I challenged myself to last a week without buying plastic, and although I can say I achieved this, my seven days plastic-free taught me more than I ever thought they would.
Our lives are full of plastic. Everywhere you look, things are wrapped, covered, smothered in the stuff.
Doing this challenge for the Plymouth Herald has really made me think, more than ever, how we fundamentally need to change something real – and fast.
Plastic has got to be one of the best and worst inventions this planet has ever created- it is one of the most useful materials around, but also one of the most harmful.
But recently people are starting to fight back against the tide of plastic use. And I realised I wanted to be one of them.
Fortunately I didn’t need to buy any plastic-coated anything for breakfast, as the damage had already been done the day before. So I settled with some banana pancakes and a cup of coffee.
I did a bit of tidying and then went for swim, and on the way home I decided to pop into Lidl to buy some things for the week ahead. This was going to be my first real test.
Fruit and veg was first – and it soon turned out this was pretty much the only thing I could buy without coming into contact with plastic. I loaded my trolley up with bananas, tomatoes, courgettes and whatever else I could get my hands on.
But as I continued my shop it became apparent there was not a lot else for me to buy. A lovely member of staff pointed out some empty cardboard boxes for me to put my loose fruit and veg in, and I thought these would be perfect to load some freshly baked bread into as well.
A few baguettes and six brown rolls later, it was onto the only aisle I knew I had left to look at – tinned cans. Yum. The carrot and coriander soup looked quite tasty, and you can’t go wrong with sweetcorn. Two cans of beans next, a wee tin of tuna, and I was done.
I bought quite a lot, considering, and it came to about £25. So pretty decent. It just looked like it was going to be a VERY healthy week for me.
When I got home I mixed some tuna together with sweetcorn in a bowl, and added a dollop of mayonnaise (don’t worry, it was in a glass jar!). I stuffed that into a roll for Monday’s lunch and grabbed an apple and banana from the fruit bowl to bulk it out a bit.
It is Monday and I am on the early shift at work. I’m up at 5.30am and I make myself a green tea for breakfast. I’ve already made my lunch, so I know I will not have to pop to the shop later and risk buying anything plastic-coated. I’m feeling confident, but I know this week isn’t going to be easy.
When I get to work, a colleague points out an article in The Times where a journalist had attempted the same challenge. I gave that a quick read to see what tips he could give me, and then I checked my Twitter notifications, and realised I had more likes and comments on a picture I posted of my Lidl shopping trolley than I probably had ever had in my life.
The picture was creating quite the discussion, and people had suggested some awesome tips on there too.
It was a busy day for me in the office and I could hear my belly rumbling. I ate my tuna and sweetcorn roll (wrapped in foil) for breakfast and at about 2pm I tucked into my can of soup. Delicious.
Thankfully I didn’t need to buy anything – plastic-free or not – in the evening, so that was another day got through with no problems.
Realising I had messed up the milk delivery, I had another green tea (wrapped in paper and cardboard) for breakfast, and reordered my milk (and juice!) for Wednesday.
I used the leftover tuna and sweetcorn for a baguette for breakfast, and at about 3pm had another can of soup. It was tomato and basil, and it was very tasty.
I started researching where I could go for plastic-free things later on in the week. A friend told me about Keveral Farm, an organic farm community near Looe.
I had a snoop around their website, and the concept seemed fantastic. Although it was too late to order a box (it is Tuesday, and their cut-off day is Sunday) a very delightful man rang me and told me he could squeeze me in on the delivery rounds. I ordered a large vegetable box and it came to £15.50.
I ended up having a chat with the man, Bill Knight, and he very helpfully told me all about Keveral Farm and their plastic-free options – and why they have decided to stick with plastic for the salad.
An email from him said: “We supply a plastic free box for some customers and you will not be getting any plastic today.
"We started the box scheme as environmentalists and campaigners and we have always tried to research and understand how to minimise the impact from our products.
“The only things that come in plastic usually are the leaves. This is for a number of reasons. First, they go limp very quickly as water evaporates from them and the bag means that they are still good when you get them. Much more energy goes into production and transport than the bag and so the thinking is that it would be pointless if all that was wasted as the leaves were no good when you got them. In the bag they can last for five days or maybe a week, out of the bag they last a day or maybe two.
“Second they get put in a box with other veg that has dirt on it. Because we minimise energy by not making sure everything is washed, they would get covered in mud which is a possible health risk and again may cause them to not be used by customers.
“Third, they are protected against being crushed by the air in the bag, if they are in an open bag or loose then they often get damaged and again wasted.
“Fourth, we have tried to put them in paper bags and indeed most things we bag go into paper, however when it’s wet the water means the bags fall apart and bits of muddy damp paper end up in the leaf and it doesn’t protect from crushing.
“Fifth, we tried compostable plastic bags but unfortunately we are a very small business and they are very expensive. Until recently they were only available in very large quantities, which didn’t get used in time and therefore started to compost before they were used, which was an expensive waste of resources.
“Finally – the plastic film is lighter than the equivalent paper bag and therefore takes less energy to move around, an issue that is often overlooked in the great bag debate.
“So on balance we have made the call that it is better to ensure the leaves, that take a lot of time and energy to grow and move, are not wasted and the impact of the very small amount of plastic is less than the wasted energy otherwise. The film can be used in waste to energy plants to further utilise the energy it contains.
“The punnets that the coriander and other small leaves sometimes come in are made of PET plastic, exactly the same as most fizzy drink bottles and are 100% recyclable, so in theory can be recycled again and again.
