The Drastic No Plastic challenge: conclusions
I wandered along the shingle for a while, my steps uneven on the shifting ground, noticing just how much litter there was. Almost all of it was plastic. How ironic, I thought, that these single-use items are made from a material that lasts forever.
So much has changed since I wrote that passage in my book ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle.’ Though only three years ago, it felt then that raising awareness of plastic in our environment was like shouting into the void. But now, it’s mainstream, thanks in large part to Sir David Attenborough and Blue Planet. It’s normal to refuse a carrier bag at a supermarket. Some of my friends are giving up plastic for Lent. PG Tips have pledged to stop using plastic in their tea bags. Wetherspoons provides an alternative to plastic straws. It’s no longer the preserve of the hippy to demand unpackaged goods. I took part in PlasticFreebruary, the aim of which was to not accrue any single-use plastic for the month. I kept notes as I went, and here are my conclusions.
Bread: I couldn’t buy supermarket bread, and I didn’t like the bakers’ loaf, so I’ve started making my own. This will stick, I think; it’s delicious, cheap, and gives me an amazing sense of achievement. Helps that I work from home so I can keep an eye on it as it rises.
Refills: It’s so much easier to buy store-cupboard staples (lentils, dried fruit, nuts, snacks, rice etc) from whichever shop is closest (living on a boat, that is constantly changing), but I will make an effort to get refills from now on. I’m fortunate that there are two shops in Bath and plenty in Bristol that have a large range of refills, including herbs and spices.
Cleaning products: Washing-up liquid, hand soap and shampoo are all refillable, depending on where you live. Soap and shampoo also comes in bars. (I don’t actually wash my hair that often, so haven’t used shampoo this month. Great way to reduce your waste!)
Fruit and vegetables: only loose veg in paper bags will make it into my shopping basket from now on, with the exception of the occasional bag of spinach – I can’t live without spinach. The local market probably sells it loose, so I’ll look out for that. It tends to be the seasonal stuff that is unpackaged, which is a double positive – though sprouts can get boring after a while, eating local is a great way to reduce my impact upon the environment as well as put my cooking and inventiveness skills to the test.
Butter: if I ate dairy, I could buy real butter in greaseproof paper and keep it in a good old-fashioned dish at home. Unfortunately, vegan spreads come in a plastic container. I tried spreading coconut oil (comes in a glass jar) on my morning toast, but being rock solid (it is winter after all), it just didn’t work to my satisfaction. Anna 0, plastic 1.
Toilet and kitchen roll: ecoleaf use biodegradable packaging made from potato starch. This is a more expensive brand but it’s worth it – our money has power, and by spending it on what I believe in, I am doing my bit. Perhaps if those brands become more mainstream, they will also become cheaper.
Hummous: this is a staple of my vegan diet, so to avoid the disposable plastic pots it comes in, I have started to make my own: one can of drained chick peas, several splashes of lemon juice, large pinch of salt, squeeze of garlic paste, a tablespoon of tahini, and lots of olive oil. Cheaper, really easy, and just as delicious.
Tea: I tried tea leaves because of the plastic used to seal a tea bag. But this won’t last – the ‘leaves’ are so powdery that they seep out of the holes in my strainer. It’s a pain to make and it’s not great to drink. Anyway, the leaves themselves come in a plastic bag, so I’m not convinced I’m using less plastic by not buying tea bags. The bags that don’t use plastic (e.g. stapled bags) come individually wrapped in paper/plastic, or are really expensive. The good news is that PG Tips, the UK’s biggest supplier of tea, has said their bags will be made from 100% plant-based material by the end of the year. Hopefully all retailers will follow suit.
Crisps: I have really missed crisps, oat cakes, crackers, and all the things I usually snack on. The packaging of these goods is either plastic or an amalgamation of plastic and foil, and is non-recyclable. I limit my diet anyway (no animal products) so I don’t want to forgo everything I enjoy, meaning I’ll soon be back to my pre-challenge consumption levels of snacks, and the packaging will inevitably (unfortunately) end up in the bin.
Carrier bags: I always refuse a carrier bag when asked anyway, and take a reusable bag with me when I go shopping.
And that’s it. My shopping list is always pretty simple – without animal products, plastic is not quite so essential. My bin takes ages to fill as I put most of my waste in the recycling or compost. Although now it’s March, I’ve gone shopping for crisps. Loads of crisps. And crumpets. Pasta. Oat cakes. My shopping bag is full of plastic. I feel bad, but I want the crisps. Sorry.
There’s no denying that plastic is a remarkable invention. It is durable, waterproof, cheap to produce, and keeps food fresh. The energy used to make and recycle plastic goods is far lower than that of other materials such as tin and glass. But the trouble is, we don’t manage it properly. Plastics discarded into the environment gradually break down and infiltrate our eco systems, stifling our oceans and being ingested by plankton, fish, and ultimately, us. Plastic is everywhere and it never goes away. We merrily put our plastic waste out to be recycled, thinking we are doing our bit, but much of it goes straight to landfill. The answer is possibly not to rely on companies, councils and individuals to step up their levels and capacity for recycling. It’s possibly not to seek alternatives that take a greater amount of energy to produce. It is more likely the simple answer: stop using it in the first place. And with that in mind, I’ll conclude with the final sentence of that chapter in my book: ‘Recycle’ is such a buzz word these days; whatever happened to ‘reuse’ or ‘reduce’? We have made a promising start – let’s hope that the tide of change will continue to turn against plastic waste.