Plastic Free July wrap

Last month I joined millions of people across 150 countries participating in Plastic Free July – an initiative that aims to raise awareness around the issue of plastic pollution and encourage everyone to take steps to consume less single use plastic. I fell down the #zerowaste rabbit hole about three years ago, so participating in Plastic Free July for the first time was an opportunity to do a bit of an audit of where we are at with our plastic consumption.

So here it is…one month worth of plastic waste! This includes all the plastic waste that my partner and I produced in our house, plus pretty much everything that I used outside the house.

Picture

Um, so July wasn’t entirely free of plastic…
I’m not super sure how this compares to everyone else – it’s a bit hard to gauge what everyone is squishing into those mason jars sometimes – but perhaps you had one of two reactions. If you are thinking “wow, that’s a ridiculously small amount of waste for two people to generate in a month” – then remember that we are two relatively time and money-rich adults who can choose to support local, plastic-free businesses (and enjoy doing so!). If you are thinking “erm, you call that zero waste?!?” – then (a) please be kind and (b) remember that while bulk stores are coming to Cardiff, they weren’t open in time for July. We also didn’t really prepare for Plastic Free July, so while we had some recently purchased groceries from the Plastic Free Pantry and the Natural Weigh, we were also using up a bunch of other (plastic-packaged) foods. ​

What’s in the box?

For the month of July, we put all our plastic waste into a big cardboard box so we could see how it was building up. Here’s a bit of a breakdown of what went into the box over the month, with notes on what we are planning to change, and what we are probably going to keep using for now.

