As I posted last week, pretty much on a whim I decided to challenge myself to go as plastic-free for Lent as I possibly could. Even while writing the initial piece I started to realise the scale of the challenge ahead. Now, after about 8 days, I am panicking a bit – partly over my ability to do this challenge, and partly over how this issue can ever be overcome when plastic is so utterly ubiquitous.
The obvious issue is food. In an instant, the vast majority of food (especially convenient, on-the-go foods) became off-limits. Goodbye Haribo, I miss you. But what shocked me was the absolute monopoly plastic packaging has even on fruit and veg. Sure, you can buy loose apples and carrots and onions, but try finding an outlet that doesn’t shrink-wrap cucumbers. This reminded me of a quote from a Frenchman who came in to oversee Tesco in the UK, bemoaning how Brits simply wouldn’t consider buying a cucumber that had been shrinkwrapped, yet are entirely comfortable with courgettes being loose. Go figure. Celery, kale, green beans and all manner of other items are pretty much impossible to find without some plastic packaging, be it supermarket or greengrocer. Just now I was at the supermarket and noticed that its 99p for 3 bell peppers in plastic packaging, yet 60p for a single loose one!
Canned foods offer some respite from the pessimism my stomach has made its default setting this week. Yet even then problems persist – looking to save money by buying multipacks of sweetcorn or baked beans? Wrapped in plastic, tough shit. Although not true of canned tomatoes for some reason, which have carboard 4-packs. I’m yet to work out why this discrepancy exists.
Stepping away from food for a second, you have the reality of toiletries. Nobody wants to smell bad. Even people that smell bad don’t want to be that way (I assume), they just have defective noses and cowardly friends. Pretty much everything involved with the bathroom involves plastic – even bars of soap are usually packaged in some sort of plastic, particularly multi-packs. Toothpaste, deodorant, moisturiser, shaving gel, the list goes on. I am a keen runner, and one of the uncomfortable realities of running longer distances is jogger’s nipple – I assuaged this in the past with Vaseline, then graduated to Body Glide, both of which are in plastic containers. I guess I could use plasters, but is that any more environmentally friendly really? Plus they’d come off within a few km on a sweaty mess like my torso. I bought myself some cycling shorts the other week, before realising that I’d forgotten to bring a bag, so I had to stuff them in my pocket to take home, and then realised they have a little plastic tag in them with pricing/sizing info etc. Every little aspect of human existence in the modern Western world seems to come wrapped in plastic.
This whole issue is replicated in virtually every product and industry that I’ve encountered in this first week or so. I am someone who routinely stores a lot in my cupboards, and so it hasn’t seriously impacted me yet. But its starting too. If I forget to prepare a packed lunch or snacks for trips away DJing, I am basically left with a choice of apples or Greggs pasties. Water is an issue, I have a metal Klean Kanteen I bought a few years ago, but the lid on that seems to have a habit of leaking, which is problematic if it’s in a bag with several thousand quid’s worth of electronic equipment! On the bright side I’m losing weight. I imagine I’m saving some money in the short term too, as its stopped a good handful of impulse purchases that involve plastic.
However, in practice this challenge is demonstrating to me the futility of my efforts. It’s inconvenient to such a point that no normal, busy working person could possibly be expected to do this off their own bat and succeed 100%. There are ways for me to source certain things without plastic, but they involve planning, travelling and expense far beyond the logical boundaries of modern life. I want to eat cheese. Of course I want to eat cheese. Cheese is delicious. But do I want to have to traipse to some artisanal market stall on a specific day of the week to first ask how they wrap their cheese (can’t be having accidental plastic incidents), and then pay £17.43 for 100g of cave-aged ewe’s milk fusion cheddarlydale to grate on to my beans on toast?
My solution to this dilemna is basically to do my best, and not beat myself up when that’s not perfect. I really, really want peanut butter in my life, even more so now that I basically can’t have nuts or seeds as a snack because of their packaging. I am not about to start making peanut butter, and even if I was there is more plastic in the wrapping of a bag of peanuts than there is in the weird little bit of cellophane around the top of the peanut butter jar I bought tonight (small admission, I bought 7 jars. I shouldn’t shop when I’m hungry.).
I bought Body Glide, but the biggest available one to mitigate the fact that its completely against the purpose of this whole exercise. I may be a hypocrite, but I’m a hypocrite that doesn’t have blood coming out of his nipples. I’m carefully making sure I take a shopping bag everywhere, and packing up food in tupperware for when I’m away for a day or two (that may seem a bit contradictory for Plastic Free Lent, but re-usable containers that I already own are fair game to use). I’m confident that my plastic use will be less than 10% of what it normally is in any given period before now, and that’s a big change.
But where real change can come is only through legislation and efforts from industry to minimise the use of plastic, and once alternatives are more widely available, the public acting on that and using spending power to cement that change. How the hell we get there, I have no idea. I’ve never really been massively involved in campaigning for anything, much less against a billion-dollar industry like plastics and the many different areas that currently depend on plastic to wrap things up. Efforts to change the way we wrap our foods have to come from us, telling the industries involved that we want at the very least some alternative options. It’d be instructive to hear some of the economics involved – do peppers that are in plastic last so much longer than loose ones that they can be that much cheaper, or is the pricing a structural tactic to encourage a bigger purchase?
But for now I’ll keep on trucking, and if any of you have suggestions and information for places where I can buy everyday items with minimal or no plastic, then PLEASE comment for me, as I’m gonna be living off sweet potato, broccoli and canned beans if I’m not careful.