At the end of August, we were challenged by fitted kitchen company, Howdens Joinery, to see if we could create a more eco-friendly home and live a more sustainable lifestyle. Specifically, to save energy and waste in the kitchen and go completely plastic free for a week. I was a little bit nervous about doing it, scared of it revealing quite how bad we are as a family for opting for convenience rather than sustainability. However, we've been making some steps to improve recently - we've drastically reduced our meat consumption, started to grow our own food, bought a fully electric car, and rarely buy fast fashion made from man-made fibres - so it seemed like a good time to take on the challenge and see what we could learn from it.
I was originally intending to make a few notes during the week and simply share a summary of the overall highs and lows. However, it quickly turned in to a daily diary of shock, horror and the occasional success story. I'd completely underestimated how prevalent plastic is in our society and how, even from day one, spoiler alert, we were doomed to failure despite having the best intentions. It was such an eye opener that I wanted to share my thoughts and despair with you as I sat down to think about what we'd experienced and come up against at the end of each day. It's a lengthy post, but I promise you that it's worth the read.
We had a reasonably quiet day at home today, so we decided to start our sustainability challenge with some research and analysis. Wanting to know more about how plastic is affecting our world and what we as individuals can do to reduce our usage, I'd ordered No. More. Plastic. by Martin Dorey. It's a bitesize book full of brilliant tips that explains how we can all make a difference just by making a few simple changes in our lives and the way in which we purchase and consume different products. I'd definitely recommend reading it.
Armed with more knowledge than we'd started the day with, we took a stroll around our kitchen and looked in the cupboards to identify all of the plastic products and products wrapped in plastic. We then asked ourselves if we could stop buying those products, reduce the amount we buy or source non-plastic/reduced plastic alternatives.
We finished the day with a plan to slowly phase out many of the plastic products that we have - hand soap dispensers, bottles of water, lunch boxes, straws, sandwich bags, to name but a few - and replace them with more sustainable options. Yes, those options are initially more expensive but they mostly have a longer shelf life and are then actually recyclable rather than going on to landfill or potentially damaging our oceans.
And we have a list of things that we buy on a regular basis, for example, pre-packaged fruit and vegetables, children's fruit drinks, wet wipes, individually wrapped biscuits (Paul) and way too many packets of crisps (me), that we need to have a think about, too.
Tomorrow we need to pop to the supermarket so that should be an interesting exercise now that we're far more informed about unnecessary packaging and its impact. No more being seduced by shiny wrappers!
Well, today was nothing short of crushingly disappointing. We popped to the supermarket, taking our tote bags with us (Wales led the way on charging for plastic bags back in 2011 so we've been using our own since then), only to realise that if we want to eat this week, it's going to be virtually impossible to do so without plastic in some way, shape or form, sneaking in to the kitchen. So much of what we eat or use in the home comes in non-recyclable wrappers, even fruit and vegetables. Which is insane, right?
It's so disheartening. I feel quite angry about it, too. When we agreed to go zero plastic for a week, we were so excited to give it a go, but through no fault of our own, it's actually going to be pretty impossible. Why aren't big companies being challenged more to come up with alternatives that are better for the environment? Or maybe they are? I think I need to look in to this. We, as individuals, can reduce the amount the we buy and use but surely the problem would be better dealt with at the source?
But we've come up with a plan. Some plastics are widely recyclable and some are not and it should say which it is on the wrapper. We're going to be more vigilant in checking labels and looking for alternative products to those that don't come in recyclable wrappers. I've also bought some cotton food bags to pop loose fruit and vegetables in to so I don't have to opt for the small transparent plastic ones in the shop. They should last for a long time and are washable, too. And I treated myself to a stainless steel water bottle dinky enough to fit in my handbag so no more buying water on the go for me!
After yesterday's disappointment, we decided today would be about tackling something that we can have a real immediate impact upon ... our straw usage. As a family, we use plastic straws on a daily basis, more so at home now that our nearest city, Chester, is doing amazing things to make it a completely plastic straw-free zone.
With 8.5 billion plastic straws thrown away each year in the UK, and with reusable ones so easily available to buy, why we're still using one single use ones that don't biodegrade and take hundreds of years to break down, I don't know. Think about it. Something we use for about ten minutes and then throw away, will be hanging around on our earth for HUNDREDS of years. It's sickening to think about it.
Instead, we've opted for these metal drinking straws. I bought a pack of eight for £7.99 and they even come with two cleaning brushes. I'm going to keep four at home and four in my handbag so that we can use them when we're out, too. It seems like a small but important step ... especially if I can persuade you to do the same, too. Will you?
Can we talk about the humble teabag? Yep, the tiny little teabag that most of use every single day. Sometimes two or three, in fact. Well, it contains plastic. PLASTIC. In a teabag. Of all the revelations since we started our sustainability challenge with Howdens Joinery, this one has really surprised me. Apparently, it's a sealing plastic to stop the bags from falling apart.
So, it turns out that my daily walk to our compost heap with all of our used teabags has been completely in vain. In fact, I've been doing more harm than good in throwing them on there as I've contaminated it with plastic. Great!
