Plastic Free Lent – A Qualified Success

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…

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Cucumbers – always shrinkwrapped. Courgettes – never shrinkwrapped.

 

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.

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The very rare “non-plastic produce tub”

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.

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“Cheese”

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.

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Handy

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.

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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

Splosh – refillable cleaning products

New York woman attempts to live without producing waste

The Anti-Packaging Movement

Detroit Zoo stops selling bottled water

The sustainability subreddit

8 days into plastic free lent – my observations

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.

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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!

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Good luck getting something healthy to eat on the go without plastic packaging that isn’t an apple or a banana

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.

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Nuts

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.

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I heard you like plastic cases so I put yo pill in a plastic case with 13 other plastic cases then put all those in a plastic case

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?

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I may have exaggerated the cost of fancy cheese. Incidentally, Picos Blue, otherwise known as Picos de Euopa, is the greatest cheese in the world

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.).

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Lovely Peanut Butter. Pretty sure that the plastic on these is superfluous, if they are air-tight then the middle bit of the lid can’t be pressed down, right?

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.