The UK - a small island and home of only the world’s 21st largest population, produces a horrifying 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, 2.2 million tonnes of which takes the form of packaging (according to Wrap’s report). Take a moment to consider the plastic that sneaks stealthily into your house without you even thinking about it: just this evening, I have taken plastic wrapper off green beans, poured pasta out of a plastic bag, cut mince out of plastic wrapper, ground pepper from a plastic grinder, unwrapped parmesan from its plastic shell and poured olive oil from a plastic bottle. And I consider myself to be pretty conscientious!
It doesn’t help that supermarkets are hopelessly addicted to plastic packaging. Plastic is a cheap, lightweight option in which to package products, and an essential for many products that need to be kept sterile, but there are many instances where it is absolutely avoidable. In my local branch of the normally impressively ethical Waitrose, limes are proffered in pairs in a plastic tray and wrapped in plastic cellophane (at a fabulously expensive £1 a pop), while M&S sells pre-sliced avocado in a plastic pot - presumably treated with something to stop it going brown. And there’s the famous story that went viral last year when Whole Foods - whose ethos is to provide food in its natural form (‘whole food’, indeed) - decided to sell pre-peeled oranges in plastic pots. To their credit, Whole Foods pulled the product from its shelves following uproar on social media.
Things are starting to change, however. The biggest and most obvious improvement has been the 5p plastic bag charge, introduced in England by the government in October 2015 and mandating all companies with more than 250 full-time employees to charge consumers for plastic bags. The effect of this law has been dramatic - in the first six months of the charge, the number of single use plastic bags used by English shoppers reduced by a huge 85% - from 7bn to 500m by the seven largest supermarkets, and 90% of shoppers now take their own bags to the supermarket (moreover, nearly £30m from the 5p charge was donated to good causes in the first six months). More recently and thanks to a petition signed by nearly 160,000 people, several major supermarkets have banished plastic-stemmed cotton buds from their shelves (see last week’s post!). There is obviously a move towards greater awareness of the quantity of plastic produced by supermarkets and consumers as a whole; however, there’s more to be done - as a Spectator blogger pointed out, it seems counter intuitive to charge for shopping bags but then have plastic wrappers and polythene bags at every pace in the supermarket itself. What’s so wrong with the old fashioned brown paper bag at the veggie aisle?
So how can you, the conscientious shopper, bring less plastic into your home and therefore contribute to a global effort to keep plastic out of landfill and out of the oceans? A few ideas are below but as always please do comment to let us know your tips!
Starting with an obvious (and money-saving) one - bring bags with you to the supermarket - either previously used plastic ones or, even better, canvas shoppers. If, like me, your memory is somewhat unreliable, it’s worth keeping a stash folded at the bottom of your bag or pocket. Take this one step further by bringing paper bags for loose fruit and veg (e.g. beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, strawberries) and don’t use any bags at all for lemons and oranges etc - you might get an odd look at the checkout but it’s worth it! Try to avoid fruit and veg wrapped in plastic if you can.
Encourage your supermarket to start offering a refill service for things like washing detergent, washing-up liquid, shampoo and conditioner, hand wash, shower gel, pasta, rice, pulses and nuts. Even better - support small local businesses who are already offering a similar service, such as Unpackaged at Planet Organic in London’s Muswell Hill.
Another more radical option is to avoid the supermarket altogether and support local and/or specialist small businesses. Oddbox not only supplies boxes of beautiful and delicious wonky fruit and veg, but does so totally sans plastic so you’re doubling your sustainable brownie points! Crafty Nomad’s founder Lucy was delighted with her first box the other day. Your local farmer’s market is a great place to buy delicious, locally farmed and unpackaged meat - and obviously it’s amazing to be able to support farmers directly. If you’re lucky enough to have a local milkman, the milk is often delivered in the classic glass bottles - very retro chic and 100% recyclable.
Drink wine, not juice!! Obviously we say this tongue in cheek and do not recommend swigging pinot instead of OJ at breakfast time, but it is striking that wine is almost invariably sold in glass bottles while juice is always in plastic bottles or plasticised cartons. You can even make use of popular refill stops such as Borough Wines. As Hattie Garlick, the Spectator blogger mentioned above said, the righteous are rewarded after all!
You may well be thinking that you, as a single consumer, can only have a limited effect on the amount of plastic in our landfills and in our oceans, particularly in the face of society’s reliance on plastic. However, at Crafty Nomad we firmly believe that putting pressure on businesses and institutions to make fundamental changes at the top end is a vital ingredient in a wider push towards a more sustainable culture - and every person counts.
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