I lived completely single-use plastic free for two weeks, finding solutions to the various difficulties I met along the way. This challenge made me realise more than the ever the need for a collective approach to ending plastic pollution, one which includes government and industry action, as well individual commitment. If plastic waste is going to be tackled properly, society's 'take, make and dispose' attitude must change.
I found an overall lack of understanding about what single-use plastic actually is and whether alternatives are any less damaging to the environment.
Although I went completely single-use plastic free, by the end of the challenge it was clear that tackling plastic pollution doesn't have to be all or nothing. You can have a huge impact by picking and choosing a few plastic items which are avoidable.
What is single-use plastic?
Defining single-use plastic may seem obvious, but once I promised to cut it out I found this very definition problematic. Any plastic made to be used only once before being recycled or thrown away is by definition 'single-use'. This is how most sources define it.
So, technically plastic that is meant to be used more than once, but isn't recyclable isn't single-use. For example toothpaste tubes are used a number of times over a relatively long period of time, but you can't recycle them once you finish using them. However this plastic could still end up in the ocean. I found this focus on single-use plastic, rather than recyclable plastic an unhelpful guideline when considering how to improve on my environmental impact.
I therefore treated 'single-use' as any plastic that was made for a single purpose rather than a single use before being disposed. This extended the challenge to things like toothpaste, shampoo and hand cream. But even this definition isn't robust, as you then have to avoid things like re-usable plastic water bottles and lunch containers, which I thought was going a bit too far. So then I started to think about the amount of time a plastic item is made to be used for, but again this becomes quite ambiguous.
A logical conclusion seemed to be simply avoiding plastic wherever I could reasonably do so. This confusion highlighted to me the fact that there needs to be a wider discussion on how to define single-use plastic, and to consider whether avoiding single use just by definition is the right way to live sustainably.
Avoiding plastic meant finding replacements. However it wasn't always clear whether these alternatives were any less damaging to the environment, and there is a lack of practical information which addresses this.
For example, in order to avoid plastic-wrapped chocolate, I opted for products packaged in aluminium foil, only to find out that production of this alternative material has a worse carbon footprint. It requires more energy and produces more carbon dioxide to make aluminium than it does to make plastic.
Therefore I think its important to make sure the momentum against plastic pollution is fuelled by evidence-based discussions that lead to informed decisions. This will avoid ending up with policies that cut plastic waste but contribute to another environmental disaster.
Living in South London, I found it reasonably easy to get plastic-free fruit and veg. I started off by shopping at the local 'Hoxton Fruit and Veg' in Clapham. I got everything from sweet potatoes and onions to oranges and pears. I then realised that the big Sainsbury's in Clapham offered even more plastic-free fruit and veg (for a bit less money) so continued to shop there. I was however very disappointed to find that nowhere offered berries without plastic packaging.
The main problem with food shopping is that it's mainly the vegetables and fruit that come free from plastic. Most other staple foods, like pasta, lentils and sugar, come in plastic, leading to my first plastic-free meal consisting only of fruit and veg. I then realised I would have to branch out a lot more to succeed in finding more alternatives for my weekly shop. This meant finding all my food from a number of different sources.
I had to go to a number of places to get each staple for my weekly shop.
- Bread: Bought from the local Gail's in Clapham
- Milk and Juice: Delivered by Milk&More in glass bottles
- Protein: Vegetarian meat alternatives, Linda McCartney and Quorn, from Sainsbury's (come in cardboard)
- Pasta and Rice: Hisbe bulk supermarket in Brighton (I work one day a week in Brighton). Alternatively, Londoners can visit The Source, Hetu or Planet Organic (selected stores).
- Yoghurt: Bought at Planet Organic in a glass jar. I also made my own with my mother in law.
One great thing I realised was that large supermarkets do have a few products in alternative packaging like jars or cardboard, like the vegetarian alternatives I mentioned. This meant I could get things like sun-dried tomatoes, olives and jam all from my local Sainsbury's.
I assumed tin cans were clearly a good alternative to plastic, until I had the shock of my life: tin cans actually have a very thin lining of plastic in them. I found this particularly disturbing as when I was alerted to this fact, I looked inside the empty tin that had contained some chopped tomatoes, and saw little scratches where the plastic had scraped off. This meant that those plastic bits had got into the meal that had just been prepared for my family by my sister, and was now (most likely) sitting in my family's stomachs.
Food on the go
The obvious alternative to plastic packaged take-away food is to either eat in or bring your own snacks and lunch from home. For drinks the simple solution is to carry around your own water bottle and hot drink container. And on the whole I was able to do this pretty easily.