  • Grains and pasta packets – The box did not stay empty very long as we had pasta on July 1 for dinner, oops! Interestingly, the common suggestion of buying larger packages to minimise the overall amount of plastic did not necessarily apply to our rice options – the 5kg bag of rice weighed 53g, whereas the 1kg bag weighed just 6g. Pasta and grains are super easy to buy at a bulk food store (our Plastic Free Pantry order included some pasta and quinoa), so we’ll switch these out very soon. Some goes for other dry goods such as legumes and dried fruit, which we also currently purchase in plastic packets. In the meantime, I am still stubbornly taking these types of plastic to the supermarket drop-off point for recycling, even though I think it may be “wishcycling”.  Solution: Buy from bulk stores when they open. 
  • Frozen vegetables – We rely on these for quick dinners sometimes, and usually have packets of spinach, peas, corn and broad beans in the freezer. Spinach is hard to find unpackaged here, and frozen spinach at least provides more iron for the amount of plastic used compared to bags of fresh spinach. It is summer in the UK so there were heaps of fresh, seasonal vegetables around during July – it would be easy to give up frozen vegetables if this was the case all year. However the range of fresh fruit and vegetables available in the UK over winter is a bit limited, so I’m not ruling out buying some frozen vegetables from time to time. Solution: Freeze produce we buy during the plentiful summer months for later use, and buy fresh produce as much as possible all year. 
  • Random snack foods – We don’t tend to buy these things ourselves but they end up in our house still when we have visitors. When I’m not being lazy I like to bake crackers and make dips from scratch, but to be honest a lot of the time I will just snack on nuts or spoons of tahini straight from the jar! Solution: Make snack foods instead (and check out options in bulk food stores when they open). 
  • Toothpaste and floss – We still use conventional dental and sunscreen products, I’m just not sure of the long term health impacts of many zero waste alternatives. It seems like new products are coming on the market all the time though, and I recently saw some plastic-free toothpaste with fluoride, so this one may change. I did buy some silk floss in an adorable tiny glass container when I was checking out zero waste stores on my recent trip to Germany, so I’ll be excited to see how that goes. Also in the picture is the transparent plastic sleeve from a recent bamboo toothbrush I tried – *facepalm* (that brand was also super abrasive, so will not be going with them again!). Solution: Use silk floss and check out some of the new toothpaste options available.
  • Toilet paper wrapping – Ergh! This one definitely needs to change! Like every hipster cafe in Melbourne, we bought Who Gives A Crap‘s paper wrapped toilet paper when we lived in Australia, so I was super pumped when they launched in the UK. Then I started reading posts on social media from people that had a preference for buying ecoleaf paper, which is manufactured from recycled sources here in the UK and packaged in compostable packaging (Who Gives A Crap is manufactured in China, then freighted to the UK for distribution). While I have been dilly-dallying and trying to work out which option is better, we keep running out of toilet paper and having to grab it from the local Co-op. Solution: Just pick one and order some toilet paper already!
  • Mailer bag – I bought a new pair of runners and they were mailed in a plastic mailer bag. I’ll reuse the bag, so it won’t go to waste (yet!). Next time I order something on the internet I’ll remember to make a note to ask for it to be mailed without plastic. Even if the shop isn’t able to do it on that particular occasion, they will become aware that it is something people care about. The better solution might be to walk to a local shop, but I wasn’t sure where to look for particular netball runners in Cardiff – the internet makes life so easy sometimes!  Solution: When ordering online, make a note to ask for no plastic packaging. 
  • Yogurt and cheese – I could (and sometimes do) make yogurt and paneer from the milk we have delivered in glass bottles, but that is super time consuming and the yogurt requires a starter from somewhere. We have been buying more cheese in jars (not is weird as it sounds, think marinated feta). During July I also took a trip into the Cheese Pantry at Cardiff Market. They were totally on board with letting me have cheese in my own containers, but explained that they needed to wrap everything in plastic wrap in their shop to prevent food waste. I figured that whether they were using the plastic or I was , it was still generating plastic waste, so I bought some delicious plastic-wrapped goats cheese! (Yeah, I’m not sure about the logic of that one either. I get a bit overwhelmed when I’m shopping, so I’ll just leave it there.) We are cutting down on dairy anyway (I even bought some nutritional yeast from the Plastic Free Pantry!), but I imagine there is still some plastic waste from yogurt in our future.  There is also a butter wrapper there, we use so little butter but it is very nice to have on had for the occasional vegemite on toast when we are feeling homesick! Solution: Eat less dairy, make yogurt from scratch, enjoy it so much on the occasions that we do have it!
  • Straws – Especially in the UK, everyone is so aware of the whole straw issue, so why are cafes still giving them out as default?! This one is from a trendy vegan cafe in Bristol, so it wasn’t really on my radar when my boyfriend went to order (no excuse though, I know). I ended up using a couple more while we were in Germany – I learnt how to saw “ohne Stroh”, but a couple of times the drinks came with them anyway. Solution: I don’t need a straw (even a compostable or paper one), so will continue to say so when ordering drinks. 
  • Plastic processo glass – This was from an event at the Sustainable Studio here in Cardiff, so again my guard was down and I didn’t realise it was single use plastic until it was in my hand. I did reuse it for the whole night though. (I realise it is hard to cater for 50+ people without disposables, but I have seen events before that remind people to bring along their own cups to cut down on single use items – that might have been a nice idea for this event.) Solution: Next time I’ll have an encouraging, positive word with the organisers just to share ideas like that. (I really don’t like being “preach-ey” about reducing waste, but sometimes I think I take it too far and get scared to speak up when it might be valuable to do so. I’d love to hear if anyone has any thoughts on how best to go about this one!)
  • Blister packs – In Australia we could at least buy ibruprofen in recyclable plastic jars and aspirin in foil packaging, but I haven’t seen medication in anything but blister packs here in the UK. Solution: Not too much we can do as individual consumers on this one, but will continue to look out for alternatives. 
  • Plastic seals around jars Not sure if these are for freshness or security, but either way they don’t seem super necessary. Most of ours comes from tahini and nut butter, so when we are able to buy these things in bulk, we won’t need to buy new jars with plastic seals. Solution: Buy from bulk stores when they open. 
  • Receipts – These are so dastardly! A much as I say no to them, they still accumulate! I’ll just keep saying no when I can, but most places print them automatically. At some market stalls I’ve seen an app used to email receipts – it would be great if having no receipt was the default and then there was an option to have a receipt emailed to you if you needed it (might get tedious with groceries or other frequent purchases though). Fruit stickers are also so unnecessary! Solution: Say no to receipts, sometimes it prevents them from being printed!

Phew! That is a long list! But it isn’t all bad news, read on for some of our grand plastic-free successes!

Picture

Most of our plastic waste will go in a recycling bin (and hopefully be recycled!), but some of it is heading straight for the Energy Recovery Facility!

