Once You See It You Can’t Un-See It
Did you know it is estimated that only 9% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled? I first heard this statistic on the Netflix Series ‘Broken’, episode entitled “Recycling Sham” and it nearly blew my mind! A quick Google search shows a few different sources of that information, which seem credible (National Geographic) and (Research Gate). Whether you believe this particular statistic or not, there is no denying that we are in a plastic-fuelled environmental mess!
I’m not going to lecture on the reasons why we should be reducing our plastic consumption – there’s plenty of information already out there. BBC’s War on Plastics is a good starting point.
As a family we have always been pretty good at recycling and for a long time we thought we were doing our bit for the environment but for whatever reason, some months ago, we became more and more aware of the amount of waste that we were producing as a household, whether recyclable or not. We set about, pretty casually at first, to reduce the amount of waste that we generated, with plastic at the forefront of the challenge. But once we began, we couldn’t stop. I would say I have become slightly obsessed with trying to do better and better.
To be clear, we are just a normal family that enjoys a nice lifestyle and has typically favoured convenience where possible in our day-to-day life. I wouldn’t go as far as to say we are now “plastic free” because that is virtually impossible currently, but we have massively made an impact to our plastic consumption. And for the most part we have managed this without major impact to our lifestyle or finances. I wanted to share our experience so that others interested in reducing their plastic waste can do so more easily than we did – we’ve done a lot of the learning already! Below you will find actionable tips and “tried and tested” product recommendations so you don’t have to go to the expense or inconvenience of making some of the mistakes that we have whilst on the hunt for more eco-friendly alternatives.
The Quick Wins
- Buy Condiments in Glass Jars
This one seems like a no-brainer, but we had been buying plastic containers out of habit and availability on the supermarket shelves. Jam, honey, table sauces, cooking oils, etc are all (mostly) widely available in glass containers (I did have to go to a couple of stores to find brown sauce in a glass bottle though). This one takes no more than a few seconds to make the swap! Glass is much more recyclable than plastic generally but is also easier to reuse or repurpose so it doesn’t always need to go in the recycling – the jars can be used for other types of storage once the product is used up – small screws, nuts and bolts for example (or take them along to a refill shop – see below).
I will admit that some of the glass containers are a bit messier, honey from a glass jar instead of a squeezy container, for example, but this is a very small inconvenience when weighed up with the benefit.
TIP: We’ve started using the plungers that come with kids’ medicine bottles to move the honey from the glass jar – no more sticky spills round the edges and it puts the masses of redundant medicine plungers that clutter up the cutlery drawer to good use!
- Buy Loose Where Possible
For me, this is one of the easiest but most frustrating swaps possible. Our local supermarket is Asda (Ballyclare) and virtually every fresh product that it sells is wrapped in plastic. However, the Tesco in Glengormley (Northcott) has been providing more and more loose products over the last few months. So, I voted with my feet and now do most of my food shopping in Northcott. Asda is only used for emergency top-up type shops and even then, I’ll do my best to select fruit and veg that comes in its own natural wrapper (i.e. it’s skin) – melon for example.
Credit to Tesco in Northcott (but not all Tesco stores – the large Tesco store in Newtownabbey only a few miles away isn’t much better than our local Asda), I can now get pretty much every type of fruit and veg that I would commonly buy without packaging – apples, oranges, courgettes, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, onions, pears, limes, tomatoes (and of course bananas, melon, pineapple and the like that already come in a natural wrapper). Grapes and berries – favourites in my house – still come in plastic punnets currently though, as do salad vegetables like lettuce and cucumber.
I’ve purchased reusable organic cotton produce bags for collecting and storing the loose produce in (just google “reusable organic cotton produce bags” and you’ll find loads of options, but actually I now tend to just bring the same cardboard box and collect the produce in it for taking to the till and onward.
In most cases the fruit and veg is of comparable quality – the only thing I’ve really had any issue with is broccoli; it doesn’t keep very well without the plastic wrapper (although I’m told it keeps fresh if you cut the end off the broccoli and stand it in a bowl of water in the fridge – will be trying this next time I buy one). Loose can sometimes (not always) be slightly more expensive than the wrapped alternative unfortunately (I am noticing this change already) BUT I think it is really important to purchase loose produce where possible to show the supermarkets that there is a demand so that in the future the loose product becomes the norm!
A huge benefit of buying loose is that you can just purchase what you need so there tends to be less waste overall too. Instead of being forced to buy 12 carrots in a plastic bag, I can now choose to purchase just five if I so wish. The amount of uneaten fresh produce in my house has dramatically decreased.