However it does require a lot of extra organisation and consideration. For example, remembering to ask for no straw in bars and restaurants, and bringing my own food for days out meant always thinking about plastic, or at least how to avoid it.
The importance of organisation was highlighted when I went to a National Trust property one weekend and forgot to bring along my own food. My family wanted to eat outside as it was the first sunny day in a long time. Because all the National Trust takeaway options were packaged in plastic (from their sandwiches to a cheese scone), my only option was to eat inside on my own with a bowl of soup, or buy something packaged in plastic.
Granted this was my own fault for not bringing my own food, however I was still shocked to see that the National Trust offer zero alternatives to plastic packaged takeaway food.
Given that most teabags are lined with plastic and those which aren't come in plastic packaging, I found this product particularly difficult to replace. I initially thought I would get loose tea leaves and a small tea strainer ball, until I also realised that most loose tea leaves come in plastic packaging.
I then came across BlueBird Tea when I was in Brighton - although they also have stores in London. They sell tins of loose tea, which you can refill with a 10% discount. And although they usually have a plastic bag inside the tin, the woman in the shop made me one without any plastic. I have found that a lot of people are receptive to efforts to avoid plastic, so it's worth asking when you can. I can now get as many Earl Grey tea refills as I like, whilst avoiding single-use plastic.
This was however very expensive and I have missed the convenience of using tea bags. There is less mess and they are reasonably priced. This made me very excited for when the Co-operative finally releases their plastic free tea bags.
Finding plastic free sweets was another challenge. All my favourite sweets like strawberry laces and mini eggs had to be avoided (which was very hard as it was Easter). So I was determined to find a way to satisfy my sweet tooth and luckily enough I did. I came across SugarSin, which has shops in London and Brighton. They sell sweets in glass jars, paper bags and re-fillable plastic containers. This led me to the conclusion that a lot of sweet shops must have similar options to avoid single-use plastic.
Toiletries are probably the biggest challenge I faced during this challenge. Shampoo and conditioner was fairly simple to find as I already knew Lush do shampoo and conditioner bars, which come in re-usable metal tins. The same goes for hand soap, as lots of places sell it in paper packaging, including Lush, L'Occitane and most supermarkets.
Toothpaste and deodorant on the other hand required more thought. I researched where to buy plastic free deodorant and found Lush also do this plastic free and they used to do tooth paste powder as well, but changed their packaging to plastic. This left me to spend a considerable amount of time googling where else sell plastic free toothpaste, and apart from a lot of places in America, and one brand in the UK that comes in a glass jar wrapped in plastic packaging, I found nothing. The only alternative left was to make my own.
This is the only thing I failed to find any alternatives for. I have a cat, one fish and five guinea pigs and all their food comes in plastic. I will continue to research this, however my cat requires special food from the vet as she is elderly so I doubt I will find an alternative.
Finding alternative sanitary products isn't the first thing you think of when you decide to go plastic-free. Unfortunately most supermarket brands contain huge amounts of plastic packaging. So I've done my research and below are the best options to reduce plastic pollution whilst on your period.
- NatraCare: Pads and tampons made from renewable, compostable and biodegradable material. Can be bought in Holland and Barrett and Waitrose.
- OrganiCup: Re-usable and washable cup, that comes in cardboard packaging.
- Re-usable Sanitary pads: organic cotton pads which are washable. Can order from Rael or ebay.
Cost and Convenience
Although I managed to get around a lot of plastic problems, the solutions were often inconvenient and more expensive than the usual plastic-packaged products.
I found although living plastic free can be done, you need to have the time, money and motivation it requires. I'm coming to the conclusion that if there is to be sufficient action against plastic pollution, both industry giants and Government need to make it easier for consumers to cut down on their plastic waste.
Living plastic-free made me realise more than ever, the need for a circular economy in the UK. A circular economy rejects the current linear approach to society which has a 'take, make and dispose' attitude to resources. At the moment for example, plastic packaging is made, used and thrown away, only to pollute the environment and cause harm to humans and wildlife. A circular economy however offers a sustainable way of living, where everything is used to its optimum value and then recycled or re-used. It mimics the way our planet has functioned for millennia, ensuring finite resources can be used indefinitely.
This system however requires serious Government and industry action. It cannot be left completely up to a few privileged individuals who can afford to live sustainably. Tackling plastic pollution requires a a unified approach that encompasses individual action in combination with effective Government and industry policy.