Pretty much all of us are aware of the hideous situation our planet is in. From documentaries like Blue Planet's focus on plastic to the California wildfires to the fact that even Donald Trump’s White House has started to take notice of climate change, the excuse "Oh I didn’t know" is simply not going to fly anymore.
And so we’re all doing our bit, trying to be more environmentally friendly. You've got your KeepCup, your Bag For Life, your reusable water bottle. The problem, though, is that things which are bad for the planet are so deeply ingrained in our way of life that it's almost impossible to detangle yourself. Cars and aeroplanes are a much-needed form of travel, fast fashion is tied up with millions of jobs and plastic packaging is out of control.
Earlier this year, we challenged one of our writers to try a plastic-free week and do you know what? She really struggled. Everything but everything is in plastic, from our fruit and vegetables (especially at smaller supermarkets) to our washing-up liquid and shampoo. It’s nigh on impossible to live without it.
Unless, of course, you live near a zero-waste store like the just-opened Bring Your Own in Nunhead, southeast London. BYO is far from the first packaging-free store in the UK, but it is part of a slew of similar stores that are opening around the country as the modern consumer fights back against the plastic scourge.
Owner Laura Hipkiss comes from a finance background but quit her job to start BYO because she couldn't find a shop like it near her home. It's really caught on. "Since all this anti-plastic stuff has come out," she tells R29, "people really don’t want [plastic] but the big supermarkets are too entrenched in their supply chain to respond – or perhaps they don’t want to." In the past two months alone, zero-waste stores have opened in Bristol, Edinburgh, Chester, Worthing, Carlisle and Leeds, to name but a few. At a time when the high street is struggling, stores like this enable people to shop local and, as Laura mentions, "there’s definitely cost savings to be made".
BYO sells everything from grains to olive oil, chocolate to snacks, washing-up liquid to loo roll and spices. There’s even a make-your-own nut butter machine, which is incredibly satisfying to use. Shopping is simple – bring along your old jars and bottles, choose which products you want, fill 'em up, weigh your goods and pay per kilogram. If you forget your containers, there are some available to use that have been donated by shoppers, or you can buy glass jars. And yeah, it is cheaper (mostly). A supermarket-size jar of marsala spice is 39p, hair conditioner (it smells like grapefruit and is divine) costs 60p per 100ml.
What constitutes a container is entirely up to you – Laura says she’s had people sheepishly use plastic bags, scared they’re going to get a telling off. "I’m like, 'No! Use it! That’s better than throwing it away!'" she laughs. There’s even one woman who’s been using the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls as a mini pouch. "I was like, 'That’s really resourceful'. I took a picture of her actually."
Despite the success of these stores, it's not all plain sailing. While it's possible for customers to have a zero-waste experience, it’s impossible for owners to run a zero-waste company. For starters, there's the issue of getting the produce to the store in the first place. "There’s still loads of work b2b that needs to be done in the supply chain," sighs Laura. "I do still get stuff in unnecessary packaging – it’s just that it’s in one bigger package rather than 100 small packages – but I think it’s the [responsibility] of businesses and the government to get regulation." She’s always looking for companies willing to be flexible and do things like take back and reuse the bottles, boxes and pallets in which they deliver products.
There are some products that she hasn’t been able to stock due to packaging limitations. "Gluten-free pasta, yoghurt, nut milks… Loads of stuff." She's also finding people asking for pet food but for the moment, it's going to have to wait – the logistics are just too complicated.
Obviously if you don’t live near a zero-waste shop (there's a great, but by no means exhaustive list of them here) you might be frustrated. There are online stores, however (another great list of some here), and if you're lucky enough to still have local butchers and greengrocers, Laura urges you to use them. "Fruit and veg shops, they've been doing this forever. And that butchers over there?" she points down the road. "The other day I went and bought some sausages and I just asked 'Can I have them in this jar?' and he was like, 'Yeah that's fine'. It's not being cheeky, it's just asking and not assuming that you have to have it in plastic."
One of the side-effects of running a shop like BYO is that Laura now sees packaging everywhere. "Especially when you're travelling," she sighs. "You can be forced to get it and it just feels so gross. I read loads about [plastic waste] and once you know, you can't unknow. The thought that every single piece of plastic that has ever been made is still here, on the Earth, is just gross."
Ultimately, it's governmental change that will make a real impact and earlier this year, Theresa May vowed to outlaw unnecessary plastic waste within the next 25 years. But 25 years is a long time and, well, considering how stable things feel at the moment, you'd be forgiven for not holding your breath.
So until then, focus on the little changes you can make – changes that shops like Laura's are helping to facilitate.