Category Archives: Food shopping

ONE YEAR – ONE BAG OF PLASTIC

We have just reached our first anniversary of creating a plastic-free household. During the past year we concentrated mainly on unpackaged food, cleaning materials, toiletries and plastic-free clothing. We have collected every scrap of plastic packaging that we have accidentally, or otherwise, brought into the house. This has amounted to roughly one large bagful of plastic packaging from medical supplies, items that we bought which had hidden plastic packaging inside, presents that were given to us, and also from items that seemed unavoidable. Considering that UK households produce an average of 56kg of plastic packaging waste a year, our one bag weighing no more than a couple of pounds represents a great achievement.

In reality, our single-use plastic footprint is much larger than the household figures measured by Defra and in our case, it is bigger than the single bagful collected over the course of a year. Much of our plastic waste is created outside the home, for example in the workplace, at school, in restaurants, at the petrol station, at the hairdressers, at the gym, and by pursuing hobbies and other pastimes that take us outside the home. In the supply chain of the goods I conscientiously buy ‘unpackaged’, there are unknown quantities of plastic packaging. We are not the only ones in the dark: at a recent talk given by Tesco on food waste, which I attended in Oxford, I learned that all of the large supermarket retailers “currently don’t understand or know enough” about the plastic packaging waste in their supply chains. This means that the plastic packaging that each of us is ultimately responsible for is not just in our bins at home.

Over this past year I have read report after report, attended events, talked to many people and the story is the same everywhere. Most people think there is too much plastic in their lives and that we should recycle more and develop new materials to replace plastic. However, few talk about the one solution that is surely staring us in the face. The one solution that could prevent further environmental crises and help restore local communities is ethical consumption. Ethical consumption means that you choose only what you need, what has been paid for fairly, what has been made to last, and what has been produced sustainably without hurting people, animals or the earth. I might not be a shining example of the perfect ethical consumer yet, but I am immensely interested in becoming one. It seems to be one of the few things in life that is actually within my power!

Read More:

  • Waste and Resource Statistics_2016 by the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Plastics_Market_Situation_Report_2016  by UK based WRAP, the world leaders in helping organisations achieve greater resource efficiency. Between 2010 and 2015 in England alone, WRAP initiatives reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50 million tonnes (Mt), which is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Portugal.
  • How did I calculate 56kg of plastic packaging per UK household? I used the most up-to-date figures provided in the two reports above which are for 2014 (new data is collected every two years, so the data for 2016 should be available soon). I applied this to the total number of households in the UK in 2014 as provided by the Office for National Statistics.
  • Article on Ethical Consumerism by Tania Lewis first publishd in 2012

DAIRY PRODUCTS SIMPLIFIED

For years a lot of plastic packaging in our household came from a range of dairy products. In addition to the staples of milk, cheese and butter there were pots of yoghurts, crème fraiche, soured cream, double cream, cream cheese, dips, goats milk products, individually wrapped cheeses for school lunches, spreadable Lurpak and margarine. There was a vague sense of a lot of packaging and things going past their best-by-date, unnoticed, but I’m not sure it ever fully surfaced into my consciousness as ‘wasteful’. My focus was on catering for everyone’s tastes and preferences and having everything available, all of the time. It all sounds a bit mad to me now.

I now put the emphasis on non-plastic packaging and local availability and that’s it. Milk is delivered by the milk man and cheese bought straight from a local cheesemaker – less variety but, boy, is it delicious! The only butter I buy is Waitrose essential butter wrapped in paper. It is kept in the fridge and portioned into a lovely Cornish butter dish on the counter which keeps the butter just the right side of soft for easy spreading on toast and sandwiches.

I have discovered clotted cream in glass jars which now covers all bases as far as cream is concerned. If needed, I can thin it down and it lasts for absolute ages in the fridge. Look out for it in farm shops (and Stroud farmer’s market).

One of the most useful finds has been Payon Breton’s Luxury Creamy Cheese from Waitrose which comes in a little cardboard pot sealed with foil and is delicious as a spread, making into dips and for cooking. For a perfect light pasta carbonara fry some bacon and mushrooms, combine a mixture of Breton creamy cheese with a beaten egg, a handful of grated cheddar and a ladleful of the water from the pasta. Drain the pasta, stir in the cheese & bacon mixture. The quickest dinner ever (unless you’re making pasta from scratch, that is).

