How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum: a review and my own efforts to reduce plastic waste

Plastic may not be the worst issue impacting the environment, but it does feel like one that an individual can more easily do something about. And if you’ve seen the photos and videos of marine life with bellies full of plastic trash, it’s pretty hard to look away. 

I picked up McCallum’s book as part of the Nature Reading Challenge, but also because I was looking for practical suggestions about reducing my own plastic use.  This book does provide a lot of suggestions, though I didn’t find it added much to what I’d already seen on websites like plasticfreejuly.org. While McCallum offers many suggestions, it would have been more helpful if he prioritized the ones that would have the greatest impact. 

This book did motivate me to write about some of my own efforts, and some areas I’m still working on, in case they spark some ideas or suggestions for you. 

What I’m doing…

I’ve mostly eliminated plastic bags.  I use reusables at the grocery store, and now I’m working on using reusable produce bags as well. I use washable containers (which I still want to call Tupperware) and silicone zip bags (like Stashers) for food.  I still find I need plastic wrap sometimes for baking but I try to use the smallest amount possible. I bought some of those stretchy lid covers but I don’t use them very much.  I also have some of that beeswax wrap but I haven’t ever used it.

Apparently coffee cups are a huge problem, and I can say that I never buy takeout coffee – which is no credit to me, I just prefer to stay home and make my own. And thanks to COVID I don’t eat nearly as much fast food as I used to.

At home, we’ve eliminated plastic straws and coffee stirrers. It took a while to find washable straws I liked. I bought some clear plastic ones but they melted in the dishwasher. I tried stainless steel but hated the way they felt in my mouth (too cold, metal taste).  My favorites are silicone and I use them every day and throw them in the dishwasher. I keep a reusable straw in my bag but I’ll be honest, I do give in sometimes and buy a soda with a lid and a straw.  But I don’t do it often! 

There’s a company I love, Ethique, that makes beauty and household products in bars with no plastic packaging. I’ve switched to shampoo and conditioner bars and bodywash, though I can’t replace all my hair products with bars. They also make things like lotion and cleaning products in concentrate bars – you mix a bar with boiling water and put it in your own container. I’m proud of my “homemade” lotion though it came out slightly more chunky than lotion should be. I’ve been saving and washing glass jars so I can reuse them for things like this.

What I’m working on…

Where I could be much better is in reducing the amount of plastic containers in my groceries.  Mr. CG and I cook a lot at home, most plastic containers can’t be recycled, and it’s actually worse to throw something into recycling you’re not sure about (something I’ve been doing for years). We cook with Blue Apron, one of those meal services, and that generates a lot of waste. We’re good about recycling glass, which has to be driven to a special receptacle, and paper and cans. I occasionally purchase a box from a company called Terracycle where you fill up the box with hard-to-recycle plastics and mail it to them.  But a good part of me isn’t sure I’m actually accomplishing anything – how do I know where that box is going? 

If I’m honest, I’m probably not going to become someone who brings my own containers to stores.  But I can try to choose produce that isn’t shrink-wrapped and buy products that are larger so I’m buying fewer disposable containers. I’m also pretty good about keeping and refilling travel size containers.

Another weakness is I love my single-pod coffee maker. I do buy the pods that come with half the plastic, and I substitute reusable K-cups when I have time. But the convenience of a quick cup of coffee is pretty hard to beat.

Additional thoughts on the book:

What do do about the plastic you’ve already bought? McCallum advises going through your shelves and sending products with excessive plastic back to their producers. I can see where that sends an important message, though I’m not likely to start doing that myself. My approach for the moment is to use what I have and watch what I purchase. 

McCallum strongly argues for trying to convince others, particularly companies, to reduce plastic rather than just changing what you do as an individual.  I support the idea, but activism feels like a stretch for me right now. Some of McCallum’s advice about how to talk to people effectively felt condescending to me, but might be very useful for someone who’s eager to get out there and change minds but doesn’t know how to start.

McCallum does suggest a number of blogs to follow, and I appreciated that suggestion because blogs are more likely to have up to date ideas.  One of the difficulties with a book like McCallum’s is (and he notes this himself) the information quickly becomes dated, as science and politics are constantly changing how we look at the environment and what we do about it. Since I listened to this book on audio, the blog suggestions weren’t ones I could turn around and look up, but I will seek out blogs on this subject. This site has some suggestions, some of which were also mentioned in the book: https://www.plasticfreejuly.org/plastic-free-network/.

Any suggestions?

If this is an issue you care about (and if you’re still reading, it must be) what are you doing to reuse and recycle? Let me know about your successes, and if it’s something you’re working on, hopefully this post has given you an idea or two. And you can read about other books about environmental issues and activism here.

