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Is A Life Without Plastic Possible… If You’re Broke?
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When I embarked on a 30 day single-use plastic free challenge I was advised to prepare for everything from packed lunches to periods… But one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the cost of eco-products being touted in the name of Plastic Freedom. I soon realized that a plastic free life remains, in many ways, a privilege of the rich, and while every contribution on the personal level is both worthy and essential, deep-rooted system change is needed to overcome this crisis.

One day, in my early twenties, I packed up my life, leaving my two jobs at the time, to travel around the equator and explore life under the sea. I took my scuba-diving course in Fiji and put my new-found skills to the test in the Great Barrier Reef and across South East Asia. I swam beside giant turtles and Manta Rays, watched schools of Hammerhead sharks pass overhead as neon fish and technicoloured coral forests brushed by feet below. It was a life-changing experience and while my dream of becoming a Master Diving Instructor and living the tropical dream forever fizzled out, my love for the oceans didn’t. To date, images of marine plastic pollution in today’s news feed floor me.

Fast forward to 2019 and I’m sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop and a large mug of herbal tea. I’m researching ahead of a 30 day single-use plastic free challenge that I’ve committed to, and I’m starting to wonder what I’ve got myself into. The herbal tea must tick the sustainability box for starters; whatever the hippies are drinking flies, right? Wrong, apparently. It turns out not only the teabags themselves contain plastic, also the little paper packets they come in are coated in a thin plastic film, and they can’t even be recycled!

Opt for loose tea or silk tea-bags to avoid the hidden plastic in tea-bags and packaging

Starting out on my plastic-free journey, I’d been full of optimism. I can do this standing on my head, I thought; I wasn’t one of those mindless shoppers, unaware of the shiny, plasticky truth about my habits. I was already living a pretty sustainable lifestyle, after all. Or so I thought… Wrong again. When I started monitoring the single-use plastic crossing the path of my typical, Londoner life in the weeks leading up to the challenge, I soon realized this was a mind-field that no amount of herbal tea sipping would solve…

The Facts

  • Today, marine plastic pollution is found in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of all seabird species examined.
  • Marine plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million seabirds annually, while plastics consistently make up 60 to 90% of all marine debris studied.
  • Approximately 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK. Each mile of our beaches is littered with over 150 plastic bottles on average. And that’s just the UK…
Washed up plastic on a beach in the United Arab Emirates
  • Every day over 8 million pieces of plastic enter our oceans, while approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic currently lie on our planet. That’s 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy!
  • Collectively, these pieces weigh 269000 tonnes.

A single plastic bag is used for 15 minutes on average; yet it could take 100-300 years to fragment, and it doesn’t end there. Plastic lasts for up to 450 years in the marine environment and while it fragments into smaller pieces over time, eventually becoming microscopic, it will never disappear. To spell this out, every piece of virgin plastic that has or will ever be produced will stay with us in some form, forever. Plastic pollution has now even entered the fossil record of our planet’s rock layers, leading some scientists to term our time, the ‘Plastic Age‘.

And it’s not just life beneath the sea that’s keeping record of our plastic-addiction. One in three fish caught for human consumption now contains plastic. Chemicals that have been banned for over 30 years due to their toxicity and the threats they pose to our health, including PCBs and DDT, remain in our air, water, land and, yes, our bodies. We are so contaminated with these chemicals that decades of cleanup efforts have yet to eliminate them, with food being the number one exposure route. Plastic contamination has been linked to several fatal diseases and this is by no means small-scale, with 72% of tap water in European nations, including the UK, now containing contaminating plastic chemicals.

Boy searching through discard plastic litter for sellables in Nicaragua

The marine plastic pollution data above was gathered by Surfers Against Sewage, an investigative environmental charity on a mission to inspire, unite and empower communities to protect oceans, beaches, waves and wildlife. The plastic chemicals data was drawn by Toxic Free Future, an organisation advocating for the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices. They carry out advanced research, advocacy, grassroots organizing, and consumer engagement to ensure a healthier tomorrow.

So, what to do?

If I learnt one thing from my interview with sustainable hipster duo Stephanie Dickson and Paula Miquelis, founders of Green Is the New Black, it’s that our collective small actions can have a significant impact and taking #littlegreensteps is exactly where to start. Yet, navigating the web of plastic-free paraphernalia, the first thing I noticed about the chic eco-products in online plastic-free shops such as Worth Whyle and The Plastic Free Shop, was the price tags. Plastic and cruelty-free shampoo in elegant, aluminium vessels for a cool £7.50 for 250ml; sleek, eco-lunchboxes with minimalist, bamboo cutlery sets, upwards of £27!

