From ditching plastic-wrapped lunches to embracing a reusable coffee cup, writer Sophie Hines finds going plastic-free can be surprisingly kind to your purse - as well as the planet.
Like most people, I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable about my plastic consumption and its dire impact on the environment. I’m fully aware of the irony as I weep over David Attenborough’s new documentary, but continue to dump endless reams of packaging in the bin knowing it probably ends up in landfill or our oceans.
The projections are worrying – it’s predicted that the amount of plastic debris in the sea will triple from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million tons by 2025, wreaking havoc with sealife.
I knew my habits were selfish and unsustainable, so I decided it was time to see if I could give up single-use plastic for a month. I was intrigued to discover the plastic-free July campaign on Instagram. The initiative, which encourages people to give up single-use plastics for the month of July, started back in 2011 with a handful of participants in Perth, Australia. Having rapidly gained momentum over the past seven years, it now involves a whopping 3.4million people from across 177 countries. The initiative need not be saved for the month of July, I thought, we can all take part, at any time of the year.
With this in mind, I was excited to embrace a greener lifestyle - but I have to admit, I was also concerned that going plastic-free would hit my budget hard. Would I suddenly be held to ransom by fancy farmer’s markets and pricey products from Whole Foods?
Despite my fears, I surprised myself by saving a massive £200 by the time the challenge was up. Fancy giving it a go for yourself, and helping reduce plastic waste while also saving yourself some cash? Read on to find out how I did it…
Money-saving articles tell us to ditch the morning coffee entirely, but like most people, I love my 11am latte too much to give it up.
It riles me, however, that takeaway coffee cups are lined with polyethylene, making them hard to recycle. So difficult, in fact, that less than 1% of the 2.5 billion coffee cups used every year in the UK are recycled.
This shocking statistic made the slight inconvenience of carrying a reusable coffee cup in my bag seem negligible. I already owned an Ecoffee cup made from bamboo fibres, so it was time to overcome my laziness and actually use it.
Numerous coffee chains across the UK are on board with limiting the amount of takeaway cups they give out, with schemes in place to offer reduced prices for those who bring in their own cup. At Pret A Manger, where I usually head in the morning, you get a 50p discount for using your own cup. This meant I saved a respectable £10 over my four weeks of caffeine-glugging.
Other chains also offer reusable cup perks - Starbucks, Costa and Paul offer a 25p discount, Leon offers 30p off and you’ll get double loyalty stamps in Caffe Nero. Not too shabby.
Cost before: £49 (£2.45 for a latte every weekday)
Cost after: £39
Guess what? Going plastic-free means you’re basically obliged to make all of your food at home, since pick-up-and-go is not an option - most convenience food is swaddled in ridiculous amounts of single-use plastic.
I’m not the frivolous type who buys a £6 juice every morning or has Deliveroo couriered to my desk, but I would usually buy Leon’s £4.35 porridge-and-a-drink deal in the morning. I’m a vegetarian, so I’d follow this with a salad, some fruit and inevitably something chocolate-y at lunchtime (for a cost of around £6.50). These habits led me to use an astonishing amount of plastic, with boxes, stickers, wrappers and mini sachets often proving non-recyclable.
Going plastic-free meant ditching Leon’s offering in favour of homemade porridge and a herbal tea at work (I figured two coffees a day was pushing it anyway, so I decided to stick with my 11am latte). At lunchtime, I became a reuseable container queen, normally eating leftovers from the previous night’s meal. It was no bother at all to cook extra grains, vegetables or stew while I was preparing dinner the night before. If I’d eaten out the previous evening, I’d just throw a bunch of salad ingredients and some tinned chickpeas or beans into the lunchbox before I left the house that morning.
Admittedly, this meant I always had to take a massive lunchbox-filled bag to work, and sometimes found myself heading out for evening drinks with a quinoa-encrusted container lurking in my handbag. However, the money I saved was definitely worth it.
In fact, when I totted up my previous expenditure, I was horrified. This was by far my biggest area of saving, and I’m now embracing making packed lunches for life.
Cost before: £217 (£10.85 every weekday on breakfast and lunch)
Cost after: £52 (Two boxes of porridge plus a jar of almond butter, plus approx £2.25 per day on ingredients for lunch)
Cleaning products can be a nightmare for the environment, particularly hard-to-recycle aerosols and disposable wipes. After much Googling, I embraced old-fashioned, cheaper methods. Some of these were successful - bicarbonate of soda mixed with water, for example, removed stains from my kitchen worktops no problem, and lemon works a treat for descaling the kettle.
