Friday, 9 September 2016

Life Without Plastic: A Zero Waste Experiment

This week is Zero Waste Week in the UK and in a totally winging it planned pledge I decided I was going to try and not eat any food that comes in plastic packaging. For five days. Doesn't sound that hard, right? Well I tried... And failed.

Why give up plastic? 

Last year I moved from an area where you could chuck pretty much anything recyclable in your household recycling bin, to a council where they would only accept plastic bottles. Which meant all the plastic packaging and wrappers that come with our food goes straight into the general waste.

There is also rather a lot of information out there about the bad things plastic is doing to our bodies and the environment. I'm not going to go into detail here, but a quick google search throws up a selection of scientific (and not so scientific) studies on the topic.

I haven't done a detailed analysis, but I reckon about 95 percent of what we throw into our general waste each week is plastic. Which feels, well, wrong. With the helpful push of Zero Waste Week, it was time to take action.

The rules

I tried to make it easy for myself, mainly because I hadn't planned this at all, and had not prepped or even really thought about how I was going to manage this for the week. I'd also made social plans that I didn't want to cancel. So the rules were as follows:

  • I couldn't buy or eat any food which came in plastic packaging.
  • Eating out was ok, as long as the food didn't come in a plastic container. So restaurant / cafe meals were in, but pre-packaged sandwiches were out.
  • Plastic bottles were excluded (as we can recycle them).

When I posted my pledge on Twitter, Rae Strauss, the lady behind Zero Waste Week commented that I'd picked a challenging one. I felt smug. Until I went to the supermarket for lunch.

A sea of plastic

When I look back, I realise I hadn't thought through exactly how much of the food we buy comes in plastic. I figured I'd follow my usual principles of trying to buy loose fruit and veg, and get the rest of my meals from tins and jars.

I walked into the supermarket and was faced with this:

More plastic...

 And it was only then that I realised how much of the food I love I wouldn't be eating this week.

How I tried to quit plastic (and failed)

I left that supermarket with two thoughts: I was going to be eating a lot of bananas, and would need to do a lot of cooking from scratch. Neither of which I have a problem with in principle, but I had a busy week ahead.

Fortunately we have a decent cafe at work, who have got used to the weird Sustainability Manager who insists on taking her lunch out on a proper plate instead of a plastic takeaway container. Normally I eat at the cafe once a week, tops. This week it was three days out of five, and on one of the other days I was at a work event. Yup, there was a lot of cheating going on.

Having informed my other half of our new culinary arrangements by text, I got home from work to be proudly presented with a black bean, vegetable and quinoa tagine (we were also on vegan day - I know, he puts up with a lot). Black beans - tin. Vegetables - loose or tinned. Quinoa - jar (kind of).

New rule:

  • Food which has been transferred from plastic bags to jars is ok.
Even stretching the rules, I know in my heart this is cheating. Over the course of the week I fail to keep my pledge in many small, yet significant ways.  I bake home-made biscuits, so I have a snack to eat at work (other than bananas) and despite using flour, sugar, oil and vanilla essence from paper bags and glass bottles, I fail when it comes to baking powder. Can you even buy baking powder that's not in a plastic container?

Our vegetable bag arrives half way through the week; a great big brown paper bag of fresh veggies, with not a scrap of plastic in sight. And it includes potatoes, the one carbohydrate that doesn't seem to come in plastic packaging. Winner.

By Friday I just really want some halloumi cheese to go with my salad. But ALL cheese comes in plastic. All of it. Maybe this is why zero waste gurus are often vegan? But there is salvation: wine (glass bottle) and chocolate (foil and cardboard wrapper). The. End.

Why we can't give up plastic

So I failed in my zero waste target. But the experiment really opening my eyes to the reality of zero waste living. And the reality is, that for the vast majority of us it is not achievable.

Yes, there are people who live this life, and I admire them for it. But most of the blogs I have come across are from US bloggers who live in cities or states where they have bulk-buy stores. I don't even know if there still are any similar stores in the UK (though I imagine there may be in London). And whether they stay open late enough to cater for people who have full-time, office based jobs.

For those of us who don't live in close proximity to Whole Foods or a cosy high street with a string of independent butchers, fishmongers and grocers, the reality is that we're reliant on supermarkets. And whilst supermakets continue to insist on packaging everything up in plastic, we will continue to fill our waste bins with these unsustainable waste products.

To end on a positive note, I have attuned my plastic-free eye to scout out the products you can buy at your local supermarket which do not have a scrap of plastic packaging. And there are small changes you can make to your shopping habits that will make a difference. But that is another blog, for another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment