Ever since Blue Planet II aired last year, shining a spotlight on the serious consequences of plastic pollution in our oceans, and subsequently our entire eco-system, the drive to reduce plastic usage has been gaining serious momentum. As a quick recap of the issue: Every year, 5-13 million tonnes of plastic leak into the world’s oceans, where it is ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and it is expected that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the sea! A Plymouth University study also found plastic waste in a third of UK-caught fish, which means that it’s finding its way into the human food chain. Progress has been made in the UK, e.g. the introduction of the 5p levy on carrier bags, and the recent ban on plastic microbeads from cosmetics and personal care items, but it’s not enough. We all need to be making simple changes in our daily lives to reduce the amount of plastic our households are throwing away every year.
Here are a few of the swaps that I’ve made to reduce my own family’s plastic footprint. They’re all really easy, and I would encourage you to give them a go, if you don’t already. (PS links to products are genuine recommendations, and I’m not on commission!)
Coffee cups: This is a biggie! I sometimes feel like I need coffee more than air. For a long time, it was quite trendy to carry a branded coffee cup in your hand while striding to work, perhaps to show off that, if nothing else, you’ve got £4 to waste on a cup of coffee when you could have made one yourself for virtually nothing at home… Well, those single-use cups may have been good for our images once upon a time, but they are very bad for the environment. Not only do they have plastic lids, but they are plastic lined too, making them extremely difficult to recycle. Even if you diligently pop them in a recycling bin, they almost certainly won’t make it to one of the three specialist recycling plants in the UK capable of dealing with them. Instead, they contaminate the rest of the paper waste in the recycling bin and it all goes to landfill together. An estimated 2.5bn takeaway coffee cups are thrown away every year in the UK, and globally, over 1 million single-use cups end up in landfill EVERY MINUTE. Luckily, the tide is changing, and reusable cups are now having their fashion moment. Although plans to introduce a 25p levy on disposable plastic cups in the UK was dismissed by the government earlier this year, some coffee shops have started to offer voluntary incentives for using a reusable cup. Pret is my favourite, offering 50p off if you bring your own cup, which brings its lovely filter coffee down to 49p! I use an ‘rCup’, which you can click open with one hand (useful for times when you’re child-wrangling with the other!) and throw in your bag when you’re done without risk of leakage. Plus it comes with extra eco-kudos for being made out of recycled cups (*polishes halo*).
Straws: My 4YO bloody loves a straw. I bloody love a straw! I think they make drinks taste better and, while I really applaud the bars and cafes that have stopped providing plastic straws, it does make me a little sad to go without. However, it’s definitely not an essential item, and with even Ikea set to remove single-use straws from its product range, now’s the time to knock that particular plastic habit on the head. Enter the reusable straw! I have to say, I never thought I would be the kind of girl who would carry a stainless steel straw or two around in my bag, but apparently I am, and I do. There’s enough crap in there as it is, there may as well be something useful too. I also use them at home, and it makes me feel sophisticated and less like an alcoholic for drinking gin on a Tuesday. I use these ones, but there are loads out there, and you can buy bamboo straws if you don’t like the taste/feel of the stainless steel ones.
Plastic bottles: Globally, 1M plastic bottles are bought every minute. That’s mindblowing! The volume is so high that, although we actually have the capabilities to recycle them, we can’t keep up, and most end up in landfill or the ocean. That’s why it’s so important to use a reusable bottle! And it’s now easier than ever to refill when you’re out and about, thanks to an initiative called Refill, which is encouraging cafes, bars, restaurants and other public spaces, such as museums, to offer free drinking water refills. Participating businesses put a sticker in their window, and you can also download the app to find nearby water refill stations. As a final note, we have had a Soda Stream at home for a few years, and so we no longer buy plastic bottles of soda (plus you can make amazing coca cola cupcakes with the cola syrup…!)
