Category Archives: Getting started

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

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

Happy New Year to you! Do you want to make a change and start using less plastic in your life? Here are some great ideas with real impact to get you started:

  1. Switch to buying unpackaged fruit and vegetables – find your local farm shop
  2. Switch to paper or reusable fabric produce bags at the shops
  3. Switch to stainless steel tins or glass jars for food storage
  4. Switch to a stainless steel water bottle and take it with you wherever you go
  5. Switch to soap and shampoo bars to avoid plastic bottles
  6. Switch to bamboo toothbrushes and try out a simple toothpaste recipe
  7. Switch to cosmetics and bathroom products without microbeads
  8. Switch to washing powder in cardboard boxes
  9. Switch to milk in glass bottles delivered to your door
  10. Switch from tea bags to tea leaves – most tea bags contain plastic
  11. For a bonus point watch the new film ‘A Plastic Ocean’ available on iTunes and share it with your families and friends

See my blog posts for resources, research, how-to-make-things, where to shop and more. I’m looking forward to sharing more this year as I get better at living without plastic.

SHAMPOO SOAP BARS

One of the most enjoyable discoveries I have made since we stopped buying anything packaged in plastic are shampoo soap bars. Unpackaged and made from just a few ingredients, shampoo bars are good for your hair and scalp and so easy to switch to. They can last up to three times as long as a bottle of shampoo and you’ll be amazed at the variety and quantity available. If you are worried that your hair won’t be as soft, manageable and clean, or if you are worried about colour treated hair, dandruff or a build-up of soap in your hair, then let me put your mind at rest. Since using shampoo soap bars which are mild and often hand-made with natural essential oils, I have not needed any conditioner or restorative treatments and my hair is easy to brush and very healthy.

The ordinary bottle of shampoo on the supermarket shelf contains a concoction of 20+ chemical ingredients that have various levels of toxicity. Some strip your hair and scalp of natural oils (detergents SLS and SLES) whilst others coat your hair with silicon-based substances. The ill effects of chemical preservatives called parabens are relatively well known. Many of the ingredients are petroleum based and the by-products from the production of fragrances include dioxin and formaldehyde.

There are many organic shampoos on the market but they all seem to be bottled in plastic. It never seizes to amaze me that the purest of ingredients imaginable are nevertheless packaged in plastic. There is an anti-shampoo movement out there called ‘no poo’  whose members advocate washing hair with bicarbonate of soda and apple cider vinegar. But I love using shampoo bars because it allows me to carry on with the daily ritual of washing my hair with something that smells good and makes lots of bubbles.

Where to buy shampoo bars:

  • Wild Sage – small family-run business near Bristol, hand crafting cold processed soaps and skin-loving balms from natural ingredients. https://www.wild-sage.co.uk/
  • One Village sell a beautiful neem and sandalwood shampoo bars suitable for hair and skin, containing no animal fats. This UK based foundation works directly with community organisations in some of the most economically stretched parts of the world since 1979: http://onevillage.org/#ixzz4TDC7GIgy http://onevillage.org/soap.htm
  • The Natural Soap is a small, ethical company based in Norfolk who sell gorgeous tropical coconut and neem shampoo bars made by a cold-process soap making method with a basic mixture of vegetable oils and fats, sodium hydroxide, water, natural nutrients and essential oils: http://www.naturalsoap.co.uk/
  • Living Naturally – vegan, homemade in the UK, organic and 100% natural, Ayurvedic but a little more expensive: http://www.soapnuts.co.uk/collections/soapnut-soap-and-shampoo/products/ayurvedic-soapnut-shampoo-bar-90g
  • Lush – warning: products contain SLS and other synthetic ingredients. Lush products are somewhat controversial as a lot of the ingredients are not as organic or green as their image and marketing would suggest. However, if you are starting out on the journey of zero-plastic packaging, Lush offer a quick and easy high street solution with some 20 different unpackaged shampoo and conditioning soap bars for different hair types. https://uk.lush.com/products/shampoo-bars

Read more:

What’s really in your shampoo?
http://www.salon.com/2009/08/13/shampoo/

5 Toxic chemicals probably found in your shampoo
http://naturalsociety.com/5-toxic-chemicals-probably-found-shampoo/

Where do all the shampoo bottles go?
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/21/only-a-third-of-uk-consumer-plastic-packaging-is-recycled

The No Shampoo Method
https://www.nopoomethod.com/

Guardian article on Lush
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/12/observer-ethical-awards-2014-winners-lush

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.

