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Photo Illustration by The Globe and Mail; Source images: iStock/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Meera Jain always thought she was ecofriendly. She drove a hybrid, never littered and “recycled everything,” says the Toronto-based elementary school teacher and mom of two. “Even if I didn’t know if it was recyclable.”

Then last year, she watched a documentary called A Plastic Ocean. The film is about journalist Craig Leeson, who set out to report on whales in the Indian Ocean only to change focus after finding an immense amount of detritus – water bottles, grocery crates, Crocs – amassing on the surface of the water. Among the harrowing scenes is a Bryde’s whale suffocating to death on a beach, choking on the six square metres of plastic clogging its body. (She’s also since realized that recycling non-recyclables can cause its own problems.)

“I used to avoid documentaries like that,” Jain says. “I was afraid they would make me spiral into sadness.” But she watched this one on the advice of two close friends whose opinion she trusted. And instead of a bleak, hopeless feeling, she felt galvanized. She decided to make some changes for herself and her family.

“I now encourage less recycling,” she says. “It’s a Band-Aid solution, and very little – less than 10 per cent – of the plastics that go in the blue bin actually ever get recycled. Instead, my focus has been to reduce how much plastic I bring into my home in the first place.”

Jain isn’t alone in thinking a reduced reliance on plastics is a “great idea.” Increasingly, Canadians are dismayed by the effect the material is having on nature. According to a 2019 poll done by CBC Marketplace and the Angus Reid Forum, 90 per cent of us worry about how plastics are affecting the environment. Although 82 per cent of the country thinks the government should do more to tackle the issue, many are also taking action in their own homes, trading out the implements that are destined for the landfill – cling film, Styrofoam containers, tetra packs, disposable cutlery – with reusables.

It is an important step in Canada considering that we, as a country, are prodigious waste makers. A 2017 Canadian Geographic story details how Canadians produce more garbage than any other industrialized nation – 720 kilograms for each person a year, seven per cent more than the United States and 10 times more than six African countries. Although, according to Statistics Canada, 93 per cent of Canadians recycle (yay) as much as 90 per cent of plastics put in the blue bin actually end up in incinerators, landfills or in the ocean (boo), according to eco advocates Environmental Defence.

But importantly, for the cohort pursuing a life without plastics – more than 2.6-million people have used the hashtag #zerowaste on Instragram, boasting of their abilities to live in a less-polluting way – there are many pluses. While it might seem like avoiding the synthetic is an inconvenience at best and quixotic at worst – try walking through a grocery store on a plastic-free mission and see how far you get (hint: not very) – for those that minimize their consumption as much as possible, the wellness and financial benefits, as well as the sense of empowerment, justify the efforts. (Abstaining entirely is likely impossible, though, lest someone give up their computer and phone, let alone all the transportation and medical tools and technology – airplanes, IV needs – that rely on polymers).

Some of Jain’s changes have involved simple omissions. “I immediately stopped with single-use plastics,” she says. “Now, I never accept a disposable coffee cup. Ever. I refuse straws at restaurants and don’t use disposable water bottles.”

New additions to her day-to-day have taken more research and care: She now makes her own toothpaste, deodorant and cleaning products (using vinegar, baking soda and other non-toxic ingredients) to avoid the overpackaging common with household consumables. And she never leaves the house without a “zero-waste kit,” she says, including a stainless container and cloth napkin, “because you never know when you want to buy a snack.”

She’s also not afraid to ask local businesses if they’ll accommodate her. “I’ll call a restaurant and ask if I can have take-out in my own container,” she says. “It can be intimidating because people are naturally scared of the word ‘no.’ We’re scared of rejection. But sometimes the opposite happens. People say: Wow, that’s a great idea.”

Others have made the lifestyle choice for health reasons. Ashleigh Norris is a Toronto-based nutritionist whose practice is called the Soulful Sprout. She doesn’t just help people eat healthier foods, she also advocates for cutting out plastics. Her reasons are deeply personal: Six years ago, at 27, she was diagnosed with cancer.

“I started researching toxins in the environment and the food system that might be affecting my body,” she says. “I decided to start omitting plastics from my life because I didn’t want all the chemicals common in plastics, including bisphenol A and phthalates, coming into contact with my food.” While some experts debate the carcinogenic properties of the material, the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health has linked bisphenol A, which is found in 90 per cent of human blood streams, to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. The NIH describes phthalates as a “potential carcinogen.”