I’ve also recently learned that pretty much every teabag on the market is sealed closed with plastic – so we are actually consuming microplastics every time we have a cuppa! I’ve moved to loose leaf tea with a strainer. I have this one from Whitard and also this on Amazon. Unfortunately my favourite loose leaf tea still comes in a plastic wrapper but others are available in cardboard packs.
- Buy Canned Goods Where There is the Option
It’s quite unbelievable to me that in very recent years, foods such as beans, spaghetti and soup have started being packaged in plastic containers instead of the traditional tin can. The tins are still available so just make a conscious decision to lift the tins rather than the plastic alternative. And try, where possible to buy the individual tins rather than the multi-packs that come bound together in plastic. Again, there is usually a slight price differential here (unbelievably!) but buying the tins and buying loose sends a message to the supermarkets that we don’t want the plastic packaging! Tins of beans and the like are very often on offer for multi-purchases which makes them the same price as the plastic multi-pack so just stock up when the offer is on. I’ve heard on the news just this week that Tesco has announced it will no longer sell multi packs of Heinz products in plastic – hooray for progress!
This rule also applies to fizzy drinks – always opt for a can instead of a bottle.
- Avoid Single Use Everything!
Plastic carrier bags, straws, cutlery, takeaway coffee cups…none of these things are even necessary! Either cut them out completely or be prepared with alternatives. Just carry your own cutlery, refillable coffee cup and refillable water bottle – keep them at your desk or in your car – how simple is that?!
And never leave the house without a reusable shopping bag (you can get foldable ones here).
Metal straws, like these ones are handy.
Refillable Drinks Bottles: Another mindset shift and a no-brainer (once you actually think about it) is swapping single use drinks bottles for refillable. I am guilty of buying small juice bottles for my son’s lunch box in the past and really there was no need at all. I now just refill a bottle for him every night to take to school. Better for the environment and much, much cheaper. If you do just one thing to reduce your plastic consumption, choose tap water over bottled! If you want to know why watch this video by ‘The Story of Stuff Project’.
Wipes: Did you know that most kinds of single-use wipes are around 80% plastic – babywipes, surface cleaning wipes, facial cleansing wipes? Since I learnt this, I’ve banned wipes altogether! Babywipes were a ‘go-to’ in my house for everything from cleaning kids faces to cleaning shoes. Now we have a facecloth (that’s a ’flannel’ to our English friends) permanently on the kitchen radiator that is used for cleaning sticky kids’ hands and faces. If you are a compulsive babywipe user (like I was), you will be amazed at the number of times you will reach for a wipe completely unnecessarily but out of habit if you really think about it.
Facial cleansing wipes were also a firm favourite in my house too – in fact this was one habit I found more difficult to break. You can get reusable make up remover pads (just do an online search and you’ll find them; these are the ones I bought but I find they don’t do a good enough job on eye make-up. I now use the biodegradable wipes from Simple. According to the Simple website, its biodegradable wipes, which are made from “sustainably-sourced wood pulp and plant fibres” take just 42 days to biodegrade (apparently “better than grapefruit peels, melon peels and onions”). Not a perfect solution I know but definitely better than the standard wipes.
Here’s a few other easy single-use swaps:
- Ice Cream: Buy takeaway ice cream in a cone instead of a plastic tub with plastic spoon (another one I was guilty of until recently!)
- Lunch on the Go: Try, if you can, to opt for a freshly prepared sandwich, pasta or salad from a deli counter, rather than a pre-packed sandwich from a filling station or supermarket – more than likely a lot healthier too.
- You can even bring your own reusable tub to butchers, instead of opting for their packaging.
And a few more plastic alternative swaps (but longer use, rather than single):
- Cardboard Food Swaps: Dried foods such as pasta, rice and cereals can often be found in cardboard rather than plastic. Although I was horrified to learn the price difference for Uncle Ben’s rice in a cardboard packet compared with Asda’s own brand in plastic (£4.20 per kg for Uncle Ben’s versus £1.77 per kg for Asda’s own) – not a financially viable swap in my opinion! Check out the options available and weigh it up if you can.
- Washing Powder: Buy washing powder in cardboard packaging instead of plastic liquid containers or ‘liquid-tab’ tubs.
One other thing that is probably a ‘no brainer’ but sometimes we just need reminded of these things – always cut old tubes (e.g. moisturiser) open to get the last of the product out. It always surprises me how much gets left in there!
Packing & Wrapping Swaps
There are various alternatives to tin foil and cling film. Reusable is always the better option. As well as good old Tupperware containers (and you can get metal or glass containers with lids similar to plastic tupperware). I highly recommend the following:
- Beeswax wraps – I bought these ones but there are quite a few on the market now and you can even buy beeswax bars or beeswax pellets to make your own.
