In my first week of plastic avoidance I quickly learned that the stuff is bloody everywhere and avoiding it takes time. And tough decisions.
Paved With Good Intentions
I woke up on January 1 miraculously hangover-free. No headache, no nausea, no sinking feeling that there may be an Instagram Story of me dancing in a glittery tuxedo doing the rounds. This was amazing. At the stroke of midnight I had written off the entire day, only to have it given back to me, no questions asked. How could this be? Was I dead?
Probably not. I was hungry, after all. So Cat, my by-far-better half, and I went to our local M&S Simply Food for breakfast and lunch supplies. There was no limit to what I could stomach; I was going to bloody well enjoy this. Now, I’m very much a carpe diem kind of guy, so you can imagine what I did next. Like any true hedonist I went straight for the coleslaw. Full fat. This’ll go nicely with that breaded chicken in the freezer. I know, it’s hairy in the fast lane, just try to hold on.
It wasn’t until I got home and the adrenaline levels had returned to vaguely normal that the realisation hit. This coleslaw comes in a plastic tub. In my enthusiasm I appeared to have taken my eye off the prize.
“Not single-use,” I told myself, “I’ll be dipping into this pot of goodness multiple times today.” And I did. And I regretted it. Not just because now I was indeed nauseous, but because that little plastic tub had made it from shop shelf to recycle bin in a matter of hours.
So I had my first lesson very early on: it’s really easy not to factor plastic into the decisions I make about what to eat. Calories, yes; five a day, absolutely. But short of opting for loose apples over a bagful and letting my onions roll around the bottom of my tote bag, historically I haven’t actively avoided plastic when doing the food shop.
I wouldn’t be so gung-ho next time, I would shop with my mean, analytical brain and not my stupid fun-loving tummy. If something was only available in plastic it wasn’t getting into my trolley. Not in 2019.
These good intentions would be put to the test the next day at the supermarket.
Almost…but not quite
Our first supermarket shop wasn’t wildly different to previous efforts. Heavy on the veg, low on the meat, as many raw ingredients as possible, nothing processed. (Cat says Quorn doesn’t count because it’s delicious. I just eat it because Mo told me to.)
But look carefully and you’ll see it’s not entirely plastic-free. Noodles, Parmesan cheese, rye bread, sesame seeds, yoghurt and dried porcini mushrooms all come in plastic packaging. Now, one might argue that these things will all be used more than once, and that they therefore don’t breach the rules. But I’m all about the spirit of the law, not just the letter.
For example, let’s say we were hosting a party. And let’s imagine people actually turned up. It wouldn’t be stretching it too far to say that after a few drinks things get out of hand and we decide to cook all those noodles in one go, all six nests. (I told you, I live in the moment. Don’t feel bad about your own life.) That’s a single-use plastic right there.
So clearly I had work to do. But not everything on the shopping list had made it to the till. We forwent chicken, basil and spinach because they all came wrapped in plastic that would immediately be thrown away for recycling. So off we went to the local butcher and greengrocer to get that stuff.
Except the butcher was closed and the greengrocer didn’t have any loose bunches of herbs. We stuck to our guns and left with just the spinach. All told, we got home a good two hours later with more plastic and less food than we’d hoped for.
Only two days into the year and already I knew this would be a process. There is mounting pressure on the supermarkets to reduce plastic use — sign the petition if you haven’t already — but for now at least it seems avoiding plastic means avoiding the supermarkets, and making some fundamental choices about the food I eat and where I get it from.
The Seeds of Success
But I wasn’t discouraged. The seeds of success had been sewn, and something happened the following day that told me they were on fertile ground. We popped into M&S (yes, again) on our way back from a trip to Tate Modern looking for aniseed for a new Thai recipe we wanted to try. We didn’y find any, but we came across Cat’s favourite chocolate treats reduced to only 40p (normal price £2.70).
Last year we would have snapped them up without hesitation, in spite of the mound of Christmas chocolate waiting at home. But in 2019 we left those tempting tubs on the shelf. Certainly from Cat’s perspective this was the hardest moment so far.
But it was worth it, because it showed just how determined we are to make a go of this. (Cat really loves those things.) Supermarkets have the convenience factor; plastic certainly has the convenience factor. Over the coming weeks, I wonder how our shopping and eating habits will change, and if we’ll miss our old ways.