CHEESE STRAIGHT FROM THE CHEESEMAKER

This week I went to a friendly local artisan cheesemaker, Godsells at Church Farm in Leonard Stanley and bought the most delicious cheddar and double Gloucester, cut straight from huge wheels wrapped in cloth. The cheese is produced at a small facility on the farm, surrounded by cowsheds, hay barns, the village and fields beyond. I could actually see the very cows who provided the milk for the cheese. From the porch I could also see the workers in their white coats, hairnets and white clogs, chatting while they worked. I found out that the milk we have delivered every week at home comes from the same herd of cows. Thursday is delivery day and if you come to the farm in the morning, you can buy cheese before it is cut and packaged in shrink wrap. I bought enough to last for 3 weeks or so, wrapped in cheese paper and charged at wholesale prices.

As I stored away the cheese in the veggie drawer of my fridge I couldn’t help feeling pretty smug knowing that the supply chain for this cheese included milk from a local farm, exactly five food miles and not much else. There are at least three local cheesemakers in this area of the Cotswolds alone and today I found out about a brand new dairy scheme, providing unpasteurised milk in our town – and I never knew any of this until recently. All it took was for me to become interested to find out.

FOOD & DRINK CARTONS ARE 20% PLASTIC

Food and drink cartons look and feel like they are made from cardboard but the 184 billion single use cartons produced annually by market leading giant Tetra Pak contain 20% polyethylene and 5% aluminium. In addition, there are the billions of plastic ‘closures’ (lids to you and I).

Before saying anything else, let me tell you that a mere 23% of those 184 billion cartons are recycled worldwide according to the Tetra Pak website. That means that the other 138 billion cartons are simply wasted, burned, dug into the earth, or worse. Tetra Pak’s overall objective is to double the rate of recycling to 40% by 2020, still leaving a whopping 60% going to waste. Whatever else Tetra Pak claim about the goodness of their products, I think their commitment to sustainability is compromised by these facts and figures.

Tetra Pak asserts that their products are “GOOD FOR YOU, GOOD FOR THE EARTH”. Their ambition is to develop a package made entirely out of material from renewable sources, including polymers derived from sugarcane ethanol. But for now, most of their purchased volumes of polymers are still derived from conventional oil and gas sources. And, whilst the cartons are in theory fully recyclable, Tetra Paks cannot be made with recycled material. If you take the term recycling to mean “recycling of a material to produce a fresh supply of the same material” (Wikipedia), Tetra Paks do not qualify.

I am not a fan of recycling. A better way to protect our natural resources and avoid pollution is to produce less packaging and to curb our consumption. Recycling just means that the disposal of packaging becomes someone else’s problem. Of the miserly estimated 30% of consumer packaging that is actually placed into recycling in the UK, over 67% is exported to other countries, much of it to Asia.

Screenshot from the Tetra Pak website: http://www.tetrapak.com/

Tetra Pak says: “food processing with Tetra Pak is all about helping customers turn their bright ideas into exciting new food products”. Their customers are the global food and drink companies who want to grow their market share. I question why we need these brightly coloured and highly processed products in the first place. What’s in it for us?

The alternative is local, seasonal food and drink, milk delivered in bottles, water from your tap and things made freshly at home or preserved in the old fashioned way. With these simple maxims you don’t need a long shelf life, easy transport across the globe or recycling technologies.

Sources and further information

Tetra Pak recycling data:
http://www.tetrapak.com/in/sustainability/recycling

Tetra Pak facts and figures:
http://www.tetrapak.com/in/about/facts-figures

The Guardian: Only a third of UK consumer plastic packaging is recycled:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/21/only-a-third-of-uk-consumer-plastic-packaging-is-recycled

The Guardian: 67%+ of UK plastic packaging waste exported in 2016:
http://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/03/13/data-uk-exporting-two-thirds-plastic-waste-amidst-concerns-illegal-practice/

UK Environment Agency’s packaging waste report:
http://npwd.environment-agency.gov.uk/Public/PublicSummaryData.aspx

Treehugger blog on Tetra Paks (from 2009):
http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/in-what-world-can-you-call-tetra-pak-green.html

OLIVE OIL REFILLS

Until I started looking for alternatives to groceries packaged in plastic, I didn’t even know that there are places where you can get oil ‘on tap’ in the UK. In the town where I live, there are two such places alone. I just take along my own 1 litre bottle and refill it. As with many other grocery items, bulk buying and refilling seems much easier in the States where regulations are different and homesteading and bulk bin shops are more common.

Perhaps you think this is not a big deal since most cooking oils are sold in glass bottles anyway. But if you are going zero-plastic, you have to consider the little plastic pouring device inside the bottle and the tamper-proof plastic seal on the outside of most bottles of oil and vinegar – I’ll wager that none of that is recycled far and wide. So, if you’re going for the Nobel prize in sustainability, you’ll have to find where your nearest oil refill station is and take your own bottle. I love it because one of the sellers in my town produces the oil at their own farm in Spain which makes me cherish it even more.

