After attempting a Plastic-Free January, Olivia Clements shares her top-tips for reducing your plastic waste, reminding us its not all or nothing when it comes to trying to make a difference.
My Plastic-Free January began and ended with failure. On the 2nd I was wandering around the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland in need of hot chocolate, which, to my dismay, came with the dreaded disposable cup. I sat down on a bench to drink it, thinking “there we go, failed a New Year’s resolution already…”. Then, 27 days later, I lay on the sofa with the mother of all colds raging in my head, and I really could not bring myself to walk the 10 minutes to the local wholefoods shop in search of glass-bottled milk. Instead, I walked the 1.5 minutes from my house to the Co-op for the dreaded plastic version.
I don’t say this to be defeatist, quite the opposite in fact. Despite the rocky start and end of the month, I was shocked by how easy it was to drastically cut down my personal plastic intake. Yes, there is a certain amount of preparation that needs to happen first: buying a proper water bottle, stocking up on tupperwares, collecting reusable bags for your shopping etc. But during the month it was purely a matter of travel, and problem solving.
Of course, it’s not always easy to do this, especially for students running on a tight budget and limited time. So, for all of you out there struggling to figure out how the hell you’re meant to eliminate plastic from your life and still maintain some semblance of sanity, I’ve put together a handy-dandy step-by-step guide which can be altered depending on your levels of commitment.
Stage 1: How the Hell Are You Not Already Doing This???
Honestly, I’d be shocked if this wasn’t already being done in your life, but it does need to be said just for those people asleep at the back. Buy a reusable water bottle (I got one for Christmas from ‘Chilly’s’ and it’s amazing, would highly recommend). Invest in some Tupperwares for meal planning and portable lunches. Make sure you know what can and can’t be recycled in your area and then stick to it. Buy some large carrier bags. Get a travel cup and keep it with you. I hate to say it, but if you’ve left it at home you evidently don’t want your latte that badly. All of these are pretty small changes, and can totally be adapted for you, but they matter so much. Start here, and the rest becomes so much easier.
Stage 2: The Body (and Planet) is a Temple
The next stage is by far the largest but is also the most important. I don’t know if you’ve ever really looked, but next time you go to the supermarket see how much plastic there is. Supermarkets are one of the largest producers of plastic waste in the world, with so much of it either non-recyclable, or unclear as to how or where. It’s the fruit and veg that always gets me; you can buy a cardboard box of clementines in the Co-op and one of plums wrapped in cellophane. And while the hard, clear plastic of some bottles, meat packaging etc. is sometimes recyclable, the crinkly ones around fruit and veg is not. So, if you’re serious about this, figure out somewhere else to go.
I’m so lucky to be in York for this, because we have so many options right on our doorstep. The York Shambles Market has greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers, delis, and bakeries open 6 days a week. I especially like visiting for fruit and veg. Take those bags that you’ve saved and go there. The produce is bigger (seriously–the size of some of the things you get there is astonishing–I had to hold an onion in two hands) and it’s vastly cheaper. I managed to get a whole week’s worth of veg for £4.50 and some things have lasted me over 2 weeks! Yes, it’s a bit of a trek, and, yes, you must carry it all back yourself, but you’ll save so much money, and a hell of a lot of plastic.
While we’re here:
Take Tupperware to the butches to fill and they won’t bat an eye.
Bluebird Bakery on the corner of the Shambles Market is amazing, and their Bloomer loaves are to diefor.
Alligator Wholefoods does milk in glass bottles for 80p a pint, and you get 20p off if you rinse the bottles and return them.
If you’re willing to get to Bishopthorpe Road, you’ll come across the beauty that is ‘The Bishy Weigh’.
The Bishy Weigh is the dream, offering every dry-good you could want, from baking ingredients to pasta, cereal, gluten-free options, anything.
This also includes things like tea, coffee, spices, cooking oils etc. I bought myself a couple of aesthetic glass Kilner jars, and a month’s worth of pasta in one of those costs me £1.90. Need I say more?
Stage 3: Gonna Wash That Plastic Right Outta My Hair
Toiletries… there’s a tricky one. Looking around, it’s so difficult to find a range of toiletries that is Plastic-Free. Everything is either made of plastic or packaged in it. Even glass bottles of shampoo generally have a plastic cap. But, it makes up an enormous proportion of global plastic waste. Honestly, the best solution I found is to just buy plastic and re-fill or return. Lush is a godsend for this. Any container you buy at Lush, even if it’s plastic, can be washed and returned to them to be reused. This makes it so much easier, and I would highly recommend you use it. Lush also saves the day when it comes to Plastic-Free: their shampoo bars are amazing; their conditioner bars are pretty good, and their rub-on deodorants are OK but a little abrasive on shaven underarms (although BishyWeigh sell a roll-on in a cardboard tube).
These are really easy ways you can switch out some key culprits for more sustainable alternatives. On another note, invest in a proper razor and you’ll only need to replace the blades, and will cut out millions of non-recyclable disposable razors floating around in the ocean. My personal pet peeve is also Q-Tips–I’m sure we’ve all seen the picture of the seahorse holding one in its tail. Well, Boots now make theirs with paper stems and they’re so good!
Toothpaste is an area I struggled with. I tried making my own (2tbsp. coconut oil, 1tbsp. bicarbonate of soda and maybe 10-20 drops of essential oil) which was fine, but a little salty and made me accidentally scrub hard and make my gums bleed. So, I gave up on that and even now toothpaste is my guilty failure of ‘Plastic-Free’. However, I know that there are products out there, if you are willing to do a bit of digging online.
Stage 4: Damn, I Feel Like A Woman
Can we just talk about something please? Let’s just sit down and have a chat about the environmental costs (not to mention the economic ones) of having a period. On average, someone with a period will use 9,120 tampons or pads in their lifetime. If each one of those is wrapped in plastic that’s a hell of a lot of waste caused bysomething you didn’t even choose. However, what you canchoose is how you impact the environment. The menstrual cup (including Mooncupor Divacup) is taking the world by storm, and yes there’s the initial outlay of around £20, but it lasts for up to 10 years.
Alternatively, GladRags sells washable pads, which you just stick in your underwear and pop in the washing machine later. Or, Thinxsells underwear with period-proof technology which can replace pads and tampons. I’m not trying to pressure you into anything you might feel uncomfortable with, but if it’s something you’re up for trying, why not save some penguins?
Lastly, if you can figure it out (because for the life of me I can’t) there’s the makeup question. Turns out plastic-free concealer is called ‘8-Hours-Sleep-and-Plenty-Of-Water’ but that already relies on self-confidence and good skin. The makeup industry needs to widen their options, but for now I console myself with the knowledge that I buy a mascara about once a year, so it’s not a huge impact.
Throughout this article, I really hope I’ve shown you that it’s not a black-or-white situation. There are a huge number of reasons you may or may not chose to limit your plastic intake. Any of those are perfectly valid and respectable. Maybe your effort is cutting plastic from your food shop but can’t get Plastic-Free toiletries. That alone is amazing, and you should be proud!
But of course, not everyone can find the time or money to put into this. In which case, that’s totally ok, and you should try and do what you can. Maybe start at Stage 1 and slowly work your way up? It’s ok to not be perfect, and not to be totally ‘plastic-free’ all the time or all at once. God knows I’m not, and I won’t ever be. But a little bit of effort from a whole lot of people could really do some good.
About the Author: Olivia Clements is a 3rd year history student from Bristol. She completed plastic free January, and has since continued her plastic free quest, apart from the toothpaste.