If you’ve chosen to read this article, you probably don’t need to be reminded of the terrifying plastic problem and the subsequent damage it is doing to our planet. You’re probably someone who has a long-life water bottle in their bag and takes canvas totes to the supermarket. However, you're probably thinking about ways to do more.
I myself am no eco-warrior or green saint but I am keen to reduce my plastic consumption if I can, and I know food shopping is where the most one-use plastic gets wasted. British Prime Minister, Theresa May might have pledged to eliminate plastic within 25 years and a number of supermarkets (in particular Iceland) have promised to take action sooner, but in the meantime, just how easy is it to take matters into your own hands? Is it really possible to reduce your plastic when it comes to food shopping? In a bid to find out, Refinery29 challenged me to see if I could food shop for a week in London without buying anything in plastic packaging.
Spoiler alert: It was really difficult. Although there are a couple of zero-waste stores in London (notably Hetu and Bulk Market) and some health food shops that allow you to fill up your own containers, I have none of these locally so instead had to test out the plastic-free options at local market stalls, grocery stores and supermarkets.
The aim for the week was to avoid plastic as much as possible when shopping for groceries. Cardboard and paper were allowed if necessary, I could eat out if food was served on a plate, and I did allow myself to use up some bits and pieces I had in my cupboard.
My week without plastic starts easily as I’m in town for a morning of meetings, which starts with a breakfast. I fill up my Swell bottle (my most smug-inducing purchase of 2017) and forgo the takeaway coffee en route to the subway.
After three meetings and the dreaded trip to sign off my tax bill I find myself by a big Waitrose supermarket, so I pop in to get some supplies for the next few days. I figure to nail this no-plastic thing it will be easier to do little shops as I go, as opposed to buying for the whole week at once. I’ve thought ahead about what I can actually buy without plastic and it’s pretty limited so decide to get ingredients for a big batch of ratatouille (I’m vegetarian) as well as bread, eggs, avocados and bananas. I skip the sliced bread I would normally buy and instead opt for an overpriced loaf from the bakery section and don’t take a bag. Finding items not wrapped in plastic takes twice as long and then I realize I’ve totally screwed myself over as every single loose piece of fruit or veg has to be weighed and then stickered up (with plastic) so it can be scanned. Vow to try the market next time. By the time I’m paying, total £9.66 ($13.52), I’m starving. Would normally grab a cereal bar or packet of crisps but instead opt for a banana before heading home to make avocado on toast. Sense this week might actually make me healthier, albeit poorer.
Today, I’m meeting my freelance friend in town to work together for the day. Have breakfast at home (avocado on toast round two) and meet her at a hotel to work. While ordinarily at lunch we might pop out to Pret or Itsu, considering the no-plastic plan I persuade her to eat in. We order the sandwich and salad deal followed by coffees and brownies. It’s expensive: £19 ($26.59).
In the evening we pop by a panel event our other friend is running and on the way home they both pick up half-price sushi but I restrain, knowing I should just reheat the ratatouille and avoid the plastic. Not at all bitter about the situation.
Working in an office for the rest of the week so have breakfast at home (banana on toast with leftover peanut butter) and take the last (thank goodness) portion of ratatouille in Tupperware for lunch. Planning meals and batch cooking is definitely the only way to eat without plastic but it’s already getting a little tedious. Nothing makes me feel more like I have my life sorted than arriving at work with takeout coffee but I wait until I’m in the office for a slightly less nice (and free) cup.
At lunch I venture out for a walk and to pick up some more bits from the Morrisons nearby. Have decided to make a big frittata for dinner tonight and the next two packed lunches. The options of non-plastic-wrapped vegetables are limited so go for red peppers, sweet potatoes and red onion. Also need breakfast so check out the oat options for porridge (cereal is a no-go as all in plastic). The only one in cardboard is the branded pack so settle for paying double the price. Total comes to £5.86 ($8.20).
Have porridge for breakfast and take the frittata for lunch. Over my lunch break I pop out for a snack (it seems I struggle to go a day without buying anything) and buy a cookie from Pret. The server looks confused when I say I don’t want a bag or napkin.
Meeting friends for drinks after work and after a few glasses of wine realize I don’t have anything at home for dinner. On nights like this I would usually pick up pasta or pizza from the supermarket but going plastic-free basically means you have to cook stuff from scratch at all times. I haven’t planned ahead so me and my friend go for burgers instead: £11 ($15.39).
Have the same breakfast and last of the frittata for lunch today. Luckily going for dinner at a friend's tonight so no need to deal with the plastic-free drama of deciding what to buy/eat.
Have breakfast at home and then decide to visit the market stall at the end of my road to check out the non-plastic options for dinner later. Rack my brain for what I can make for the next few days and decide on a big batch of butternut squash soup. I’m learning fast that vegetable-based dishes are the easiest way to go. The advantage of the market stall is no price stickers and therefore no plastic. The person looks at me quizzically when I ask for no bags but I successfully buy all the ingredients plastic-free and it comes to a bargain total of £2.50 ($3.50). Pop by a friend's for lunch and then make the soup when I return before I go out for the evening.
There’s a farmers' market in my area which I have never been to so decide to pop by for some stuff for the week ahead. Eat some oatmeal at home but demolish a pastry on arrival when I buy a loaf of bread and an olive stick from a bakery stall. Buy eggs (in cardboard), some fresh (and very muddy) spinach, as well as cheese (finally!) as they have it wrapped in paper. Lots of plastic-free options here but you have to deal with the steep prices – everything is double what you would pay at the supermarket. Total spend: £11.50 ($16.09).
What I Learned
Shopping and eating this way is expensive, inconvenient, takes fastidious planning, and you’ll often eat the same things over and over. While buying fruit and vegetables is fine as long as you bring your own canvas bags, it’s getting hold of other items that is much trickier. I couldn’t buy yogurt or cheese, even tins (which can be recycled) are wrapped in plastic. While this was fine for one week, I couldn't do it forever.
Similarly, the expense of it all (paying more for products in cardboard or glass, shopping at expensive farmers' markets and inevitably eating out more) makes it hard to sustain long-term. While I’m in a fortunate position that I have both the time and money to shop around, I’m aware that most people don’t.
Moving forward I will definitely be shopping at the market stall when I can (both to reduce plastic and save money) and trying to look for more non-plastic options. However, until the big food companies and supermarkets change their plastic practices, trying to be zero-waste seems almost an impossible feat.