Plastic is not fantastic

I’ve spent years patting myself on the back, self-congratulating “good-old-me” for always having my reusable fabric bag handy, for recycling my plastic containers and for saying no to plastic bags with my weekly food delivery. But recently my eyes have opened to the enormous and horrific reality of plastic pollution and its effect on the world. Plastic is everywhere - from food, to beauty products, to clothes and so much of the plastic we use is single-use, disposable waste. The statistics around plastic pollution are pretty horrific; did you know that 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year? That’s a truck load a day and by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. Plastic is in every corner of our planet and is even being found trapped in arctic ice, our bottled water and the stomachs of whales. People swarm to exotic islands on conservation holidays to save baby turtles making their way to the ocean along the treacherous sand, but when they get to the oceans, those same turtles are dying from being caught up in plastic strewn in our oceans. In case you need any more scaremongering, we now live in a world where even our babies are born pre-polluted.

 

It isn’t all bad news - unless you’ve buried your head in the (plastic-littered) sand, you’ll likely have heard the news stories on plastic pollution and be aware of the huge social movement to reduce our reliance on plastic. You might be part of the 25% increase in milk bottle deliveries in the UK over the last two years, maybe you are taking full advantage of Sadiq Khan’s new water-refill scheme in London, or maybe you have bought yourself a keepcup to cut down on waste during your daily caffeine hit. There’s never been a better time to change our personal approach to plastic consumption. So, with our eco-warrior hats firmly wedged on, my husband and I decided to give up plastic for lent. Here’s how we got on:

 

The rules

If you’ve seen my Predictive Index report (or if you know me at all), then you’ll know I love rules and structure - I love some organised fun (hey, I work in HR).

 Rules are good. Rules help to control the fun

The rules here are pretty simple:

  1. No single-use plastic (e.g. bottles, cutlery, bags, chocolate wrappers)
  2. Replace all disposable plastic packaging (e.g. toothpaste, shampoo bottles, soap dispensers, toilet roll bags)
  3. Milk bottles are excluded. This was the hardest rule to add, growing up my family always had milk bottle deliveries so I thought this would be the easiest change. Sadly not, I live on a busy road in London, not suitable for milk deliveries to be left outside. I’ve searched everywhere to try and find milk bottles to buy in a shop but haven’t succeeded.
  4. Migraine medicine is excluded - I can’t live (and expect to function) without this.

 

The experience

On day one, I opened my fridge to an expanse of plastic; cheese, ham, mince, veg, fruit - all covered in plastic. I think I’d been expecting my fridge to suddenly start producing freshly-picked, locally-sourced plastic-free food, too bad those fridges don’t exist yet. Instead I needed to replenish my fridge without using plastic, easy right? I decided that the 40 day challenge meant that I could work through my left-over plastic products, so everything didn’t run out all at once. The first week my husband and I did pretty well making food stretch to more meals than it should have and we ate the entire contents of our freezer in an attempt to avoid having to hunt for plastic-free food.

The first problem came trying to find a plastic-free lunch one day at work. I walked into Pret and saw what I’d never noticed before; everything was wrapped in plastic - sandwiches, salads, toasties; nothing was safe. Same with Sainsburys and Pod. Then I went to Eat and found a toastie wrapped in paper, which I snapped up and headed back to my desk. Only once I was happily munching away did I see the massive sticker stuck on the paper packaging, the sticker was clearly made of plastic and my heart sank. This was my first (of many) fails.

So week one done, one fail, all-in-all fairly good going, or so I thought. Then came the next challenge; dealing with a sick dog. Our in-the-wars Labrador, Archie, became unwell on a car trip back from seeing some friends. When a dog gets a poorly tummy you have to change their diet to chicken and rice; knowing that there wouldn’t be anywhere we could source this late on a Saturday evening, we caved and bought Archie M&S’ finest plastic-wrapped chicken and rice. Resigned to the fact that Archie was eating better than us, we tucked into the only plastic-free food we could find at a service station, a bag of chips. After Archie was admitted to doggy hospital the next day, we also added Archie’s medicine to the allowed plastic list. Thankfully he’s back to his normal, bouncy self now and is fully onboard with plastic-free living!

 Archie living his best plastic-free life Archie living his best plastic-free life

When we started this challenge we didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to source food plastic-free; bananas come in plastic bags, pasta packaging is plastic, shower gel is in plastic, toilet rolls come wrapped in plastic, you get the idea. I was naively sure that supermarkets would stock plastic-free options, even if they came at a cost. How wrong I was.

As a couple, my husband and I are boringly organised with our food planning and we usually plan all our meals and get a weekly food delivery. In an attempt to go plastic-free, we decided to go into the shop to make sure that the food we were buying was plastic free. Sadly, that first food shop I think all we came back with was a courgette and some milk... in a plastic carton. Fail. After trying various supermarkets, getting home too late for the local butchers and greengrocers and going to bed hungry most nights for a week, Sunday rolled around and we visited our local farmers market. To our delight we managed to find loads of plastic-free veg - although we practically had to wrestle the plastic bag out of the grocer’s hands, insisting we really were fine to use the bags we’d brought with us. Plastic-free veg, done with the purse feeling much lighter. Buying meat however, was still an issue - even at the farmers market it was all wrapped in plastic and we received blank looks when we asked if they had anything without packaging. We’re fine with flexitarianism but there’s only so long we can substitute beetroot for beef so we continued to hunt for a solution. A few meat-deprived weeks went by before we stumbled upon a halal butchers who agreed (with a bewildered look) to put the meat in our tupperware - hurrah! And right next door was a fishmongers who wrapped our fish in the greaseproof paper we’d brought along and then - probably against his better judgement - shoved it into our too-small tupperware container.