“It’s not ideal and we are always looking for better ways to do things. But buying local, in season veg from producers close to you, minimising the steps between producer and consumer, reduces the need to move produce around and therefore the need for it to be packed up for transport and storage."
I woke up at 6am and eagerly went outside to get my glass bottled milk and took it back into the kitchen to pour into my morning coffee.
I ordered some juice too, and they even gave me a free bottle for signing up to milk deliveries. I felt oddly nostalgic picking off the corner of the foil lid, peeling it back and tipping the milk into my steaming mug.
That done, I made my way to work with leftover veggie sausage and mash in some Tupperware and pondered on what to have for dinner. I thought today would be a good time to visit the market and see what I could get there.
First of all I popped into the butchers and asked what I could get. The lovely man behind the counter suggested I have some chicken breasts, which I thought would be ideal for a curry this evening. I also bought some mince meat to make a spag bol tomorrow. In total this only came to just over £6, which I thought was a bargain – and no plastic wasted!
Before I went back to the office, I pondered around the vegetable stall and picked up a bunch of bananas and a few apples (I eat a lot of fruit). Although I had already ordered my vegetable box the day before, the owner of the stall told me I could order a fruit or veg box from his stall too.
My vegetable box was delivered to the office at about 7pm, and it looked absolutely fabulous. There was kale, carrots, spuds, salad (in a paper bag!), garlic, onions, mushrooms, you name it. I couldn’t wait to think up some meal ideas of how to use it all.
I got home from work (after eating my leftover curry for lunch) and went to the bathroom, only to discover we were down to our last roll of toilet paper.
I had no idea what to do. I have only ever bought toilet roll from the supermarket wrapped in plastic, and I had no clue where else I could buy it in. So I turned to Twitter for help. And it delivered.
A website called biggreensmile.com was suggested to me, and after a look around to see what else was on offer, I selected to buy three packs of toilet roll (with four rolls in each) covered in paper – not plastic. They were £2.85 each, which seemed reasonable, but I wasn’t prepared for the £5 delivery charge.
What would normally cost me about a £1 each in the supermarket came to a whopping £13.55. I winced as I typed in my bank details, but in the name of going plastic-free, and being in dire need of toilet roll (we were now down to our last three sheets) I pressed enter, and they were on my way to me.
Well, I hoped they were anyway.
This morning I emailed Big Green Smile about my blessed toilet paper – they said deliveries normally arrive within 48 hours, but as it was a Friday, this would mean it wouldn’t be coming until Monday. Hmmm. Not to worry, I’ve got some trusty kitchen towel to keep me going, and I can always knock on my neighbour’s door to see if he has some going spare!
Today was pretty uneventful in terms of plastic buying. I went to work as usual, had leftover spag bol for lunch and rushed home from work to get ready for a birthday meal in the evening.
We went to Samphire Brasserie, a vegan restaurant in the city centre, and had a glance at the refrigerator to see what plastic-free drink options I could choose from. I went for a Cola, made of natural ingredients. It came in a glass bottle, with a metal lid. Wahey!
Of course, I couldn’t guarantee everything in my vegan burger didn’t come in plastic, but I couldn’t very well ask the waitress, ‘Is this meal vegan AND plastic-free?’ now, could I?
I wolfed it down, ordered another cola, gave the birthday girl a hug, and went home.
It is Saturday and I am up at 8am raring for my morning coffee. But low and behold, we have run out of beans! I considered my options. But then it hit me: I still had some on my desk in work (wrapped in paper – of course).
I decided to whiz to the Column Bakehouse in Devonport and buy some freshly-baked bread, too.
A sour dough loaf and a classic farmhouse later, I was back at home cooking up some poached eggs to wake my fiancé up to.
As the weather was atrocious we didn’t fancy doing much, but we briefly popped into town and in the evening went to the Hutong cafe near Royal William Yard to watch an incredibly talented sitar player. I had an elderflower drink and a green tea. Phew, another day plastic-free.
Something a man said to me on Friday when I told him I was attempting a week without buying plastic had stuck with me. He said: “If you really want to test yourself, you will have to do it for a lot longer than a week.”
He was definitely right. And this morning I realised that.
Everything I’ve been buying this week has mostly been food, which although it took some thinking about and forward-planning, it is not REALLY that hard to achieve.
But this morning I STILL did not have any toilet roll, and my tube of toothpaste was on its last legs. I also tipped the bottle of soap in the bathroom upside down to get the last remnants out of it before I left to play a football match.
But what happens when today finishes? My challenge is over, and tomorrow I can go to the shop to buy a plastic tube of toothpaste and a plastic bottle of soap.
What has struck me more than anything is that, however much the people at the bottom can start changing our habits, the real change will come when the people at the top do something to change theirs.
Non-plastic covered toilet roll should be available in every supermarket. As should soap refills, paper bags for fruit and veg, and also companies eliminating unnecessary packaging for products that only have plastic around them to make them sell better.
Before my football match today we swung by Sainsbury’s so that my fiancé, his mum and his brother could buy a few things to keep them going while I was playing (I had made a sandwich at home and packed some fruit). But as I was walking down the aisles, literally ALL I could see was plastic. I even saw a plastic jar of honey encased in a huge plastic container.
Doing this has really made me think, more than ever, how we fundamentally need to change something real – and fast. We’re all so lazy, me definitely included, and getting whatever we want from the shop at the drop of a hat is just all too easy.
If we can change our buying habits, and I mean really change them, the pressure will mount of the big suppliers to change the way they do things too.
And that can start with toilet roll, please.