RECYCLING IS MAKING MY HEAD SPIN

I think there is a big problem with recycling that many have not really considered. When we recycle, we  believe that we are doing something good for the environment. We pay our taxes to the council for waste disposal and we rejoice in the growing percentage of recycling collected across the country. Councils continually encourage us to collected even MORE recycling! But we don’t dwell too much on what happens after we have dutifully filled our recycling bins and put them out to be collected. We somehow feel that we have done our duty and that it is now someone else’s problem or opportunity. After all, we have paid twice for our rubbish: once in the shops, so to speak, and then once more in the form of taxes to get rid of it. We rarely curb our consumerism or repair and reuse – because it’s cheaper to buy new and everything else is recycled anyway. Isn’t it?…

Meanwhile, the demand for products and packaging rises and the mountains of waste continue to litter the oceans and the earth’s raw materials are running out.

This week I have spent a lot of time trying to find out what happens to our recycling once it has been collected. UK recycling statistics differ widely depending on which articles and reports you read. Readily available figures tell us how much is collected by councils but is it really hard to find out how much of it is actually recycled and how. I want to know how much of it is reused or turned into something else useful that does not  burden the environment. In 2013, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was accused of lying to citizens about what happens to their carefully collected recycling. It was alleged that most of the waste shipped abroad for recycling is so contaminated it cannot be used and instead ends up in landfill in countries like China, Indonesia and India. Defra admitted in their own report that once the recycling is out of UK waters it is out of their hands and in most cases they do not know what happens to it.

There are items that can be recycled into the same type of products again and again, such as glass and aluminium for example. The problem lies with plastics and mixed materials. In these cases even the good recycle schemes, like turning plastic bottles into fleece sweaters and other garments, cause unforeseen problems when you look at the entire cycle. Fleeces and other synthetic fabrics shed microplastic particles in the washing machine which are too small to be filtered out by sewage plants. 190,000 tonnes of microplastic particles are washed into the oceans every year (June 2016 report by Eunomia ‘Plastics in the Marine Environment’). This toxic plastic material is ingested by marine life and thus travels up the food chain and wreaks havoc with our eco system. Incineration of plastic bottles to produce electricity is another scheme that is in turn praised and condemned for various reasons but one thing is clear – it relies on the steady supply of more plastic bottles!

I have come to the conclusion that recycling is fraught with difficulty and that without a shadow of a doubt the better alternative is to reduce our waste in the first place. Because of the lack of information and confusing statistics, simplifying things is sometimes really useful: in the final analysis, the world is manufacturing petro-chemical products on a vast scale and ‘recycling’, incinerating or burying petro-chemical products on a vast scale. Just stop it.

DISHWASHING WITHOUT PLASTIC

Here is an ingenious alternative to plastic washing-up brushes, the ubiquitous yellow sponge, green scourers and metal scrubbing pads. I give you Michael’s Original washing-up pads and scourers for kitchens and bathrooms, made from the loofah plant, or the Safix scrub pad made from natural coconut fibre. 100% compostable, non-toxic, hygienic, effective and long-lasting. Only a click away on Amazon for a multipack of five wrapped in cardboard. I can buy them from The Green Shop at Bisley or the Stroud Valleys Project Shop in Stroud. We have used them for several months and husband Pete is delighted: “These are tougher than the yellow plastic sponges and plastic brushes, they do a better job, they don’t gunge up and they last so much longer.”  The coconut scourer is tough but doesn’t scratch pots and pans. The loofah is soft and squeaky when wet and is brilliant for cleaning dishes, cutlery and glass. I’m happy too, because Pete is doing the dishes!

Yellow kitchen sponges with the green or white scouring pads are made from petroleum and are 0% biodegradeable. They shed microplastic into the water as they deteriorate and at best they last a few weeks. Basically they are a complete nightmare for the environment and everyone uses them. I still have some lurking under the sink because we used to buy them in spades. I look at them suspiciously now that I have my new loofah-friend – not quite sure what to do with them… If I’d known how easy it is to find an alternative, I would have surely switched years ago.

