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I gave up single-use items and this is what happened

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This year for Lent I gave up something I wanted to rid from my life for good: single-use items from restaurants and takeaways.

I gave up single-use items and this is what happened
Every northern hemisphere spring, Christians from several denominations, but mostly Catholic, celebrate Lent. Starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday, during the six-week-long event many believers commit to fasting and giving up certain luxuries.

I have been fasting for Lent for 20 years. Even though I am atheist, my best friend, who I met in 1999, was Catholic and he would fast every Lent, mostly giving up his biggest vice – coffee. I began fasting with him soon after we met as a way of solidarity and discipline and each year, I choose to give up something I can sustain for the rest of the year – and take up a good habit I can sustain long-term. This year, being the 20th anniversary of my fast, I chose to give up something I wanted to rid from my life for good: single-use items from restaurants and takeaways.

As someone raised in an atheist family, there was never the religious aspect, obviously. But there has always been a sense of spirituality attached to fasting. It became something of an acknowledgement that there is always something bigger out there, no matter what you choose to call it. And so, every year on Ash Wednesday, my journey into self-reflection and discipline begins.

Week One: 26 February - 3 March

First days of Lent are always difficult. It’s about remembering “Oh, yes, I’m not supposed to be doing that now!” On day one, I received a paper napkin with my hot dog before I even found the Swedish words for “No, thanks” in my head. So, into a jar of shame it went.

Being new to Sweden, a seemingly environmentally conscious country, I thought it would be easy. NEJ! All you need to do is look around any central bus station and you’ll see litter: single-use everything. Cans, paper napkins, cigarette butts, and crisp packets lie strewn around overflowing bins all over the main cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg. While the bins are emptied regularly, people who throw rubbish out of their cars infuriate me.

I’m no saint, but I’ve started noticing ALL the single-use plastics everywhere. Especially at public places like parks and shopping centres. It’s like noticing every Ford Fiesta when someone in your family buys one.

I went for a grocery run to ICA, one of the largest supermarket chains in Sweden and had to get a bag for the overflow. I did not plan this properly. Forgive me, gods of climate change! And then there was asking the pizza takeaway guys to pop my pizza into the container I brought with me. They laughed the entire time they sliced the pizza (charging me extra for it, because in Sweden, they don’t slice pizza at the restaurant) and shook their heads as I happily walked off without a giant pizza box. They must have thought South Africans are strange people.

Week Two: 4 March - 10 March

My first ever trip to Sephora in Gothenburg. The mothership. My love for makeup is well documented on my socials but this was going to be a difficult one. My experience with finding sustainable beauty products is summed up here. I was so excited to be trying all the brands we don’t get back home in colours that might actually match my skin tone! Fifty shades of Fenty? What?! I was over the moon. But I left empty-handed. Every. Single. Item. Was. Individually. Boxed.

On the same day, I walked past a KFC. The smell was incredible and my little town an hour east of Gothenburg does not have one. I soon realised that even with sit-down meals, everything comes in disposable boxes and plastic. Then I did a shop at IKEA and went home with a mirror. I asked them not to wrap it – so there I was, gingerly carrying this huge mirror from Gothenburg to my little town, trying not to break it.

And I just realised I’ve been using tea bags. What. An. Idiot. In my relentless search for the closest thing to my South African brand, I came across Lipton’s Yellow Label, which is the only thing that tastes remotely like home. So to replace this replacement, I went to a tiny tea shop in town and got a reusable bag full of Ceylon tea and a tea infuser from a small Indian shop called Indiska, which smells of incense and makes me feel like I’m on Grey Street in Durban, shopping for a wedding. I felt really accomplished until the tea leaves ended up all over the floor because I’m a calamity who shouldn’t be allowed near sharp objects.

Then I cut my finger and remembered plasters are single-use, too. This was turning out to be a lot more difficult than I thought.

Week Three: 11 March - 17 March

I was beginning to get the hang of it. No plastic cutlery or paper napkins, straws, and cups. Starbucks is off limits and suddenly I’m taking a lot more to places than I used to. Glass water bottle, flask for coffee or tea, and a small tin with a metal spoon, fork, and knife.

Then something happened that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest nightmares. While cleaning said fork and putting it away in my little tin, a man on the bus got up and asked me if I was planning to hijack the bus. He looked ready to fight. This was way worse than the other week when some random person asked me why I am brown. I started explaining and then I got angry. Why did he come up to me to ask me this? Does he ask everyone who has cutlery if they’re going to suddenly execute terrorist acts? The bus driver, thankfully, asked him to sit down.

Something I had never thought of before happened when I was least prepared for it; the racialism of something as simple as sustainable living.

Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance leads a coalition of organisations focused on addressing racial and economic inequities together with climate change. She says with the arrival of slavery came a repurposing of the land, chopping down trees, disrupting water and other ecological systems to build a capitalist society and provide resources for the privileged, using black bodies to facilitate it, and the same in terms of the disruption and stealing of indigenous land.

