Why did your family decide to live without plastic for one year?
We had been noticing for some years that there was more and more plastic packaging every time we went shopping. The supermarket trend seemed to be towards ever increasing packaging such as plastic foils and trays, tetrapaks and ready-made-meals boxes. A lot of plastic packaging consists of mixed materials or types of plastic that cannot be recycled. In the UK we put our rubbish for landfill into big black plastic bags and we had noticed that we were putting increasingly more black bags out every week which made us feel guilty. We had also noticed that litter, particularly plastic litter, was more apparent along roads and in towns and cities in the UK. I also felt that I was touching plastic all day long – from the moment we turn of the alarm clock, brush our teeth, wash our hair, prepare breakfast, right through to driving to work, using laptops, phones, doing the shopping – everything seems to be packaged in plastic or made of plastic, including our clothes and shoes. This may seem a strange notion, but I felt as if I was experiencing the world through a layer of plastic. The turning point for me came when I swam in the Mediterranean, off a beautiful clean beach on Mallorca in 2015. I noticed strange long pieces of deteriorated plastic sheets and plastic bags under the surface of the water, wrapping themselves around my feet. I saw nappies, plastic bags and other pieces of plastic floating below the surface and it scared me. When we returned from holiday, I looked up plastic pollution of the sea and came across many shocking reports and videos of sea birds and whales suffering because of huge amounts of ingested plastic litter, seals getting entangled in nets and plastic debris, and a harrowing account of a large turtle with an entire plastic drinking straw up its nose. I also came across the concept of a ‘plastic pledge’ such as the worldwide Plastic-free July which made me think whether it would be possible to just not buy any plastic at all and what would happen if we tried it for a year?
Why is it important for people to use less plastic?
When we started our experiment and looked into lots of research reports, I learned that the problem is not just the plastic litter that we can see but that there is a much bigger problem with plastic – in particular single use plastic. Plastic particles can be found on the bottom of the sea, in arctic ice, in our drinking water, in table salt, in the soil, in river beds, in the food chain and even in our own bodies. This is because plastic, unless it is incinerated, degrades into ever smaller pieces and stays in our environment for hundreds and thousands of years.
Since the days when plastic was first invented, an estimated 8300 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced. As of 2015, approximately 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills (Roland Geyer, J. R. 2017, Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Science Advances). You will need to let these figures sink in to really understand the impact. If only 9% of all plastic every produced has been recycled, you realise that recycling is a red herring – it does not work nor has it ever worked. Furthermore, the largest source of plastic packaging in the UK for example is the grocery retail sector, accounting for almost 43% of plastic packaging (WRAP, 2016). This means that if households refuse plastic packaging, most of which is single-use, we can stop producing almost half the amount of plastic that is currently polluting our oceans and our soil. This is something that each and every one of us can begin to do straight away, starting today! You can refuse plastic bottles, plastic drink straws, buy your vegetables without plastic packaging and so forth. The power is in your hand, no need to wait for legislation and law changes. If many people take these small actions, we are sending out a powerful message to manufacturers and the boardrooms of big corporations.
What did you do when the year was finished?
We started not buying any plastic on the first of May 2016 for one year, to see whether it was possible to live that way and how different life would be. When our experiment came to an end in May 2017 we kept going to large degree because our new lifestyle has become normal to us now. We buy almost zero single-use plastic or plastic packaging other than for medicines or items that are used for a long time. We often buy second hand items, repair broken items instead of buying new and we make many things ourselves. This sort of lifestyle has meant that we ‘consume’ a lot less than we did before. Our waste is minimal and we have only tiny amounts of rubbish that go into landfill. Once you have started to live in this new way there is no need to go back to the old ways.
How was the transition from living a life with plastic to living without it?
