A Look at Sustainable Student Shopping: Is it possible?

As part of a collaboration between WILD Magazine and The Yorker, Isla Stubbs and Ani Talwar explore different areas of living a plastic-free lifestyle. Here, Ani explores how to be a sustainable student. For Isla’s article on ways to minimise plastic waste/usage when gift giving at Christmas time, visit The Yorker’s Lifestyle section.

Image Credits: Pixabay

Bread? Check. Milk? Check. Drinks for club night? Check. And some boring household cleaning items…check, I suppose.

These are some of the typical items on a student’s weekly shopping list. Other popular features are cheese, pasta (can’t forget the pasta), mince, fruit and vegetables, toothbrush/paste and storage containers for when you inevitably make far too much pasta… 

Budgeting is something drilled into us when we start university and begin to receive that highly appreciated maintenance loan, but is sustainable shopping ever considered? As an environmentalist, doing a sustainable weekly shop on my student budget would be brilliant, but after walking forty minutes to the supermarket, or driving to the nearest Tesco, or sitting through a bumpy bus ride, is it even possible to get everything on an average shopping list plastic-free?

In July 2020, I found that online stores like Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose all offered loose options for basic fruit and vegetables. However, Tesco and Asda delivered their loose fruit and vegetables in plastic bags, and Sainsbury’s did too, though to a lesser extent. If you wanted loose fruit and vegetables without the plasticWaitrose seemed to be the way to go, delivering its produce in compostable bags with instructions on how to go about recycling these. 

Image Credits: Peace With The Wild

Since then I did find a follow up article on whether the big four supermarkets had kept to their reducing plastic pledges, but couldn’t access it without being a member. If you’re a member of the paper, feel free to give it a read! 

Asda have started to combat this, offering a reduced packaging delivery system if you leave reusable boxes, or similar, at your doorstep; the delivery worker will transfer your goods into them for you. In April 2021, Tesco also announced they would reduce plastic bag usage in deliveries (after having reintroduced plastic bags due to the COVID-19 pandemic), though this does not extend to the bags used to transfer meat, fish and cleaning items. In August 2020, Sainsburys also returned to plastic-free shopping (after also reintroducing plastic bags during the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic), again excluding raw meat and fish for reasons of food safety. It’s nice to see that supermarkets are keeping their policies fluid and flexible, and subject to emerging knowledge about sustainability, to make sure they’re having a greener impact!

Nevertheless, it is easier to buy plastic free drinks compared to food, as many popular beverages come in glass bottles (like J2O’s) or recyclable metal cans (like Coke). And for meat and cheese, check out Morrisons who accept home brought tupperware at their counters. For bread, most supermarkets have fresh bakeries where you can take your own reusable bags to buy baked goods.

Image Credits: Pixabay

Luckily, items like butter, flour and sugar can be found in paper packages; however, not margarine, so if you want a full plastic-free shop, you might have to consider switching to butter! For milk, your best bet would be switching to long-life milk if you didn’t want to purchase a plastic container, or alternatively, switch to a non-dairy milk as these are all in cartons.

However, looking for snacks is when it gets difficult. Supermarkets have rows and rows of plastic covered sweet and savoury treats; so, I set out to find some alternatives online. Realplasticfree sell things like crisps and energy bars in cardboard boxes, but sadly there were no results for plastic-free biscuits on their website. The first plastic-free biscuit I could find in 2020 was Holland & Barrett. So, if Almond, Pumpkin and Flax seed cookies are what you’re after, then you’re in luck. Other than that, plastic-free me would have had to miss out on biscuits in 2020. Now, in 2021, a quick Google search shows a fair few websites offering biscuits and similar items in plastic-free wrapping, however it is not guaranteed these will be in any of your nearby supermarkets.

A quick tip for you: Jen Gale from Sustainable Life recommends what is termed ‘The Squidge test’ when shopping: if you see something wrapped in paper or cardboard, hold it to your ear and give it a ‘squidge’. You’ll be able to hear if it has an inner plastic wrapping!

