I have just finished watching the BBC documentary series “War on Plastic” with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, like many other viewers, I was left horrified by some of the things they showed in the 3 episode show. But what really interested me the most about the whole program was to see how challenging it can actually be for ordinary people to ditch a lot of their plastic.
So is living without plastic in the UK even possible? As it emerges from the show, the answer is: Yes, but it’s not straightforward all the time. The fact is that even though it’s true that plastic has become nearly indispensable in nowadays' society, it is also possible for each one of us to take meaningful steps to reduce the amount of single-use plastic products from our homes.
I truly believe that if most British households followed simple techniques towards more environmentally friendly choices and started living without so much plastic, the impact on our environment could potentially be life-changing.
However, as showed in the documentary, this is not an automatic or easy thing to do. Some of the families in the show were representatives of many other families across the country who really want to do their best to make sustainable, better choices, but also need to consider the financial implications of their lifestyle swaps.
Loose fruit and veggies vs packaged one
One of the things that angered me the most while watching the show was how much more expensive loose fruit and vegetable is compared to the one that is already pre-packed in plastic wrapping.This is a serious issue as people who are already facing financial difficulties or simply need to be very mindful of where they spend their money, are definitely not incentivized in the slightest to pick up unwrapped produce instead of the pre-sealed ones. Sometimes the difference in price is truly staggering,as in some instances the tag for packaged products can be up to 40-50% cheaper.
Supermarkets usually justify this practice by saying that it helps to preserve both the hygienic standards imposed by law and the preservation of the products, as plastic is able to extend their shelf life. It also undoubtedly represents a big advantage in convenience both for the supply chain management and for the final consumer, who can just quickly grab any ready-wrapped item. It is somehow undeniable that we have gotten too used to everything being convenient to the max in order to suit our frenetic and busy lives.
But are these reasons valid enough to justify the fact that in the UK, only 1/3 of the plastic used for consumer products is recycled? This means that all this plastic is just ending up in landfills, perhaps in Malaysia or in some other poorer country, just so that we can continue getting to our checkout with maximum comfort and speed?
It is also worth noting that, for those of you who have ever stepped into a supermarket in another European country, such as Italy or Spain, you would have probably seen how most of the fruit and veggie there is only available in loose form. This proves that supermarkets elsewhere work in a different way, a BETTER way for the environment and that not only it can be done, but it should be done! We have got so used to plastic as a single-use commodity that we have forgotten its real, original nature: a material made to last for a very long time (sometimes hundreds of years), not definitely to use as a drinking device to be then thrown away just minutes after.
There are so many challenges to change this, partly due to the fact that UK society seems to have become completely used to plastic without even questioning the real cost of its mass distribution, made to last forever yet now designed for very short, limited use, if not for just a one time purpose (water bottles or travel samples anyone?).
The government seems to have already taken some steps in the right direction:
- The 5p charge on all supermarket plastic bags introduced in 2015 has reportedly caused a 90% fall in sales;
- the government had pledged to ban disposable household wipes in England.
- a similar ban will also affect sales for plastic straws, drinks stirrers, and plastic cotton buds
But is this enough? And most of all, shouldn’t businesses and supermarkets do more to offer customers easier, cheaper alternatives, rather than leave all the responsibility on consumers’ shoulders (and pockets)? I believe corporate change is absolutely necessary if we want to turn the tide on this plastic contamination of our beautiful planet, however, don’t despair! Making environmentally positive change is absolutely possible on an individual level,and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune, on the contrary, some of these lifestyle changes will actually save you money!
So if you, like me, really want to make a difference, read on, I have compiled simple things we can all do that are easy to do and can fit any budget on how living without plastic in the UK is definitely possible and achievable by most!
1. How to buy food without plastic
I really find this a massive task sometimes, as most things in UK supermarkets seem to be wrapped in plastic, so how do you avoid all that packaging?
Where to buy plastic-free fruit and vegetables
If you have a zero-waste shop near you, that could be a good way to start. These environmentally friendly stores usually sell loose food such as pasta, lentils and beans, rice and nuts, as well as other eco-friendly products.We usually get our lentils and fresh bread from our local one. You can find the one near you via the amazing directory there: https://zerowastenear.me/ or directly type on google “zero waste shop near me”. If however you can’t find anything in your area, or the prices of your local ones are a bit too steep, there are indeed other avenues. For fruit and vegetables, search online for wholesalers in your area that sell to restaurants and supermarkets, most of them allow individual consumers to purchase smaller quantities at a very competitive price.
Markets are also a great place to buy some good quality yet inexpensive products if you buy regional and seasonal crops the price tag will definitely be more than affordable.
Alternatively, you can always aim for loose fruit and veg at your local supermarket: to keep pricing down, the best thing to do is to go for seasonal produce, they are usually a lot cheaper so even when buying without packaging, the difference in price is just not as big as it would be for out-of-season produce. Just remember to get old bags, cotton produce bags or any type of reusable mesh bag to put your loose fruit and veg in!