At first it was very difficult to source even the most basic foods and things we needed unpackaged – milk, pasta, rice, toilet paper – it seemed that just about everything was wrapped in plastic. We didn’t allow ourselves to compromise in any way in that first year and just used 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! Some things that we had to give up included ready-made-meals, potato snacks, biscuits, crackers and muesli bars for example. We learned very quickly to make some basic things ourselves, like toothpaste and deodorant. We had to learn to shop in markets, farm shops and find refill shops. We soon learned that there is a lot of invisible plastic that we had never thought about: for example canned food and drink tins are lined with plastic, the lids of glass jars are lined in plastic, tea bags are made with plastic, a lot of fabric and materials such as soles for shoes are made from plastic, even the shiny printed ink on cardboard packaging boxes is made from synthetic polymers. We tried to cut all of these things out in this first year which took us on an interesting journey of finding local producers and makers and buying directly from people that make clothes or food. We switched to bamboo toothbrushes and old fashioned safety razors. We clean our house with just three ingredients and use cotton cloths and coconut fibre scrub pads.
Do your children live plastic free as well? What do they do in social situations and when they are at school?
Our son Toby was 16 years old at the time and our son Oli was at university in the Netherlands. I asked Toby and my husband whether they wanted to join me in the experiment of no plastic for one year and they both said yes, absolutely! Toby takes a packed lunch to school which he makes at home. He spoke to his school to find out if they could reduce plastic in the school canteen and he talks to his friends about what we are doing. He also encouraged me to use social media more and to spread the word. He was very happy to participate in everything we did at home and was very supportive. I don’t think he became a total ‘purist’ like me and my husband, which is fine and that’s his own decision. My other son Oli tried to implement some of things we do at his student accommodation. He started by making his flatmates recycle properly and he switched to using safety razors and bamboo toothbrushes and buys unpackaged food as much as possible. He has also taken up the topic of plastic pollution in his dissertation which is about the way a movement that starts with an individual can spread through the use of the internet and social media and by individuals ‘signaling’ what they are willing to do if other’s will join them.
How do you go about finding plastic free options when for example buying groceries?
We started going to our weekly farmers market, farm shops, butchers and fishmongers – much like our grandmothers would have shopped before the onset of supermarket and convenience shopping. We found the shops that sell dried goods unpackaged, such as tea, coffee, rice, pasta, lentils, muesli, nuts etc. We also found local refill shops where you can bring a bottle to fill up for toiletries such as shampoo and shower gel and cleaning materials. To my surprise there were quite a few such shops and more of these are opening every month. Many shop owners were very happy for us to bring our own boxes for meat or fish or cheese to be put in. I have lots of little fabric bags for items such as pasta, pulses, vegetables and fruit so that we don’t use so many paper bags. We soon learned that we had to plan ahead because ‘last minute shopping’ is not really possible. Because we cook more from scratch, we have simplified our meals and the ingredients are naturally more seasonal and locally sourced now. I wouldn’t be surprised if our diet is also a lot healthier now. For a special treat we go out but of course we do realise that there is a lot of plastic in the supply chain of groceries and also when we are eating at restaurants. We grow herbs and some basic vegetables in pots and make hummus and crackers and lots of other things such as nut milks that are easy to make at home.
To store food we use glass jars, metal boxes, pottery and bees wax wraps instead of cling film. The waxed wraps keep food fresh for longer in the fridge, such as cheese for example, and are great for wrapping sandwiches too.
How do other people react to the family’s decision of living a plastic free life?
We have had so much support, it has been an unbelievably positive experience. Family and friends helped us spread the word, sent us info, made some plastic free choices for themselves, organized for us to give talks to groups of people and are generally always encouraging. Only a handful of people have made serious adjustments for themselves which made us realise that you need to feel a very urgent pull towards this lifestyle in order to make lasting changes to the way you shop, cook and clean. That is why we are also campaigning for law changes and for supermarket chains and manufacturers to come on board. But there is real power in doing something about your own plastic usage. We also started local groups to help reduce single-use plastic in our town. The interest and support we have received has been very positive.
How has it changed your life?
My life is simpler in many ways because going to the market once a week, restocking dried groceries once a month, and having items such as milk delivered to our house means that I spend less time hopping into shops and buying last minute groceries. I rarely shop online because it is too difficult to do plastic-free. We spend more time cooking together and enjoying the simple act of making tea with loose tea leaves for example, which feels a more mindful way of doing things. Slowly our house has transformed into a space that feels more natural with less clutter and stuff around. We try and repair anything that we already own and have started looking after our possessions in a more caring way. We are so alert to waste and unnecessary packaging that it has become normal to refuse single-use plastic. When we do need to replace something like a laptop or buy things in plastic such as medicines, we continue to explore the alternatives and only buy it if we really need it (I recently was given a bamboo wireless keyboard and mouse – brilliant!). You could say that our ‘consumerism’ has diminished as much as our rubbish has diminished.
