Story & photos: Tom Powell

August 2, 2018

Tom Powell is our resident Icebreaker photographer, based in Auckland, New Zealand. This July he took his plastic-bag aversion next level and embraced Plastic Free July, documenting the ups and downs of the challenge in a blog that is both delightfully visual (naturally), and a bit disturbing. We caught up with him to talk A Month Less Plastic.

What did it mean to you to be plastic-free for a month?
It was about having a lesser impact and not relying on recycling as the answer. It was also about seeing how much plastic I consumed, and what I could improve upon in my daily habits. It was about avoiding single-use plastic – things like plastic bags, straws, bin liners, food packaging, metal cans (they have a plastic lining). Plastic has a place and sometimes seems the only option. My camera, for example, is mainly plastic, so I wasn’t going to be able to put that down for a month.

What were the highlights and lowlights of the challenge?
My favorite part was how happy people were to help with my – sometimes strange – requests. One server even worked out a way to make me a falafel wrap using a spoon instead of plastic disposable gloves, and she was happy to play along. I also enjoyed having an impact on other people’s plastic use when they were with me – even if it’s just one small thing, it’s still one small thing that won’t end up in the ocean. Some things I couldn’t find alternatives to, such as medicines. I can’t see a way to a lifestyle completely free of single-use plastics yet, and that makes me quite sad, but I’m confident that will change.

You took your less-plastic mission global when you traveled to the States. What were the danger zones of traveling. When was your resolve tested?
The first and biggest challenge was the long-haul flight. My word, you would not believe the amount of waste on those planes. I was prepared for it, but when doing a challenge like this, you become hyper-aware of all the single-use plastic around you: to wrap blankets and headphones, and within the food and drink service. It was a painful experience – I couldn’t use anything they supplied, but even worse, I had to watch it all go into the trash can.

Ponsonby vs Portland: how did one of the USA’s most sustainable cities compare to your hometown in the plastic-free stakes?
I saw just as much single-use plastic in Portland, but they seemed to be a few years ahead in terms of alternatives and recycling options. People seemed aware of it in Portland and it didn’t seem odd to them when I took my own containers to get take-out food. People also had a greater understanding of the pitfalls of recycling – that you can’t just throw everything in the recycling or compost and that’s your bit done, that it’s actually making the problem worse.

You were open about your ‘fails’. Tell us about some of the worst offenders.
I haven’t managed to find a plastic-free toothpaste yet. I thought about making my own, but I think my dental health might suffer and I really want the changes I make to be sustainable for me. I was travelling during the challenge, so I ate out a lot, and I’m sure plastic was used along the supply chain of my meals, even if I wasn’t directly using it. I got caught out with plastic labels on jars. There weren’t many fails, but each time I had this sense of underlying guilt.

How did people around you react to your project?
Everyone was super-supportive. I even ate out with friends and they chose plastic-free choices because of it. Or people cooked for me in ways that avoided plastic. I think everyone knows how big a problem we have, and how quickly it’s escalating.

What does the future hold for plastic-free Tom? Another month? Another year?
The month was all about finding out if I could reduce my single-use plastic consumption. Now that I know I can, I don’t know how I would return to using some of the things I used previously. I always avoided plastic bags and coffee cup lids but would slip one in once in a while. Now I wouldn’t. Now that I’ve taken my own containers to get take-out, I don’t feel at all strange about doing it. The challenge has made me more aware, to a point that it’s no longer just about plastic, but about waste in general. It’s easier to take notice of plastic when it’s affecting our beautiful beaches, but metal and paper also use energy in their production and recycling, and to really tackle the wider environmental problems, the issue of all waste needs to be addressed.

What tips can you offer others wanting to avoid single-use plastic?
Just think ahead. Single-use plastic is about convenience. We can cut so much of it out of our daily lives if we anticipate when and where it might crop up and how to avoid it. The simple ones are carrying a re-usable bag, water bottle, food container and cup. Just those few changes will eliminate so much waste. Eat seasonal, fresh and local for less packaging and food miles, and it’s healthier too.

“The first and biggest challenge was the long-haul flight. My word, you would not believe the amount of waste on those planes.”

Airplane catering is covered in single-use plastic cutlery and packaging. It was hard not to get caught out.

This should keep me going until portland.

This should keep me going until portland.

The hardest essential item that I've found so far to replace is toothpaste.

The hardest essential item that I've found so far to replace is toothpaste.

My first big fail. Be careful what you order, especially when someone else is serving you.

My first big fail. Be careful what you order, especially when someone else is serving you.



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