22/04/2018 07:00 BST | Updated 23/04/2018 09:18 BST

Plastic-Free Living: Where And How To Shop If You Want To Cut Down

Check out our rather extensive guide.

Our planet is drowning in plastic: marine life is dying, the very water that we drink is polluted and unless we take action, it’s only going to get worse. The world’s annual consumption of plastic has increased from around five million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today, according to WRAP, which then takes up to 500 years to decompose.

At the start of the year Theresa May promised that by 2042 we will live in a country that creates zero ‘avoidable’ plastic waste. Supermarket Iceland quickly pledged allegiance to the cause and announced its own brand range will be entirely plastic-free by 2023, prompting other stores to follow suit.

Since then multiple businesses have claimed they will phase out single-use plastic: Wagamama announced it will stop providing plastic straws as of 22 AprilMcDonald’s said it will trial paper straws in UK restaurants in May, while Just Eat is trialling a pre-ticked box on its app and website so customers can opt out of receiving extra single-use plastic items like cutlery, straws and sauce sachets.

Daniela Dirscherl via Getty Images
A plastic bag floats in the ocean near Indonesia.

Cutting down on single-use plastic is the number one priority for a lot of businesses - and it should be for you too. According to Plastic Free UK, shoppers worldwide are using approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year. 

That said: It’s still very difficult for people to cut out plastic from their lives completely (you can read all about our reporter’s trials and tribulations of cutting plastic for one week here), but with small steps it is possible. Here’s how.

Food

The first tip is to say no to plastic knives, forks and straws. Carry your own around with you by all means. Or ask for paper or wooden alternatives.

Secondly, avoid plastic bags - and that includes the ones so many of us mindlessly put fruit and veg into. A lot of major supermarkets put vegetables such as mushrooms and carrots in sealed plastic packaging. Avoid this and opt for the unpackaged fruit and veg instead. You can also find unpackaged goods at your local farmer’s market or independent supermarket, just make sure you take a canvas bag with you to bring your haul home in.

Shopping on sites like Ethical Superstore can also help you reduce waste, as you can specifically search for ‘plastic-free’ products - although this isn’t necessarily cheap.

Other handy swaps include: swapping plastic-wrapped bread for fresh bread in a paper bag; opting for frozen goods in cardboard packaging (hello fish fingers); and, in summer, swapping ice cream tubs for edible cones. If you’re partial to chewing gum (which contains plastic) try swapping it for a pack of mints instead.

On to the important stuff: chocoholics can get their plastic-free fix with Divine’s chocolate bars, whose wrappers are made from sustainably-sourced paper and are recyclable; and Seed & Bean chocolate bars, whose paper and inner foil are certified for both home and industrial composting.

Drinks

Buying milk, squash, juice or soft drinks in glass bottles can really help you to cut down your plastic use at home - and it’s prompted a resurgence in milk home deliveries in London. Glass is easily recyclable, as long as you pop it in your recycling bin instead of your household rubbish. During the recycling process it is crushed and contaminants are removed. It’s then melted in a furnace and moulded or blown into new bottles or jars (read more here).

A great tip for cutting down on the amount of bottles in your recycling bin is to use a refillable bottle for carrying water or hot drinks - try One Green Bottle whose range is entirely plastic-free.

In the world of hot drinks, tea-lovers can get their plastic-free fix by opting for Twinings’ Loose Leaf pyramid tea bag range, which is fully biodegradable, including the tags. Pukka Herbs tea bags are also plastic-free and stitched together with organic cotton - all tea bags, including tags, are fully-compostable. Aldi’s premium Specially Selected range, Waitrose’s Duchy range and PG Tips’ new environmentally-friendly teabags are also biodegradable.

If you love coffee, why not try compostable coffee pods? The Eden Project has launched 100% compostable coffee capsules which are compatible with Nespresso coffee machines. Smaller-scale coffee brands like Percol and Novel L’Espresso also sell compostable pods. Percol’s range is made from plant-based plastic, with ingredients like sugar beet and sugarcane, while Novel L’Espresso’s is made using bio-based materials.

Last but not least, alcohol. When you come to buy wine, try to buy corked bottles over screw caps, as cork decomposes. In terms of drinking beer, draught beer from a keg in your local pub appears to be the greenest option when compared to glugging bottled or canned beer. Cheers to that.

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Fashion

Plastic is everywhere - including your clothing. Avoid anything made from polyester, nylon, lycra, spandex and acrylic; and instead opt for items made from natural materials like organic cotton and hemp.

Some clothing brands focus on only using natural materials, for example Thought uses bamboo, cotton, wool and hemp. A spokesperson for the company revealed its parcels are delivered in bags made from recycled paper. People Tree produces clothes from organic cotton, wool and a cellulose fibre called TENCEL which derives from wood pulp and is biodegradable. One major downside is that the packaging used for online orders is made from polypropylene (plasticRapanui also sells 100% organic cotton clothing. It is currently phasing out packaging made with a type of plant based polymer from sugar cane in favour of a paper bag. Large orders arrive in cardboard boxes, sealed with paper-based tape.

Cork accessories are not only environmentally friendly, but they’re also very on-trend. Cork and Co produce bags, jewellery, accessories and homeware made entirely out of cork, which comes from tree bark. (You can find a range of other beautiful cork accessories in our round-up here.)

Toiletries

It can be hard to track down everyday toiletries and beauty items that are plastic-free, but it’s not impossible. You can, for example, switch your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one from Natural Collection, meanwhile Free People sells coconut toothpaste in a metal tube. You can also get bamboo hairbrushes and makeup brushes in places like Boots and Superdrug - check out the Eco Tools range.

Wet wipes contain plastic and account for around 93% of the material that causes sewer blockages, so they’re definitely worth the chop. Switch them - whether that’s baby wipes, makeup wipes or antibacterial cleaning wipes - for natural, reusable and washable cotton cloths or flannels.

Lush's zero waste shampoo bars come without plastic packaging and you can easily ditch your plastic shower gel tub for a bar of Lush soap. For moisturisers and body lotions, opt for glass or tin packaging if you can.

When it comes to the bog, things are a little more tricky as most loo rolls are packaged in plastic. Greencane sells 100% biodegradable toilet paper (£2.89 for a pack of four) made from a mix of recycled bamboo fibre and sugarcane. It’s also free from inks and fragrances. Who Gives A Crap sells toilet roll made from 100% recycled paper, which also comes in paper packaging and a cardboard box. You can buy 24 rolls for £24.

In the realms of feminine hygiene, a lot of tampons contain some form of plastic, especially those that include an applicator. To tackle the issue British organic tampon company DAME has launched a reusable applicator, the D. The idea is you use, rinse and reuse the applicator, instead of throwing away countless plastic ones every month. 

TOTM and Natracare tampons are both eco-friendly. As well as providing biodegradable cardboard applicators, both brands offer plastic free tampons made from 100% organic cotton. Packaging-wise, TOTM’s applicator tampons are wrapped in paper, whereas their non-applicator tampons are wrapped in plastic, but the brand is looking to change this as soon as possible. Natracare’s non-applicator tampons are wrapped in recyclable plastic and their application tampons are wrapped in biodegradable wax lined paper.

The most eco-friendly period product has to be the Mooncup which is available for £20 and lasts 10 years. It’s made from medical grade silicone, is cost effective and its packaging is plastic-free. Fair Squared has launched the first Fair Trade Period Cup; which is created from Fair Trade, biodegradable natural rubber and is vegan society approved and cruelty-free.