Rising to the challenge of plastic Freebruary
by Zoe Casey
Plastic is a hot topic on the policy agenda. Inspired by Plastic Freebruary, Zoe Casey set-off on a plastic-free journey aiming to buy no plastic for one month. Here’s her story.
Plastic is a hot topic right now. Last month the European Commission launched a strategy to tackle plastic waste, plastic pollution in our oceans has grabbed hearts and minds, while even the plastic in deceptively compostable-looking tea bags has hit the headlines. Combine this with the shocking statistics that the EU only recycles 30% of its plastic waste, and it produces 15.88 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste per year, and there’s good reason to go plastic-free for February.
Inspired by my brother, who works on an environmentally-friendly buffalo farm in the UK, I set-off on a plastic-free journey with the goal of buying no plastic for the whole month.
If you shop exclusively in a supermarket, avoiding plastic is nigh-on impossible. From biscuits to charcuterie, entire aisles are bursting with single-use plastic. Local organic shops, luckily, sell a lot of products by weight. I was happy to find that I could buy pasta, rice, cereals and even bars of chocolate and biscuits in brown paper bags. For fruit and veg, the local vegetable box scheme covered weekly needs, supplemented by the local Sunday market.
Cheese, meat and fish I got from the organic shop or the market, but I had to bring reusable containers to avoid the plastic-lined paper. Milk is something that my family consumes a lot of; nowhere could I find the glass milk bottles I remembered from my childhood. Then I had a breakthrough – the dairy stand on the local market has a huge vat of milk and they agreed to refill screw-top wine bottles with milk on the condition that I wash them so thoroughly that no hint of a wine smell is left! Although, I confess that buying milk like this is a heavy and an annoying process.
But what about plastic before food reaches the shops? On the buffalo farm, my brother faces serious hurdles in his single-use plastic-free challenge. “We are a pesticide-free, natural farm. We do so many good things for the environment with the way we manage our animals and land, but we buy tonnes of single-use plastic,” Nicholas Casey says.
Broughton buffalo sells meat on farmers’ markets, via delivery or through the farm shop. Health and safety rules dictate that meat must be packaged in single-use plastic at the farm before being sold on the market. The only way to avoid this is to have a butcher at the market cutting the meat into choice cuts on site. The cost of doing so is prohibitive, so Nicholas has been looking into plastic-free packaging alternatives.
“Unfortunately, only oil-based plastics give a longer shelf-life as they are an effective barrier to moisture. Even plant-based plastic would require a plastic film lid and need gas flushing to improve the meat’s shelf-life,” he says.
At the moment the plastic-free hurdle seems insurmountable, but a simple solution is to encourage shoppers who go directly to the farm to bring their own containers. The farm also avoids polystyrene packaging by using sheep’s wool and ice in boxes to keep the meat fresh. Clearly, it’s going to take legislative action and investment to bring about far-reaching change.
Plastic Freebruary has been easier than I imagined, but I have avoided things I would have liked to buy: smoked salmon, mussels, cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs, while the kids missed yogurts in pots, and kiri cheese (school doesn’t allow glass and a slice of home-cut cheese apparently just isn’t cool). Then there’s the things I just couldn’t avoid like toilet paper – even the recycled variety is packaged in plastic. I also didn’t buy any clothes, household products or toiletries – I get the impression that there’s a whole new challenge out there.
As with all lifestyle decisions, it’s about choices and being more organised, like remembering to take refill containers, and having a system for glass recycling as we suddenly found ourselves with a lot more glass waste. I also found it threw up a lot of questions – why is it cheaper to produce virgin plastics over recycled ones? What are the rules on food packaging and how could they change? Why do cucumbers come shrink wrapped? If tea bags are hiding plastic, what else does? From here onwards I might allow myself the occasional pack of smoked salmon and plastic milk bottles, but I will remain as plastic-free as possible.
“It threw up a lot of questions – why is it cheaper to produce virgin plastics over recycled ones? What are the rules on food packaging and how could they change? Why do cucumbers come shrink wrapped? If tea bags are hiding plastic, what else does? From here onwards I might allow myself the occasional pack of smoked salmon and plastic milk bottles, but I will remain as plastic-free as possible.”