I read an article at the weekend about a reporter who went plastic-free for a week, an exercise that is popular in the press at the moment, what with the issue of plastic pollution becoming a hot news topic. Whilst I find these features interesting and often entertaining...the result is also predictable. The conclusion being that it is incredibly hard, nigh on impossible, to go completely plastic free. A bit like an extreme fad diet, for many people the challenge to live without plastic is unrealistic and unsustainable.
Perhaps a more realistic ambition would be to inspire people to become more ‘plastic clever’ (a term I stole from those inspiring young ladies from Kids Against Plastic). In the first of this Steps To Eco Living series, I share with you the ways in which I have tried (and am trying) to become more plastic clever with our grocery shopping;
Step 1: Take your own bags...for everything!
For the most part it has become routine to take our own shopping bags, bar the odd occasion when caught short. I have been known to carry shopping out to the car in my arms, in a bid to avoid taking a bag! I now keep a stash of bags in the carand in my handbag (which for is more likely to be a wicker basket!).
In addition, I’ve started taking smaller drawstring cotton produce bags for loose vegetables, fruit and bakery items (rolls, croissants). I use them at the supermarket, market, local greengrocers and bakery. Where you need to weigh the contents, you just empty the produce onto the scales and refill your bag afterwards. It only takes a few moments, so I don’t mind at all (and the shop assistants don't seem to mind either).
I take a large cotton bread bag to the bakers, to avoid taking a plastic bread bag with plastic tag. This works well for both sliced and unsliced loaves. When home, you can pop your loaf straight into the bread bin. For extended freshness, I wrap the loaf in a beeswax bread wrap which keeps it really moist.
Using the bags makes it far quicker to store produce when home, as you can put them straight into the fridge, bread bin, vegetable drawer etc.
Organic cotton produce bags, the bread bag and bee's wrap form part of our Living With Less Waste collection. You can, of course, use any cotton bags you happen to have or make your own using many of the tutorials online and/or your own seamstress skills.
Step 2: Take your own containers for meat and fish
One of the most recent steps that we’ve taken is to bring our own containers to the butchers and fish counter, so that we can avoid using their plastic bags and packaging. I have a motley mix of containers; from older tupperware to newer ‘favourite’ stainless steel tins. They all do the job!
I'll admit, I did feel very self conscious taking my own container at first! Once I had garbled out an explaination as to why, and realised that the shop assistant really didn't mind, I felt much better and more confident from then on. They seemed to worry most about where to put the label. I reassured them that it sticks nicely to the lid and can be easily removed and recycled at home.
Our local butcher, Sean, also introduced greaseproof paper off the back of one of our regular chats on plastic, and he has since said that far more people are bringing their own containers and choosing greaseproof paper over plastic wrap (why not suggest your local butcher does the same?).
As with the cotton bags, it is more convenient when you come to unpack your shopping (the putting away of shopping is the element I least enjoy!). The meat/fish can go straight into the fridge or freezer, and will keep fresher for longer without a sweaty sheath of plastic!
I have also occasionally used my own containers for olive, pesto, cheese etc, if I find myself in a delicatessen or large supermarket whereby you can buy from the counter.
You can also take your containers if ordering a takeaway meal that you plan to collect yourself. Just give them warning, you will have to turn up a bit early so that they can put the food into your container.
We sell a range of reusable food containers, favouring stainless steel for its durability and its absence of BPA and phthalates. I am also still using tupperware, some of which came from my mums collection many years ago!
Step 3: Buy loose fruit, vegetables and other deli items where possible
We have a weekly delivery of fruit and vegetables from Riverford. Almost all of the items are loose, and the cardboard boxes that they arrive in are returned the following week for reuse. Riverford are an environmentally aware company and as such are looking for alternatives to the small amount of plastic they do use (for a lettuce for example, which is at least packaged in recyclable stretchy plastic).
I shop at our local newsagents/ convenience store for top up fruit and veg, as they have a good range of loose produce. If in our local town, I pick up extra fruit and veg from the market (at bargain prices!). Your local greengrocers, if you have one nearby, is a great option for plastic free fruit and veg shopping.
I normally buy olives, cheese and salami from the local supermarket in the usual plastic packaging for want of a better option (although I do more often buy tinned olives). However, if I go to a large supermarket or deli then I buy straight from the counter, using bee’s wrap and/ or containers.
Step 4: Recycle stretchy plastic wrap
Most supermarkets have a plastic bag recycling bin near their checkout. I recently discovered that you can recycle any stretchy plastic in these bins, so check as to whether any of your food film packaging is stretchy. Typical items are bags containing fruit, bread and frozen vegetables.
Helpful Link: https://www.recycleforlondon.com/local-recycling
Although the link says recycle for London, you can enter any national postcode and select the items that you wish to recycle. It will then bring up a list of recycling bank locations closest to you. I was really surprised to discover numerous places close to us that recycle plastic wrappers, plastic pouches and plant pots among other things, none of which are collected with the curbside recycling. Two interesting facts I discovered yesterday; contrary to my belief you can recycle the lids on glass jars (like jam and honey) and wine bottles - the plastic recycling machine is able to seperate them. You can't recycle pizza boxes if they are greasy, they mess up the recycling machine.
Step 5: Switch to glass milk bottles delivered by your local milkman
We have being using our local milkman for years now. Initially this was a choice based on convenience, but it is also a great way to save a large number of plastic bottles from going to landfill.
Bottled milk is more expensive. A pint of semi skimmed milk is 81p versus 50p at Sainsburys, for example. The reasons for this is that the supermarkets command very low prices for wholesale milk, a practice which continues to threaten the industry as farms struggle to make a profit.
You are also paying extra for having your milk delivered to your door. The company who supply our milk, Milk & More, use local British suppliers (and provide details on each) so you can be assured of the provenance of the milk. The other thing to consider is whether you are likely to spend money when you pop down to the shop for milk. In simplifying your milk provision, you take away the temptation to buy other things!
Step 6: Buy in bulk from a package-free store and/or choose recyclable packaging
There are some fantastic zero waste, bulk purchase stores popping up around the UK, like Hetu Vegan Zero Waste (Clapham), Bulk Market (Dalston), The Clean Kilo (Birmingham) and Zero Green (Bristol). We don’t currently have anywhere located close enough to us for me to use for a regular shop, but I'm watching and waiting!
You can find your nearest bulk store using the link below:
Helpful Link: https://thezerowaster.com/zero-waste-near-you/
Farm shops like Whole Foods and Planet Organic offer a good range of loose foods, albeit at a premium price.
Where possible, I do try to choose packaging that uses less plastic. Some pasta is in mostly cardboard packaging and there are quite a few brands that sell oats in paper packaging. I am aware that Holland & Barrett and a few other health shops sell loose nuts and seeds, so I will be taking my own bags and/or containers next time I go into town and stocking up on these, plastic-free, for the first time! Glass and tin packaging is also a recyclable alternative.
It’s worth noting that all packaging uses resources to create and dispose of, so choosing unpackaged or using your own reusable packaging is the greenest option where feasible/ available.
This concludes my tips for a more eco grocery shop! The fundamental principle is to try and bring your own reusables, and buy package free where possible. When this isn’t possible, look for recyclable packaging and make sure you recycle it. Where this isn’t possible, don’t beat yourself up about it! It’s all about just trying to do your bit.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, your routine, and any additional tips so please do comment below.