How to make plastic-free life last

Bev O'Kane By: Bev O'Kane
Date posted: 8 June 2018

A few summers ago, on my first Plastic Challenge trip to the supermarket, the great wall of plastic, quilting the supermarket shelves, knocked me back. Plastic – thick or thin - disguised and impounded my usual products, severely limiting my choice for the Plastic Challenge month ahead.

I instantly became melodramatic – panicking inside: ‘what will I eat?!!! What If I can’t find anything to eat??’ I hopefully looked like a regular shopper on the outside, but inside, I felt like I was shipwrecked on a desert island, hunting for my unattainable (plastic-free) dinner.

Typical shopping with single-use plastic

Thankfully, along with time, tips from fellow Plastic Challengers and pressure on businesses to reduce their plastic packaging, the single-use plastic (SUP)-free life has gotten a bit easier. But reducing my plastic consumption is ongoing, and to ensure I have a low-plastic diet, I needed my SUP-free lifestyle to not just be sustainable for the planet, but for me too. So when I’m making changes to what I buy, I want to make sure that they are realistic ones: how can I help others reduce plastic consumption if it’s not achievable for me? If swapping to a SUP-free product is really expensive or I have to drive 10 miles to buy it… chances are, that swap is not going to stick!

So here are the product changes that have stuck: I may have wanted to switch due to principles, but they have stuck because I think they are simply the better choices:

1. Cotton: When a colleague told me that cotton is one of the most water-intensive plants in the world, I instantly thought about my use of cosmetic cotton wool pads (which are wrapped in plastic) and knew I had to swap them to reusable ones. I bought reusable ones from Etsy and have never gone back. They are nicer, cheaper, less wasteful and easy to clean. Plus, I no longer have to empty my yucky bathroom bin full of cosmetic cotton wool pads at the end of the month – so reusable make-up removal pads are all round winners.

Keepcup_M 2. Bottles and coffee cups: The big drive that helped me switch to reusable cups and bottles was actually the potential impacts of PCB chemicals on human health. Re-using bottles and coffee cups may be obvious products to change but it’s definitely worth celebrating when the likes of Pret A Manger rewards you with 50p discount for using a reusable coffee cup.

3. Wet wipes and exfoliator: These two wreak havoc on our water pipes and oceans and as a swimmer, I can’t imagine how disgusting it would be to swim in the sea and bump into a fatberg! So swapping to a knitted face cloth was an obvious swap for me, but I was extra delighted to find out that they are not only cheaper but also much better for my skin.

4. Loose veg: Since I started buying my carrots/potatoes etc all loose, I’ve drastically reduced my food waste (and of course my plastic). I love buying frozen fruit and veg as they are even better for reducing food waste, use up the ‘wonky’ veg and require no chopping (and no crying as onions are already chopped). The nearest frozen loose veg shop is miles away! So at the moment I’m trading off by buying big bags of frozen fruit and veg.

5. Re-fill laundry liquid: Some people tend to back away when they hear about re-filling containers: first they have to remember to bring a container, then make sure it’s clean and it normally requires taking the time to visit extra shops. But laundry liquid only needs refilling every month or so, so I’ve found this refilling an easy one to maintain.

Soap bars 6. Soap bars: I don’t know at what point in our history we strayed away from a bar of soap but apparently shower gel started becoming popular in the 70’s because it was associated with a more luxurious way of life and increased use of showers. But each household reportedly uses 480 plastic bottles each year and, while I am tempted by shower gel marketing and the way they boast about their bubbles, I have found that soap bars smell nicer, are more moisturising, cheaper, last longer and are less wasteful! Make sure you pick the right one for your skin though.

7. Bulking up: I’ve found that the smaller bags of dried cupboard ingredients are often wrapped in plastic, so in the Plastic Challenge, I started buying larger bags of oats, flour, rice and pulses from local shops which are mostly made using paper.

8. Tea pots: A short while ago I randomly met a tea expert! She told me that tea bags were invented because a tea businessman wanted mini-trail samples of his tea for prospective clients. Like shower gel, tea bags have been conducive to a speedy and busy life but I’m not sure if we have to always be so rushed. So I went back to the old-fashioned tea pot and wow does it taste better. It’s also more enjoyable, often cheaper and really doesn’t add much more time to the day!

9. Coconut scrub brush: A small change, but I much prefer it to the plastic sponge version when cleaning the dishes. It’s much easier, lasts much longer, and is much easier to keep clean.

Herbs 10. Herbs: I’m shocked at how little work I had to do (touch wood) to keep herbs (chives, rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, coriander, sage) alive! They are in pots indoors and outdoors and there’s enough to go round to feed both us and the garden’s invertebrates. I love the greenery, flavour and smells they bring. They are much cheaper and more flavourful than supermarket versions and you can also freeze and dry them.

Things that I’m finding extremely difficult to swap in the long term. If you have any advice, please help: - I’m aware that there are wooden toothbrushes available. But are any of them dentist recommended? - Tried out the shampoo and conditioner bars but my hair didn’t like them – even the moisturising bars weren’t moisturising enough!

Are you inspired by the tips above? Dare to go Plastic Free this July with the MCS Plastic Challenge.