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES

With some creative thinking and a bit of planning we managed our first ever plastic-free Christmas. It was a great experience and strengthened my resolve to keep going! The emphasis was on simplicity as an antidote to the usual frenzy leading up to the holidays. It was wonderful to have a Christmas without piles of plastic boxes, trays, shrinkwraps, vacuum packs, bubble wrap, styrofoam, tamper seals, bottles, bags, labels, clingfilm… the list goes on.

The food
Buying mainly from a local food cooperative, local shops and our excellent farmers market ensured that all of the food came unpackaged or plastic-free. We had a traditional lunch of roast turkey, veggies, roast potatoes, sausages wrapped in bacon and Christmas pudding. Beer came from a local micro-brewery, eggs from our neighbour Olga, bread from the bakers, milk and orange juice in glass bottles from Mike the milkman, and so on. It’s all about making connections with shop owners, market stall holders and local producers and not being afraid to ask for what you want. For example, Juliet from Monmouthshire Turkeys was more than happy to supply the organic, free-range bird in a cardboard box with giblets wrapped in foil.

We couldn’t have managed it if we had to rely on supermarket shopping or ordering online. The small amount of supermarket shopping that we did do landed us with a few little plastic surprises such as plastic labels on jars of mayonnaise and plastic stickers on fruit. It all sounds very time-consuming but consider that we already buy our food this way and know where to go. The thought that most of the food, including the turkey came from the surrounding countryside made it seem especially delicious.

The presents
We decided to buy second-hand presents from charity shops for each other this year. I like that the money we spent goes to charitable causes and that anything we bought is given another lease of life. We found interesting books, games, films, music CDs, smart button shirts, a framed black & white photograph and useful kitchen utensils. We decided that the hard plastic covers on DVD & CDs were ok as they are ‘multi-use’  and because we would eventually return them to a charity shop for someone else to enjoy. We went to the sweet shop for stocking filler treats. Sweets are dispensed from large glass jars and weighed in to paper bags. Chocolate and Turkish Delight are sold by weight too. Normally we also give each other magazine subscriptions at Christmas. But this year we let some of the subscriptions lapse because they come in plastic wrappers (New Scientist and The Economist). We renewed the subscriptions that come in compostable wrappers such as Resurgeance and Positive News!

Christmas crackers, wrapping paper and more…
I didn’t get any Christmas crackers this year (the type you pull apart with a bang and out pop a little plastic toy, a joke and a paper crown to be worn throughout the traditional British Christmas lunch). Instead our son Toby made some posh paper crowns for us with hilarious name badges. We chose not to wrap presents. A lot of wrapping paper contains plastic and glitter or is packaged in plastic film. You can’t recycle it so it’s just better to do without it or make your own. Whenever I can, I buy box sets of greetings cards from galleries and art shops to avoid individually plastic-wrapped gift cards and I applied the same principle to Christmas cards. Lastly, tea lights and batteries gave us a bit of a headache until we discovered both being sold in cardboard boxes at the hardware store.

Our next ‘living without plastic’ challenge: my husband’s 50th birthday party in February… for 80 people!

Francesca Chalk red coffeee cup hand screen print

TEA BAGS ARE MADE FROM PAPER – AREN’T THEY?

I have always assumed that tea bags are made from paper and that the only plastic is found in the packaging. Not so. The majority of tea bags used in the UK (55 billion a year) are made by adding acrylic polymer emulsions to the plant based materials that the bags are made of and then applying a very thin layer of polypropylene to help heat-seal bags and sachets. I checked this by writing to PG Tips, Tetley’s, Typhoo, Twinings, Taylors and Clipper, all of whom replied with detailed information. You may not like the idea of potentially drinking plastic particles in your tea but also consider that this plastic material falls apart as the tea bag degrades and ends up in the soil and ultimately in the sea. This explains why I keep having to pick’ tea bag skeletons’ off my veggie patch! The damn things just won’t compost and now I know why.

I also contacted Bristol based PUKKA, an eco-friendly company who don’t use plastic in their tea bag production and use vegetable inks on their boxes which are not wrapped in a final outer layer of plastic. However, even Pukka use a polyethylene lamination in the production of the sachets. I was also really pleased to read that Pigtea‘s temple tea bags are made from corn starch rather than nylon.