Our plastic-free champions!

We have slowly built up habits over the last few years that meant Plastic Free July was not too much of a shock to the system. There are a bunch of tiny habits that we probably don’t even think about any more, but here are some of the big ones that have helped use to avoid plastic during July and generally in life.
  • Unwrapped fresh produce – We buy most of our produce from the small greengrocer around the corner from our house. Pretty much everything there is loose so we are able to use our own bags. The shopkeeper even commented to us recently that other people have recently started bringing in their own bags. I also ventured to Cardiff Market and bought some delightfully huge bunches of herbs to make salad (for some reason it is really difficult to find spinach/rocket/kale/other greenery without plastic here, but parsley is a great iron-rich alternative!). We also eat the tops of the radishes and beetroot – they can be cooked up just like sliverbeet. Instead of using frozen berries in breakfast bircher museli and smoothies, we tried out a range of different fruits during July. Cherries were an obvious choice (although they didn’t survive my snacking for more than a day or two), but nectarines and watermelon were also surprisingly good!
  • Zero waste life essentials – These will differ for everyone, but my “zero waste essentials kit” is the same whether I am going to work, a festival or travelling overseas. You don’t need a fancy double-walled drink bottle like this one, although it is very handy for filling with tea in the colder weather (we took it to the rugby at the Millennium Stadium last winter – everyone had to give up their disposable bottles but tea was important enough to be let through!). I have used this plastic container almost every single day for the last five years to take my lunch to work – but it doubles as a takeaway container too. At every food festival we have been to this summer (and Cardiff has a reasonable number!), vendors have been happy to fill it for us. This spork also goes everywhere with me, it is super light and can be used to eat anything. While a stainless steel tiffin and bamboo cutlery set might look nicer, using these items has meant I haven’t needed to buy anything new. I also usually tuck a fabric bag or two in when we are travelling too. I don’t drink coffee, but we have a Keep cup that my partner uses (an old ugly one that has branding from my work).
  • Package free and reusables in the bathroom – Our bathroom is still a bit of a mix (see above), but many things are package free and reusable. When I visited New Zealand last year, I discovered Ethique face wash bars. I imagine they ship internationally but my mum sent me a couple of bars as part of my birthday present last year, so they’ll probably last until we go back to Australia. I have tried a number of deodorant options (probably deserves its own post), but at the moment I’m using one made in the UK by Zero Waste Path. My partner was sharing this but it irritated his skin, so we’ll be on the lookout for something suitable for sensitive skin next. I was doing “no ‘poo” for a few years before moving to the UK – however I could only buy bicarb soda in tiny plastic containers here so it seemed to defeat the purpose. I have been using a Lush shampoo bar about once a week for the last year and it probably has another six months at least to go. Periods are sorted with a Juju Cup (Australian brand) and Thinx. I get really annoyed at the patriarchy when I think that I went almost 10 years without these! If you have been debating whether or not to give resuable period products a go, I would highly recommend – more comfortable, less paranoia about leaks, no more running out of disposables and rushing to the shops at the last minute. I have used the cup for a few years in all kinds of situations (camping, festivals, travelling, swimming) with no worries!
  • Eating in – For the most part eating in at restaurants/cafes/pubs is a super easy way to avoid packaging. We had friends staying for a bit during July, and one night one of them popped out to the shops to find some dessert and came home empty handed as everything available involved some kind of plastic (if I was organised I would have made something, but I wasn’t). So instead we all popped down the street to the local pub and sat in their garden and enjoyed some desserts. While I’m guessing they still used packaged ingredients in their kitchen, it was a fun way to spend a Sunday evening.
Picture

Mystery berries in compostable cardboard in Germany (why can’t this always be the case?!)
Picture

Berry packaging problem avoided by picking our own. I love UK summer!
Thanks for sticking with me for such a long post! I’m really glad we decided to participate in Plastic Free July this year, as it gave us an opportunity to consolidate our habits, push our limits a bit more, and identify what our areas for improvement could be.

Did you participate in Plastic Free July? I’d love to hear what you learnt and any tips in the comments below or on social media (T @karabrussen, IG @wonderfullygreen)!

Back to Top