- Silicon stretch lids – these are amazing (maybe even lifechanging) – no more hunting for the matching Tupperware lid!
Gift Wrapping: Good old cellotape – another thing we use without any thought for the plastic pollution it causes. And most wrapping paper isn’t recyclable either, because it can have a plastic coating or a glitter design (yes glitter is another plastic nightmare – one of the worst actually because it is microplastic) and, even if the paper doesn’t contain plastic, generally the grade of paper is too poor to go through a typical paper recycling plants’ machinery.
So, this swap requires a slight change of mindset but for wrapping gifts this Christmas I used brown paper and paper tape or “washi” tape (in fact I didn’t even buy brown paper, I reused paper packaging that my online orders arrived wrapped in). The paper tape I bought can be found here. Just do your research properly on this one because a lot of paper tape and brown paper isn’t actually recyclable because of the glue used or because the paper has a plastic coating. If you look online you can find many creative alternatives to traditional wrapping paper that can look just as pretty.
Going Back To Tradition
Whatever happened to the humble bar of soap? This is another example of a traditional product that just got replaced over the last 10-20 years, to the point of near extinction. Soap bars were replaced by shower gels in plastic bottles without us really even noticing – these bottles just became the norm. But bars are making a comeback and not just for everyday soap.
I have tried a couple of different shampoo bars (shampoo that comes in a solid bar inside a little metal tin). This Soul & Soap one is the one I have now made a permanent swap to. I like the peppermint and tea tree personally, but I’ve smelt a couple of the others and they are lovely too. I also have the Shine On solid conditioner bar and I think it will be a permanent swap as well. Don’t be put off by the price of these as they last for ages since a very small amount goes a long way. The only downside here is that there is a postage charge for orders under £35 which makes each bar more expensive if you order as you need. Now that I’ve found the one I like (and converted my sister too) we’ll place an order for a few bars at a time to avail of the free postage going forward. I did also try this shampoo bar during my search for an alternative but I didn’t like it as it seemed to leave a residue on my hair.
I have also seen dishwashing soap bars, but I haven’t tried any yet (and the ones I have seen look very expensive).
A few more return-to-tradition options to consider:
- Use matches instead of plastic lighters.
- Buy a nice metal pen that can be refilled instead of multiple cheap plastic, throwaway pens.
- Not totally plastic related but purchase a few reusable handkerchiefs instead of single use tissues…you’ll look fancy too! 😉
- Replace plastic disposable razors with metal reusable ones. I’ve gone for a subscription service to one of these. They offer a ‘closed loop’ type of recycling system where you return the used blades to them for separation and recycling (find out more about the recycling scheme here. You could go one better and opt for a stainless steel safety razor but that’s not for me! Or like my husband you could abandon shaving altogether and grow a beard! lol
DIY Bread Baking: One other tradition I want to mention is the art of making our own bread. I’m not talking about kneading and baking from scratch – I have recently invested in a Morphy Richards bread maker that does it all for you – all you need to do is chuck all the ingredients in and click a few buttons. Not only is this really handy and very cost-effective but it cuts down on all the plastic bread wrappers.
DIY Cosmetics & Household Cleaners: On this subject, there is a movement currently of people returning to making their own cosmetics and household cleaners with natural ingredients using baking soda, vinegar, tea tree oil, lemon, coconut oil. These are things that I hope to try next – maybe I’ll keep you posted.
There are many refillable options now available on the market – either from refill shops that are popping up around the place or via online subscriptions.
Local Refill Stores: I know of the Refill Quarter in East Belfast and The Larder just outside Ballymena. You can bring your own containers to these shops to get all sorts of packaging free products from food items to household cleaning products. They are also always open to suggestions for items they should stock. I’ve contacted the Refill Quarter, for example, to ask about the possibility of them stocking cordial (“dilutey juice” in my house) and this is something they are already looking into currently with a local cordial supplier so I can’t wait for that.
Koh® Universal Spray Cleaner: I’m also a massive fan of the Koh spray. It’s not plastic-free (although I believe they are working on minimising packaging) but it’s still much better than shop bought single use cleaning products. Koh® is a universal cleaning product that is toxin free and once sprayed, it converts to “a harmless carbonate mineral water that is near ph neutral and inert”. And it really does work! My bottle of Koh has pretty much replaced every cleaning product in my house.
Refillable Deodorant: Wild Deodorant is a natural deodorant that I have been using. I’m not going to go into lots of detail on this because it has already been well covered here but my main reason for trying this out is because they are set to launch a refillable applicator case in March this year (I’m on the waiting list for one of the first ones off the production line).
