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Giving up plastic is not as hard as it sounds, when you have a plan

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we’re discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.

Single-use plastic (SUP) is everywhere, which means trying to reduce the amount you use can get really overwhelming, really quickly. But as the movement to ditch many of these plastics grows, it’s clear that what’s required is a mindset shift, much like eating healthier or exercising, in order to incorporate this into their daily lives.

Here are some of the habits people who have reduced their plastic use live by.

1. Say no (thank you)

The tiny word “no” looms large in Bea Johnson’s life. The Californian literally wrote the book on reducing plastics at home, and she lives by her 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.

For her, the first R, refuse, is most important. It means saying no to things you don’t need, before they end up in your house and then the trash, or condemned to the purgatory of the junk drawer.

“It’s important to learn to say no to these things on the spot. The next time someone tries to hand you something, think about it before you reach out. Ask yourself, do I really need this?” she told CBC.

Bea Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home, has been reducing plastic use in her family’s life since 2008. She lives by the 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.(Jacqui J. Sze)

Johnson said that refusal applies not just to plastic bags at the grocery store, but freebies — think a branded stress ball or promotional pen. Accepting such items encourages more of them to be produced, she said.

Johnson said it can be intimidating at first to refuse, and it’s good to have a few polite ways to say no in your back pocket

“I just say, ‘no thanks, it’s really nice of you but I don’t need it.’ And people, when you say you don’t need it, they’re not going to force it onto you,” she said.

2. Get organized

When Johnson began reducing her plastic use in 2008, she said there were few resources to draw on to help restructure her life. She took it upon herself to figure out a way forward and came up with the 5 Rs.

“It was an effort of preparing, or organizing myself, when I first started,” she said. It took a while to get used to unloading her cloth bags in her kitchen and remembering to put them directly back into the car, so she wouldn’t be caught off-guard, but now it’s routine.

A little bit of pre-planning goes a long way toward avoiding plastic bags and the like — similar to chopping up fresh veggies to snack on later instead of reaching for a doughnut when hunger strikes.

It may sound overwhelming, but that doing some extra organizing at the outset pays off, according to Alli Johnston, a graphic designer in Corner Brook, N.L.., who began buying more products in bulk at the beginning of 2018.

“It takes bit more planning. but once we got set up with our standard jars, the ones that oatmeal goes in, and all the spice jars and things like that, it actually got easier,” she said.

3. Take it easy!

Similar to eating healthier, it’s important not to live by absolutes, which can lead to disappointment, guilt or binge-eating a box of Oreos, Johnston said.

“Any change takes time, and not everyone is extraordinarily disciplined,” she said. “I think that the only way you’re going to succeed at something like this is to go easy on yourself, and to allow yourself to slip up.”

Johnston admitted she’s sometimes forgotten a bag or bought a product wrapped in plastic because of its convenience. But she doesn’t beat herself up about it.

Alli Johnston of Corner Brook, Nfld., began reducing her single-use plastic consumption at the beginning of this year. She said it gets easier over time.(Lindsay Bird/CBC)

“I try not to. But I also try and acknowledge that feeling, that goes against what I’m trying to do here, and remember that the next time,” she said.

The ultra-committed Johnson said her family of four produces a pint of trash a year. But even she says that you need to relax in order to reduce plastic use. She began by trying to eliminate almost all packaging from her life — baking her own bread, making her own cheese, and even attempting to churn her own butter.

“Eventually I realized I had thrown myself into a homemaking level that was just unsustainable,” she said. It’s important to find a balance and a system you can work with for life, she said, not one you can’t keep up.

4. Be brave

Doing things outside your normal routine can be tough, but no change can happen without taking the first step.

Johnston said the first time she used cloth produce bags instead of plastic ones for her vegetables, she felt an outsized sense of apprehension. It seems silly in retrospect, she said, but at the time the feeling was real.

“I had this little nervous feeling as I got up to my turn at the checkout. And to her credit, the young woman who served me, just said, ‘oh this is neat,’ and took the tare weight off my bag,” she said. (Tare weight is the weight of the empty container.)

Change can be challenging for everyone, even people who are really motivated.– Alli Johnston

“It’s just evidence of how change can be challenging for everyone, even people who are really motivated.”

Johnson said it’s difficult but to put yourself at the forefront of change. She used to be alone in asking for her coffee in a reusable to-go cup, she said, but now it’s common practice.

Equally important, she said, is not to judge others’ actions.

“Some people are going to go faster than others,” she said, “but I think it’s important to know that change that is slow, is change that is typically more sustainable.”

Johnston agreed.

“All I can do is make decisions in my day-to-day life to help chip away at things. and if more people start doing that, then eventually things will start to get better.”

Join the discussion on the CBC Waves of Change Facebook group, or send us an email: wavesofchange@cbc.ca.

Read more stories from CBC’s Waves of Change project

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