Plastic-Free Work Lunches For The Chronically Disorganised

Hands up who is finding everything to do with the environment very overwhelming and scary at the moment?
If this is you, it's probably because everything to do with the environment is very overwhelming and scary. From the fact that eight to 12 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans yearly to the fact that children living in polluted areas are scientifically proven to be living shorter lives, it often feels like there's nothing left to do but panic.
Panicking, though, is not helpful. A new attitude to recycling, plane travel, fast fashion and more is not going to be born from reading as many scary headlines as you possibly can in order to guilt yourself into being a better person. Most likely, this approach will have the opposite effect; you’ll stick your head in the sand and decide that because it’s all so overwhelming, there’s no point in doing anything at all.
Which is why challenges like Plastic Free July are good. The viral challenge gives participants an achievable goal to focus on, something tangible to do which puts purpose in the place of helplessness, ideally spurring that individual on to do more. And although you are just one person, your input can help the movement grow. In 2018, #PlasticFreeJuly, a tiny initiative started just eight years ago by a small local government in Australia, had 120 million people take part. Together, they helped save 490 million kg of plastic waste. Which is certainly not something to be sniffed at.
And so, on 1st July, spur of the moment, I decided to take the challenge, with no preparation or research. Which, to be honest, is exactly how I would have approached the challenge if I had planned to do it beforehand. Preparation, you see, is not my forte.
Over the next few weeks, I'll keep you updated on how this fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experiment is going because my hope is that if a disorganised scatterbrain masquerading as an adult like me can do one month without buying any single-use plastic, then you'll realise that you absolutely can too.
This week, I'm going to fill you in on how, because I'm terrible at bringing in lunches from home, I managed to make plastic-free lunches for work A Thing.
"How hard can a plastic-free lunch be?" some of you might say. "Just box up the leftovers from last night’s dinner and take it to work in a Tupperware." And yes – that's what I should do, in theory. But I knew from past experience that for me, bringing lunch in from home every day was absolutely Not Going To Happen.
So I was left with making lunches out of what I could buy within close proximity of the office. And I’m not going to lie, it wasn't easy. I know we’ve all walked through the supermarket (especially the smaller, city centre stores) tut-tutting at the amount of plastic used to wrap everything. But I don't think the true horror of single-use plastic really hit me until I was limited to buying foods without it. In the Co-op and Sainsbury’s near the R29 offices, the only fresh veg you’re getting sans plastic is avocado, red pepper, butternut squash and tomatoes. In Little Waitrose, you can’t even get that. Everything is sealed up tight in that crinkly plastic wrapping which can’t be recycled. One day, I went miles away to a Big Tesco figuring I’d fare better there, and I did, but not by much.
To clarify, I know that plastic packaging is used to lengthen the life of fresh fruit and veg and (hopefully) cut down on supermarket food waste (which is obviously another huge problem) but, in the spirit of not spiralling into panic mode, I'm just going to focus on the plastic thing for now.
And so, avocado (yes, avocado consumption also has problems, I know) and red pepper sandwiches on fresh bread rolls from the supermarket bakery was my first plastic-free lunch. Yep, I felt a little gross putting my chosen bread roll directly onto the self-checkout bagging area without a protective plastic bag but there you go. My office kitchen helpfully has a supply of olive oil, salt and pepper and off-brand Sriracha, which helped with the sandwich's seasoning. All in all, it was not a bad sandwich. 10/10 would (and will) have again.
But this isn't a lunch one can have every day for a month and still feel positive and so I turned my attention to the supermarket items packaged in other materials – tin cans, glass – and went for a salad/Buddha bowl type thing.
Food tins are made out of aluminium or steel, are 100% recyclable and can be used again and again to make new tins without deteriorating. Even better, they take only 5% of the energy and emissions to recycle as they do to make a new one. Things like chickpeas, butter beans, lentils, mixed beans, and sweetcorn in tins are great for a salad. Just make sure you wash out your tin and place the lid inside it before dropping in the recycling bin.
The same goes for goods in jars. Glass can also be recycled back into jars and bottles over and over again without deteriorating. New glass products can be made up of 90% recycled glass. In most cases, jar lids can be recycled too. Most councils also ask that you put the jar lid back on your cleaned out glass jar so that there's less chance of it being lost before it can be recycled. Do check with your council though, as some prefer them to be removed.
There are so many jarred goods that make great salad ingredients, from sundried tomatoes to artichokes, stuffed peppers to olives. If you're a big fan of pickled items (and you should be, they're supposedly marvellous for your gut), check out the jars of pickled red cabbage, capers, pickled beetroot and more. If your supermarket has an eastern European or Russian section then you're in for a treat; mixed veg like pickled cauliflower and carrot should be on offer, ditto sauerkraut. Cornichons are good, and if you like spice, jalepeños also come in jars.
Am I suggesting you mix all this stuff together to make one outrageous monster salad? Of course not. Just take a quick browse of the canned goods aisle and select your favourites. My current favourite recipe is as follows:
-1/4 can of chickpeas
-1/4 (small) can of sweetcorn
-Half a fresh avocado, mashed or sliced
-Half a red pepper, sliced
-Couple of spoonfuls of red cabbage
-Couple of sundried tomatoes
Do I take up a lot of space in the work fridge with all my jars and cans? Absolutely. Do my fellow fridge-using coworkers hate me? Almost certainly. Have I had a plastic-free lunch every day, 11 days in a row, without planning one meal in advance? Yes I have.
Two other points to make as well: I've saved so much cash due to the fact that so many impulse purchases come in plastic wrapping, and I've eaten so much better than I would do normally – mainly because crisps are off the menu.
I'm already working out other ways in which I can turn this plastic-free month into a more sustainable long-term thing. If you've got any other suggestions on how to have plastic-free work lunches, let us know in the comments below.