If you look back at your last food shop, how many items were covered in plastic? If you walk into your bathroom, how many plastic bottles can you see? What if I told you most of those plastics will either end up in a landfill or in the ocean. Can you imagine life without those daily items? Have a think. Removing plastic from everyday life may seem like a hugely ambitious task. Living in London and in this ‘throw-away society’, you can’t go far without being given the option to buy or use single use plastics. Convenience is king in such a fast moving city, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Throughout the month of July, I decided to take part in the Marine Conservation Society30 day plastic-free challenge to see if it was possible. The aim of the on going campaign is to spread awareness of the impact single-use plastics are having on our environment and oceans. The challenge attempts to educate and reduce individuals plastic footprints. This meant not purchasing or wasting any single-use plastics in the home, workplace, kitchen and bathroom for 30 days. There are many sobering statistics that can be found on the MCS website.
‘It’s estimated that one rubbish truck load of plastic litter enters the ocean every minute’ – MCS
Before we start, here’s a little bit about my current lifestyle to give you an idea of what I was working with. I live and work from 9 am to 5.30pm in London. I’m active. I run, swim, play tennis weekly and love walking. I lead a very minimalist lifestyle, everything I own can fit in the back of a car. I’m a vegetarian and eat little dairy, rarely eggs at all. I do have a soft spot for cheese though. I’m used to a plant-based diet and have basic cooking skills. Absolute chocoholic and have a big sweet tooth. Living and working in London has many advantages when it comes to convenience, you’re never too far from a shop or market and the variety is second to none. My local areas boasts a variety of shops and weekly markets. When it comes to food, I rarely consume takeaway meals, but my job requires a lot of on location and on-set filming. Sometimes I do not choose what I get given to eat on set. I’d describe my lifestyle as pretty spontaneous day to day in both work and play. Every day is different.
Prior to the challenge I have already made a few simple changes to my lifestyle to reduce my single use plastic intake. I rarely leave the house without a spare bag, tupperware or reusable bottle. I’m very conscious about the amount of clothes I buy and where they are from and I walk or take public transport. Just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s cut to the chase. Long story short, the challenge wasn’t a 100% a success story, but that’s OK. I jumped into the challenge cold turkey, and this wasn’t actually the best approach. There were easy parts and very hard parts. I’ve been plastic aware and conscious of how I consume for a long time but the experience made me realise many unforeseen challenges. A month is a long time (trust me) so below I have sectioned off my thoughts about the experience. We’ll start with the basic stuff.
Eat better, consume less
For me, plastic-free food was probably the biggest challenge. I had to really plan my weekly shopping. I meal prepped more, explored more of my local markets (and loved every minute of chatting with the people at the stalls) and alternately ate and enjoyed my food more. I had to put more effort into each meal and as a result I ate slower and thought about what was going into my mouth. Mindful eating is something I’ve been working on for a long time.
I actually lost weight (result) and felt relatively healthier throughout the 30 days. My exercise routine didn’t change and I probably consumed more alcohol than usual, yet still lost a few pounds, win-win! I realised fast enough that most sugary drinks, snacks and cake come in plastic containers so that was a no go. Every office has its own snack table, ours is in the path to the toilets, tricky business. This basically resulted in eating a lot of my favorite snack, popcorn, which could be made and carried in my own containers. I ate more fruit, yet still struggled with the stickers, and unfortunately, I actually drank a lot less water on the go because of the fear of running out or not finding a place to fill up.
Low maintenance mind set
In general, I am a ‘low maintenance’ sort of person. I don’t wear too much makeup and will happily go out without it. I’ve been using bars of soap over bottles for years but for me, shampoo (I don’t use conditioner) was an issue. I bought a shampoo bar and my hair just didn’t agree with it. Bamboo toothbrushes I loved using but I failed to find toothpaste in a glass jar or the toothpaste tablets I’ve seen online (can anyone help me here).
