Wednesday 28 February 2018
As the need to do something about our effect on the oceans becomes ever more urgent, Lucy Holden embarks on a plastic-free month (but what about make-up?)
I’m standing at a cheese stall in Borough Market, trying to work out exactly how much Cheddar is not an unnatural amount for one person to order. And I’m failing miserably. A cheesemonger has given me a quizzical look, then sliced offa lump the size of my head and placed it on the scales.
‘Will that be, er, expensive?’ I ask, thinking a pound of cheese was a touch smaller. ‘£68.20,’ he tells me, reading the weight. ‘I might need slightly less,’ I apologise. ‘What’s an ounce?’ The reason I’ve been embarrassing myself across London is that I’ve been trying to live without plastic for a month which writes offnormal cheese from supermarkets and pretty much everything else you would fill your trolley with. When you start looking, you realise all the meat and fish is wrapped in plastic to keep it fresh, and even the vegetable aisle is tricky, given that you can handpick the stuffthat’s not pre-packaged but then end up with a heap of muddled veg in a nightmare trolley at the till.
Greengrocers often use paper bags but you still have to know what a kilogram of carrots is to avoid coming home with a whole field (many of us are too English to say anything once they’re in the bag). Who knows about stufflike kilograms in 2018? Is there an app for that? Still, there’s no denying we need to change.
Every year we use 13 billion plastic water bottles, recycling only 7.5 billion. The rest goes into landfills or our oceans, where it releases toxic chemicals that damage sea life. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, experts say, and anyone who watched Blue Planet II won’t want that. The Evening Standard’s The Last Straw campaign has highlighted how wasteful our use of plastic straws is: we throw away two billion a year. So for a month, lunch boxes and KeepCups, fine; bottles, food and cosmetics wrapped in plastic, banned.
The thing is, when I tell my boyfriend, Arthur, what I’m trying to do he won’t even entertain the idea. And given he was more obsessed with Blue Planet II than I was, I’m surprised. ‘What will we eat?’ he asks, sincerely, anxious that we might starve. I’m confident that it will be fine, and have even started daydreaming that a plastic diet will work better than the 5:2. ‘But how will you wash your hair?’ he adds. ‘Shampoo bottles are plastic, so is everything else in the bathroom: toothpaste, shower gel, deodorant and no sparkling water.’ Then I panic, imagining we’ll emerge from the month, plastic-free but miserable and looking like The Twits. From then on, watching the fridge empty and our products run out feels like a countdown to Armageddon.
Luckily there is a lot of help online. Within a week I’m using a KeepCup, meaning I can still drink coffee by handing it to baristas and not having to touch throwaway cups. I’ve also set up a delivery for glass bottled milk.
My parents used to have milk delivered this way when I was a child, and going to fetch the cold glass bottles that had been sitting out since 4am on the doorstep like drunks was thrilling, the milkman coming to the house in the night like Father Christmas. Milk floats still exist when you look for them they’re just pimped-up vans rather than rattling 16mph mobility scooters. But going cold turkey with plastic isn’t easy. Our first attempt at a weekly shop is a disaster. Arthur has by now agreed reluctantly to ‘join in’ (like it’s an environmentally friendly party game) but we’re in Sainsbury’s for about half a day trying to work out what we can buy.
We walk around with an empty trolley and emptier stomachs ticking offeverything we can’t have. Shreddies, no. Bread, no. Chicken, no. Rocket, no. Ground coffee absolute nightmare no. It’s the exact opposite of supermarket sweep. We give up and go for breakfast, which feels utterly like cheating and I swore I wasn’t even going to admit to it, but there you go. Farmers’ markets, we’ve decided, are the way forward.
At the risk of sounding like someone I never wanted to be, these markets really have the crème de la crème of produce. Plus, it’s like a plastic-free version of feeding the 5,000: there are options everywhere.
Suddenly we can buy fish wrapped in newspaper (romantic), meat and vegetables in brown paper bags and loaves of flourdusted sourdough, which at £3 might be double the cost of Hovis, but taste twice as good to make up for it. It’s hard to do a budget shop when you’re surrounded by expensive morsels at markets, and we end up spending at least £20 more than we otherwise would on basic ingredients, but plastic-free is a lifestyle choice and at this point you’re deciding to let your wallet take more of a hit than the environment. There’s also the argument that you’re supporting small businesses, getting nicer, fresher ingredients (plastic allowing it to stay longer on the shelves in regular shops) and of course you get used to it.
By the second week, we’ve found the fruit and veg equivalent of a milkman: Abel & Cole, which delivers mixed cardboard boxes of seasonal fruit and veg all over England. Fruit comes in punnets instead of plastic as much as possible, while compostable bags made of veg starch stop carrots drying out then biodegrade in the garden afterwards. Some plastic is still used because spinach, for example, can’t survive a journey without it, but you can ask for a totally plastic-free box if you don’t mind giving up a few things.
