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July 2020 | Plastic Free July & COVID's Plastic Impact

Welcome to our special newsletter edition for Plastic Free July! What's a better month to talk about freedom from plastic than July?

In this post, we read, listen, act, and reflect on July's topic: COVID and plastic. This article has been adapted from our sustainability newsletter, so please sign up for it to stay in the loop.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

We're going to spend the next four sections unpacking some myths and facts about plastic during COVID and what we can do to eliminate (or at least reduce) our plastic consumption during a time when our personal safety seems to depend on it.

What’s covered:

  • READ - debunked COVID-times studies about reusable bags
  • LISTEN - how plastic is made
  • ACT - individual and systemic actions you can take against plastic + its creator, Big Oil
  • REFLECT - are bioplastics the future?

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🎯 Action step 1 of 4: READ — Let's start by looking at a few articles together.

READ: Get heated

In today's READ module, I'm going to pull from two articles. I highly recommend reading both (it won't take you too long) and subscribing to HEATED, a daily newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis. It's written by Emily Atkin, who's been a climate reporter for years. She often features high profile guests like Al Gore.


  1. Vox | Plastic bags were finally being banned. Then came the pandemic.
  2. HEATED Newsletter | Using COVID-19 to wage war on reusable grocery bags

According to John Hocevar, the director of Greenpeace’s oceans campaign, “The plastic industry has really treated the Covid-19 emergency as an opportunity and is preying on people’s fear to scare them into believing that single-use plastic is the best way to stay safe. And so far, there isn’t any independent scientific research that supports that.”

Our wholesale discard of reusable bags and mugs and all the swag is based on a simple feeling of safety, rather than research. Let's talk about these implications:

  • Because we’re staying at home more, we’re generating up to 30% more trash. Amazon saw its revenue spike by 26 percent in the first quarter of this year. Most of their deliveries are plastic-free! Oh wait, I mean... the plastic that comes with your package is free.
  • We should worry about long-term behavior change. We got our bag bans. Our consumer preferences actually created change. But what happens now? As restaurants reopen, for example, they're going all-disposable. We don't know how long it'll take to cut down the waste we're creating during COVID.
  • The plastic industry is allegedly exploiting our fears. Oil prices are crashing, which makes plastic cheaper. Even though there is scientific evidence that coronavirus can survive for days on plastic surfaces, people still see plastic as a solution. I wonder who started that rumor!

Fuzzy wuzzy studies

So, why are we rabbiting down this plastic hole if scientific research doesn't back it up? Well, for one, because of all the "studies" that have "proven" that reusable bags will spread coronavirus everywhere and worsen the pandemic. In her HEATED newsletter, Emily Atkin provides an absurd summary of three of these studies:

  1. "The first piece of research that the plastic industry says strongly suggests a correlation between reusable grocery bags and coronavirus spread was this 2010 study funded by the American Chemistry Council, an industry group which represents plastics interests."

    This study was conducted ten years ago and it didn't even find disease-causing bacteria.
  2. The second study "looked at 30 reusable bags and said essentially the same thing".

    It does NOT indicate that reusable bags made of plastic have a greater risk of holding the virus than single-use plastic bags.
  3. The third study... ... ...

    features a reusable bag that someone had vomited next to. This bag was then passed around a youth soccer team. Yeah, I'm sure the problem is reusable bags. And I wish I was joking about the study. Oh, and it's also about a completely different type of virus.

In conclusion, it's not that our switch to single-use plastic is scientifically unfounded.

It just hasn't been found yet.

As we figure out the "right" thing to do over the next few weeks, let's just start by reminding ourselves to check where our information comes from and question who makes and influences powerful decisions.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 1 of 4: READ.

🎯 Action step 2 of 4: LISTEN — we'll watch a short video or listen to a podcast to further expand on our topic.

LISTEN: 4 steps to make plastic

Okay, I thought I KINDA knew how plastic is made but turns out my knowledge is basic-er than basic. Thanks to this 6-minute National Geographic video, I know now what a huge role Big Oil plays.

I'll share the first four steps on how plastic is made so you can see for yourself who's implicated in our plastic pandemic and who stands to win the most. This is important info especially if we want to get involved in local policy and environmental advocacy and make real, lasting change.

First, you should know - most synthetic plastic is made from crude oil and natural gas. AKA fossil fuels!

  1. Extraction - crude oil and natural gas are extracted. (Pretty self-explanatory)
  2. Refinement - these fossil fuels are converted into building blocks of plastic: ethane from crude oil and propane from natural gas.
  3. Cracking - the blocks are broken down into smaller molecules: ethylene and propylene.
  4. Polymerization - this step links the molecules to form resins, which is what makes plastic so easy to shape, especially under heat and pressure.

The Nat Geo video also comes with solutions, briefly introducing natural plastics (did you know that's a thing?) and bioplastics. There is hope!