But, after a couple of intense rounds of crazy golf, we stopped by Aldi on the way home and picked up a box of Diplomat Gold Blend with its compostable bags. It tastes great and I'm happy to switch to it until Yorkshire Tea find a way to keep their bags together without a polypropylene sealant. The only downside is that the inner foil packaging isn't recyclable but it still seems like a step forward. If only I could find a milkman to deliver here that we'd be able to have 99 percent recyclable cups of tea!
I gave up coffee a couple of months ago but whenever we pop to the cinema, which has a Starbucks inside, I'm at that counter like a shot for a hot chocolate sweet treat. It's my reward for sitting through children's films that I have little to no interest in. And during the school holidays, we tend to go once a week. That's a lot of hot chocolate. And a lot of paper cups used once and thrown away. Not good. In fact, did you know that UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year? That's a ridiculous amount.
Knowing that we'd be heading off to see Luis and the Aliens today, and also because there's a fair few films coming up this autumn that I know the boys want to see, I treated myself to an rCup ... a cup made from single-use paper coffee cups. It's fully recyclable and should last for at least ten years. And it's dishwasher safe, which I'm not going to lie, is a very attractive feature. I paid £12 for it, and as Starbucks offer a 25p discount on your drink if you bring your own cup, I will have made my money back in 48 hot chocolates ... so in about a month's time. I jest, but if it really does last for more than ten years, it will have more than paid for itself.
On a not so positive note, I had to pop in to the supermarket again, today. There's so much work to be done when it comes to food packaging. So much. Just a few days in to the sustainability challenge, and I feel haunted by the words 'not yet recycled'. Seriously, start looking at labels. It's written on so many. It's not good enough, is it?
After spending a good hour on google researching kitchen cleaning products that don't come in plastic bottles, today, I've come to the conclusion that there aren't any. The only non-plastic alternatives are natural remedies - water, white vinegar, and lemon juice feature a lot. The next best thing is a natural product featuring no chemicals that comes in a recycled bottle that you then ensure is recycled again once you've finished with it. We've been using Method products for a couple of years and they tick all these boxes - their products contain no nasty chemicals, their bottles are made from bottles and they are widely and easily recycled. If you've found any better alternatives, do let me know. It's something I'm really curious about.
One switch we've made though is from bottled hand wash to a bar of soap. And we've gone one step further by choosing an organic vegan soap that supports ARTHOUSE Unlimited, a charity that works with artists living with learning and physical disabilities. Each (paraben free) soap is engraved with a little message from an ARTHOUSE artist. Ours says 'have a hug', which the boys love. It also smells great and is really soapy so we won't be tempted to go back to bottled hand wash again.
This might be cheating a little as we didn't actually use these today but I wanted to sneak them in this post and mention them because we're soon going to be using them A LOT. And 'they' are? Lunchboxes! The boys are going back to school in a couple of days and of course, my first instinct was to pick up standard plastic lunch boxes. But how could I in zero plastic week?
I'll be completely honest, I failed and picked up an almost non-plastic alternative - a paper cooler bag with an insulated lining. The long-fibre paper material is 100% recyclable, and made partly from recycled materials, but yes, the lining is plastic. I've since stumbled across Elephant Box (well, my husband did) and all of their products are sustainably sourced, eco-friendly and made from food grade stainless steel so they're at the top of my list to buy from next time around.
One product I'm utterly convinced by and is going to be making more of an appearance in our lunchboxes and picnics is bee's wrap. Made from beeswax, organic cotton, jojoba oil and tree resin, it's an amazing alternative to plastic wrap. Wash it after every use and it should last for at least a year. They're also biodegradable and compostable when they come to the end of their sandwich-wrapping life, too. It's so nice to finish the week with a success story.
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED
Ultimately, what we've learned is that it's practically impossible to live a plastic free life. I'm going to say it ... it can't be done. BUT, we can live with a lot less plastic that most of us are currently doing. There's definitely a balance to be struck between having everything that we need now to live our best possible lives (and sometimes plastic is the answer to that) and making sure that future generations can do so too without having to clean up our mess when we're long gone.
I also don't think that big companies, particularly some supermarkets, are doing enough to find alternatives to non-recyclable plastics. Once you start looking at the labels while you're shopping, it's frightening. I initially worried about this post being a bit too product heavy but as sustainable alternatives are so hard to find, I think we need to shout out when we find the companies (like Howdens Joinery who are committed to providing sustainable products and ecological ways of working) and brands that are doing amazing work. And stop buying from the ones who aren't. It's easier said than done though, I know. And non-plastic alternatives do cost a lot more so the initial outlay is higher.
Our zero plastic week has been a huge eye opener for us and I know we're going to continue to really look at what we're buying and using, and also how we shop. I would absolutely recommend doing a similar challenge and seeing how you get on. And like I mentioned earlier, No. More. Plastic. is a great book to set you off on your journey. Good luck!
This post was written in collaboration with Howdens Joinery.