However, there were other methods that I was less keen on - cleaning the windows with vinegar is too smelly, and when it comes to the bathroom, nothing will tear me away from bleach.
Overall though, this experiment made me reconsider the chemical-laden products I use in my house, so I’ve decided to switch to Method’s natural cleaning products (with 100% recyclable packaging) going forward. Ecover and Bio-D are also good brands to try.
Cost before: £10
Cost after: £3
The weekly shop
I’ll be honest - the weekly shop becomes a lot trickier when you can’t chuck stuff in a trolley or click ‘order’ on Ocado. I was staggered to realise that almost all supermarket food comes covered in plastic, a fact that hadn’t quite hit home until I started this experiment. As a result, buying food became a daily mission, taking me across London, reuseable container in hand, on the hunt for zero-waste shops and food markets.
Occasionally, this meant paying more. At Earth Natural Foods in Kentish Town, for example, the unpackaged organic couscous is £3 per kilogram, compared to £2.40 at Sainsbury’s. I visited plenty of health food shops and organic grocers across the city, and the prices were definitely higher than popping to Tesco.
However, I also discovered cheaper options. Brixton Market is 10 minutes from my house, but I’ve never bought food there before. Now I’ve discovered that you can buy twice as many cherries for £2.50 there as you can in the supermarket, and they’re plastic-free.
As well as the increased time I spent sourcing food, I also had to put more effort into preparation. For example, I normally buy pre-chopped mango, but that’s not plastic-free. A mango costs £1.25 in the supermarket, but £4.50 ready-chopped. Yes, it’s more effort when you have to peel and slice the thing yourself, but it tastes all the sweeter after the legwork.
Across the month, my attitude to food changed. I’m so used to the convenience of throwing food into my trolley and then into my mouth, that I don’t usually appreciate it. But the increased effort made me value what I eat much more. Choosing one nice wedge of Brie from a deli, or getting up early to buy bread from the farmer’s market, made food more of a treat than my usual trolley dash diet.
I also realised how much food I’d been throwing away - wilted bags of salad, mouldy grapes and gone-off cheddar would all end up in the bin on a regular basis. During my plastic-free month, however, I didn’t throw away any food at all – after the exertion of shopping, I was adamant that nothing would go to waste!
At weekends, when I wasn’t cooking up big batches of what I nicknamed “vegetable surprise” for the week ahead (basically any veg I could get hold of, plus tinned pulses and tomato sauce from a glass jar), I’d eat out once or twice as usual. However, all of a sudden I was super suspicious of the kitchens behind the scenes in these cafes: were they recycling properly? A friend’s hen do was also challenging – I felt a bit ‘holier than thou’ refusing the willy straws, but even the drunken hens were surprisingly supportive of my mission.
Cost before: £50
Cost after: £40
The recent ban on microbeads is great, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to making our beauty products sustainable, particularly with regards to excessive, often non-recyclable packaging.
Lush was my first and only port of call for plastic-free beauty products, and I wasn’t disappointed - the ethical brand offers everything from toner to hair wax in solid, unpackaged form, and staff are fantastically knowledgeable.
I bought a solid shampoo, conditioner and charcoal face soap. The shampoo and facial cleanser were brilliant. The conditioner admittedly takes a bit more getting used to, as you need to vigorously work the solid product to create a balm for your hair. However, overall I was very impressed, and pleased to discover that plastic-free beauty products weren’t necessarily more expensive than standard ones.
When I shared my thoughts on the Lush products on Instagram, I was surprised to discover how many other people were keen to go plastic-free, too. My direct messages were full of questions from friends expressing their own desire to cut down on waste. It’s heartening to have discovered I’m not alone in my efforts.
Cost before: £24
Cost after: £15
I never expected to save money ditching plastic, but it’s been an absolute bonus to discover that you can save cash at the same time as helping the environment.
Admittedly, some aspects of living plastic-free are fairly impractical - I can’t spend a lifetime scurrying across London in search of loose pasta (FYI, if you’re on the hunt for this try larger Whole Foods stores or order it online from Zero-Waste Club). However, there are definitely loads of easy ways to reduce waste and save a few quid, from buying loose fruit and vegetables at the market, to eating packed lunches. I’ll definitely be embracing these in the future.
Images: Getty, Unsplash, courtesy of author