So. Plastic bags take 10-20 years to break down in the environment, and in that time, can be devastating for animals like sea turtles, which easily mistake floating bags for jellyfish, and swallow them.
Here in Scotland, the government introduced a 5p charge on single-use carrier bags in October 2014. This was fantastic, because in the first year, it cut the number of new plastic bags used by about 80%, as well as raising £6.7 million for various good causes, and saving ~4,000 tons of plastic/other materials per year.
But then there’s the bag my carrots come in, and the carton the milk comes in, and the punnet the raspberries come in. Some of those containers (like plastic-lined cardboard cartons and coffee cups) are only recyclable in theory, because local councils can’t afford to ship them to the few plants in the country that do recycle them.
As more awareness is generated about the harm disposable plastics can do, particularly in marine ecosystems, things are beginning to improve on the recycling front – for example, there’s a new campaign gaining speed that aims to bring in a deposit scheme for plastic bottles and a major coffee chain is trialling cup recycling stations in some of its branches (not that they gave me a list of which branches those are when I asked, mind).
The most sure-fire way to reduce the amount of plastics that enter the environment, though, is to not buy them in the first place. As far as I can tell, anyway.
You can find loose fruit and veg in plenty of places, but finding them cheaply can be tricky. Last time I went to a Farmer’s Market, thinking I’d save money, they charged me £6 for a squash. That is, retrospectively, probably a perfectly reasonable price for a heavy thing that took a lot of time and care to grow and transport by a small business that needs to generate enough income for wages. Still, hard when that’s about 15% of your weekly food budget. (You can probably get your veggies much cheaper by going at the end of the day when everyone’s packing up their stalls and wants rid of those potatoes they’d have to haul back home otherwise.)
Here are some (generally glaringly obvious) things I’ve learned that help reduce my dependence on single-use plastics, when my budget limits me to supermarket stuff:
- Grow your own. (If you have space.)
- Buy your mushrooms loose, and use the paper bags usually nearby
- Scout about for a cardboard-packed frozen equivalent to your fresh plastic-wrapped foods
- And sometimes you can find dried grains/couscous/rice in cardboard boxes instead of plastic bags. Lasagne sheets often come in plain cardboard boxes.
- If the option is plastic or plastic, see which one is better recycled in your area. (A relatively time-consuming equivalent of this is cheese – if I make my own soft cheese, I can recycle the milk carton, but I can’t recycle the plastic packet the off-the-shelf cheese comes in.)
- And since cardboard/plastic blend juice cartons are rarely widely recycled, it’s worth considering brewing up a flask of fruit tea for the fridge, or switching to a container type that does get recycled near you.
- Because the surface area to volume ratio decreases as an object gets larger, you’ll theoretically use less plastic overall if you buy a 10kg bag of rice than if you bought 10 x 1kg bags. (Also good budgeting sense, although it does rely on you being able to spare the money for a huge bag of rice in the first place). This does rely on the plastic used for the 10kg bag being the same type and thickness as those used in the 1kg bags, though, so use your head.
- And packing an extra washable reusable bag (like a cotton tote) in your usual stash of reusable bags means you can pack your loose fruit and veg away somewhere clean.
- Metal and glass also take forever to break down in the environment, but are more widely recyclable than the (n) kinds of plastic alternatives.
- Plan your recipes around what you know comes loose in your local shop – carrot and onion soup, leek and potato soup, root vegetable casserole topped with homemade mash, mostly root vegetables, really. Baked apples. Sweet potato and apple gratin. Vegetable lasagne. Garlic and lemon mushrooms. (I’ll write a post soon with some or all of those recipes.)
- If you switch from disposable coffee cups to a reusable cup, you’re more likely to take it with you on days where you’re lugging things around if it’s got a little flap that closes over the drinking hole. Few, if any, people want elderly latte dregs soaking into their copy of Spoon Whittlers’ Monthly in the bottom of their bag.
- Alternatively, become a supervillain, and sustain yourself entirely on the falling tears of your enemies, which can be collected in a reusable martini glass time and time again.
The most important thing in building up a habit of cutting out plastic, however, is the same thing with most habit-making: find a way that makes it easier for you to do the thing than to not do the thing. (That’s where I fall spectacularly bum over heid. Suggestions gratefully received.)
Now to go buy a heavily plastic-packaged lunch and kick myself for forgetting to make a packed one!