P.S. - You can actually find out what goes into your plastics from their product info - check out the video to learn more.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 2 of 4: LISTEN.

🎯 Action step 3 of 4: ACT — Now it's time to do something. Let's go!

ACT: Consequences for Big Plastic Daddy

You already know this - sometimes it feels like our individual actions don't matter because large institutions like government and corporations make the most sweeping decisions. And it's partially true; we need to focus our actions on everyday things we can do AND ways we can hold power to account.

Lucky for us, Big Oil/Big Plastic Daddy (who, as we learned, has the most to gain from the overuse of plastic) loves publicity and cares a lot about its image.

Today's ACT will be pretty simple - I'm including individual, systemic, short-term, and foundational actions you can take to go plastic-free (or at least "plastic responsible") this July and onwards.

  1. Sign up for Plastic Free July. In their opt-in form, they give you so many options from the scale of change you're committing to to the duration of your pledge. July is wrapping up soon, but this content is super relevant and fun to follow. Pledge here!
  2. Reuse your bags when you can. This might be a controversial one, but we learned in our READ module that the studies that associate coronavirus with reusable bags are not relevant, highly skewed, or both. Don't snitch - my roommate has been taking reusable bags to the store and using self checkout. These circumstances are ever-changing, so make sure you have reliable sources!
  3. Read the 5 key points about fossil fuel corporate deception. According to the HEATED newsletter (which I highly recommend), '59 percent of likely voters support holding fossil fuel corporations accountable for “misleading the public about the science and impacts of climate change.”' This is fantastic news! Get the overview of this deception here.
  4. Join MeterLeader's Fossil Fuel Independence Challenge. In last week's video, we learned that one source of plastic is natural gas, a fossil fuel. Take control over your own natural gas usage by joining this challenge - you can win prizes, and you'll be supported the whole way with email nudges and worksheets on how you can monitor/reduce your consumption. It's a great way to share your participation with the world - remember, these companies care about your consumer habits.
  5. Talk about it. Keep talking. As we get closer to the November elections, I'll include more policy and programmatic initiatives, but I firmly believe we need more serious, intergenerational discourse on plastic and fossil fuels. Figure out what motivates them - whether it's money, convenience, or something else - there's always a clean energy solution. Here's a starter of how you can have that conversation. Figure out a way to include plastic and climate issues in your social media. You can create change while still being on brand for the gram.

It's scary to think that the coronavirus pandemic might undo all the anti-plastic wins we've been celebrating, but it's truly a group effort - let's rally together, raise awareness about corporate deception, and start thinking about how to change policy and action, not just hearts and minds.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 3 of 4: ACT.

Before we go any further, it's time for you to pledge your commitment. It takes less than 30 seconds to pledge and we can bother you about it in a friendly way, so we can hold each other accountable. Pledge here!

🎯 Action step 4 of 4: REFLECT — what can you commit to? What fresh perspectives can we look at?

REFLECT: Bioplastics are here. What does that mean?

In this REFLECT module, we're going to talk about plastic alternatives for the long term.

The first time I saw a bioplastic was at the UC Davis CoHo (the Coffee House - one of our most central gathering places). I didn't know that's what it was called at the time. I just remember looking at my coffee cup and realizing it was compostable. Same with my straw.

When I watched the NatGeo video two weeks ago about how plastics are made, they talked at the end about bioplastics being the future of plastic. So, are they?

Who better to ask than NatGeo themselves?!

Are bioplastics the future?

Here's the article I'd like you to reflect on today. It's called "What you need to know about plant-based plastics". It's a short, 5-minute read. I'll summarize it here but I hope you check it out when you have time.

What are bioplastics?

  • Bioplastic (aka bio-based plastic) is plastic made from plant or other biological material instead of petroleum. Most cheap bioplastics are also factory-made in the same places that make products like ethanol.

What's the argument for bioplastic?

  • 18 BILLION pounds of plastic flow into the ocean each year (which is just a % of plastic waste of all time). Bioplastics would actually biodegrade, reducing harm to ocean life and humans.
  • ~8% of the world's oil is used to make plastic. But not our hero, bioplastic!
  • Bioplastics would release less carbon to the atmosphere as they degrade, because the carbon used to make them comes from plants anyway.

That sounds great... so what's the problem?

  • If it comes from "bio" anything, the plants used to make them will require fertilizer. Fertilizer produces pollution.
  • Why should we use a substance like corn to make plastic instead of food when so many people are going hungry?
  • It can't be composted in our backyards - it needs to be industrially composted or else there's not that different from regular plastic.
  • We need to teach everyone about proper composting! If we don't actually put our compost where it belongs, we're not actually keeping waste out of landfills.

I'm still deciding what I think about bioplastics. It seems to me like they could be a great step forward as long as it's done carefully and with humans in mind, not corporations. Here's the article link again.

What do you think about the future of plastic? Sign up for our newsletter so you can let me know!

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 4 of 4: REFLECT.

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Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 5,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar,
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google