Our solution at home is to buy loose tea leaves in large paper bags directly from the local health food shop, at the Whole Foods Market, tea shops and indoor markets. We keep the tea leaves in traditional tins and it takes only marginally longer to brew a ‘real’ cuppa than using a tea bag. What’s the rush anyway?

READ MORE:

The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jul/02/teabags-biodegradeable

The Telegraph
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/7865706/Tear-your-tea-bags-before-composting-watchdog-says.html

Great blog entry from Treading My own Path:

The Scandalous Plastic in Tea Bags – Who Knew?

 

WHY IS PASTA PACKAGED IN PLASTIC?

I don’t understand why pasta is packaged in plastic. It’s not like it is going to go off, is it? And it’s not like we need to know what dried pasta looks like. In Italy and many other European countries pasta is mainly packaged in cardboard. In Bremen I have recently discovered a shop where pasta is sold loose from large containers. I wrote to Carluccio’s recently, hoping that their beautiful pasta is packaged in cellophane. A lady called Paola Pignataro replied: “The majority of our pasta packets are made of polypropylene, resin code PP5, therefore recyclable depending on local council policies.” She didn’t mention why they use plastic in the first place. Our council doesn’t allow that type of plastic in the recycling box and it would not surprise me if the majority of it is not recycled in the UK as a whole.

Once we ran out of pasta following our family’s non-plastic pledge in May 2016 we struggled to find an alternative. When we came across the Barilla range of pasta on our summer holiday in France this summer we quickly loaded up our car boot. Pasta is now a special treat at our house which is probably better for our waistline!

RE-LEARNING HOW TO SHOP

One of the more challenging aspects of supermarket shopping the zero plastic way is buying cheese, meat and fish (vegans, you may wish to skip this section). Husband Pete is much better at this than I am. He will cheerily challenge whoever happens to be serving him behind the counter to use tongs for picking up produce and to wrap it in waxed paper instead of plastic bags, or to use the boxes we bring along. I myself, on the other hand, become all apologetic and give up far too easily if met with any resistance. I break out in a sweat as I watch them struggle trying to squeeze oversized slices of cheese into the box. Often the wrapping paper is not quite big enough or just keeps popping open and everything just takes so much longer and a long queue starts forming behind me… Awkward!

I much prefer shopping at local shops such as the bakery, the butcher, green grocer or the health food shop. For a start you can get good local produce but also the owners and shop assistants get to know you and are generally more flexible. Take Over Farm Market, for example, who have a stall at the Stroud farmers market as well as a well-stocked shop on the other side of Gloucester. This family-run business produce their own veggies, fruit and farm meat. They also sell loose frozen peas & fruit, fresh quiches, pies, cheese and all sorts of other goodies. Rob, the butcher at Over Farm is always happy to put produce into the boxes we bring along and just slaps a label on the lid (see pic). He has actually signed up to my blog – hello Rob!

For my local friends, here is a list of shops I use most regularly for basic items:

  • Kendrick Street Deli for ham, cheese and even salads in non-plastic tubs
  • Sunshine and Hobbs for bread, cakes, rolls
  • Merrywalks’ veg & fruit stall
  • Farmers market for olive oil refills, eggs, bread, veggies, local honey
  • Jollies for a great range of veg & fruit, local meat and bread (expensive)
  • Stroud Valley Project for cleaning liquid refills
  • Sunshine for plastic free toilet paper, shampoo soap bars and shaving soap bars

The link between food miles and plastic is obvious: local produce on the whole does not need to be wrapped in plastic because it doesn’t need to be transported and kept on shelves or in fridges for months on end. Good for us, the local economy and the planet.

ABEEGO WRAP INSTEAD OF CLING FILM

Imagine a material for wrapping food that is made entirely from natural materials and is washable, re-useable, multi-purpose and smells deliciously of beeswax… If you have never come across Abeego, do check out the lovely couple who invented it and the beautiful Abeego website. Widely available in the UK and worldwide, I have seen it in farm shops, kitchen shops, health food shops, even gift shops, as well as online. You can buy small, medium and large sheets to wrap around anything except raw meat. It keeps food fresh naturally and is great for wrapping bread and cheese for example, or for covering left-overs in the fridge. The sheets are pliable but fairly stiff from the beeswax so they stay in place where you’ve folded them. They are water repelling and don’t seem to take on the smell of the food. I adore this wrap because it is natural, beautiful and so practical. It is a bit of an investment if you’re used to buying cling film. Mine have lasted really well since I bought them a few months ago and I can’t see any use for cling film now. I think this is another great win for living without plastic!

Where to buy Abeego in the UK: http://www.asliceofgreen.co.uk/food-wraps-and-bags/