Why not give them a try: http://www.greenbrands.co.uk/michaelsoriginals.html – they don’t cost the Earth!

NB: also available as bathroom scourers:

Michael’s Bathroom Scourer

 

REDUCING OUR RUBBISH

Look at these pictures! In the metal bin is one week’s worth of rubbish for landfill in a black bag – a fraction of the amount we usually collect over the space of one week. In the green bag are two week’s worth of plastic, tin and foil for recycling (sporting our last two bottles of shampoo… bye bye liquid shampoo and hello shampoo soap bars). We literally stood staring into the bin when it dawned on us that the landfill rubbish we collect is dramatically shrinking. It was the most gratifying feeling and has really boosted our motivation.

It’s no wonder really when you consider that most of our family shopping is now wrapped in paper bags, or in glass jars, bottles, tins and in our own containers that we take to shops. Our grocery shopping looks quite pretty now I think. Not surprisingly it is also cheaper than buying pre-packed items and there is less food wasted as we only buy small amounts at a time. Gone are the days of bags of pre-washed salad turning to slime in our fridge. I read that 30% of Tesco lettuce is discarded in the process of producing the bagged kind and that the majority of bought lettuce bags are thrown away before they’ve been used up because they sit in our fridges for too long. That is a lot of wasted food and packaging going straight into landfill.

I can’t wait for November when Stroud Council is introducing cooked food waste collection. We put our kitchen scraps on the compost heap but I don’t like putting cooked food on there. Next step: finding an alternative to black bin bags. We thought we might ask the farmer next door if they would let us have the paper bags of animal feed when they are done with them. I wonder whether we can persuade the rubbish collectors to stop throwing black plastic bags on the drive with each collection?

BUYING UNPACKAGED FOOD

Week 3 or so and we are still going strong. Local milk is now being delivered in bottles to the back door (joy!) and we have discovered the Whole Foods Market. This is a chain of supermarkets where you can buy food loose or in bulk using your own containers or the shop’s paper bags and refill bottles etc. I absolutely love that shop – it’s sort of like a posh indoor organic farmers market. There are 9 of them in the UK, mostly in London but it is a very well known chain in America. At the moment I am mainly concentrating on food, household items and cosmetics. We still have lots of things in our cupboards that we haven’t had to replace yet and I am busy researching alternatives (toothbrushes, moisturisers, razor blades… a seemingly endless list of items). What I have learned so far into this experiment is: A) there are LOTS of things we have to do without because there are no non-plastic alternatives to my knowledge; B) we have to make lots of things ourselves from scratch to avoid plastic packaging; C) avoiding plastic packaging naturally results in eating seasonal & healthy food, reduced food miles, eating less processed foods, and it dramatically reduces waste and encourages re-using or recycling. Our proudest moment was when it dawned on us that we hadn’t taken the kitchen bin out for 2 weeks because there was only a tiny amount in it. And we haven’t bothered putting our bi-weekly recycling box out for collection either because it is also strangely empty.

GETTING STARTED ON MILK BOTTLES

On the 1st of May 2016, we begun the journey of avoiding all food and household items that have plastic packaging of any kind. In at the deep end. Went to the farmers market, a natural food supermarket, health food shop, deli, farm shop and an ordinary supermarket to see what I could get. I went prepared with my cloth bags, of course, and a number of small paper bags just in case. Managed to buy just over half of the items on my shopping list. The fishmonger at the market and the woman at the deli shop obligingly used my paper bags to wrap my items in. A few things I bought had cardboard on the outside but then turned out to be lined in plastic or wrapped in plastic foil (coffee beans, biscuits, tea bags, oatcakes, corn crackers). Very interesting exercise.

It must be difficult for shops to sell stuff in small quantities and keep it fresh – hence all the plastic/foil packaging. Also found out that the only butcher in Stroud has closed its doors! Next stop: wholesalers for bulk shopping and online shops to see what they have to offer. In the meantime I signed on to a local milk delivery service which has turned out to be a real joy and we love our milk man and the stylish classic glass bottles. I highly recommend this as a first step for anyone. Also made a batch of mayo, humus and taramasalata. Laughable how easy this is provided you have a food processor and can be bothered.