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Monique Labelle-Wheeler has been refilling the same plastic bottle with dish soap for 10 years. She figures she has saved about 120 plastic bottles from the landfill.

“The planet is drowning in plastic,” she says. “There is also a health component. When you put things into cheap plastic, it breaks down and seeps into your food and your beverages.”

While she is encouraged Canada has pledged to ban many single-use plastics by the end of 2025, she says “there is still lots of room for individual action.”

This month is your opportunity to take that action. Plastic Free July is an international environmental campaign aimed at getting people off plastic.

Federal government data shows Canadians used 15.5 billion plastic grocery bags in 2019, 4.5 billion pieces of plastic cutlery, three billion stir sticks, 5.8 billion straws and 805 million takeout containers.

Bags, takeout containers and straws are some of the most common items washing up on our shorelines. But Labelle-Wheeler says her turning point came during a vacation when she saw all those items littering beaches as well as “syringes, flip flops and plastic bottles extending into the water for metres.”

Here’s how she went plastic free:

  • She learned to make bread to avoid plastic wrappers and stopped buying cling wrap. “If you always have it in your house, you will always use it. The day you don’t have it in your house is when you become creative.” For example, “if our grandmothers didn’t want to eat a whole watermelon, they would just turn the cut side over on a plate and stick it into the fridge.” A plate over a bowl also keeps food fresh.
  • Save every jar. Reuse them to store leftovers, etc.
  • Take your own containers to farmers’ markets for things like strawberries or use cloth bags for produce. Labelle-Wheeler also takes her own containers to her grocery store for prepared foods. “They’ll weigh it and put it in my container instead of the disposable plastic one.” Likewise with takeout restaurants. “The more we ask, the more it becomes the norm,” she says.
  • Put your cloth bags and containers in the car for the next shopping trip. “That way you never forget them.”
  • Use a spoon instead of a plastic straw for smoothies
  • Carry a reusable coffee mug. “Most disposable coffee cups can’t be recycled because they have a plastic liner,” she notes.
  • Carry a zero-waste kit. “I have my cutlery, a napkin, reusable water bottle or cup, a plate,” she says, plus a container for restaurant leftovers.
  • In the bathroom, opt for shampoo bars instead of bottles and a homemade conditioner made from a 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar with a full cup of water. “Deodorant,” Labelle-Wheeler says, “is basically coconut oil, baking powder and essential oils for fragrance, packaged in jars.”

As a mother of three and schoolteacher, she found snacks were another big source of disposable packaging and tackled that next.

Opinion: Monique Labelle-Wheeler has been refilling the same plastic bottle with dish soap for 10 years. She figures she has saved about 120 plastic bottles from the landfill, writes @BeckyRynor. #OneSmallThing #PlasticWaste

“I did a granola bar recipe with four different classes,” she says. “The challenge for my students was to try to get all of the ingredients at the bulk store with their own containers.”

However, she says, the key to going plastic-free is “taking it one step at a time.”

“If at first you did nothing for the environment and now you stop buying water bottles, for example, that’s a big change compared to doing nothing. Build from there.”

One Small Thing You Can Do Right Now is a monthly column on everyday actions we can all take to help save the planet.

Please share your ideas on being more environmentally responsible in the comments section below.

Becky Rynor is a journalist based in Ottawa.