What happens when you refuse to buy plastic for one year?
In May 2016, our family embarked on an experiment to see whether it is possible to shop, eat, clean, wash and clothe ourselves without creating any plastic waste. We are a working couple with two sons, both of whom were in full-time higher education at the time. The idea came to us after becoming aware of global plastic pollution in the oceans which we experienced at first hand whilst on holiday in the Med. The devastating effects of plastic pollution on wildlife, and the journey of microplastic up the food chain and onto our plates are now well-documented and the whole world has been talking about reducing plastic use since the broadcasting of Blue Planet in 2017.
Once we embarked on our strict no-plastic diet, we quickly realised that plastic is everywhere in our lives and that a simple swap to other materials and types of packaging is not the answer if we are concerned about the environmental impact. It led us to question our own ‘consumerism’ and how it relates to the climate crisis the world is experiencing right now. Ultimately, our experiment taught us to simply live with less stuff. We are still on a learning curve to apply this to all aspects of our lives but we continue to refuse plastic packaging to this day and estimate that we have reduced plastic in our household by at least 90%.
At the beginning it was very difficult for us to source even the most basic items unpackaged – milk, pasta, rice, toilet paper – it seemed that just about everything was wrapped in plastic. We went ‘cold-turkey’ in the first few months and didn’t allow ourselves to make any compromises, using up the things already in our kitchen cupboards whilst finding out about alternatives. After only three weeks we began to notice that we had hardly any rubbish and also very little recycling – indisputable physical evidence that something was working! We danced around the kitchen in delight and felt even more motivated. The year presented us with many situations needing careful thinking and planning in order to avoid plastic: summer BBQs, Christmas celebrations, holidays, a big party for my husband’s 50th, business travel and the daily challenges of work and school. We collected every bit of plastic packaging that we were unable to avoid during the first year, regardless of whether it could be recycled or not. We ended up with one bagful – not too bad we think. We have been chronicling our journey ever since on this blog and on social media. This website and our community related work continues to be non-commercial and all we hope to achieve is to encourage you to find solutions that work for you!
2020 has been a momentous year for us. It’s our fourth year of spreading the word and working with local and district-level councils to cut single-use-plastic, improve recycling, promote repairing and reusing, support local food production and refill shops. We have recently been awarded the Plastic Free Community accreditation by the marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage for the whole of the Stroud district in Gloucestershire. It signals that significant work has been done in our community to replace single-use-plastic and we are hoping to expand this work to include more communities in Gloucestershire. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought new questions about the use of plastic and new plastic pollution problems. In the last year new reports have highlighted the direct relationship of plastic and the current climate crisis. We now have comprehensive measurements of the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the extraction of fossil fuels for plastic and of the industrial processes of plastic production, as well as recycling, incineration and, of course, plastic pollution.
Over the last ten years, more plastic has been produced than during the whole of the last century (280 million tonnes a year). Packaging is the largest end user market segment and nearly half of all plastic products are discarded within a year. Plastic is an amazing material that lasts for hundreds of years. Every plastic toothbrush that has ever been produced is still intact today! Unfortunately we do not have the capability yet to turn polymers back into their original building blocks. Recycling provides only partial solutions, not all countries have recycling schemes and in the UK, which probably has one of the best, only a third of consumer plastic packaging is recycled every year. Worldwide, a mere 5% of plastic is recycled.
Aiming for a lifestyle free of single-use plastic, we quickly learned the importance of being prepared. Last minute shopping is almost impossible. For fresh produce we shop at farmers markets, farm shops, bakers, butchers, health food shops and buy directly from producers near us. We have milk delivered in glass bottles and make our own pasta, hummus, mayo, crackers, muesli and biscuits. Once a month we visit shops with bulk containers where unpackaged food is sold by weight, for coffee, tea, rice, cereals, spices, olive oil, etc. We have switched to bamboo toothbrushes, shampoo soap bars and good old-fashioned safety razors. We have learned how to make toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm and creams. For cleaning the house we use citric acid, bicarbonate of soda and vinegar, cotton cloths, natural brushes and coconut fibre scrubbing pads – methods we find very effective and inexpensive. Laundry and washing up liquid refill stations are numerous in our local area.
Some household items you just cannot buy without plastic packaging and we avoid them wherever possible. These include potato crisps, ready-made meals, canned drinks, ice cream tubs, take-away food, food in cartons, magazine subscriptions, medicines, ink cartridges and more. When shopping online, we ask for non-plastic packaging with varying degrees of success. Shoes and clothes are tricky but luckily, sustainable ethical clothing is becoming very fashionable and more accessible.
On the whole we consume less and don’t spend more than before we started our experiment. We feel that our life is just as full of choice and flavour as it ever was and maybe even more so. Yes, there were disappointments, dead-ends and small ‘failures’, but also a growing sense of satisfaction and joy as our lives seemingly became simpler. As we continue to find more meaningful ways to meet our daily needs, we are more connected to our home, the people around us, the seasons and to the natural world.
Thanks for reading,
Claudi & family
How to start:
- Watch the excellent BBC series War on Plastic and Sky News Ocean Rescue report A Plastic Tide
- Buy unpackaged veg, fruit, bread, cheese and meat in fabric bags
- Find your nearest refill shop for detergents and toiletries
- Have milk delivered in bottles
- Stop buying drinks in plastic bottles
- Read our New Year’s resolutions blog post for more ideas