Some other plastic free products I have tried are as follows:
- Toothpaste: This is the most financially viable plastic free toothpaste I have found (all others are crazy prices that I just couldn’t justify). However, it’s just OK in my opinion. Chewing a tablet instead of using a paste takes a little getting used to but my main issue with these tablets is that they didn’t leave my mouth feeling fresh. I would reconsider if the flavour was made stronger in future (my three year old liked these though because of the mildness of the flavour).
- Chewing Gum: I love my chewing gum – another product that we consume regularly that actually contains plastic! I’ve tried Chewsy, a plant-based, plastic free gum. I bought a packet of spearmint and a packet of lemon to try and both tasted really good (the lemon surprisingly so). However, the flavour didn’t last long and a few times the gum felt like it was sticking to my teeth. At £1.39 for a packet it’s not overly expensive but then there’s a £3.95 postage and packaging charge (free delivery is only available for orders over £50 which is a lot of chewing gum!). I would consider buying this again in future, particularly if it was available locally and not solely by post. I’ve just this week come across True Gum. I’m waiting for my order to arrive, which I hope will hit the mark. It’s slightly more expensive at £2.50 per pack (although there is a subscription option that discounts it to £1.90) and postage is free for over £3.
Other links that might be of interest:
Lesser Known Recycling Tips
Did you know that more than just garden and food waste can be composted? The following are just a few items that can go in the compost bin:
- Dust from sweeping floor (as long as there is no plastic in it)
- Used tissues, napkins, kitchen roll and paper towels
- Pizza and egg boxes
Soft Plastic Bags
Many supermarkets take these for recycling. Locally, Lidl in Ballyclare has a plastics recycling bin that you can put plastic carrier bags, bread loaf bags, some freezer bag packaging (look for the “recycle with bags at larger stores” message on the packaging) and even bubble wrap into.
There are a number of teracycle schemes operating that take difficult to recycle items. Check Terracycle for more information of schemes in your area.
Pen Recycling: One that I found really interesting was a plastic pen recycling scheme in conjunction with BIC. All writing instruments (except for wooden pencils and chalk) are accepted, including any brand of pen, felt tip, highlighter, marker, correction fluid pot, correction tape, mechanical pencil and eraser pen regardless of their composition. There are BIC® Community Champion locations across the UK where pens can be dropped off to. Locally we have Eden Primary School in Carrickfergus and Hazelwood Integrated Primary School in Newtownabbey. For the record, I will happily take writing implements from you for storage and then drop off to one of the collection points.
The Body Shop Return. Recycle. Repeat Scheme
You can take any empty, clean cosmetics packaging (bottles, tubs, tubes or pots) into participating The Body Shop stores to be recycled (they don’t need to be Bodyshop brand or originally purchased from the Body Shop). Unfortunately, the only participating stores in Northern Ireland are Newry and Foyleside, but again, I would be more than happy to store and drop off containers periodically for anyone that is interested in joining up with me on this.
Drawbacks of Going Plastic Free
- Some of these changes do require a slight change in buying behaviour and/or lifestyle but so far I haven’t found any that have been anything more than a mild inconvenience.
- Some of these products are, unfortunately, more expensive because the companies producing them don’t have the economies of scale yet.
- A lot of the products are only available online currently. This can be less convenient when you need something immediately and may not be the most environmentally friendly option when travel carbon footprint is factored in. Postage costs are also a bit of a problem so you may need to buy in bulk (once you’ve ascertained that you like the product).
Other Benefits of Going Plastic Free
- Being able to buy smaller quantities of loose food product ultimately results in less food waste.
- A lot of the options cited in this article offer additional “eco” benefits, e.g. cruelty free, sustainably sourced ingredients, etc.
- Using many of these products also means that you are choosing more natural ingredients, rather than mass-produced products that use synthetic ingredients so there are likely wider health benefits.
- Many of these options support small (and mainly ethical) businesses, rather than lining the pockets of large corporations.
I know not all of these solutions are perfect and don’t all take transport carbon footprint, palm oil and other ingredients, water used during production, etc into consideration (although I am more and more aware of these issues too) but if we are solely focused on reducing or eliminating plastic (specifically single use) then they are all really doable lifestyle changes and products swaps.
So, Where’s the Proof?
Well I can confidently say that my household’s waste in general has reduced significantly but our non-recyclable waste is nearly eradicated. The only non-recyclable waste we now have are plastics that cannot be recycled and even this is very minimal. Our general waste bin can be emptied every other week by the council, but we can now go four or more bin cycles (8-10 weeks) without needing to put our black bin out. We have also stopped using bin liners in our kitchen bin because it doesn’t contain anything that requires a liner since all food waste is composted – again negating the requirement for a single use plastic bag.