Now, let’s be clear, the mainstreaming of the green movement is an excellent thing and an improved image with more aesthetically appealing products for people to identify with is undoubtedly at the forefront of this transition, so I tip my hat to the designers giving sustainability the trendy new makeover it’s had. However, if I was to upgrade everything in my house to achieve zero-single-use plastic status from scratch, it would set me back over £150 in one-time purchases. And there’s nothing mainstream about the kind of salary that can casually drop that kind of cash in one go. So, I decided to approach this project with a new question in mind: is a life without plastic possible… if you’re broke?

As it turns out, the answer isn’t clear. While there are ways of bypassing some of the marketed products, plastic free options turn out to be more expensive than supermarket options pretty much across the board, rendering it a privilege of the rich at present. Nevertheless, #changeiscoming so read on for my best tips for transitioning to a plastic-free life while holding onto your life savings.

Preparation

I began with a quick list of all the items I’d need to replace in my home and started replacing them one at a time. Needless to say, don’t be tossing any unused surplus plastics in the recycling bin when making the switch to eco-friendly products. After all, you’ve already bought them, so at least use them until they’re finished!

Bathroom

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Dental floss
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Shower gel
  • Razor
  • Hair products
  • Deodorant
  • Body lotion
  • Skin care
  • Cotton buds
  • Toilet paper (it’s the packaging)
  • Tampons (Mooncups are a one-trick pony, girls!)

Kitchen

  • Washing up liquid
  • Cleaning products
  • Food wrap
  • Laundry detergent
  • Bin bags
  • Food and drinks packaging – the biggest challenge

If you’re on a tight budget my advice is to slowly work your way through this list rather than attempting to cover it all in one go, replacing a couple of items at a time as and when your budget allows. There are also some wonderful recipes online for homemade house cleaning products using essential oils, apple cider vinegar and baking soda, so bear this in mind too if forking out on expensive eco-cleaning products isn’t an option for you.

The Refill Solution: Money-Saving Hack or Swanky Shopping?

While some items, such as a toothbrush or razor, require an unavoidable one-time purchase, you’ll find that elsewhere you already have everything you need to avoid the expensive start-up costs associated with swanky eco-products, and instead you can jump straight to the front of the ‘refill’ queue. And that’s because your house is probably already teaming with one thing: plastic bottles.

A sustainable toothbrush is a must. This bamboo brush costs just £2.95 from Boobalou.co.uk and was the closest I found to plastic-free on the market (the plant-based bristles are still mixed with 38% BPA-free nylon)

Stop recycling your plastic bottles and glass jars today, and once you’ve accumulated several empties, head down to your local refill store (you can find yours here) and fill up as many as you can carry. If you’ve got a busy lifestyle, like me, it’s unrealistic that you’ll get yourself to your local refill store often, especially if it’s not that local. That’s why it’s essential to make the most of your trip by stocking up on as much as you can carry in one trip of the things you use most regularly.

Side note for the fastidious: some online shops offer pre-paid postage to send back your empty bottle to be refilled and redelivered to your door, which may sound tempting for those with a busy schedule, but the carbon footprint of this process defeats the purpose, so avoid if wanting to keep full eco-halo intact.

There’s no doubt that refill-shopping is a novel and instantly effective way to eliminate the majority of the single-use plastic packaging from your grocery bounty. But is it cost-effective?

To answer this question, my team researched a cross-section of regular household items and drew up the table below. For each item, they looked at the cheapest possible version from the retailer in question and calculated the same weight/volume for each product to give a constant measure of value across all retailers.

While the idea of refill shopping sits well with those of us wanting to make a difference, the essential household products that we looked at were unfortunately all out-priced by supermarkets.

Now, many people are lucky enough to absorb these small differences in price, and if you’re one of those people I implore you to continue fronting the extra cost and sleep well in the knowledge that you are acting within your means (as every good socialist should)! However, with the UK median household salary being just £28000 per annum, the vast majority of people in UK will unfortunately feel the pinch of these extra pennies. So, until plastic-free shopping matches supermarket prices, the majority can’t be expected to make the switch.

On the bright side, the sudden influx of refill shops in the UK reflects a positive movement away from single-use plastic and the consumer demand for ethical shopping. Also, it’s important to note the quality of these items, which is almost always higher at refill stores. So, if you have those few extra pounds to spend on higher quality (usually organic) produce from independent and plastic-free suppliers, this should be enough to inspire you to keep up the good work and know that your extra pennies are contributing to the growth of a worthy cause.

