I knew Plastic Free July would be a challenge. Even for somebody who is very waste conscious, focusing on avoiding single-use plastic makes you realise just how all-pervasive it is.
It is relatively easy to eradicate a whole host of plastic, e.g. by refusing disposable cups, refilling detergent bottles, buying vegetables loose at the grocer’s, cooking from scratch, keeping toiletries truly natural and to a minimum… but it is proving harder to make headway with other routine household products (e.g. cured meat, yoghurt, yeast, tea and coffee, seeds and grains…), not to mention the ad hoc goods. And the process is not made easier by the dilemmas you stumble across along the way.
Dilemmas: almost as ubiquitous as plastic
In early July I was drawn into a discussion about milk. We’re lucky to have a milkman who delivers organic milk in returnable bottles. Perfect, I thought. Until I learnt that the dairy had slashed the price it pays dairy farmers, forcing many out of business. I could buy milk from one of the supermarkets or an organic vegetable box scheme, both of which pay farmers a fairer price. However both use non-returnable plastic bottles… So do I opt for a product that ticks one environmental and one social box or one that ticks two environmental boxes but has human consequences?
There is no perfect solution yet so I contacted the dairy about paying farmers a fair price and the vegetable box company to suggest it looks into phasing in an alternative to plastic. Unfortunately the former did not reply and the latter’s response, which cited health, safety and supplier convenience, was less than heartening. People seem to have forgotten that for generations milk has been moved in non-plastic containers. Personally, I prefer bringing back enamel milk cans that milkmen fill up on their van!
Soap is another a minefield. Some branded soaps come in a cardboard box or I can buy loose bars from my local organic shop but both contain palm oil, which is associated with deforestation. After much research I found that Marcel Fabré makes palm oil free Savon de Marseille but it does come with a thin plastic wrapper. So, which is the lesser evil? In the case of soap, I reluctantly accept the plastic wrapper to avoid palm oil and because this soap is a good all-rounder that dispenses with a host of other cleaning products.
A delivery of wool illustrates another dilemma. I ordered some Fenella, a lovely soft yarn grown, spun and dyed in Britain. Inevitably, it arrived packed in a plastic envelope. What would have been the alternative? I could have gone to the nearest wool shop but that only stocks the big brand yarns. Whilst these might have done the job, I want my purchases to matter. Green credentials, after all, do not exist in a vacuum. As much as I want to avoid unnecessary plastics, I also want to support small businesses that shorten supply chains and translate into livelihoods for real people rather than profits for anonymous shareholders. Sometimes this means mail order. And as my postman tends to leave parcels out in the rain, there is a lot to be said for textile and fibre being sent in water proof packages… *
I blame the barcode…
Despite many retailers’ claims, packaging goods in plastic is rarely driven by health and hygiene considerations and almost always driven by convenience! Centralisation and automation mean products arrive in shops clad in plastic, ready for a barcode sticker. For example, this month I bought a couple of photo frames, a protractor, a new notebook and a set of double pointed sock needles. All came with the obligatory plastic wrapper and barcode, with the exception of the needles, which came in a cardboard box as well as a plastic sleeve!
It is astonishing how quickly plastic packaging and barcodes have taken over. Twenty odd years ago, at the start of each school year, we would head to the newsagent’s or supermarket and select notebooks, pencils, rulers… off the shelf. There was no wrapping; at most a price sticker that had been label gunned on. The same applied to knitting needles, which came on a piece of card or tied together with an elastic band. It may seem archaic now, much like doing a manual inventory, but it meant less packaging and shop keepers who knew their stock!
Some successes too
A plethora of dilemmas and barcodes is of course no reason not to persist and cut out unnecessary plastics. And as much as I regret the lack of Belgian/French-style charcuterie shops or stores that sell staples from bulk bins, there have been some successes this month.
I have realised, that just like pasta**, gnocchi is incredibly easy to make and is better than the starchy mini pillows available from supermarket refrigerators. We have also eliminated soda water bottles, not by substituting them with cans but by investing in a soda siphon. The simple system involves disposable cartridges but these are small, made of steel, recyclable and worth recycling. In the process, we have also phased out tetrapaks of orange juice. As I never really liked sweet juices, we have switched to bitter cordials, like Sarsaparilla or Dandelion and Burdock. These old school drinks are available in glass bottles and are so intense that the merest drizzle goes a long way! I also discovered to my delight that Marks & Spencer now offers more of its tights in little cardboard boxes, without plastic windows and wrappers – much like shops did years ago.
And although not a success in the purist’s sense, I have found a home for the rare yoghurt or cream pot that enters our house. The art tutors in my local community college can’t get enough little pots for mixing paints, slips and glazes. In their eyes, yoghurt pots are not disposable single-use items but a useful resource. And that is ultimately the key to addressing the mountains of waste, whether plastic or otherwise. We should not beat ourselves up about the occasional plastic wrapper that seeps into our life but rather develop a resource conscious mindset. After all, waste is a new concept in the history of mankind, not a given!
* The plastic packaging may have been a ‘necessary evil’ but it proved useful: I recycled it to send a parcel of wool and tea to a friend.
** As I’ve had some queries about making your own pasta, a dedicated post will follow soon.