Quantity or quality?
Finally, a very important thing, in my opinion, is to step away from the notion that “more is better”. Yes, sometimes organic, local fruit and vegetables are a bit pricier than if you bought double the amount of the same sub-product in a supermarket. But then again, if we really want to start caring for the environment, maybe we should just step away from this idea that quantity trumps quality. A report from WRAP outlined that 50% of food waste produced in the UK comes from our homes. This means we basically throw away half of the food we buy. So why are we so obsessed with getting more for cheaper, if we still throw it in the bin?
What we need is a cultural shift in the way we think about food. Let’s buy less, better quality and eat everything we purchase, this is probably one of the best contributions we can all do for our planet and it is not only doable, but it can actually save us money too.
What about fish and meat?
Well, our best tip for a truly environmentally friendly lifestyle would be to reduce meat and fish consumption to no more than 2-3 times a week. Ideally, a plant-based diet is definitely better for the planet, but if you can’t live without your bacon and salmon, then there’s good news for you! These supermarkets allow you to bring your own container to the counter (as well as the deli counter), saving extra plastic wrapping and packaging:
Just bring your own Tupperware or any other container with a lid, and ask the member of staff at the counter to put your meat and fish in there!
You can also do the same if you get your meat and fish shopping from your local butcher or fishmonger, or from a farm shop. Most people will show an interest, and it is definitely a nice conversation-starter. I think it’s important to do these things as it normalises these simple actions anybody can take and it definitely inspires other people to do the same!
As for any other products, try to choose alternatives that come in glass or cans rather than in a plastic container. Sometimes, it is quite hard to find a substitute in a widely recyclable packaging, but we have started compiling a list of what widely used products you can find in cardboard boxes, together with the brands and supermarkets that sell them in the UK, so check it there or our Facebook and Instagram pages for the latest updates and eco-friendly tips.
Once you are ready to head to the checkout, make sure you have a reusable bag handy. Here’s what we suggest:
- you could re-use an old plastic bag (the thicker the plastic, the better as they last a lot longer and there is no danger they will break easily under the weight of your shopping). Remember, reusing is absolutely essential for a truly plastic-free lifestyle!
- mesh shopping bags are quite flexible and even though they take nearly no space at all in your pocket or bag (so you can carry them with you at all time, making unplanned trips to the store even more accessible), they can fit a lot of stuff.
- Cotton totes also take up very little space and they are very resistant
- Alternatively, a backpack is always a great option, especially if you need to travel on crowded public transports or you are riding a bike back home!
2. How to store food
Ok, now you are home, and most of the things you have bought ideally come without plastic, so how do you store it?
Fruit and Veggies
There are some really useful tricks that will make your produce last for longer, and here are our top 3:
- Don’t store fruit and vegetables together, especially if you tend to pile them all together in your fridge drawers. This is not a great idea, as a lot of fruit releases ethylene gas which speeds up the riping process and can increase spoilage.
- Vegetables need space to breathe, so don’t pack them all together in a tight bunch. If you want to store them in bags, choose cotton mesh bags as they will allow air to flow and make them last longer.
- Don’t wash fruit and vegetables before storing them, only do it when you are ready to use them. This is because dampness fosters the growth of bacteria, and therefore speeds up decaying.
We have compiled specific tips for a lot of individual fruits and vegetables on our facebook page, so if you want to learn how to extend the lifespan of your tomatoes, garlic or broccoli, and we will post it on our blog very soon.
Fish and Meat
If you eat fish and/or meat, the best way to preserve them is to keep them in sealed containers. Raw meat and fish tend to spoil very quickly so I recommend either cooking it beforehand and then keep it in the fridge for a few days, or directly store each individual piece in the freezer and only take out the quantity you need just before using it. This way, it will last for months rather than days, avoiding unnecessary waste.
A great option to store leftovers in the fridge instead of using cling film (which is practically impossible to recycle) is to substitute it with one of these eco-friendly methods:
- Put food in a ceramic bowl and seal the top with a lid or another plate. Just make sure there is no gap between the two and that the bowl is carefully sealed by the lid.
- Tightly wrap a tea towel around your leftovers plate or bowl, again to protect it from air that can increase the speed of spoilage.
- Use beeswax wraps. When I discovered these, they soon became a very favourite of mine as not only they are a plastic-free, reusable alternative to cling film, but they can also be reused up to a year (sometimes longer) and are fully compostable at the end of life. They are made of cotton sheets soaked in beeswax wraps and other oils, which make them sticky, soft and flexible. And there are vegan ones too!
As you know though, the kitchen is not the only area in UK households where plastic usually run wild. One of the trickiest places to rid of plastic is perhaps our bathroom.
3. Is living without plastic in our UK bathrooms possible?
We really think so! I know what you are thinking: from shampoos to toothpaste, from make-up to moisturizers, everything seems to come in plastic when we talk about beauty and self-care. However, I have spent a year now researching for sustainable alternatives to get rid of all these single-use plastic packaged products, and I can guarantee you there is hope!
