Going without: Plastic

22nd April 2018

Plastic is everywhere, and incorporated into everything we do. But only a third of it is recycled, and the remaining two-thirds are either sent to landfill or burnt. As a part of The Overtake’s Earth Week, I’m taking the challenge of cutting out all single-use plastic from my life. This will most frequently involve changes to my food consumption and purchasing habits, but I thought I could handle it.

Despite starting my challenge on 1 April, this is no joke. I’ve always been a fairly good citizen — recycled my cardboard and taken my glass to the bottle bank. I think of myself as pretty “green” and I’m a big fan of Blue Planet II if that tells you anything about me. So cutting out any single-use plastic from my life shouldn’t be too hard, should it?

Week 1

The first thing I realised was that the convenience of doing an online Asda shop makes you lazy. So there I lay, fridge empty, waiting for an unordered, plastic-covered shop to arrive. Eventually, I realised my error and got my arse off the sofa and to my local Sainsbury’s.

Everything was fucking plastic

I quickly encountered a problem. Apples: plastic. Mushrooms: plastic. Pizza: plastic. Muffins: plastic. Half price mini eggs: plastic. Everything was fucking plastic.

fake butter
“Butter” ingredients

Finding out that Britain’s leading supermarkets produce more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year did not surprise me.

Luckily enough, Leeds supermarket chain Abu Bakr stocks veg that is free to breathe the open air, so I did my shop there. Taking my backpack with me meant I was free to refuse the offered carrier bag. The day had turned out well, and it is key to find your nearest greengrocers or plastic-free veg shop to make the biggest changes to your lifestyle.

My first mistake was the next morning. I rose early, only to find that we had no bread. No morning toast. Unable to function, I groggily walked to Sainsbury’s and grabbed the first loaf of Hovis that looked my way. I had half-accidentally, half-didn’t-caringly, broken the rules. When even bread in paper bags has a little plastic window, it’s hard to avoid it.

Having to plan every meal meticulously got pretty stressful at times

As I also don’t eat dairy, earlier I had set about making my own dairy-free butter, spending £10 on glass-bottled ingredients to make a plastic-and-dairy-free alternative. Once home, I attempted to spread my homemade “butter” onto my perfectly toasted toast. What actually happened looked like something out of a horror movie. The bread ripped to shreds, unable to cope with how solid my ironically named “spread” was. It didn’t taste great either, to be honest. Maybe I’ll use it in baking.

Having to plan every meal meticulously got pretty stressful at times, and finding plastic-free alternatives can be a little expensive. But there are already areas where you can make an easy change. Vegetables, for instance, are often cheaper at markets, and you can bring your own canvas bag or reuse a bag for life to carry them. Planning is key to committing to this lifestyle, and I had to improve if I wanted to make a dent in the 91% of plastic that is not recycled.

Week 2

wrap
Who knew I’d be so excited to see foil?

It feels like I have been doing this for much more than a week. And so far, I’ll admit, I’ve been coasting along a little, buoyed by stocks of plastic-covered foods that lingered in my cupboards and freezer from a time before I was trying to be plastic-free. Also, I’m not ever, ever, going to turn down an offer of a Dorito or Minstrel that someone else has bought, because I’m not silly.

The most exciting part of my week was getting shampoo (isn’t it everyone’s?). I found an independent stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market which also sold bars of shampoo for a price comparable to its bottled cousin, and with 100% less plastic. And when 10 million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year, I’ll happily trade in that set of Lynx shampoo I got for Christmas for some happier turtles.

I found myself at the checkout of my Sainsbury’s Local with armfuls of plastic goods

On Thursday, though, I cracked. It all got too much. I’d used up most of my supplies from the market that I had gathered on Monday, and had absolutely nothing in for dinner. I’d also gone too long without a brew, as teabags are made with plastic and loose leaf just isn’t that nice.

I found myself at the checkout of my Sainsbury’s Local with armfuls of plastic goods. Houmous, pastry twirls, crisps, and most importantly, a big old box of teabags. It’s quite hard to snack without plastic, so I felt very little guilt about my decision until the food was all eaten, and my bin was as full as my belly.

Greggs is a great plastic-free breakfast, lunch and/or dinner!

Some changes are quite easy to make, like making your own sandwiches rather than buying a meal deal, or choosing a can of San Miguel at the bar rather than going for a freshly pulled pint of Three Swords because it’s served in a plastic pint glass when there’s a gig on. Some changes, I was evidently still struggling to adjust to.

Week 3

By this week, I was really getting into the swing of things. The week flew by, and a big old shop for my veggies at Leeds’ Kirkgate Market set up a week’s worth of meals. I’m not sure if it was because the end was in sight, or I was just more comfortable with the shortcuts I was taking, but I felt good. Yes, I was still eating my plastic-packaged rice and admittedly I was gifted a pack of plastic-wrapped Quorn sausages, but I was doing my bit.

Market
Kirkgate Market became a lifelong friend

Ultimately, this week I realised what it all comes down to: doing the best you can. At the end of the day, I can’t afford to spend £24 on 24 rolls of plastic-free toilet paper from whogivesacrap, but I had changed out my shampoo, so I’ve done something. Stopping getting meal deals has also been an easy change to make, as well as swapping out my Clingfilm for tin foil.

Supermarkets need to do far more to help customers to reduce their waste

 

picnic
A plastic-free picnic!

It has also become apparent that supermarkets need to do far more to help customers to reduce their waste. With half of all plastic ever created being made in the past 13 years, we as a society need to make some serious changes, starting in supermarkets and places that use plastic on such a scale. The same goes for the basics, your pasta and your rice that I’ve been banging on about it. Also, while you’re here, check out this petition to remove plastic packaging from crisps.

 

Also worth checking out for wasted food are the TooGoodToGo app, Rainbow Junk-tion or your local The Real Junk Food Project, which all work to tackle the enormous amount of perfectly edible wasted food that ends up in landfill.

There are definitely parts of this challenge that I will keep up after my three weeks have ended, but I will relish in buying normal loaves of Warburtons, as bakeries charged me as much as three quid a loaf, and I’ll be stocking up on pasta and rice. But I think that bars of shampoo will be regularly used, and I’ll try to go to the market as much as possible, for the cheaper and plastic-less veg. Flexibility is key to making the most of this challenge, as is knowing your limitations. There’s always something you can do.

Greenpeace’s verdict

Fiona Nicholls, Greenpeace campaigner, says: “In the words of Aretha Franklin, I’ve got nothing but R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for Ben for giving up single-use plastics for three weeks. I’m not a bit surprised you found it tough. There’s pointless, single-use plastic all around us and, when you think that a truckload of plastic is entering our oceans every single minute, we’re left with no option but to take action.

“Ben’s stellar efforts will have certainly made a dent in his personal plastic footprint (yes that’s a thing), and if he combines this with making noise about his challenge (get tweeting at your local supermarket for offering no plastic-free pasta!) — then his impact will only increase. I hope some of the plastic-free habits stick Ben, time to treat yourself to a fancy reusable bottle and make it a lifelong pal.”

22nd April 2018