Life

5 things I learned from trying to give up single-use plastic

In partnership with
Brita

We challenged writer Jo Usmar to ditch all single-use plastic for seven days. Here’s what she learned…

I like to think I’m not a total inconsiderate when it comes to the environment.

I don’t leave plastic inflatables in the sea. I go to the local dump rather than fly-tip. I feel guilty every time I use a disposable spork.

I’ll admit that I thought these credentials meant this challenge – to live without single-use plastic for a week – would be easy. That I’d soon be bathed in the beatific glow of turtle-saviour extraordinaire.

Turns out, not so much.

‘Single-use plastic’ is defined as a material made of plastic designed to be used once and then binned. The statistics on its contribution to global pollution are staggering and it’s easy to feel like one person can’t make a difference. 

But after speaking to Daniel Webb, founder of everydayplastic.org, who kept every single piece of plastic waste he produced during the whole of 2017 to discover how much one person, living alone, could amass, I felt more like I could have an impact. 

“People think individuals can’t make a difference, but they can,” he told me. 

“If I’d given up plastic bottles, bags, straws, stirrers, cutlery, cups and bathroom products last year, I’d have used 316 less plastic items – apply that to a quarter of the UK population and you’d prevent five billion items being thrown away.”

The results of his experiment were staggering and all kinds of depressing – but also inspiring because things are changing and there are alternatives. 

Here’s what I found during my own experiment.  

1. Your reusable mug can be used more than you think

To make ‘paper’ coffee cups waterproof, they’re infused with un-recyclable polyethylene (a plastic), meaning most of the 2.5 billion cups chucked each year in the UK end up as landfill. 

I felt a bit sheepish when I first started waving my (somewhat dusty) travel mug under the noses of baristas, but everyone was incredibly positive about it. 

And brilliantly, it also worked in bars. 

When I asked bartenders to fill my mug instead of plastic cups during Margate Pride, everyone merrily did so, with one staffer telling me he was charging customers a £1 deposit for every new plastic cup, so they’d keep hold of their empties for refills – and it worked. 

2. There are some places that are for you, and others that are against you

Bolstered by the travel mug success, I decided to get some Tupperware involved. 

Staff at my local supermarket were almost alarmingly unfazed when I started filling up my own container at the salad bar – so much so, in fact, that I asked the guy behind the counter if it was really OK. 

“Yeah, we get a few in like you now,” he yawned. 

However, the same stunt caused an uproar at a local lunch spot. “But if you do it, everyone will do it! How will we keep track of portion sizes?” the manager roared.

“Shops like that are missing a trick,” Webb says.

“It’s a huge selling point to care about this. If they gave each customer a metal container to fill which they could then decant into their own containers, they’d have a real marketing ploy. People care. In a few years, no one will give away plastic pots.” 

3. If you can’t find an alternative, go without

Plastic bottles and plastic straws are the poster children of the anti-plastic movement.

Currently, 8.5 billion straws are thrown away every year, with pretty much all of those ending up in landfill.

And, incredibly, over half (55%) of all bottled water buyers buy it to drink at home. These bottles also often end up in landfill.

On a day trip to Brighton, I found a pub giving out metal straws for a £2 deposit. 

“Paper straws are crap,” the bar staff explained. “They turn to mush. People now bring in their own metal or glass straws, or go without.” 

It was an apt moral for this whole challenge: either find an alternative or go without. 

And I found many alternatives. Having a Brita water jug at home that slots perfectly into the fridge and filters tap water was one. Using Brita’s fill&go water filter bottles on the go (loads of places let me fill up with tap water) was another. 

I also used matches instead of disposable lighters, brought my own cutlery to the office so I didn’t have to use plastic versions – and even chose to sit down and eat in cafes at lunchtime, so I didn’t have to accept the standard takeaway fare of plastic-packaged everything.

4. There are things you would never even consider

I naively assumed gripping a fill&go bottle and having some Tupperware shoved under my arm was as right-on as it got in the anti-single-use-plastic campaign. 

“You know toiletries count?” Webb asked.

Um, no?

“And biros?” he added.

WTF?

But he’s right. The plastic containers that hold your shampoo, conditioner and shower gel are designed to be used until they’re empty and then binned. You don’t refill your face wash or your biro, do you?

Determined to stay true to the cause, I used a ‘posh’ Waterman pen gifted to me years ago with refillable ink cartridges – although was stumped when I discovered said cartridges came in plastic blister packs.

“It’s impossible!” I fumed to Webb. 

“How about a pencil?” he asked.

Oh, yeah. I forgot pencils even existed.

I thought I was going to have to draw the line at toiletries, though. I needed to wash, dammit. There are limits to journalistic integrity.

However, a quick Google of “plastic-free shampoo” alerted me to several beauty brands producing products in solid soap-forms, negating the need for plastic.

This is both ecological and economical, with one bar of shampoo soap providing the same amount of washes as three bottles of shampoo. It was a genuine game-changer. 

5. Once you start, it’s easier not to stop

Completing this challenge forced me to slow down and assess the decisions I often make on autopilot. 

For example, I assume I’m going to ‘grab’ lunch, because that’s what I always do – and single-use plastic has enabled that disposable consumer culture.

But being forced to stop and consider how and what I eat made me realise I do have choices. 

I actually took proper lunch breaks for the first time in weeks and also brought food in that I’d cooked at home, saving money and hassle. 

I also discovered shops and brands I’d never heard of before, including a butchers close to work that wrapped meat and fish in paper (because most meat and fish in supermarkets is packaged in plastic).

As an added bonus, it inspired really interesting conversations with both strangers and friends.

When some pals arrived for a garden picnic with bottled drinks, plastic-packaged food and ‘paper’ plates (they’re not paper, FYI), I didn’t want to put on my martyr hat, chucking them out while screaming, “AND TAKE YOUR TURTLE-KILLING PLASTIC WITH YOU!” 

But when I told them what I was doing, everyone tried to make it work and started thinking about their own actions.

No, I can’t eradicate single-use plastic single-handedly, but this challenge has taught me that small changes (from my Brita jug to my lunch choices) do make a difference

And both me and the turtles feel better for it. 

For inspiration on how you can reduce your single-use plastic habits, shop the Brita range now