  11 comments for “How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum: a review and my own efforts to reduce plastic waste

  1. September 19, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    We are doing similar, I think. We use stretchy lid covers but we haves that beeswax wrap and have never used it (I can never make it stick to itself! We do have to use cling-film every now and again, although my main use is to take my breakfast wrap when I run to parkrun and I could use a ziplock bag. We use aforesaid ziplock bags but wash and reuse. We have curbside recycling of plastic, glass and metal and our local supermarket takes bags but also things like frozen veg bags and crisp packets, also water filters. Then friends take our tetrapaks to the tip for us as you can’t access the tip on foot (I have lobbied to have just an hour once a week when you can, but no luck). I managed to stop using straws, I don’t have take out coffee apart from my tea when running to parkrun and this reminds me I could just take a reusable cup in my backpack for that. Lots of takeaways round us will put your food in your container if you collect, but we usually have delivery – the one we use most uses cardboard containers and bags and they say the lids are recyclable. I think blogs rather than books might be the way to go, yes, as more up to date.

    • September 21, 2022 at 7:45 pm

      Thanks for sharing Liz! I haven’t heard any votes yet for the beeswax wrap, though it’s sitting in my pantry so I need to give it a try. McCollum’s book suggests bringing containers to takeaways, but here at least I’ve never seen any place doing that. I’m at least seeing less packaging and you have to ask for a straw if you want it. I have to admit I’m not sure what a “tip” is. I think I know what a tetrapak is so I’m assuming a tip is a place to recycle them? I love differences in language!

      • September 22, 2022 at 6:49 am

        Oh, I’m sorry! The tip is the dump, the place where you drive to take your rubbish/trash that you can’t dispose of via the curb/kerb side collection and recycling service. Hope that helps!

      • September 22, 2022 at 7:17 pm

        No apology needed! I’m always interested in differences between the U.S., U.K. and Australia/New Zealand, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked. Thanks for explaining!

  2. Sharon
    September 19, 2022 at 10:41 pm

    Great post! I think making even small changes makes a big difference, every little bit helps. I have the same problem with the beeswax wraps they don’t seem to stick or seal properly. Here in Australia, we seem to be getting better choices in terms of companies and how they are packaging products which make things a bit easier. We have a few stores now offering bulk product, you bring in your own containers, just bring them in for a refill when needed. I really like the quality of their products as well, which has been excellent. If I need new storage containers I try and buy from charity or op shops and that sometimes means buying a second-hand plastic container, better than buying more new plastic though.
    I think the biggest and most successful thing I did was to start making changes and say nothing but people noticed the change. I started using a keep cup at work and the cafe at work started offering a discount for a keep cup and soon everyone was doing it and then people noticed I use things like solid hand cream in a reusable tin and ask about it. If people ask I tell them the things I do but don’t make a big deal out of it and now people sometimes ask me for information if they are looking to make changes.
    And Ethique is fantastic, I especially love the conditioner bars but I have a local small company that makes the best shampoo bar.
    Again great post, sorry rambling a bit will try and check out How to give up Plastic.🌻🌻🌻

    • September 21, 2022 at 7:38 pm

      Thanks Sharon! I love the idea of second-hand containers. It seems to me that as long as something is getting reused it doesn’t matter if it’s plastic. Buying less is an important strategy, it’s one I’m working on. I like what you shared about people noticing what you’re doing. That feels a lot more manageable than trying to change what people do. Thanks for sharing!

  3. September 21, 2022 at 11:57 am

    It is am important topic. The change I’m most glad about being able to make is that I started buying milk from the local cheese store (it comes from local farmers for the cheesemaking; the store decants it into my own glass bottles). Then I make it into yogurt also in glass jars, using a special metal thermos that I bought. It saves us a ton of plastic as we eat 1-2 quarts of yogurt per week. I also use my own bags for shopping, that’s standard here. But there is surely more I could do, thanks for the ideas.

    • September 21, 2022 at 7:33 pm

      Buying fresh milk sounds wonderful, I might have an option at my farmers market but I’m not sure. I make yogurt sometimes with my Instant Pot, I didn’t think about that as saving plastic but it does. I also make my own sparkling water. I imagine things are more environmentally conscious where you are? I noticed when I was out in California what a big difference it makes when all the stores and restaurants encourage these strategies.

  4. September 26, 2022 at 9:22 pm

    Haven’t taken a plastic shopping bag in years; have stopped buying beauty products in plastic, have never been a fan of straws, am an ice water drinker, so always carry my reusable insulated travel mug, rarely get take-out, but when I do try to do it from the local places that use cardboard, use the bees wrap stuff (warm hands help!), have some metal sandwich boxes, prefer to get my ice cream in a cone, not a styrofoam cup, etc. Once you start asking yourself if you really need to have that plastic something, often there’s an alternative. I have to wonder, though, about the comment about using plastic wrap baking; doesn’t it melt?? What all this means is that I generate very little trash, about a gallon size container a month. (Composting helps!)

    • September 27, 2022 at 11:51 am

      You are doing a great job with reducing waste! Thanks for sharing. It’s true if you make the effort you can find alternatives. Regarding baking, I don’t use it for actual cooking, what I mostly use wrap for is dividing up cookie batter and refrigerating or freezing it, and there’s a few other uses that cookbooks seem to call for regularly (not involving the oven). But now you’ve got me thinking I could certainly find alternatives.

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