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Last month, I joined a worldwide movement to reduce and eliminate my use of plastic. Plastic Free July originated in Australia, but it has spread across the globe as people become increasingly aware of the devastating effects of plastic, especially single-use plastic, on our ecology.
For one whole month I committed to not buying anything packaged in plastic. I avoided stockpiling before the month began, but I did allow myself to use up items I already had as the alternative would be wasteful. It took a fair amount of organisation, determination and forethought. Here are the 10 lessons that I learnt along the way.
1. Be prepared
A bit of forward planning and a few purchases will smooth the way to lessening the plastic in your life. My most used and useful investments have been a portable cutlery set, metal straws, beeswax paper, paper food bags, net produce bags, a charcoal filter water bottle and reusable coffee cup (also used for juices and tea).
When going out I made sure I had the items I needed so I wasn’t caught short. Doing without meant I pretty quickly started remembering. Travel snacks were something I always planned ahead for – they’re not easy to get without plastic so healthy homemade muffins became a staple on the go.
2. Take your own containers and bags
Carrying a small reusable shopping bag that fits into a pouch whenever you leave the house means you won’t need to accept a plastic bag for an impromptu purchase. For food shopping it’s worth taking plastic-lidded containers, produce bags, a cooler bag and plenty of sturdy shopping bags. They don’t have to be heavy or bulky when nestled into each other, and they will greatly reduce your single-use plastic.
3. Scope out good local suppliers
A butcher, fishmonger, grocer, market vendor and baker are all much more likely to supply you with food that isn’t overly packaged. Meat and fish stay fresher in paper than they do in plastic, and you can temporarily put the package in Tupperware for the journey home. Fruit and veg will almost always come in a paper bag if you buy them in the greengrocer or market.
4. Watch out for evenings and weekends
There are fewer shops to choose from at these times, so make sure you’ve got your supplies before your usual places close. I had to resort to the small chain mini-supermarket one Sunday night, and I assumed I wouldn’t get much that wasn’t heavily packaged. I was surprised to find there was still a reasonable range of loose fruit and vegetables. I didn’t get exactly what I’d gone in for, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the produce, and I opted for tins and glass over plastic to put together a meal.
5. Find a zero-waste shop
There’s a growing trend for zero-waste shops offering food that’s free from packaging – usually dry goods like pasta, rice and other grains, pulses, flour, coffee, spices, oats and other cereals. You take your containers, weigh out what you need, et voilà, zero waste. They also tend to offer a variety of other household products such as toilet roll packaged in paper, beauty and hygiene products in glass jars, and refills for cleaners and detergents. If you don’t have one locally then there are widely available workarounds, with some brands offering less plastic packaging than others. For example, Quaker Oats can be bought in a cardboard box, as can Barilla pasta, although the latter does have a small plastic window. Zero-waste stores in London include Harmless Store, Bulk Market and Zero Waste Shop.
6. Check out your local health food shop
Health food shops often have alternatives to a plastic-fuelled lifestyle, such as bamboo toothbrushes, ketchup and fruit juices in glass bottles, and packaging-free soap. They may also supply refills for cleaning products. It’s easy to miss these things when you’re not looking for them, so it’s worth revisiting your local store with this in mind.
7. Look for alternatives
Buy soap bars instead of liquid hand soap, swap your shampoo and conditioner bottles for bars (try Lush where you can refill their handy tins month after month), and source toothpaste and deodorant in a jar. Reusable beeswax paper makes a good alternative to cling film. If you don’t have a local supplier, draw up a list of what you need in order to save on postage and visit an eco shop online. Ethical Superstore, Georganics and The Natural Deodorant Company are among the eco-friendly online options.
8. Get it delivered
A local milkman is the ultimate solution to getting your dairy as the bottles are taken back, cleaned and reused, thus avoiding the whole recycling process, which in itself uses resources. It’s a bit trickier if you’re dairy-free. Some bulk stores sell plant milk in returnable glass bottles or you can make your own. Tetra Pak cartons are mostly recyclable, although they do still contain some plastic, so it’s ideal if they can be avoided. Want to try making your own dairy-free milk? Check out our guide to easy nut and oat milk recipes.
For fruit and vegetables, Riverford, Farm Drop and Abel & Cole are just three of the many schemes available for getting produce delivered to your door. If you’re a fan of online food shopping, you know how easy it is to get tempted into impulse buys. Fruit and veg boxes can seem expensive, but I found that I ultimately bought less and the quality of the produce was better, which brings me on to the next point…
9. Don’t assume it’s going to cost you more
Visiting small local shops can sometimes be more expensive, but when I started reusing items and avoiding certain products just because they’re in plastic I found there were plenty of savings to be made. Many coffee shops will give you a discount if you take in your own cup. My local falafel and salad market stall even gives me 50p off for taking my own plastic container. I found I bought less – yogurts and desserts especially – as I could rarely find them in glass containers. I scratch-made foods I would usually buy like hummus, and snack bars were replaced with homemade bakes, which cost a matter of pence rather than a pound each.
10. Be prepared to go without and get creative
Embrace less choice and take it as an opportunity to get creative with your cooking and your resources. If going without seems a step too far then make and take your own snacks when you go out, and learn to make the things you love so you don’t need to buy them in plastic packaging. An ecologically minded friend grows her own berries (they’re hard to source without plastic) and makes yogurt. Don’t focus on deprivation and place the emphasis on being part of a community who are making changes that benefit the environment and the local economy.
What I've learned...
Now that my plastic-free month has finished I believe I have learnt habits that will stick. The extra thought and effort haven’t cost me a thing, but I feel better about my consumption in a world that’s struggling to keep up.
My recycling bin reduced to an eighth of what it would usually be and most of those plastics were leftovers being used up, or packaging that found its way into my house from friends or a mistaken online purchase. Sometimes we can feel like our efforts are only a drop in the ocean, but if we all make one or two changes the collective effects will be reflected in our oceans and land for years to come.
Want even more ways to cut down on kitchen waste? Check out our other guides...
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