Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters

Image of Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters
Release Date: 
December 8, 2020
Columbia University Press
Reviewed by: 

“The world we love is in our hands and so are the practical, effective, and daily choices that will protect our future.”

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz’s life-changing epiphany stands a good chance of changing the world. In June 2011, Australian environmental educator Prince-Ruiz visited her local “materials recovery facility” and discovered where her family’s and community’s discarded items went after being taken “away” from their recycling bins. Amid glass jars and old newspapers were plastic grocery bags, plastic bottles, plastic food containers, plastic dolls, plastic, plastic, and more plastic, nearly all of it designed for single-use and quick disposal. Stunned by that “penny-drop” moment, and together with “a fair degree of optimism and a huge dose of good old-fashioned Spanish impulsivity,” Ruiz-Penny announced to her co-workers, friends, and family: “I’m going plastic free next month. Who wants to join me?”

A decade later, some 250 million people in over 177 countries have joined her in Plastic Free July with some people taking the next step of going as close as they can to being plastic free all year round. Yet these inspiring numbers pale beside some even larger ones.

Some 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been created since mass plastic production began 60-odd years ago, most of it “disposable.” But plastic doesn’t dispose because it doesn’t go away. Plastic doesn’t break up but rather breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces in a process that can last decades or centuries or longer. There’s roughly more than one metric ton of plastic for every person alive today, and as of 2015 perhaps 9% has been recycled.

Every year, some 8 million tons of plastic cigarette lighters and rubber ducks, bottles and caps, balloons and microbeads, and far too many other plastic items wind up in the oceans to become “marine debris” that enters the food chain and poisons sea birds, turtles, cetaceans, and other marine life, and fatally entangles creatures large and small.

In a welcome and effective respite, Plastic Free avoids shame-blame-failure-guilt mongering to affirm hope earned through positive actions. No change to take plastic out of your life is small or irrelevant. In the words of Loyola University students: “It’s just one plastic straw,” say 7.6 billion people.

Plastic Free and the larger plastic-free movement refuse the Instagram-perfect, top-down messaging and branding so common to other (less successful) social change campaigns. The movement’s success is rooted in the idea of local people acting from their values to create feasible solutions that meet community needs.

Each chapter is filled with websites to check, ideas to ponder, and success stories to model, from students in New Zealand making beeswax wraps as an alternative to plastic sandwich bags, to Western Australians giving away reusable produce bags made from second-hand curtains, to San Francisco Bay area restaurants reducing disposable packaging, to beach cleanups in Hong Kong and Hawaii.

Personal and local actions can have global impacts: “For many people, reducing their plastic footprint is the first step to reducing their carbon footprint, and reducing their carbon footprint is a first step to advocating for more sustainable commerce and government.”

While Plastic Free stresses solutions, and lots of them, readers learn the history of disposable plastics and the consumer culture, what those numbers on the bottom of shampoo bottles and lunch packs mean, the impact of microplastics and plastic microbeads, the difference between bioplastic, biodegradable, and compostable, as well as an introduction to behavioral economics and the circular economy.

It’s impossible to imagine a reader finishing Plastic Free and not changing one or two or ten behaviors, whether it’s bringing a reusable mug to the coffee shop to refusing the ubiquitous plastic straw (or even better buying a reusable metal one),  or turning away a plastic shopping bag and pulling out a cloth one. (Plastic Free inspired this reviewer to take her travel set of bamboo reusable cutlery out of the silverware drawer and put it into her backpack, something she’d meant to do for the longest time.) Just as small stones can make a road, so small changes will pave the journey to sustainability.

Plastic Free can and should be read by readers everywhere. The world we love is in our hands and so are the practical, effective, and daily choices that will protect our future.