Although Norris understands that going plastic free can be daunting, she recommends that people start light. “I estimate that it takes an initial investment of about $70,” she says. “That covers a reusable coffee cup, reusable mesh bags for groceries, glass mason jars to buy things at the Bulk Barn, which is great and bamboo cutlery [to refrain from using plastic take-out alternatives]. A $20 pack of beeswax wrap, which is durable but compostable, can completely replace Saran wrap.”

Norris also recommends not being too hard on yourself. Something seconded by Dr. Love-Ese Chile, a plastics researcher who earned her PhD in 2017 from the University of British Columbia. “The conversation these days is centred around consumer plastics – plastic bottles and straws – and encouraging the consumer to really think about what they’re buying,” she says. But in order to avoid the many dire catastrophes waiting in our rubbish-filled future – according to some scientists, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 – it’s imperative to change the way plastic producers do business. “Not using straws is great,” Chile says, “but it’s not really changing the whole plastics supply chain – where plastics come from and how we dispose of it.” That goes beyond individual consumers and requires action from policy makers and manufacturers.

There are a growing number of zero-waste grocery stores across Canada – Unboxed in Toronto, Nada in Vancouver, Nu in Ottawa – and Ottawa’s Life without Plastics has been a North American leader in offering eco housewares since it launched 10 years ago. But these businesses are still very much the exception.

“[Running] a conventional grocery store is easier,” says Michelle Genttner, co-owner of Unboxed Market, which opened in early 2019. “We knew when we started this that it would not be an easy task. We go through challenges every single day in order to make sure that we can pay our bills, keep our staff employed and the doors open. Will we survive? We hope so.”

But even though Norris, who is now cancer free, acknowledges that her zero-waste lifestyle isn’t seamless, she still sees the benefits. “I feel great,” she says. “I’ve learned to navigate what’s going into my body to serve me better. I’m 33 now, but feel younger than I did in my mid-twenties. I feel like I’ve aged 10 years backward.”

Ditching disposables can also have financial benefits. Sophi Robertson is a massage therapist and the event coordinator for the Toronto Tool Library, a lending resource for tools, toys, camping equipment and more.

Since she started avoiding plastics in 2016, she’s found that “when you aren’t extracting things you don’t really need from the planet, you can save a massive amount.” To eschew unnecessary packaging, Robertson uses Bunz, the online platform where people trade possessions, not money, for what they want. “Ninety per cent of the time, I find what I need,” she says. “The jacket that I’m wearing right now is from Bunz. So are my boots, which are brand new, they just didn’t fit the person who bought them. And the best thing is that no further waste is created.”

Robertson also recognizes that perfection is impossible, especially when it comes to her young daughter. “It’s a tricky balance, dealing with school and other families,” Robertson says. “My daughter might come home with a goody bag filled literally with junk and things that fall apart in a day. I’m still trying to figure this out. I don’t want her to be resentful. She’s not going to be interested if I take things away from her. Right now, it she brings something new home, I’ve asked her to get rid of something she has. That way she won’t get in the habit of bringing in more stuff that simply piles up. I want her to value the things she has.”

Similar to Robertson, Jain says that navigating parenthood with a plastic-free lifestyle can be tricky. Her elder daughter is four, “and I would never say she can’t have a loot bag,” Jain says. “I’m trying to give her the agency to decide for herself. I might drop a hint as to why balloons are bad. I want her to be aware of the issues. But ultimately I want her to be inspired to become a steward of the planet for herself. ”

Jain agrees, too, that giving up plastics can save money. On the Green Mum, the blog she started last year to track her eco journey, she calculated the difference between buying in bulk with her own containers and realized she saved $26, pound for pound, compared to a traditional grocery store. Her homemade soaps cost “cents to make,” she says, and notes that a lot of savings come simply from cutting items off her shopping lists. “I don’t buy tissues any more,” she says. “I don’t buy paper towels any more.”

Jain acknowledges that her lifestyle is less convenient than it was before. But she also says “the challenges have been completely overshadowed by the benefits. It’s taken a change in mindset about what comfort is. But ultimately it’s easier for me to sleep at night knowing I’m using cloth diapers for my younger daughter. It’s worth the peace of mind for the future.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the Toronto Tool Library. This version has been corrected.

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