 A plastic free supermarket

The plastic-free blogs I was reading were telling me to find a local scoop shop to source pasta, rice and other essentials. While there are several in London, I couldn’t find any close to home or open at times that would fit our schedules. Another gripe is that these places aren’t cheap, unfortunately none of this stuff is. We figured that our weekly shopping was costing us about three times more than usual, and we were probably only getting half our normal amount of food and household goods. While do-able in the short-term, plastic-free living by buying locally is definitely not a sustainable option for us. Back to the drawing board.

Next on the list: shampoo, conditioner and shower gel. After some recommendations on Facebook, I decided to give Lush a try. I’m so glad I did and I’ll never look back - Lush is a true eco-powerhouse. I was so dubious about trying plastic-free cosmetics and cynically thought they would crumble on touch or wouldn’t lather up. When I was in Lush I was taken in by a kind sales assistant, who gave me a tour of their array of plastic-free products. I came away with soap, naked shower gel, solid deodorant, shampoo bar, conditioner bar, toothy tabs and some washcards.

My favourite product by far are the toothy tabs, they’re such a great change from toothpaste, although they take a little getting used to (the Boom! Spicy cola flavour are a personal favourite). My least favourite product is the deodorant, it’s not been a great purchase for me and I’ve made the decision to ditch it in favour of my previous plastic deodorant so I’m now searching for a better plastic-free alternative.

Again, this isn’t cheap - I spent well over £40 on my Lush splurge - but having had two people using most of the products for a month, I’d say we’ve got through less than a third of each product so they are already proving value for money. Overall, I’m extremely pleased with these products - the only problem I’ve had is that I managed to mould the shampoo to the tin I’d put it in and had to dig it out, oops!

 Plastic free cosmetics

Back to food and we’ve finally had a breakthrough, Abel and Cole sent us a letter and voucher as an incentive to ‘return’ to them (we’ve actually only ever shopped with them to source their Cold & Blac coffee liqueur - perfect for espresso martinis!). We’d been discussing the various benefits of getting a veg box delivery for a few weeks and this was the nudge we needed to actually order one. A quick look at the Abel and Cole website and we realised how eco-friendly they are. They’re well ahead of their competitors in their approach to plastic; since 1988 they’ve been using reusable boxes rather than plastic bags in their deliveries, their boxes are then reused up to eight times before being recycled. Abel and Cole reckon they’ve saved about 60,000,000 plastic bags by delivering food in this way. A small number of their products are still delivered in plastic but where possible they reuse this plastic - e.g. their kale would wilt if it was delivered in paper bags but the plastic bags they come in are returned, washed and reused. We were so impressed with Abel and Cole that we decided to do our full weekly shop there; we stocked up on glass bottles of organic soft drinks (which are so good I’m considering giving up alcohol…), Ecover cleaning goods (which come in 100% recycled bottles that can be refilled), toilet roll (made from 100% recycled paper with compostable packaging) and various other plastic-free products. I’m still struggling to wipe the smug look off my face, I’m so impressed with Abel and Cole. The price, although higher than normal supermarkets, is definitely lower than the farmers market so win-win!

 Plastic-free shopping products

Another successful change we’ve made is increasing our home-cooking and prep. We are both big foodies so we cook a lot anyway but during lent we’ve made far more bread, brownies and cookies than we have in a while. We’ve also covered off essentials like Nutella (yes this is an essential), hummus and pesto by making them at home. And these things always taste so much better when you’ve made them yourself.

 Homemade nutella in a glass jar

So what’s next?

With lent finally over, the first thing I did was buy all my saved items on ASOS (sorry not sorry bank account). For the past few weeks we’ve been asked over and over if we’ll keep up our plastic-free life. The answer is (a partial) yes. After the struggle of the first few weeks, I feel like we’ve ended this challenge on a high. The novelty wore off a long time ago and while running around making sure every little thing I use and eat is plastic-free, has been hard at times, I’d say on a whole my experience has been extremely positive. We have had different reactions when we tell people what we’re doing - a lot of people think we’re mad, some don’t see the point but overall as we’ve been sharing our experience we’ve received a lot of encouragement and support. Friends have sent messages when they’ve found a plastic-free alternative for something we’re struggling with (thank you!) and we’ve also heard about other people who are trying to reduce their plastic consumption as a result of what we’re doing. My favourite moment was my ‘no plastic’ dietary requirement sticker on my hot dog box at the last company meeting.

Going forward, while I’d rather avoid all plastic, I’m not going to give myself a hard time when I slip up. If my dog gets unwell again, I’m still going to buy him chicken and rice in plastic wrapping. But I’m going to shop regularly at Lush and Abel and Cole. I’m going to continue making more homemade products. I’m going to keep banging on to friends about how important it is to live a low-plastic life. The more people who do it, the more pressure we put on big brands, the easier it will become. I strongly believe that the responsibility of plastic consumption sits with both individual consumers and companies; recycling plastic isn’t enough, we need to stop using it.

 My reusable drink bottle

For my final week of plastic-free living, I asked my fellow badgers to give up disposable plastic in the office. It’s not that hard to be a plastic-free badger; there’s constantly food in the office, we have a stash of reusable cutlery and glasses, I stocked our cupboards with some metal straws and we’re surrounded by supportive colleagues and friends who care about the environment. Since talking about my challenge in the office I've been inundated with support - from recommendations on where to buy my milk to plastic-free snacks. It has also started a wider conversation about how else we can reduce our Red Badger eco-footprint. Watch this space. 

Want to see how much plastic you use, check it out here.