We’ve all seen the heart-wrenching pictures: the seahorse clutching a plastic cotton bud, gulls with insides full of miscellaneous bits of plastic, and seals choked by plastic bags. We’ve seen the surge in global media coverage of our giant plastic problem since David Attenborough hammered it home with Blue Planet (distressing and awe-inspiring in equal parts). We’ve criticised everyone from the government to the manufacturers to the supermarkets. But we’ve probably all experienced that nagging feeling that we as individuals are also to blame, and therefore should be able to do something about it.
So Team bio-bean decided to jump on the zero-plastic bandwagon and try to give up single-use (i.e. disposable) plastic for a month. We decided that an outright ban would set ourselves up for failure before we even began, so we aimed to eliminate, but committed to significantly reduce our consumption of single-use plastic throughout the month of May. We set up a group chat to encourage each other and share best practices, failures, frustrations and ideas for alternatives.
Starting out as a small group, we soon grew until well over half of the business was involved. Some of us were confident that it would be easy (they were in for a bit of a shock) while others had already been cutting out plastic for some time, and knew all about its sneaky ability to find its way into absolutely everything.
We got off to an optimistic but slightly wobbly start, with the search for plastic-free lunch options yielding some questionable results (tinned soup and cans of tuna – learning later that sadly most tins are lined in plastic), as well as some more satisfactory ones, like burgers in biodegradable boxes and foil-wrapped sandwiches. Once we got into the swing of it, some smug new finds were touted about – reusable water bottles and coffee cups, cosmetics from Lush and market-bought fruit and veg – as well as some early frustrations due to a lack of forward planning (going home hangry after being unable to find a plastic-free snack in the corner shop). The more zealous among us confessed plastics that had been purchased long before the challenge started and cancelled magazine subscriptions due to plastic sleeves, while others were a little more slack (giving in to a hangover’s need for a takeaway, and learning very late in the day that polystyrene, however convenient, is also plastic…)
We signed petitions, we found dry goods refill shops in London (and were exasperated at the lack thereof outside of the capital), and we shared home remedies, like white wine and bicarbonate of soda to replace plastic-packaged cleaning products. We found new uses for old things: yoghurt pots, takeaway coffee cups and even ski boots transformed into flower pots; and plastic bags as a reusable alternative to cling film. We learned from some experts in the field – Martin Dorey’s No. More. Plastic. is full of brilliant tips – the best of which, we thought, was to research and commit to living within your council’s recycling capabilities.
You pay more when you try to care for both your health and the environment, as we learned from expensive farmer’s markets and artisan bakeries. There are cheaper, less healthy options of course (baked beans, anyone?) but still, 10 days in no-one had managed to be completely single-use-plastic-free. While we had learned a lot about the pitfalls and areas for improvement, it didn’t seem feasible to go 100% #zeroplastic forever and ever amen – at least not without some serious preparation.
But we persevered. Some of us converted to loose-leaf tea to avoid teabags that contain plastic, or switched from plastic bottles of olive oil to 5L tins. We had some happy realisations about staple products packaged in cardboard (like eggs and laundry powder) and less happy realisations that meat and fish are almost impossible to find without plastic wrapping. This was until we found out Morrisons now allow customers to bring their own Tupperware to the fishmonger and butcher counters…
Between picnics, barbecues and generally having to cater for friends who weren’t in on the challenge, many of us failed especially hard over the May bank holiday weekends. Those team members who lead a double life as a parent also had to compromise – young children are of course both materially very high maintenance (think nappies and wipes) and hard to say no to (think a 4-year-old’s birthday babyccino request).
We asked ourselves some big questions – does a toothbrush count as single-use plastic? Are pizza boxes really recyclable? (Yes and no, as it turns out) Are economics “ruining everything” (as someone phrased it) by keeping biodegradable plastics expensive and fossil-fuel-derived plastic cheap? We were shocked by the lack of information from councils on the recyclability of different materials, and by the false sense of security that what you’re putting in the recycling bin is actually getting recycled. We were unpleasantly surprised to learn that card and paper can be worse than plastic when factoring in the broader environmental footprint (how depressing).
But we had to draw a line in the sand and focus on plastic for now or we’d tie ourselves up in (probably plastic) knots. We used some of those horrifying visuals of plastic wreaking havoc on marine life to keep our eyes on the prize (the prize, of course, being peace of mind for our pious ways).
So here we are at the end of our 31-day challenge, but the journey certainly doesn’t stop here – we’re going to continue to reduce our plastic waste well into the future. You can’t un-see Blue Planet, and once you get started on a plastic-free journey it’s not easy or even desirable to return to selective ignorance. We’ve built new plastic-free habits into our everyday lives, realising there are so many small changes that can make a difference, and more conscious now of the range of alternatives available.
As one of our colleagues aptly pointed out, Rome wasn’t built in a day – and looking at how much we all managed to cut down in a short space of time, it’s not a bad start.
By Pippa Henderson