So here are some simple tips, some of which are completely free, that will help you ditch some (or maybe all) of the plastic that is currently probably living in your bathroom cabinet!
How to shower plastic-free
I haven’t had a single-use plastic bottle in my shower for the past year, and even though I was really scared it was going to cost me a fortune to buy plastic-free alternatives to commercial products, I soon realized that most products that are made with natural ingredients, handmade and sustainably produced also tend to be much better quality than supermarket stuff, so they also last much longer.
This is true not only for shampoos and handmade soaps, but also for sponges, soap dishes and many other things. I used to roll my eyes when my grandma use to tell us “Buy nice or buy twice”, but now I know exactly what she meant. And she was right. More often than now, spending just a couple pounds more for a good quality product will turn out to save a lot of money in the long run, as well as being a much better, more sustainable choice for our natural world and its future.
So what did I change? Well, some of the swaps were actually really easy and didn’t really create any need for adjustment, especially replacing liquid soap with solid soap bars (I particularly like these ones that come with a cotton string, so that you can easily hang them in the shower) as well as metal razor instead of plastic disposable ones for my shaving routine (and my husband’s too!). `I have to admit I was really scared to use this type of razor at the beginning but they are very similar to use to the regular plastic ones, plus they are long lasting and the blades are fully recyclable (make sure you get ones that are, as some brands still offer blades that can’t be recycled).
I also swapped shampoo with a solid bar (this was probably the step that took the longest to adjust, if you are struggling to use this type of product make sure you follow the steps I outlined in this blog post here) and substituted conditioner with and apple cider vinegar and water rinse. My hair has never looked better and I would definitely say that my hair care routine is probably costing me half of what I used to spend in the past, as well as not producing a single piece of plastic!
Some other easy swaps that won’t cost much are:
- Soap holders made of compostable materials: the best ones that don’t get mouldy and won’t retain water and go rotten are ones made of bamboo with a natural varnish, and those made out of coconut shells.
- Reusable cotton pads:a big mantra in our family us is to say no to "single-use" anything, not just plastic. We as a society have gotten used to extreme convenience and accessibility at all time, but some of these choices are actually incredibly detrimental for our natural world. Cotton is one of these examples. It takes a lot of water to grow it, so it is very important that to make this swap truly eco-friendly, that we stop treating it like a disposable product and use it for years and years. So ditch single-use cotton rounds and embrace these washable, long-lasting ones for your makeup and skincare routine.
- Natural, compostable sponges: there are so many better and still cheap alternatives to plastic puffs, from natural loofahs (basically a dried cucumber that makes a fantastic exfoliator!) to sisal scrubbers, to simple flannel cloths, the list is truly endless.
Oral care is probably where plastic consumption gets really tricky, as we all get worried that if we don’t use the right product, properly advertised on the telly, our teeth will all go rotten and our breath will probably kill the next person on the tube or bus..This is all created by the power of marketing, I have been using natural alternatives to commercial plastic dental products and a) I still have all my teeth b) haven’t had a single cavity during the entire time c) my breath is absolutely fine (if you don’t consider my regular addiction of garlic bread at any given time..) .
Substitutes are widely available, from natural toothpaste to whitening toothpowders, to mouthwash in tables all of which come in glass jars rather than plastic tubes or bottles. Some of these products are not much more expensive than regular commercial toothpastes, and they tend to last for a very long time too, however if you really want to go zero waste, here is a DIY toothpaste recipe you can make within seconds and that will cost you nearly nothing to make:
- 2 tbs organic coconut oil
- 1 tbs baking soda
- essential oil (optional, 10, 15 drops).
- Mix and use on toothbrush as regular toothpaste
There are also environmentally friendly types of dental floss for those willing to take an extra step but the easiest swap of all is probably to substitute your plastic toothpaste with a compostable one made of wood or bamboo (the latter is actually the one I prefer, as bamboo is naturally anti-fungal and antibacterial so it really helps to ensure higher standards of hygiene while still being eco-conscious.
So there you have it, some of the tips and tricks I have learnt myself throughout my journey towards a plastic-free, waste-free lifestyle. So, is living without plastic possible in the UK? Being able to completely ditch any type of plastic may be challenging and sometimes not even possible for most people, but we all have the power to change our lifestyle and stop our plastic addiction.
We can all make very significant changes that don’t cost much at all (and sometimes don’t even require any extra effort): whatever you do, even the smallest change is a step in the right direction and you should be proud of yourself for it!
What about you, what is your favorite plastic-free swap?
July 01, 2020
Thank you Fran your article has been so informative. I feel now we are in a position to do more to change our habits with the info re contacts available from you. Also lockdown has made us more aware of the amount of plastic we’re using. We rely on people for shopping for which we are very grateful and have been using supermarkets more. I already have an order placed with Earthbits, through whom I got access to your report. Really grateful. Christine McCallum