So, it’s confession time: I’m no longer plastic-free.
I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be able to go ‘plastic-free’ or ‘zero waste’ from the word go; it was going to take some time to change habits and find alternatives, but it became my new ideal and something that I was going to strive towards, one step at a time.
In those first couple of months I made a lot of really positive changes, mostly through focusing on reusable items over disposables. I got myself a KeepCup and took it with me wherever I went. I started buying fruit and vegetables from a local market, or at least choosing loose when supermarkets were the only choice. I pledged to buy in person where possible to reduce the amount of Amazon packaging cluttering up my flat. I evaluated the amount of toiletries I had and cut down massively, swapping to options without plastic packaging when I ran out including reusable makeup wipes, Georganics toothpaste and shampoo bars. All of these were really simple changes that the vast majority of people could make, that saved money as well as reducing the amount of plastic waste I produced, and they’re all changes that are definitely with me to stay.
Where I started to struggle was when the plastic-free lifestyle became restrictive. Different people will have different experiences, but for me this restriction was most evident when it came to food choices. I’ve grown up in the era of glossy magazines selling young girls ridiculous, low-calorie diets to meet the unattainable ideals of beauty in today’s Photoshop society. I was the 15 year old girl yo-yo dieter trying 5:2, soup diets, and excessive exercise regimes just to be skinny, then bingeing out on alcohol and junk food at the weekends when it hadn’t worked. Restricting the amount and types of food I ate became the norm for me, and I’ve spent years trying to fix that relationship. But my attempts to be plastic-free brought it all right back.
Suddenly, I couldn’t eat some of my staple foods. Berries for instance, were part of my everyday breakfast (smoothie or porridge, depending on the weather) but, coming either in plastic punnets fresh or plastic bags in the freezer, they were a no no. Pasta too, almost impossible to find plastic-free, and where it can be found at bulk stores or online packaging-free shops, the price means it can’t be a regular buy. Olives come with a plastic label on the jar. Soy sauce with a plastic cap. And then there’s the one-off foods: the plastic box of chocolates gifted to me as a holiday souvenir by a family member. It wasn’t my purchase, but I was the one responsible for that plastic waste when I ate the chocolates. All my food decisions became much more weighty, packaged with a side portion of guilt if I couldn’t make the right choice.
Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of food changes I made that were just simple swaps. Buying in bulk, for instance, saves me money and reduces the amount of packaging I use. Opting for loose leaf tea and coffee beans from my local tea and coffee shop means I can support local businesses, reduce packaging waste, and get a much nicer cup of coffee to boot. Making my own tofu (when I have time) rather than buying shop-bought in a plastic pack is a rewarding use of my time. Choosing a brand of sugar which comes in recyclable paper rather than non-recyclable plastic is a no-brainer.
Those swaps are definitely here to stay, and things that I would recommend others to look into. But on the whole my experience of reducing my plastic waste left me feeling that being plastic-free or zero waste was unrealistic for most of us. Yes, it’s a beautiful aesthetic on Instagram profiles and yes, if none of us produced any waste that would be absolutely brilliant, but outside of large cities most people don’t have access to a shop selling loose food items or toiletries, and if they do the price difference when compared to standard supermarkets means compromising on other areas of life: there is definitely an element of financial privilege involved in being zero waste.
The onus should be on manufacturers, large companies, and politicians to make the changes from the top which mean that we, as individual consumers, can make better choices. And not just by producing ‘plant-based plastics’ or compostable packaging options (if they end up in normal waste bins they’ll head to landfill where there’s no chance of them breaking down anyway) but by reducing the amount of waste in supply chains, offering financial incentives to those innovating in the packaging-free area or taxing over-packaged goods (do we really need a pre-sliced ‘cauliflower steak’ in a plastic box, Marks and Spencers?)
So if I’m not going to be plastic-free, does that mean my shopping habits will be going right back to how they were before this whole journey? In a word, no. I’ve learnt a lot through exploring the plastic-free world, and as I’ve said previously in this blog, there are many changes that I will be keeping. I’ll still be looking for alternatives to plastic-packaged items whenever I shop for something new, and I’ll still be using minimal packaging and opting to shop in bulk for dry goods, and from local markets and delis for my weekly groceries. But instead of focusing on just cutting plastic waste from my life, I’ll be taking a more rounded view of my impact on our planet.
Whilst I do think that the recent spotlight on plastics has had a very positive influence for environmentalism as a whole, I also think that there has been too much focus on plastic. George Monbiot summarised this nicely in a recent article for The Guardian (September 2018) which focused on calls for major coffee shops to swap plastic-lined cups for ones made of cornstarch — which would still end up in landfill not able to break down, and which take a lot of energy and resource to produce: “we won’t save the world with a better kind of disposable coffee cup”. It’s the same idea as simply swapping plastic bags for paper ones in shops — they’re still resource intensive and single use. Ditto bamboo toothbrushes over plastic ones: bamboo may be seen as an incredibly sustainable material but there are serious question marks over this, and most of the bamboo toothbrushes you see advertised still use plastic for their bristles. There is no perfect way to produce anything en masse.
So, I’m going to be focusing on consuming less, and on making the best possible choice I can when I do purchase something. I’ll be choosing second-hand or borrowed items where possible, focusing on the bigger picture of environmental impact in my food decisions (46% of plastic waste in the ocean comes from fishing nets, so the single biggest thing you can do if you want to stop our oceans becoming ‘plastic soup’ is to stop eating fish) and opting to buy from value-driven companies who are focused on minimising their environmental impact rather than supporting major corporations who only care about driving more and more consumption to make more and more profit. But if want to buy a packet of biscuits to go with my tea, I’m probably going to allow myself to (because #balance).
I’m choosing to take the plastics conversation as a starting point for my understanding of human impact on the environment, and move towards being a more conscious consumer as a whole. Will you join me?