By 2042, Theresa May has promised a United Kingdom that creates zero ‘avoidable’ plastic waste, or those single-use items, that are used once and then sent straight to landfill.
In a speech, the Prime Minister also promised shoppers that their choice to shun plastic in their basket will be rewarded with benefits, such as express checkout queues that make their supermarket experience quicker.
Over the course of a week, I investigated how easy it would be to avoid single-use plastic in my daily life. And after a week without, I was left wondering who would be able to use these time-saving tills, or whether they would quickly become a premium choice for those who can afford the hugely limited, and often more expensive, non-plastic items currently stocked on Britain’s shelves.
My ground rules for living without single-use plastic included avoiding takeaway coffee cups, not using plastic straws, and not buying food and snacks in plastic wrappers. I was permitted products like toothpaste and moisturiser already in my (I would soon discover) extensive inventory of plastic products at home. Although if they ran out during this week experiment, I could not replace them with plastic items.
My week was by no means easy – and I found that as someone who doesn’t have children to look after, has no specific dietary requirements beyond not eating meat, can easily prepare food from scratch, and lives in a major city with access to lots of shops and weekend markets. It could have been much more difficult.
“I found a plastic-free option – but it was a 25 minute drive away ..."”
The first hitch came when, less than three hours after getting started, I realised we had almost run out of toilet roll at home and unless I planned on sleeping in the office for the week, it would need replacing.
An initial sweep of my local supermarket revealed that all of the standard options come packaged in plastic, so were off the cards. Crowdsourcing some suggestions from friends, I found some loo roll wrapped in paper, rather than plastic. The problem: it was a 25 minute drive away. Not exactly an environmentally friendly option.
After a flirtation with the idea that my employers wouldn’t notice one less toilet roll in their stash, a moment of clarity reminded me that stealing my way to a plastic-free life wasn’t exactly sustainable either.
In the end I resorted to the internet, where the first option came in at £2.79 for four rolls, reasonable enough until you add a fiver for postage. On Amazon other products that promise to be 100% compostable are, according to angry reviews, bundled together with plastic to send in large orders. A third option from ‘Who Gives A Crap’ (by now, not me) looked appealing but could only be bought in bulk – and my bank balance wasn’t up to a £40 investment.
In the end I ordered some bamboo-wrapped paper on Amazon Prime that cost three times the price of my normal plastic-wrapped rolls, and made my peace with the environmental issues in having it shipped to my front door.
Determined not to be derailed by toilet-roll-gate, I decided to use my weekend to venture out to a local farmer’s market, confident that it would be a plastic-free zone, allowing me to stock up on food purchases for the week.
Even at the market, however, a large proportion of the fresh fruits and vegetables were bundled in plastic bags. Asking the stall holders if I could give the plastic back, rather than take it away with me, it became apparent that it would end up in the bin – whether I put it in there, or they did.
So I bought a handful of vegetables, for about 20% more than the supermarket rate (a recent investigation found shops sell loose fruit and veg for between 10 and 54% more than their plastic counterparts), and a block of cheddar. For those committing longer-term, signing up to a vegetable box scheme might be a smarter approach than this.
My fridge might have been feeling bare by Monday morning, but the working week also allowed me to overcome a problem that was genuinely easy to navigate and wasn’t a massive inconvenience to my daily routine – essential if we are to see consumers shift away from the convenience of plastics.
Having already slowed down my consumption of takeaway coffee just before Christmas (presents are not cheap) and having acquired a thermal flask, I was able to take my tea with me on my commute and (surprise surprise) massively preferred the experience to spending £3 on a coffee near the office.
That’s one fewer disposable coffee cup in landfill – the UK throws away nearly 2.5 billion every year, more than 99% of which are not recycled – and I also pocketed a few pounds to offset higher costs elsewhere.
While the morning caffeine run might have been a resounding success, lunchtime proved a different story. Even securing a simple sandwich was going to be tricky - and my farmer’s market haul wasn’t providing any sustenance to bring in from home - so I decided to try out a few options.
First stop: Pret a Manger, where I couldn’t buy any of the sandwiches, salads, crisps, popcorn, or fruit pots. The toasted sandwiches and soup pots initially looked promising, with cardboard exteriors, but turned out to have a plastic lining to stop them leaking. Essential, but frustrating.
After a long chat with the manager of the store (and four other members of staff), we established that Pret’s takeaway pastry bags are made out of waxed paper so I could have bought a croissant or cinnamon swirl for lunch. Oh, and a banana.
Next I tried Greggs, where all of the sandwiches in store came in plastic boxes, and I had the same pastry options for the waxed paper bag solution, along with the option of a steak or vegetable bake (the only pastries on offer in the Greggs I popped into). I don’t eat meat, so that made the vegetable bake my strongest lunch option.
I had more luck at Leon, which sells most of its lunchtime meals (for example, meatballs and rice or black bean stew) in cardboard boxes lined with a wax seal. A good start, but with most hot lunches ranging from around a fiver to £7, this is another example of how shunning plastic is tough on the budget. It’s also not much of a nationwide solution: Leon only has 52 UK branches, with 42 of those in London.
Sainsbury’s did little to help: every lunch item in the store I visited, including the DIY salad buffet, was served in plastic packaging. Even the cookies had a tiny plastic window in their otherwise perfect paper bags.
Lunch negotiated, in a manner of speaking, it was now time to tackle socialising. The next evening I went to the pub, where I was pleasantly surprised to find them providing paper straws with their drinks. “Doing our bit for the environment,” the bartender nodded.
Had only been plastic options available, it would of course have been an easy choice to just ditch the straw. But after a disappointing week of negotiating some surprisingly tricky purchases, not having to do so was a much appreciated small win.
“The overall cost is something, which remains a huge barrier for many people, even if your conscience feels uneasy about the waste..."”
Looking back, the most obvious thing I’ve learned is that having to search for non-plastic alternatives is currently more demanding, both on your time – although this will inevitably lessen when you know where to look – and your wallet. Even if you do skip the takeaway coffee, or provide your own cup.
Those small changes like taking my own flask, or declining a straw in the pub are more easily done - and quite frankly I have no excuse for reverting to either of those habits - but the overall cost of my week feels like something which could remain a barrier for many people looking to lead a plastic-free life.
And this cost is without having to replace many other items such as shampoo, which I already had at home. There are options for shampoo – a quick look suggests brands like Lush sell ‘zero waste’ shampoo bars without plastic packaging (£6.50 for 55g) – but they may work out to be more expensive than many bottled options on the market.
If you can commit to buying in bulk or signing up to a vegetable box scheme, that might reduce costs. But that’s not suitable for everyone. My experience of giving up single-use plastic is that it’s only easy if you are able to spend more. Until cheaper options are made more widely affordable, Theresa May’s plastic-free checkout will cost you.