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Little swaps that could make a BIG difference: JENNIE AGG kept every bit of plastic she used in a month – and reveals how your family can use around 600 fewer items of polluting packaging a year
- Jennie Agg and her family collected 254 pieces of plastic rubbish in a month
- To see what plastic she could do without, Jennie decided to conduct a bin audit
- She was inspired by the Mail’s Turn The Tide On Plastic campaign
Looking at the astonishing 254 pieces of rubbish I’ve collected, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m an extreme hoarder.
I’m not — they are just a month’s worth of my family’s plastic rubbish. And at least half of it is completely unrecyclable.
Like many people, I’ve been increasingly horrified at headlines revealing what plastic pollution is doing to our planet. Apparently there’s so much plastic consumed by fish and other animals that humans now ingest about a credit card’s worth of plastic a week.
Inspired by the Mail’s Turn The Tide On Plastic campaign, I take my own bags to the supermarket, carry a refillable water bottle and own a re-usable coffee cup. But I can’t help feeling there must be more I could be doing.
Shocked: Jennie with her haul of plastic. Her family collected 254 pieces of plastic rubbish in a month
I’m far from alone — one study found 83 per cent of Brits have upped their efforts to reduce plastic use, but we’re also confused about how to help, and exactly what can be recycled.
Sadly, just throwing used plastic in your recycling bin may not mean it is all reused. The UK doesn’t have the infrastructure to recycle the bulk of its own plastic waste, so much of it is shipped abroad to places such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey.
But these countries aren’t always equipped to deal with the scale of the problem either — so while any valuable material will be extracted from our rubbish, the rest is burnt or dumped, not recycled. Last year, a UN report concluded 90.5 per cent of the world’s plastic waste has never been recycled.
‘If you can’t rely on the recycling system then we have to start thinking about what we can do without,’ says Martin Dorey, author of No More Plastic: What You Can Do To Make A Difference.
‘This can feel overwhelming, but we don’t need a few people going completely plastic-free — everyone making a few small changes would make a much bigger difference overall.’
To see what plastic I could do without, I decided to conduct a bin audit, which environmental experts recommend to help identify wasteful habits you could change.
The simplest way is to choose a day at random, empty your bin and note the plastic items you repeatedly chuck away (whether it’s juice bottles, coffee machine pods or make-up wipes).
But to get a clear picture of what I’m wasting, I decide to keep every piece of plastic rubbish our household gets through in a month.
The rules are simple: if it’s plastic and would normally go in the bin or recycling, it has to be stashed.
Jennie was inspired by the Mail’s Turn The Tide On Plastic campaign
The only exception I make is for anything that held raw meat or fish, on hygiene grounds, and simply make a note of those items.
Here’s how we got on . . .
WEEK 1: It’s soon worse than I thought
I’m feeling pretty confident — even slightly smug — about how we’ll fare. After all, we’re a household of only two humans (and three cats) and we already make an effort.
We recently switched from handwash in plastic bottles to bar soap. I don’t buy bottled water (the average person in the UK buys three a week, according to plastic reduction campaign #oneless) and we always use bags-for-life at the supermarket.
In fact, I think, I bet there’ll be days when we don’t use any plastic at all.
My illusions are swiftly dashed. Within 20 minutes I’ve binned my first item — a pill packet, as I finish my hay fever anti-histamines.
Then the post arrives, including a magazine in a plastic wrapper and a car air-freshener, ordered online, packaged in a plastic-lined envelope and wrapped in cellophane.
By the end of day one I add the plastic packaging from some fish cooked for dinner, a plastic pot and clear film sleeve from some fresh herbs and two more lots of cellophane from cut flowers. Nine bits of plastic.
By the end of week one, I’ve stopped keeping a note of each item as we get through it — the flow is too thick and fast. It includes milk bottles, yoghurt pots, bags of salad, shower gel bottles, fruit and veg wrapping, more fish, more cellophane from around magazines, biscuit wrappers, the lid from a mini tub of ice cream, contact lens pots . . .
WEEK 2: Our snack habits are a problem!
Jennie said: ‘As week two begins, it’s obvious my plan to keep the plastic (pictured) in a few canvas bags was wildly optimistic. They’re overflowing, so it’s into a black bin bag, and off to the shed’
As week two begins, it’s obvious my plan to keep the plastic in a few canvas bags was wildly optimistic. They’re overflowing, so it’s into a black bin bag, and off to the shed.
Something I’d not thought about before was snack wrappers — while crisp packets and chocolate bar wrappers are the obvious offenders (and are among the most common items found in beach litter), I assumed we’d be fine, as we don’t buy many of those.
However, my healthier snacks are no more saintly when it comes to packaging — I get through plastic packets from nuts and dried fruit (the labels tell me they’re ‘not currently recycled’), and a plastic tub of olives. Even oatcakes come divided into six-biscuit portions, each wrapped in its own clear plastic.
Then there are the fancy chocolate biscuits my husband Dan likes, which almost always come in black plastic trays inside their cardboard boxes.
‘Supermarkets use a lot of black plastic, which can’t currently be recycled as it isn’t recognised by the machines most recycling plants use to sort material,’ Martin Dorey tells me.
‘Clingfilm is technically recyclable but it’s difficult, because it is often contaminated with food and can cause problems for the machines that sort it.’
By the end of the week we’ve filled another bulging black bin bag.
WEEK 3: I ask for black pudding to put in a jar
I’m dispirited by the relentless flow of plastic. It’s easy not to think about it when it’s going straight in the recycling — less so when it’s lined up on your worktop and stuffing up your garden shed.
Despite trying to be more ‘plastic-conscious’ when I shop, it still creeps into my basket in frustrating ways. For example, filter coffee tends to come in plastic pouches, lined with foil. The trouble is, the layers of different material used make these unrecyclable (the same goes for pouches of baby food or pet food).