Lastly, let’s think about the ready meals that you want for those nights where there just isn’t enough time between lectures and wanting to greet the bed. Unfortunately, most ready meals are packaged in lots of plastic but Waitrose has come through for us by introducing a home compostable ready meal container. 

However, there is a lot to student life that isn’t food (though that is a big part of it). As for toiletries, switching to soap bars will help you go plastic-free, as unfortunately, despite being recyclable, most things like shampoo and conditioner are contained in plastic bottles.

We all need to brush our teeth, and NOICE is a company that sells toothpaste in glass bottles that are completely recyclable and free from fossil fuels. You can even subscribe to be posted dental products straight to your house. Smyle is another great company that produces toothpaste tablets, stored simply in glass jars instead of unrecyclable plastic tubes.

For everyday items like soap, deodorant, food containers and food bags, check out Peace With The Wild who even tick the same boxes bigger brands do, with shampoo bars for all hair types: oily, normal, dry, curly, or fine hair. 

Image Credits: Peace With The Wild

So there you have it… all the typical items on a weekly shop sourced plastic-free! It is usually possible to get most of the things you would want for a week without any plastic involved, but it does require making some changes to the usual things you’d pick (such as, butter over margarine, swapping your milk choice, or using shampoo bars).

The biggest downside to this is that you can’t get all of these options from one shop. The basics like fruit and vegetables were available plastic-free in quite a few places fortunately, but for a full shop including all the snacks and the dairy products you might need, unfortunately you are looking at a weekly shop composed of a few different places. It’s also worth noting that these plastic-free options are for the most common bought items and do not include all diet specific requirements (i.e. allergies) so whether it’s possible for everyone to manage a totally plastic-free weekly shop might still be up for debate. But, we can all simply try our best.

For the eager beavers that really want to give it a shot, since 2020, I’ve done some more research into sustainable businesses, and found some places other than the big brand supermarkets that offer not just plastic-free food items, but things for the home too: 

Websites like Plastic Free July can provide helpful and easy to follow guides from people with first-hand experience in cutting plastic from their lives. A helpful tip is that you can see if you have a local food market accessible to you, or try to find a Zero-waste store in your town/city where you can fill your own jars and boxes; Pebble have provided a useful list to help find one near you.

The Wild Tree Shop is another good place to try find plastic-free bits and bobs. From baking liners and straws, to shopping bags, cups and lunch boxes, this shop sells plenty of items free from plastic. I also found another lovely shop called Peace With The Wild which sells personal care, home products, and lots of organic food items. From pasta, grains and rice, to chocolate, chewing gum and crisps, they have it all! They even sell ethical gifts that are plastic-free that you can send your friends on special occasions!

Image Credits: Peace With The Wild

One last tip for looking for smaller businesses with an eco friendly ethos is to check out Wearth London; this is an amalgamation of 250 different independent companies across the UK that sell zero-waste, eco-friendly products including toiletries, beauty, food, jewellery and gifts. 

(P.S- they even sell an assorted biscuit box! So, if you’re not actually that into flax seed cookies, not all hope is lost!)

From supermarket trawls, to surfing the internet, despite the unconventional style, you can do a zero plastic weekly shop. If you don’t mind making multiple orders or restricting yourself with some items, it can be done. Since I tried this initially in 2020, more options have popped up. Maybe in another eighteen months I’ll revisit it, and you never know, maybe I’ll be able to give you a full menu of zero plastic items in one simple link! 

Ultimately, it is definitely worth trying to shop plastic-free. Think of the benefits for the planet, your sustainability, and how much less you’ll have to take out to the bins! Visiting smaller businesses or shopping online may be an easier option to shop plastic-free, though ultimately harder on a budget. But, I say, as long as we all do our best, we can push the industry for more plastic free options to open up.

Remember to visit The Yorker for Isla’s article on plastic-free gifts for this Christmas!

About the Author: Ani Talwar is the Lifestyle editor at WILD Magazine. Ani can be found at @Mischief.weavers; she cares passionately about sustainability and wrote the book ‘ATRO-CITY THE FLOOD’!

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