How much of your day do you have to plan to be able to live a life without plastic?
We strive towards living a life without plastic because it continually makes us think about what the alternatives are. What we have already achieved is to reduce single-use plastic by more than 90% in our household. We live normal lives: we go to work and to school, we drive cars and go on holiday. To the outsider it would not seem that we are different from anyone else. But we have completely different habits and new ways of doing things – some are quick no-brainers (like making toothpaste) others take a little planning or preparing. Last minute shopping is difficult so I make sure our freezer and food cupboards are reasonably well stocked and that there is a big paper sack of potatoes from the local farm so that we always have options for making a quick, simple meal. We also have things regularly delivered such as eggs, milk, orange juice, unpackaged toilet paper in bulk and more. I often put beans or chickpeas out to soak before I go to bed so that they are ready to use for cooking the next day. It’s not a chore, it’s just something I need to remember and you just get used to those routine jobs. We make the time to prepare our packed lunches and fill up our water bottles before we go out in the morning. Shopping is done very much at the same time every week: we go to the weekly farmers market or farm shops and less frequently to our zero waste shop for loose produce like pasta, rice, cereal and oil & vinegar refills.
What do you do when you go on holiday? Is it difficult to adjust when you are in another place?
Yes, we do go on holiday and we plan ahead. It is harder when you don’t know where the right shops are. Recently we went on a winter holiday to Switzerland and we did end up with more plastic packaging waste than at home but we continued to make our own packed lunches, took our own drinking water bottles, bought loose fruit and veggies and kept refusing single-use plastic. We noticed for example that in the resort where we were not one single café served milk or cream in jars – they all used little single plastic containers. So, we just drank black coffee for a week. My husband Pete takes his own food on business travels by airplane, he always has his bamboo cutlery in his briefcase and takes a metal water bottle everywhere.
Would you recommend other people to live a plastic free life?
YES, absolutely. The growing awareness of plastic pollution will demand it of us all. So, get ahead of the game and get creative. It is actually so much fun and wherever we go people want to talk about it and engage with us. When the UK government introduced a small charge on plastic bags in supermarkets, the number of bags handed out reduced by 84% in just a few short months. This shows that something that seems inconvenient (always remembering to bring your own shopping bags) can become a new habit almost overnight. This was our experience also: once we had the conviction we just started a new way of doing things which has become normal to us.
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in making the transition themselves?
My advice is to start with something that is easy to do but will have a big impact. Pick anything from the list below and make sure that you know why you want to do it. Have a great reason, one that really connects with your conscience, with your heart, with who you want to be and the footprint you want to leave behind. We found that just by doing what we are doing, friends, family and people around us feel impacted in a positive way. They start thinking about their own ‘single use plastic usage’ and they want to do something themselves. But it only really seems to work if you understand the reason why and set it up in such a way that you will keep doing it. If you aim too high with too many changes straight away, you might feel like it’s too hard and you may give up on it, making you feel worse than before!
• Buy loose, unpackaged fruit and vegetables
• Give up plastic bottles and buy drinks, oil etc in glass bottles instead
• Get your cheeses wrapped in paper
• Ask your butcher/fishmonger if you can bring your own boxes
• Give up Tetrapak and make your own nut milks etc – it’s so easy!
• Invest in stainless steel water bottles and refill on the go
• Make your own packed lunches and hot drinks in thermos flasks
• Get milk delivered in glass bottles
• Buy bread loaves in paper bags
• Switch to bamboo toothbrushes and try out a simple toothpaste recipe
• Find your nearest refill place for laundry & washing up detergents
• Try out shampoo bars and use nice soap instead of shower gels
• Switch from tea bags to tea leaves – most tea bags contain plastic
• Give up ready-made meals
• Make your own hummus, dips, snacks, biscuits, crackers… get creative!