Can I Really Be Plastic Free?

Plastic – we just can’t avoid it – can we?

I’m fascinated and inspired in equal measure by the bloggers, writers and instagrammers who share their zero waste or plastic free journeys.  Cutting down (or even cutting out) disposable or single use plastic is one of my goals and so Mr T and I tried to live “plastic free” for one week.  We’re pretty “Green” already, so I thought that avoiding single use and disposable plastic would be quite easy. I was proved wrong and the experience led me to a few conclusions, which I’ll share at the end. The photo above shows our household bin after one week. It’s not pretty, but I wanted to share it, just to try and illustrate how I’m part of the problem and also trying (and failing) to be part of the solution. In contrast, our recycling bins are overflowing with paper , unwanted marketing brochures, cardboard packets, glass jam jars, beer cans, deodorant canisters and miscellaneous household ephemera). Reducing our recycling is another goal we’re working on. We don’t use plastic bin bags, we realised a while back that our household bin only contains packaging (Cheshire help us recycle almost everything else), so the bag became redundant.

You can search online for some pretty gruesome images of plastic waste,  and the facts about how much plastic goes to land fill are quite scary, but I don’t feel the need to share them here.  You can “search engine” them for yourself.

Now, on to our week:

Monday: Off to the supermarket. I thought this would be easy, we already take our own shopping bags, and take our own plastic bags for bagging up loose veg. It seemed daft to me that we would take our own carrier bags, but carry on using single use bags for fruit and veg, so we switched to a combination of cotton bags and re-using plastic bags a few years back (after watching a film called Message in the Waves – I’ve added a clip at the end of this post).  I came unstuck (no pun intended) with the tiny sticky labels on the cabbage, peppers and bananas. I didn’t bag them, but when I got home I realised the little stickers with the variety and origin are plastic. Even my local fruit and veg shop has these. Apparently they are required additions. Ho hum. A friend came to visit, she refuses to drink our goat’s milk (“It tastes grassy”) and turned her nose up at the raw milk from our village farm (“Is that safe? Isn’t it full of germs?”). So a trip to the village shop was needed. The small bottle of semi skimmed cow’s milk had a tamper proof seal, which can’t be recycled. Apparently these are mandatory. “Consumer demand”, I was told. It seems we’re so mistrustful of our fellow human beings we need tamper proof seals on just about everything we buy. The remainder of the milk we froze, ready  for the next visitor, the bottle and cap went in the plastics recycling bin.

Tuesday: How Green are disposable contact lenses?  Mr T occasionally wears disposable contact lenses. According to his optician, they’re “90% water and biodegradable”, but the single use packaging is made of foil and non recyclable plastic. On the up side Mr T doesn’t wear them every day, but I can’t find a way around the packaging and everything I’ve read tells me they’re not biodegradable  at all and just end up in landfill. Mr T’s optician had also told him they can be flushed down the loo – wrong – they should be disposed of with your non recyclable household rubbish.

Wednesday: I really thought I’d be OK with my laundry routine. We buy liquid wash in a 5l container and refill and old plastic bottle for easy dispensing. Mostly we wash at 30 degrees, on a full load. My pegs are made of recycled plastic (great, lots of Eco Brownie Points there), but those pesky pegs have been a thorn in my side. Every time I hang out the washing, at least one breaks, the plastic has become brittle. I emailed the manufacturer, who told me the recycled plastic “can become brittle when exposed to sunlight”!!! Honestly, I feel that warrants three exclamation marks. What’s the point of a peg you can’t expose to sunlight? I could (In fact I think I will), write a whole blog post on the stuff that’s sold as eco friendly, but really isn’t. I understand the need to have markets for recycled plastic, but if they’re not up to the job, it’s just another fail. I’m going back to wooden ones. At least when they break they go in the compost or for fire lighting.

Thursday: I need a new toothbrush. Have you ever tried to find a truly environmentally friendly toothbrush? You can buy ones with bamboo handles, but the bristles are nylon (and despite what you might read on the packaging, it’s rarely the biodegradable sort). I ordered one online, after looking at recycled plastic brushes, latex and handles with replacement heads, I decided this would be a the best, if most expensive option. It arrived in a plastic lined jiffy bag. Big fail. Apparently the order was “fulfilled by a third party, who don’t share our environmental values” I was told. At least I can reuse the packaging next time I have a small parcel to post.

Friday: Fail, fail, fail. When will magazines stop sending out subscriber copies in plastic bags? I’ve emailed so many publishers about this and never get  a satisfactory answer. Yes, I know I could switch to digital subs. But I’m old fashioned, I like a proper magazine to read and I like passing them on to friends and family. Once discarded we use them as fire lighting for the woodburner, or put them in the recycling bin. Two charity bags came through the letterbox, I managed to give one back as I happened to be near the door when it was delivered, but now I’m stuck with a bag I don’t need and didn’t ask for.  I picked up my dry cleaning, yet another plastic hanger I didn’t ask for – at least the assistant agreed to take it back.

The Weekend:Another online delivery. This time in a cardboard box, the glass bottle inside protected with cellulose chips. But the tape was plastic. I know the worms in my compost love cardboard. But they never touch the plastic tape and every year I pull loads of it out of the compost heap and put it in the bin for landfill. There must be a decent non plastic packing tape by now? Then my supermarket delivery arrived (Ocado earn gold stars because they buy back plastic bags for recycling). I have a chronic illness and I work from home. Sometimes a supermarket delivery wins out over the effort of driving to the shops. Every piece of fruit and veg was wrapped in a bag labelled as “not currently recycled”, the cardboard box of granola had a plastic bag inside and even the free magazine was wrapped in polythene.

So, we sat down with our bottle of biodynamic wine (glass bottle, real cork) and looked back over the week. Our experiment certainly highlighted a few areas where we could “do better”. But, as consumers we’re pretty much at the mercy of retailers and manufacturers. I’ve reached the conclusion that plastic free is a great aspiration, but will only really be an option when single use or disposable plastic is designed out of the supply chain. As consumers, we need to start asking companies  to look at alternatives and stop selling us the myth that single use or disposable means convenience.

I feel strongly that manufacturers, retailers and governments have a role to play here. It’s not enough for committed individuals to say no to single use plastic.  It’s going to take a real shift in how we live, shop and consume. So, was our plastic free week* really a failure? No, I think it was a small triumph. After one week, our bin is definitely emptier than usual. It took a bit of time and thought and there are still a few areas where I haven’t found a workable solution. I’m still looking for a perfect replacement for my disposable razor, dental floss and toothpaste tube.

Have you tried to be plastic free? I would love to hear how it worked out for you. Do you have any tips for avoiding the pitfalls we encountered this week? Or thoughts on how  we can be part of a plastic free future? If you haven’t really considered this before, you might like to read this piece “Could you go for a month without plastic?”

Or if you’re already concerned about plastic pollution, maybe you’d  take a look at this Greenpeace petition, asking our governments to legislate against single use plastic.

*We set out to avoid single use and disposable plastic items. Sadly, a completely plastic free home isn’t achievable for us – yet.

Note:

This post was updated on 14th June 2017

The film Message in the Waves was made by the BBC Natural History Unit  in 2007.

 

 

 

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