To see what plastic she could do without, Jennie (pictured) decided to conduct a bin audit
Trying to be good, this week we buy a packet that appears to be made from stiff, brown paper. When I open it, it’s lined with plasticky foil.
Similarly, when I decide to switch my usual plastic bottle of make-up remover for a glass jar of coconut oil (cheaper, smells great, and removes mascara brilliantly), I find the sealed lid has a sliver of plastic around the rim. It’s infuriating, because it seems so unnecessary.
One thing that’s increasingly clear is how much plastic packaging from fruit, veg and salad we get through: bagged salad, spinach and potatoes, punnets of strawberries (which also have a sheet of bubble-wrap on the bottom), tenderstem broccoli and asparagus in plastic trays and wrapped in layers of clingfilm.
‘Supermarkets want to sell you strawberries in January and cucumber all year round — the way they do that is by putting them in plastic so they last for the longer journeys this needs,’ says Martin Dorey.
‘The real answer is to buy as seasonally and locally as possible. We’ve been spoiled by having products flown in from Spain, South Africa and Israel.’
Like a lot of people, I don’t have time for an extra trip to a grocer or market as well as the supermarket, let alone to check the provenance of every pea and pepper while rushing a mid-week shop. But I do stop reaching for my usual plastic-wrapped packet of six apples and grab loose ones instead. The same goes for lemons, limes and mushrooms.
HOW TO DITCH THE PLASTIC HABIT
Take a re-usable container to the meat, fish or cheese counters of the supermarket (or your butcher).
Reuse throw-away plastic, whether it’s washing plastic cutlery or refilling a plastic bottle.
Get milk delivered in glass bottles. Go to findmeamilkman.net to find a local delivery.
Use a flannel or cloths rather than wet wipes. Or try Bambaw washable cotton pads for removing eye-make-up (£13 for 16, from andkeep.com)
Pick loose fruit, vegetables and salad, and put in a string or paper bag.
Swap plastic-heavy packed lunches for school dinners.
Try shampoo and shower-gel bars (from £8, lush.com) and plastic-free toothpaste (Denttabs toothpaste tablets, from £2.40 for a month’s supply, anythingbutplastic.co.uk).
Swap to plastic-free sanitary protection. Natracare (from £2, Waitrose and health food shops) makes plastic-free pads, and tampons with cardboard applicators.
If you can’t find a plastic-free alternative you like, buy bigger. A single 5l container of shower gel uses less plastic than 20 small 250ml bottles.
Speaking of which, most supermarkets keep a stash of brown paper bags by the loose mushrooms, but there’s nothing to say you can’t use them for loose apples, oranges or peppers, too. Waitrose has started a plastic-free trial at its Botley Road store in Oxford, while Morrisons is trialling refillable options in a few of its stores, as well as rolling out a ‘buy bagless’ initiative, with more than 100 varieties of fruit and veg sold loose or in recyclable paper bags.
Inspired, the next time I buy some meat, I bring my own containers from home. I feel an idiot, asking for a bit of black pudding to go in an old jam jar, but the butcher doesn’t bat an eye. In fact, Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons all say they permit their customers to bring their own containers for fish, meat and cheese bought over the counter.
WEEK 4: How I will cut down . . .
Trying to keep track of our plastic is making me feel slightly unhinged.
You start seeing it everywhere — when bills land on our doormat, it occurs to me that I should have been keeping the clear plastic windows on the front of the envelopes. Online shopping orders — I buy a pair of plimsolls and some pillows — come swathed in maddening amounts of plastic: plus pointless extras such as plastic ‘shoe trees’, hangers and price tags (surely unnecessary for internet orders?). One thing’s for certain, I can’t wait for my big bags of rubbish — there are five now — to be banished. As for our grand total? It’s a shocker, at 254 items. This includes 12 plasticky foil biscuit wrappers, 12 takeaway boxes, ten toiletry bottles, seven packets of salad, six bottles of milk and four pouches of ground coffee.
After sifting through the lot, I estimate around half is ‘not currently recyclable’.
So, what changes will I be making?
First on my list are plastic-free coffee packets. British brand Percol sells Fairtrade coffee in fully compostable packaging, from £3 for 200g at Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Holland & Barrett.
My list also suggests we’re getting through around 60 plastic packets from fresh herbs annually — typically basil, parsley and coriander — so I’m going to attempt to grow those in pots on our kitchen windowsill.
Bagged salad adds another 84 items to our estimated annual plastic total, so I’ll be sticking to loose lettuce from the supermarket when it’s available, which, shame on my Tesco, it often isn’t.
The same goes for other fruit and veg where possible.
If I just buy apples loose rather than in plastic multi-packs, that would knock off another 24 bits of plastic a year.
I’ve also signed up to have milk delivered in glass bottles (saving around 72 plastic bottles a year). If we add in a juice delivery every other week — also in glass bottles — that’s another 24 plastic bottles a year saved.
And it definitely wouldn’t hurt us to cut down on biscuits and sweet treats.
All told, we got through a slightly embarrassing 22 items in a month, including wrappers from biscuits, chocolate bars, cereal bars and plastic bags from supermarket pastries.
I resolve that if we really want these things, we should try to bake them — and if all else fails, there’s always chocolate in cardboard packaging. Some brands, such as Seed & Bean, come in fully compostable wrapping —including the inner foil.
Based on my monthly tally, even just these relatively simple swaps could save in the region of 600 pieces of plastic a year — or more than two months’ worth.
It may still sound like a drop in the ocean, but as Martin Dorey says: ‘Anything you do, however small, makes some positive difference.’
Now, who wants to tell my husband those posh biscuits (in their unrecyclable black plastic trays) have to go?
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