We all know that plastic waste is a huge problem. There’s so much of it, it never dies,* and if plastic waste ends up as litter, can be disastrous for the natural world.
I’ve already written about why I don’t think plastic use should be approached in isolation from other environmental problems, and why I don’t think that we should simply swap plastics for alternatives. So here’s how you can reduce plastic waste, without going insane, and without simply shifting from one environmental problem to another.
1. Eat more earth-friendly foods
Have you ever noticed that it’s often the most unsustainable foods that have the most plastic wrapping? Meat, dairy, junk food, ready meals, and out of season salad items are all big culprits. So, as well as asking ‘why is my food wrapped in so much plastic?’ we can also ask: ‘how is there salad items in the shops in mid winter?’ and ‘What is the environmental impact of air-freighting frozen lamb from New Zealand?’ Choosing food that is kinder to the earth is a win-win here.
2. Boycott unnecessary plastic packaging
Simply refuse to buy anything wrapped in unnecessary or excess plastic. While it can be difficult to get many essentials plastic free, it should be easier to avoid, say, ready chopped fruit and veg in plastic. You can also use your own bags to pick up things like loose fruit and veg, or bread rolls and pastries.
It’s tempting to simply switch from plastic wrapped to products packaged in paper, card, aluminium or glass, but bear in mind that any type of packaging material will have an environmental impact. Many alternatives to plastic involve higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions in their production and transport. Choosing things in ‘recyclable’ packaging can feel better, as you are avoiding the waste of the materials. But if we create the demand for packaging materials that increase carbon emissions in the atmosphere, we’ll just end up seeing more videos of starving polar bears.
3. Check out your nearest packaging-free store
If you have one of these near you, this a great way to reduce waste. Just take your own reusable bags and containers, and refill. At first glance they seem to be less convenient than supermarkets, but that’s the thing about buying in bulk – you don’t need to go there as often.
You can find your nearest packaging-free store here. Even if there are no shops local to you that allow you to buy food refills, most major towns in the UK have health food stores that allow you to refill bottles of washing up liquid and household detergents.
4. Refuse single use plastics
You already know how to avoid single use plastic bags, straws, bottles and cups, and with increasing options for refilling water bottles and many pubs and restaurants opting out of plastic straws, this has just become much easier. Just please don’t simply swap them for single use items made from paper and glass, as this is just to exchange one environmental problem for another. As for plastic toothbrushes, I’ve written about that here.
For single use plastic cutlery, you can either bring cutlery with you from home if you think you’ll need it, or if you regularly eat on the go, you can buy lightweight cutlery designed to be carried with you. Some places are switching to single-use cutlery made from wood, but I’m not sure that this is any better for the environment, so it’s probably best to avoid single use altogether if you can.
5. Take your tea without plastic
As you’ve probably heard by now, teabags contain plastic. At first this seems rather annoying, but I have to say that tea brewed with loose leaf tastes far better in my view. Of course, this is only an issue if you are aiming to compost your teabags – if they go to landfill or are incinerated, there isn’t much benefit in sourcing plastic free tea. But if composting is feasible for you, then that would be the gold star option.
There are a number of options for plastic free teabags, but it’s important to factor in the way that the tea is produced as well as it’s biodegradability. The great thing about composting tea is that it returns nutrients to the earth instead of wasting them, but spare a thought for the wellbeing of the ecosystems where the tea is sourced and consider buying tea that is certified as sustainably grown. If you have somewhere near you that sells carefully sourced, loose leaf tea that you can buy in your own bags or containers, that’s amazing. But if not, look out for loose leaf tea which has been grown with high standards. Clipper Teas do loose leaf tea which is certified both organic and fair trade, and teas certified by the Rainforest Alliance will also be kinder to people, animals and the planet. Supermarket loose tea may come with packaging, but (if your budget will allow it) there is more social and environmental benefit to to buying tea which has been grown with high standards than there is to sourcing it packaging-free.
Switching to loose leaf may require investing in some new equipment. Personally, I love my morning tea ritual involving my favourite pot, but this isn’t always convenient every time you want to grab a brew. If you prefer to make tea in a cup you may want to consider one of these, or something similar.
6. Plastic free toilet paper and tissues…..?
Keep in mind that single use paper products are not exactly gentle on the environment, so consider using hankies and cloths instead of paper tissues and kitchen roll.
If plastic free recycled toilet paper is too expensive or troublesome to source, then picking up plain old recycled toilet paper from wherever you usually shop will have more environmental benefit than buying virgin paper toilet roll without plastic wrapping.
7. Use bars rather than liquids
A plastic free hack to make life easier is using solid bars of hygiene products like soap, shampoo, hair conditioner and deodorant. My guess is that once you’ve made the switch you won’t want to go back. These save money and hassle by lasting longer, take up less storage space if you buy them in bulk, and, in my view, look more elegant than plastic bottles emblazoned with ugly brand names. Liquid hygiene products are mostly just water anyway, which means that buying bar soaps not only saves money and plastic, but will also mean co2 savings – think how much carbon emissions it takes to transport liquid around.
Lush is a great high street destination for solid hygiene products, many of which are palm oil free (check labels) or Holland and Barratt do palm-oil free soaps. I’m currently using a bar of Lush hair conditioner that I’ve had for two and a half years, and looks as if it has at least another 6 months to go. Any extra effort and expense involved in sourcing solid products will be more than repaid.
It’s all about the beauty of choice reduction – walk into your nearest chemists and there will be approximately 130 different types of deodorant to choose from, all promising to treat your armpits to something an extra bit special compared to the next. But how much time do you want to spend purchasing deodorant? There are not that many options for packaging-free deodorants, so you can just buy several hundred grams of the stuff to last for months and not have to think about it again.
To save more money and reduce your impact further, see if you can find a way of storing these without buying anything new, either by re purposing things you already have around the place, or seeing what you can pick up at your local charity shop. I keep mine on seashells.
8. Demand policies that encourage a more circular economy
It’s true that plastic can’t be recycled forever, and that recycling alone is not an adequate response to the over consumption of resources and culture of throwawayism. But I’m not sure that it’s possible or desirable to eliminate the use of plastics altogether. So, as well as policies to reduce the use of plastic, we also need to make it easier to recycle and ensure that the recycled materials are used to meet future needs. Perhaps time to let your local council and your MP know how you feel.
- Ok, so more accurately, no-one really knows how long plastic takes to biodegrade, or even if it does it all. Probably centuries if not millennia.