Pre-packaged fruit & veg: It’s much more difficult than it should be to buy loose fruit & veg in supermarkets! I am constantly astonished at how much pre-packaged produce there is, and how it’s often more expensive to buy loose items. However, we can all try to eschew pre-packaged produce as much as possible, buy from shops/markets that sell loose produce, and put pressure on supermarkets to ditch the plastic. If you’re worried about fruit & veg not keeping for as long outside of its plastic package, try using an Eco Egg ‘Fresher for longer’ disc to prolong their life in the fruit bowl / fridge (it works by absorbing ethylene gas, which makes fresh produce go bad).
Pre-made meals: Cooking from scratch is not only better for your health (and your bank balance), but it’s also better for the environment! Microwave meals usually come in black plastic, which is the worst kind. It’s almost impossible to recycle as it can’t be seen by sorting scanners in recycling plants. And if we’re cooking from scratch, then we can make enough to have leftovers to take for lunch, meaning that members of the family who go out to work no longer need to buy individually packaged meals every day, thus saving even more plastic waste – hurrah! (I use this lunchbox)
Tampons & pads: According to the Women’s Environmental Network, the average menstruator throws away 125-150kg of tampons, pads and applicators in their lifetime, and most of that generates plastic waste. DYK that most pads are around 90% plastic? (I did not!) And that many tampons also contain plastic? I have long been thinking about making the switch to a menstrual cup and researching this blog post was the push I needed. My Mooncup arrived in the post today, so I will let you know how I get on! If you’re not ready to make that leap yet, then you can find plastic-free tampons and choose cardboard or paper applicators instead of plastic ones. This article lists the plastic credentials of some of the most common UK brands (including supermarket-own versions).
Tea bags: We drink 165,000,000 cups of tea in the UK every single day(!) and 96% of that is made using a tea bag. Given that most of the teabags we buy in the UK contain polypropylene, a type of plastic used to seal the bags, that adds up to a serious problem. Tetley, PG Tips, Clipper and Yorkshire Tea are all working on plastic-free alternatives. In the meantime, Pukka teabags already don’t contain any plastic! Or, if you’re so inclined, you could get yourself a cool tea infuser and start buying loose leaf tea! I personally love all the ritual that goes with brewing tea, and this is the infuser I’ve been using for about 10 years!
Cling film: This is a tough one. It’s so bloody useful. The obvious solution to ditching cling film is to use alternatives you probably already have in your home, such as Tupperware or jam jars (remember: reusing is better than recycling!) However, there is another solution that I’ve seen popping up in my Instagram feed over the last couple of weeks: Beeswax Wraps. They’re plastic free, reusable for up to a year, and fully biodegradable so you can pop them on your compost heap when you’re done. They apparently let food breathe so are good for wrapping bread and cakes, etc. I haven’t tried them myself yet, but I’m going to order some asap and will report back!
Washing up liquid: It’s difficult to find cleaning products that come in plastic-free packaging. However, we can all try to buy bigger bottles so we use fewer of them (as the lids tend not to be recyclable), only use what we need, and recycle where possible. In addition, P&G has just released limited edition Fairy Liquid bottles, made using 100% recycled plastic, 10% of which has been collected by volunteers from oceans, rivers, lakes and beaches, created in partnership with TerraCycle. They also say they are working on extending the initiative to other brands and regions in the future, and currently divert 8,000 metric tonnes of plastic from landfill for use in its transparent plastic bottles. They also say that, as their washing up liquid lasts twice as long as other brands, you get through fewer bottles, which makes sense!
There’s so much that’s not been covered here for lack of space. For example, we can, and should, ditch the plastic toothbrushes, the balloons at our kids’ birthday parties, plastic cotton buds, and so on and so on. The most important thing to remember is that we should all be questioning the products we buy, seeking out more eco-friendly alternatives where we can, and using our purchasing power to force brands to reconsider their use of plastics. Finally, I’d love to learn more about the plastic-free swaps you all make, so please do share below, and let’s all inspire each other!