I was initially unsure about the idea, because I already try to reduce the amount of single-use plastic I buy and I wasn’t sure if there was much scope for reducing it further. Comments from family members (who are trying it all the same!) included “Sounds practically impossible” and “How on earth can you buy things like yoghurt?”
So I wasn’t starting with a very optimistic frame of mind, but the first day of Plastic-Free July came with a nice surprise: several people who said they’d like to join in with the idea after seeing our blog post and/or tweets about it. Now that a group of people are doing it together, we can share tips and support each other.
My sister in Australia got into super-organised mode the night before things began, with her first plastic-free grocery shop. “We reused old plastic bags for bread from the bakers and veggies from the grocers. Bought butter in paper instead of marg and have used the old marg tub for storage. Have immediately realised that it could be a healthy change as couldn’t buy biscuits!! Also looking at buying a second hand bread maker as we could do easy pizza and pasta dough then.”
She came up against the unexpected difficulty that a lot of cans in Australia are lined with BPA (a type of plastic). Do they avoid tinned food for a month or “cheat”?
On Twitter, the first issue that came up was buying milk. Alex from Oxford (@Velocentric on Twitter) signed up for doorstep deliveries as a way of avoiding plastic milk containers. My household increased the amount of milk we get delivered, but day 1 wasn’t a milk-delivery day so I had to decide what to do when we ran out. (Going without tea was not an option.)
In the end I reluctantly decided that buying soya milk in a Tetrapak container would be slightly better than buying regular milk in a 100% plastic container. (Tetrapaks are 75% paper and if you live in West Oxfordshire, you can put them in your recycling box for collection.) En route to the Co-op for my milk purchase, I popped in to The Little Shop to buy a birthday card – and realised afterwards that the card came in its own completely unnecessary plastic wrapper.
Fruit and vegetables
The easiest way of buying plastic-free fruit and vegetables is to get a weekly box with a supplier like Abel & Cole or Riverford. My household uses Abel & Cole and it is incredibly convenient to get all that heavy stuff delivered to your door, especially if you don’t drive.
But what if that’s not an option for you? Most supermarkets sell loose fruit and vegetables, but they tend to provide a little plastic bag for you to put these in (which can, of course, be reused if you remember to bring it next time). One Tesco shopper reports a bizarre thing in her local (London) store: there are paper bags specifically reserved for red onions, but for no other item! (The bags have LOOSE RED ONIONS written on them.) This shopper got round the plastics issue by putting all her purchases in the paper bags reserved for red onions. The woman on the checkout moaned about being confused but did let her purchases go through.
Supermarket fruit also gives rise to a rather irritating ethical dilemma: seasonal UK-grown soft fruit tends to be sold in plastic punnets, while the air-freighted apples from New Zealand or South Africa are sold loose. Do you cut out the plastic or cut down on the carbon? Neither option is ideal.
A third option is to head to Witney town centre on a Thursday or a Saturday and buy your fruit at the market. Strawberries are still sold in plastic punnets but they’re currently selling peaches loose and these are put in a paper bag for you. You might have to talk them out of putting the paper bag in a plastic bag, though!
Waitrose and the town-centre Co-op both sell bread loose, although in both cases the bags they provide for this are plastic, irritatingly designed to look like paper. However, these can be reused and checkout staff don’t seem to care which shop it says on the bag.
We’ve discovered that although sliced loaves aren’t sold unwrapped, both Waitrose and Sainsburys will happily slice a freshly-baked loaf for you and let you take it away in your own plastic or paper bag. (We can’t speak for all branches but this is definitely the case in the Witney branches of these stores.)
Gluten-free bread is another worry, because it always seems to come wrapped in even more plastic than regular bread. Oatcakes too; both Nairns and Waitrose own-brand come in a cardboard box but with individual plastic wrappers inside. The only plastic-free option we’ve found is to buy gluten-free flour (sold in paper bags in Waitrose and the Co-op) and make your own. Not very convenient, sadly.
Snacks and dips
Several people report suffering from crisp withdrawal symptoms, in the absence of any plastic-free alternative. Apparently one US manufacturer trialled a biodegradeable crisp packet but withdrew it when it became unpopular – proof, if proof were needed, that consumer pressure does work, even if it sometimes works the wrong way!
As for dips, I’ve given up buying little plastic tubs of houmous (for the rest of the month, anyway). However, Beanbag the health food store is selling jars of tahini for £3.74. The price seems a little eye-watering but that’s enough to make about 22 helpings of houmous. My back-of-an-envelope calculations of ingredient costs suggest that making your own houmous is slightly cheaper than buying individual tubs, though it’s much more time-consuming. And this is the problem that almost everybody reports this week: trying to live without plastic is more fiddly and time-consuming than a life that takes plastic for granted. Still, we’re not giving up just yet…
Inspired to join in? There’s no obligation to do the full month – you can make it a week if that’s more manageable. Check out the Plastic-Free July topic on the Sustainable Witney forum and do join in the conversation!