Refill station at Gather, a zero waste refillery in Peckham, South East London

Elusive Edibles

Sourcing plastic-free food and drinks was the single biggest challenge on my plastic-free journey and while sites locating your nearest farmers’ market in London are extremely helpful, I didn’t manage to go 100% single-use plastic free for the full 30 days. I put this down to the extra time needed to plan and prepare, which clashed with the long hours I work.

The packed-lunch prepping was just about do-able with some planning and effort, but I struggled to find the extra time needed consistently to schedule trips to my local refill store. The truth is, there are still far less options available, with less convenient opening hours and store locations. However, the good news is that sustainability rates among the fastest growing trends for businesses in 2019 according to the WBCSD 2019 Outlook and Trends report, so we can look forward to increasing convenience for conscious shoppers in the near future.

More importantly though, #littlegreensteps is not an all-or-nothing solution, it’s about reducing where you can at every opportunity. In the end, I found the best solution for my busy lifestyle was a weekly food delivery box from Abel and Cole, who offer a superb range of organic, Fair Trade and packaging-free fruit and veggie boxes. They also offer a small but expanding plastic-free range of pantry products and they collect and recycle your box from the previous week when they deliver. Delivery is just £1.50 and area deliveries are made once a week only, to reduce carbon emissions.

My local tube station, Liverpool Street in London. Fitting time-heavy planning into a busy schedule can be challenging, so start with what you can achieve now and build in new habits one at a time.

For those on a tighter budget, Oddbox also provides an excellent range of boxes, using non-organic fruit and veggies rejected by mainstream supermarkets for being too ‘ugly’, while no less nutritionally awesome. I prefer Abel and Cole because I get to pick and choose which veggies go into my box, but for the more open-minded chefs, Oddbox not only offers lower prices, it also helps reduce food wastage, one of the key contributors of the release of methane and other greenhouse gases heating the planet and causing climate change.

Farmdrop didn’t work for me as they won’t leave deliveries outside, but for those with irregular working hours this is another great option. Ocado has also recently introduced a range of plastic-free fruit and veggie boxes, and has a wider selection of plastic-free pantry products than Abel and Cole, but the supply chain isn’t quite as ethical (though it’s far better than the other high street supermarket supply chains), with less independent farmers and multiple area deliveries per day, increasing their operational carbon impact.

What to take home?

Since completing my 30 day challenge I can proudly say that I’m living greener every day. My bathroom looks very different today than when I started, and my grocery bills have dropped thanks to committing to packed lunches, shopping smarter and making more meals from scratch. Scheduling my trips to the refill store is easier now that I know the drill and my mum seems to be getting behind my efforts too as she made me some genius refill bags out of scrap fabrics, meaning I don’t have to lug Tupperware into work on refill days anymore. In sum, I’m not the perfect Eco-Saint I set out to be and I still don’t know where to find a plastic-free toothbrush but I’m improving all the time – and that’s where we should all be aiming.

My mum’s refill bags, which she made from old pillow cases and scrap fabrics. They help minimise refill ‘spillages’ that you often get with Tupperware too!

Live within your means and start with what you can.

So, live within your means and start with what you can; maybe this is simply switching to eco-friendly dental care and replacing liquid soap for bars. Once you’ve navigated your way around one new habit, start with the next, building the path to a more conscious lifestyle one little green step at a time.

See below for my top 5 online plastic-free stores supplying everything you could need, if, like me, you decide the online shopping route works best for your lifestyle to realistically form a sustainable habit.

Hallelujah for the Virgin Plastic Tax and the catalyst for progress that it will surely incentivise, but 2022 does seem a long distance away… So it’s over to us for now, and I for one am throwing in the herbal tea bags and diving in to do my bit.

5 online plastic-free shops worth a click

  • Acala – luxury beauty and wellness products; great for gifts
  • Bamboo Turtle – slightly lower prices than the norm and a click-and-collect option for locals to their store in Hertfordshire
  • Plastic Free Pantry – a good all-round selection of zero-waste products complimented by a community clean-up incentive, offering a 10% discount on purchases if you pick up 10 pieces of litter from your neighbourhood
  • Zero Waste Club – zero-waste pantry, bathroom and kitchen products, with the added bonus that they plant a tree sapling for each delivery made to offset their carbon footprint
  • Good Club – online zero-waste food supermarket with an extensive range of pantry products and impeccable ethics all the way up the supply chain.

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08 / 11 / 2019 // Written by Juliet Kennedy
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