Historically, we can see how the abuse of black bodies lead to the abuse of the environment and vice-versa. How do we deal with this newfangled idea that a brown person doing pretty much anything in public is an act of terror? Perhaps this is unrelated, but it was alarming and upsetting, to say the least.

Week four: 18 March - 24 March

Certain things were becoming habits. Some other things, not so much.

Straws have been ditched entirely! Finally!

Grocery bags are go! Thank you, IKEA. I’ll never use another plastic bag again.

Water bottle - check, check, and check again. One in my bag, one at the desk, one in the fridge.

Especially after last week’s fiasco, I’m sticking to these for cutlery.

Believe it or not, I even found a sustainable alternative to single-use earbuds!

I bought some really cool super absorbent cloths to replace paper towels.

I’m big into skincare and got these cotton pads to replace single-use ones.

I had already replaced menstrual pads with a silicone menstrual cup and honestly, I will never go back.

Taking those thin, free plastic vegetable bags from the supermarket seems so convenient but I asked my mum to keep track of the bags she brought home in a month and she counted 88. It was a bit of a wake-up call. I searched for an alternative and found these.

The staff at Espresso House in town know as soon as they see me coming; one tall hot chocolate in my own reusable mug with a little whipped cream and no marshmallows.

Lastly, the niche part of my list was finding something better than turpentine for cleaning oil paint off brushes (it not only pollutes but is harmful to everyone in my apartment), and I found this brush cleaner. It even extends the life of my expensive brushes.

Unfortunately, there are some things I am finding difficult to completely let go of. Like tissues. My iron supplement comes in a single-serving sachet and so does the ointment I need for eczema. The blister strips for my depression meds are non-recyclable. Being green is hard when you have chronic illnesses. And I still haven’t found a suitable replacement for the single-use razors I use for dermaplaning.

Week five: 25 March - 31 March

We’d started using more wet wipes since Covid, but I banned them in our house, opting to use handkerchiefs and waterless hand cleaner instead. This included getting rid of makeup remover wipes.

Incorrect labelling and marketing of wet wipes as “flushable” has resulted in serious plumbing issues as they contribute to “fatbergs'” – congealed lumps of fat, sanitary items, and wet wipes. When flushed, wet wipes don't disintegrate like toilet paper and they typically contain plastic. Once they reach the sea, they last for a long time, causing havoc with marine life. Fortunately, we invested in washable cloth wipes, a chemical-free alternative to wet wipes.

And then there was the issue of junk mail, which we received a lot of. Fortunately, Sweden has a system of putting up signs on postboxes reading “Ej reklam tack”, which means, “No junk mail, thanks”. Generally, it works. I switched all my bills to electronic ones a while ago, including bank statements and newspaper subscriptions. The next step was to deregister from things for which I was getting mail, including magazines. It was a process that took about four days of solid planning and execution. But I did it.

There are so many single-use items that we use daily without really thinking about. And then there are the ones we are introduced to out of absolute necessity, like disposable face masks under the COVID-19 regulations. Some people are wearing reusable masks but they’re not readily available and if they are, they’re expensive.

Disposable face masks and surgical masks are not recyclable. In Sweden, they can be used as waste energy but if the person is diagnosed with COVID-19, they have been instructed to put them in a sealed plastic or paper bag, and then dispose of them in a private bin. Any recyclables that may have been used by someone with coronavirus need to go in the rubbish bin inside a sealed plastic or paper bag. This is something I don’t know how to solve.

Week six: 1 April - 8 April

The final week of Lent and this was, by far, the most difficult fast yet. Not because of the discipline, but because of the magnitude. I did give up taking plastic cutlery from restaurants in 2017 and it was easy peasy. Not this time. All single-use items had to go and I realised just how reliant we are on these little conveniences.

One of the things I always do in the last week of Lent is go to a Catholic church that does community service (like soup kitchens) and help out in preparation for the Easter weekend. This time I was unable to. There is only one Catholic church in my little town and there was nothing about community work on its website and nobody at the church was there to help when I visited.

I did, however, visit a small church just outside the town and sent an email to the conservator of the church asking him about the nitty-gritty in keeping the 35 square meter wooden church maintained. After a long chat, I suggested sustainable ways to care for the structure without destroying the aesthetics or compromising the structure itself – something I had already researched. He was grateful and said he’d take my suggestions to heart.

Fasting ended on the morning of 9 April, but I won’t be rushing back to my single-use items. A major realisation was how reliant we are on these things and that replacing them is expensive and requires effort. It can be done, though, and I will definitely be thinking twice before tossing something disposable into my shopping cart.

This fast was eye-opening, and a clear warning that we can do so much more to be sustainable, lessen our carbon footprint, and keep our impact on the earth as light as possible. On a more personal note, Lent is always a time of spiritual reflection for me and if this year has taught me one thing, it’s that we need to tread as lightly as we can. I am trying every day to make an impact on the world with my knowledge instead of on the earth with my feet.

As for what I took up for Lent this year? I decided to write at least 500 words of my novel each day. Yeah, that didn’t go according to plan. Oh well. There’s always next year.

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