Getting over yourself (and others)
A big part of the challenge for me was stepping out of my comfort zone that I didn’t even know I had. I’m an easy going person so coming across as ‘difficult’ or ‘fussy’ was kind of hard. I really didn’t want to be a nuisance to anyone. I was faced with some situations where I felt judged for bringing my own Tupperware, bags and containers to different venues, events and situations. I sometimes felt embarrassed and sometimes I felt empowered by the different looks I was getting. Maybe I was just shopping in the wrong places, or it was all in my head.
A few examples:
1. I went to a popular high street cafe (Gail’s) to buy a chocolate cookie on my lunch break. The members of staff would not pick up the cookie from the counter without wrapping it in a half plastic/half paper bag. I had to persuade the staff to let me reach out and pick it up myself. It worked but they were not happy at all. The result was me having to explain myself and frustrated customers in the line behind me. Was it worth it? Yes.
2. I had an incident with Sainsbury’s where I brought in my own Tupperware. The staff really did not like the look of my basket and again I had to explain myself. I decided not to wrap a bread roll in a small plastic bag and the lady almost refused to scan it through. Self-checkout is the way forward, perhaps.
3. The salad bar near my work almost refused to sell me a salad in my own container. It took a lot of persuading and around 10 minutes for the member of staff to weigh my container and work out if it was a small or medium sized salad. I was late back to the office.
4. Saying no to a plastic straw in a bar, could potentially get you barred. I had a few confused conversations. In general, many bars in London have adopted to cardboard straws.
At the end of the day, the staff I met were just trying to do their job and do it as quickly as possible. I may have come across as difficult but that’s something I slowly had to get over. In some situations I had to over explain myself to people, and I didn’t really like that. The majority of the people I spoke to understand my intentions but I am a sensitive being and will usually get put off even the slightest look. I wanted to feel confident in my actions but on some occasions I just “went without” in order to not make a scene. I had no idea I would feel like this when starting the challenge and just maybe this is why a lot of people are put off trying to go plastic free? A lot of Londoners are fixed in their own ways and sometimes standing out and going against the grain is more painful than it should be.
Sharing is caring
On the other hand, I did receive a lot of support from my immediate circle. A great part of the challenge was sharing it with friends, family and over social media. I wanted to talk about it to anyone that would listen. I had a great response from the people around me, who were like minded and understood me. I went along with the idea that if I could at least teach someone one thing everyday, I was doing my part and spreading awareness. I made sure throughout the challenge to also continue to educate myself by surrounding myself with useful facts, watching documentaries and YouTube videos on the impacts of single use plastics.
The convenience curse
I’ve realised that attempting to go plastic-free is a lot more about the organisation, preparation and effort than anything else. If you take the time to think ahead and plan out where and when you might be in a situation to purchase something plastic then the challenge is doable. This doesn’t mean you can’t lead a spontaneous lifestyle either, once you master the habit of taking a water bottle or flask with you to places, it becomes second nature. They say it only takes 12 days to break and make a habit. The key here is a gradual change. Small adjustments for much bigger change. There were times, however, when I had to be sensible with my actions. At the top of Mount Snowdon, I did need extra energy, so I purchased a cheese roll in a plastic wrapper. At the end of the day, the experience needed to be doable and somewhat enjoyable. Too much pressure wasn’t going to motivate me.
I’ve found that it is very doable to be plastic free without breaking the bank. Once you’ve adopted a new shopping habit that forces you to think more about the meal you want to make, you waste less food waste and save more money. The same applies with filling your home with material possessions. Investing in possessions that are going to last longer and get used longer, loved and looked after more saves money in the long run. When did we stop fixing clothes, up recycling furniture and when did we start buying tat!?
Overriding attachments and expectations
I went into the challenge without any expectations from myself or anyone around and that mind set was key. I tried not to be too disheartened about not being able to purchase my favourite items during the 30 days. As I mentioned earlier, I lead a minimalist lifestyle and aim not to become too attached to my possessions. Not being able to buy my favourite ‘I’m having a bad day’ snack may have felt like the end of the world for a split second but a forgotten memory by the end of the day. Attachment can lead to unhappiness, and that’s something to think about when attempting a challenge like this.