this post by Cathy Delhanty.
I switched from plastic to glass or paper
There were a few purchases we had to make in July that didn’t come packaging-free. So we opted to buy things such as vinegar, oil and peanut butter in glass, rather than in plastic.
I wanted to avoid using tea bags (sometimes they contain polypropylene, a sealing plastic mesh that is neither recyclable nor biodegradable), so I bought tea in bulk from the spice vendor at the market and from Thee van Sander, a small tea store tucked away down a narrow alley in the city center (at Bagijnestraat 15).
I also switched to buying ground roasted coffee in paper bags from a small local business, Miss Morisson. Yes, the paper bags may be lined with plastic, but sometimes it’s just a wax coating. And this was a compromise I was willing to make if I wanted to get my brew in bulk.
It was also the perfect time to run out of plastic cling film. I replaced this unrecyclable product with reusable fabric bowl covers from Green and Happy Shop on Etsy.
I had to rethink care products
Another source of single-use plastic packaging in our house was hygiene and personal care products. Having to restock some of these items in July gave me the motivation to find plastic-free alternatives.
I switched exclusively to soap bars instead of liquid soap. I bought soap bars from the supermarket for daily use and from Dille & Kamille and Werf Zeep for a pampering splurge. I found deodorant packaged in paper (from Ben & Anna) and in tin (from We Love the Planet). And I replaced my plastic floss with biodegradable silk floss.
Some things were really hard to find without plastic, such as dishwashing liquid. So for those products I invested in larger containers to refill the small ones.
The result of plastic free July
During our Plastic Free July challenge, we produced just one jar of plastic stuffed with a few of the usual suspects: plastic sleeves from banana bunches, a plastic bag from a pack of toilet paper, some tofu plastic pouches and a few other pieces of packaging for products that we had previously purchased but just happened to use up in July.
We didn’t have to lug any plastic tubs to the recycling containers, but we did have to go to the recycling bins to dispose of paper and glass.
The lessons of doing Plastic Free July
My goal in doing Plastic Free July was to become more mindful of what I purchased. Also, I wanted to see to what extent I let convenience dictate my choices. The challenge also helped me process some of my fear of missing out when it comes to sustainable products. It helped me take inventory of what we really use and what we need in our home.
Some of the changes I made in July stuck for good. Others didn’t.
I’m back to buying tubs of hummus because my own attempts at making it resulted in a soupy mess. If I eliminate all spreads and dips that come in plastic, my only choice remains pesto. And life’s too short to just eat pesto.
I rarely find berries in anything other than a plastic clamshell, but I sometimes compromise and buy them from the freezer section. I’m still on the lookout for a good shampoo bar that my hair can tolerate, and I have yet to try brush mints instead of toothpaste.
On the flip side, a side-effect of this challenge was discovering some amazing small businesses that I continue to do my best to patronize over large supermarket chains.
So I extend myself the grace that my Plastic Free July challenge doesn’t have to be perfect, and that a million people making imperfect changes is better than just a handful of people doing the challenge to perfection.
For more ideas on other changes you can make during Plastic Free July, have a look at the official campaign website.