And so here we are, pretty much at the end of Lent. My attempt at going plastic free for this period? A [very] qualified success. I’ve certainly used a lot less plastic than if I had not taken on this challenge. Have I come near to going plastic free? Not on your nelly. Have I managed to only purchase and use plastic when absolutely necessary? About that…
As I’ve written here and here, on a whim I accepted a friend’s challenge to try and give up plastic for Lent. What I’ve learnt is that plastic is everywhere. And often in places where it’s impossible to know until after you’ve purchased, got home and used an item. If you don’t plan ahead, living plastic-free on-the-go is remarkably difficult, even in a city like London.
One thing that I’d never really paid attention to is the prevalence of plastic as a lining inside canned food. There are perfectly reasonable health and safety reasons for this, as there are often issues with food being kept in opened tins in the fridge. But the problem here is that so few items actually list what material they are made of, and whether those materials can be recycled or not.
Here’s a couple of laudable examples that I stumbled across in Iceland in my desperation to find hangover-friendly food that was plastic-free.
But on the whole, good luck trying to work out what your packaging contains. This seems like one of the more achievable goals that could be aimed for in the no-doubt long and winding road towards sustainability – if it’s impossible to make informed choices, how can consumers vote with their wallets effectively?
My experience in this month or so has been pretty straightforward. 95% of produce is off-limits if I am staying true to my goal of avoiding plastic. Food preparation for extended periods away from home is utterly essential. As the month wore on, I got lazier and lazier – in part, just bored of the mundanity of it, in part a reaction to various brutal hangovers that made that kind of brainwork entirely unappealing. My diet became a lot less varied, as numerous staples were suddenly off-limits. The convenience of pre-packed salads and stir fry veg was sorely missed. Nuts and seeds too. I probably broke the record for the most cans of baked beans eaten in a single month, and shares in sweet potatoes are presumably 20-30% more valuable now too. I’ve got in the habit of having a tote bag stuffed in a pocket for those impromptu trips to the shops on the way home that would previously have necessitated a plastic bag.
The packed lunches I’d made for trips to gigs away from London were actually extremely tasty, and far healthier than anything I would have bought on the road, certainly much, much cheaper than eating out for every meal, and slightly cheaper than buying sandwiches etc from random shops. Space was an issue – suddenly I needed 2 bags for a weekend away instead of one. And, ridiculous though this is, I felt very self-conscious cracking open a tupperware container filled with my lunch on the train – I’m sure that this isn’t an uncommon response, as we’ve all become so conditioned to buying convenience foods in disposable packaging. Even though I logically knew that what I was doing was entirely fine, I felt like a dork doing it. Maybe that’s just me, but the lack of other people ever doing similar suggests I’m not alone.
In my desperation to get away from the same old food after a couple of weeks, I took chances on some things which were genuinely horrendous, solely because they appeared to be in plastic-free packaging – this one in particular stands out. I implore everybody to avoid this absolute abomination. You’ll note the somewhat misleading example on the front… [Dis] Honorable mention goes to Quorn’s “Gammon” steak monstrosities, easily the worst meat-substitute product that I’ve ever had the misfortune to eat. Seriously, they’re disgusting.
I was able to find a lot of plastic-free produce at good old Borough Market, although I’m not convinced that I have pockets deep enough to afford that to become my regular greengrocer or cheese-dealer. And even there, cucumbers were, of course, shrink-wrapped. Apart from baby cucumbers, which are never shrink-wrapped. I’d love to find out what committee it is that makes these decisions, because they appear to be set in stone.
I was actually never really tested on a lot of items that would probably have proven most problematic, as a direct result of my fondness for 2-for-1 hoarding when I go to the shops – I didn’t run out of deodorant, toothpaste, shower gel, fairy liquid, washing tablets… you get the point I’m sure. I’m told that Lush do soaps and deodorants that come in non-plastic packaging, but I never had the need to find out myself, and the only Lush I know of is in the Westfield in Stratford, which I only venture into when things are truly desperate.
I did stumble into a solution for one issue when looking for some wooden clothes hangers – I’d run out of kitchen roll, and as a regular wok user they are kind of essential for keeping a steel pan properly seasoned. The shop I went into had a massive roll without it being shrink-wrapped, no idea if this is a normal occurrence, but its the first time I’ve ever seen it sold without plastic wrapping.
And at a gig at Shoreditch House I spotted this as I grabbed some treats from the sweety shelves – Edenware compostable cups. This is the kind of thing that needs to be supported as much as possible by retailers and consumers if we are to tackle this issue effectively.
So where do I go from here? Certainly, I will be much more aware of the issue going forward, and much more careful about the packaging of the food I buy. Away from food (which is already problematic in many cases), things are far more difficult – the tyranny of plastic packaging is such that it’s incredibly inconvenient to avoid it, to the point of basically being impossible for your average person on an average budget.
How can we tackle the issue? Its hard to say – I think the labelling on packaging should be required to say exactly what is in it, and whether it is recyclable. One approach could be a small tax on plastic packaging, with the proceeds used to go towards cleaning up the mess plastic causes, but in truth that doesn’t really fix the problem per se, although it would hopefully encourage the use of more biodegradable substances for packaging. I’d love to hear your suggestions for potential ideas to move this forward – this is an issue that appears to be at the beginnings of a public groundswell, people realise that the status quo is unsustainable, but don’t really know how to be helpful as the options are so limited and disparate. For real change to be effected, there probably needs to be a focused effort to change very specific things that will have real-world, practical impacts. Its likely that this might (at least in the short-term) mean small price increases or less convenience, which is never a popular thing to push for – but the alternative is we keep polluting the planet with a substance that will still be here causing problems long, long after humans have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Here’s some links that you may find interesting related to this topic