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Plastic-free Challenge

Guest Blog: How and why I cut single-use plastic out of my life

More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans yearly. This is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. 

Ocean plastics and the hazardous chemicals contained within them have been linked to a wide range of health problems including; hormone disruption, brain and behaviour problems, prostate cancer and heart disease. 

These toxins are passed on and increase in concentration as they ascend the food chain. Research shows that 1 in 3 fish caught for human consumption now contains ocean plastic.

Image: Plastic oceans toxins Greenpeace

Plastic has been found in the stomachs of 90% of seabirds across the globe. Sharp-edged plastic kills birds by punching holes in internal organs, and some seabirds eat so much plastic their stomachs fill up: this is often fatal. The problem is now so severe, traces of plastic have now been found in 83% of drinking water samples worldwide. 

Currently in the UK we produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which comes from single-use items. But this is by no means an inevitability we have to accept as part of modern life. 

Bioplastics and other plastic alternatives will further encourage the throwaway culture we live in. I believe that the solution lies in increasingly refusing single waste plastic, reducing the amount of plastic we already use in our day-to-day lives and reusing materials such as glass and wood that can be easily repurposed or recycled at the end of their much longer lifespan. 

This is the story of my journey to a (single- use) plastic-free life.

It began at an inspiring talk by an environmentalist in a festival tent two and a half years ago, after which my partner and I vowed to begin the first steps to cutting out single-use plastic from our lives altogether.

Once I had "woken up" to plastic, I was shocked at how blind I had been. It had infiltrated our shopping lists, our supermarkets, right under our noses. We had been unconsciously consuming, without even questioning what would happen to all this plastic when it was thrown away.

Slowly we started to change our habits; only buying unpackaged, loose vegetables at the supermarket (and if we couldn't get them there, going a bit further to the greengrocers or the fruit and vegetable market); ensuring we packed our stainless steel water bottles and tote bags in our backpacks every morning.

Image: Tomatoes plastic-free

After a while our mentality towards consuming started to change. We decided that if we couldn't find an alternative to an item packaged in plastic we would cut it out. Thus we adapted; black coffee and herbal tea in lieu of cows milk or tetra packed alternatives. 

Here are five simple ways I have found to reduce and cut out single-use plastic:

1. To avoid single-use, disposable plastic packaging and utensils on the go, you can make a one time investment on the following reusable items. The option with the least impact is the items you already own: a cotton tote bag/ a few cotton drawstring food bags, reusable cutlery set (made from wood or metal), a bamboo coffee cup, stainless steel water bottle and straw.

Image: jerry bottle reusable plastic-free

Plastic straws are often non-recyclable or rarely recycled, so either skip the straw or bring your own metal one. Bring these essential items with you on your days out, and you can cut out the majority of single-use plastic you'll encounter!

Also its always worth asking the shop assistant/cashier if they have an alternative, non-plastic packaging option. For instance, if you are buying bread rolls in a supermarket or at a bakery you can often ask for a paper bag in place of the plastic bag they offer by default. 

2. Shop in bulk-buy / package-free shops for your dry food goods such as pasta, rice, pulses, nuts, and beans. More bulk-buy shops are starting to appear on the UK highstreets now. They are a great way to avoid all the unnecessary packaging that supermarkets provide. Make sure you take some refillable glass Kilner jars or cotton drawstring bags to fill.

The great thing about bulk buy shops is that you pay by weight, so you can take as much or as little produce as you need. I made some different sized cotton, drawstring produce bags myself, which is super easy to do. If you decide to use glass Kilner style jars, this has the added advantage that you can just pop the full containers straight into a cupboard or on to a shelf when you get home – no decanting required.

Image: bulk buy plastic-free

When buying cheese at the local cheesemonger, I always take along my own beeswax paper or a glass Tupperware box, declining any cling-film the cheesemonger offers. (It's good to let them know that I appreciate their flexibility with my eco-friendly request!)

If you don't have a bulk-buy / package-free / farmers market where you live and supermarkets are your only option, you can often buy loose fruit and vegetables and put this straight into your basket.

If you need to buy fruit or vegetables that are pre-packed in plastic, it's a good idea to leave the packaging at the checkout, explaining to the cashier why you are going plastic free, and ask them to dispose of it.  Supermarkets pay for their waste removal, and the more customers that complain to retailers about unnecessary plastic packaging the more pressure there will be on retailers to change their plastic-obsessed ways.

3. Say no to fast fashion! We've become accustomed to poorly resourced, synthetic clothing that falls apart, needing to be replaced and updated so often they are essentially disposable items.

By buying second-hand clothing on online stores such as eBay or in charity shops, you are able to find clothes that are better quality and long-lasting, and you are not adding to the ever-increasing waste stream of disposable clothing. Be sure to ask your seller to ship in paper envelopes without unnecessary bubble wrap, foam or plastic packing materials.

Image: swap shop clothes recycled

Also washing acrylic / synthetic clothes releases plastic microfibres that enter our water systems, accumulating in our oceans and the ecosystems that live there. According to a recent study, every wash of a synthetic garment may release as many as 1,900 microscopic plastic fibres into the waste-water stream. Washing the clothes you already own less often, on a slower cycle, and only buying new clothes made from natural fibres, will help to reduce the amount of microfibres entering the water systems. 

4. Finding 100% recycled or tree-free toilet paper that doesn't come wrapped in plastic was a big problem for me until I discovered "Who Gives A Crap". The Australian-based company donates 50% of its profits to provide toilets and sanitation in the developing world, and the toilet paper, bamboo or recycled paper, is shipped in a cardboard box. Also, you can repurpose the individual paper wrappers to reuse as gift wrap and parcel packaging. 

5. Make your own toiletries and beauty care products from simple ingredients at home. I make my own toothpaste, deodorant, body moisturiser and makeup. 

The ingredients are really easy to get hold of: bicarbonate of soda, coconut oil and organic shea butter. Store them in small glass jars that you can just refill when you run out.

There are lots of blogs and YouTube videos online with recipes and instructions for making all of these products yourself. I use a bamboo toothbrush, and when the brush bristles have worn down, I repurpose it by adding it to my eco-friendly bathroom cleaning products.

Image: Lush shampoo bar plastic-free
Lush shampoo bar

I also use a shampoo bar to wash my hair and soap for body wash, which I keep in small tins between uses to ensure that if they dissolve all the residual soap can still be used. Many bulk-buy/ package-free shops offer a refill service for shampoo and conditioner bottles too.

And one extra tip just for you! Cigarette filters are actually made of plastic. Just another reason to give up smoking! Every butt you put on the ground or in the bin and don't recycle is contributing to plastic pollution worldwide. Disposable plastic lighters are one of the most common items found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

Plastic is uncontrollably accumulating in our oceans. We can't wait around for governments and businesses to lead the way. It is therefore down to us to vote with our wallets, to force the market to adapt. A grassroots shift in consumer habits could put pressure on industry to operate more responsibly with regard to single-use plastics; if you don't buy it, they won't make it! 

This is a guest blog written by Alice Fruer-Denham

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