They’ve also been getting a lot of calls from people interested in a plastic-free life and some staff members are upping the ante in their own homes. Ed Ayton, an assistant at the company, has been trying to cut plastic out of his life since moving to a new flat last year and has found some unexpected benefits.
‘Having to buy kitchen appliances threatened to derail the plans straight away,’ he says. ‘But it steered us towards second-hand items, for which our wallets were grateful. Now, buying things like toilet roll in seriously bulky quantities minimises plastic further and we can go a few weeks without single-use plastics crossing our threshold. We also find ourselves being thrifty with everything. It’s really opened my eyes to what you have to go without, but a little less consumption of everything can’t be a bad thing.’ By week three, Arthur is piously carrying a KeepCup to work himself and says half his office is, too, with some colleagues refusing to buy rounds for those without reusable cups. He’s also turning the lights offmore at our flat ‘because of the turtles’ and chiding the neighbours for ramming our recycling bins with plastic, as well as ‘more Amazon parcels’ and glass. We are, I think, doing quite well. Lush is particularly good for cosmetics, so we’ve been able to swap normal bathroom stufffor non-plastic alternatives. Its ‘hard’ toothpaste, which looks like mint imperials and foams into normal-ish stuffwhen you chew and brush, also comes with mouthwash ‘mints’ for afterwards these do come in containers made of plastic, but there’s much less of it than your usual toothpaste tube or mouthwash bottle.
Lush also makes blocks of shampoo, conditioner and deodorant, which are set like bars of soap and lather when wet. None has any plastic packaging, given they’re not a liquid when you get them. I’ve also started using a plastic-free perfume, Floral Street, from Harvey Nichols (the brand has done away with the plastic wrap) and found a refillable dry shampoo at Aveda, too. It’s kept in plastic, but you don’t have to throw it away.
The beauty industry is becoming conscious of plastic waste, with Neal’s Yard Remedies the first high-street shop to introduce refillable water stations 30 stores this month with 12 in London including Notting Hill, Covent Garden and Wimbledon. And given how frequently we chuck away plastic bottles in gyms they have an average lifespan of around 45 minutes the fitness industry is following the plastic-free trend. 1Rebel’s gym on the South Bank is single-use plastic free, and its other studios are due to follow.
In some ways there is still a long way to go for the consumer, with some things simply unavailable any other way. I need to buy a coffee grinder and pick up beans before I can make coffee at home again in a cafetière, given that the industry hasn’t yet found a way to keep it fresh without plastic packaging in shops, and I’ve given up sparkling water.
Make-up is a huge issue, with everything from mascara to blusher coming in plastic containers; themselves wrapped in a shell of plastic on the store shelves. But I wouldn’t change the past month.
I’m about as far from a hippy as you can get, so the idea of going plastic-free for environmental reasons sounded to me at first like something to undertake in a commune in vegan shoes. But some of it, like giving up plastic straws, especially if you’re over the age of three, and carrying your own coffee cup is so simple that once you start, it quickly begins to feel irrational that you did anything else. ‘Think of the turtles,’ as we say in our house.
We haven’t decided yet to live like this all of the time, but we’re definitely more conscious about what we’re buying and throwing away and we’ve made some swaps that will stay. And to our next-door neighbours, if you’re reading this: you need to take a good, hard look at your bins.
SHAMPOO Lush Boost, Shine and Stimulate shampoo bar, £6.50. CONDITIONER Lush jungle solid conditioner bar, £6.50.
TOOTHPASTE/MOUTHWASH Lush Toothy and mouthwash tabs, £5.95 each (all uk.lush.com).
PERFUME Floral Street in wonderland peony (left), £55 (50ml), at Harvey Nichols.
DEODORANT Lush T’eo-wel solid, £5.95 (uk.lush.com). SHOWER GEL Lush Tender is the Night naked shower cream, £14.50 (uk.lush.com).
DRY SHAMPOO Shampure dry shampoo (top), £23.50 (refill £19), at Aveda. KEEPCUP Glass and cork 8oz cup (right), £19, at John Lewis.
WATER BOTTLE BKR glass bottle (left), £28, at Selfridges. REUSABLE SHOPPING BAGS Hay RW Tote Bag, £16, at utilitydesign.co.uk. Check the selection at the National Portrait Gallery and never carry plastic again. From £6.95 (nationalgallery.co.uk). MILK Moreton dairy delivers glass bottles to most of London from 79p (moretondairy.co.uk). VEGETABLES Abel & Cole Medium Very Veggie Veg Box, £16.50 (abelandcole.co.uk).
MEAT, FISH AND BREAD Farmers’ markets and local shops: take your own paper bags or ask for produce to be wrapped in paper rather than plastic.