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It's a wrap

Chris Jeavans with plastic mountains
Chris's August plastic tally on the left, and a previous month on the right

By Christine Jeavans
BBC News

A month ago I announced I was giving up plastic for the whole of August.

Little did I know that what seemed like a simple, if somewhat extreme, idea would lead me into such intricate areas as whether apples sold loose are more wasteful than those in bags, the environmental pros and cons of a wooden toothbrush and whether bicarbonate of soda is an effective deodorant (it is - at least on the one day I tried it).

My aim was to try to live for a month without buying anything new made from plastic or wrapped in plastic. I was able to keep and use the plastic I already owned but if anything ran out I would have to buy a plastic-free replacement.

Plastics are hugely useful and versatile and the goal of the experiment was not to demonise the material itself.

I drew the line at homemade toothpaste - having tried some I had concocted - and we got a tube of our usual brand

But disposing of an ever-growing amount of plastic does pose a problem as the UK's recycling infrastructure is not yet geared up to deal with our mixed plastics waste.

This is due to improve in the next couple of years but even so, it looks like we will be landfilling the majority of our plastic waste for a significant time to come.

To find out how much my household - my husband, toddler son and I - usually contribute to this plastic mountain, I kept an audit of a normal month's plastic waste.

It totalled 603 items of which 120 were disposable nappies and most of the rest were food and drink packaging.

So my challenge was to find out whether it was possible to live a normal life without adding to my own plastic waste pile at all.

The short answer was no. I did not manage to eliminate plastic waste in August, however, I did cut it by 80% to 116 items.

Battles, widgets, balloons

The difference would have been even greater if I had got to grips better with washable nappies. I did use them most of the time but we still ended up falling back on disposables - albeit "eco-disposables" made from corn-starch plastic - when I hadn't got the washing and drying organised well enough.

AN AUGUST CHALLENGE
Not My Bag blog
Christine's challenge was to live a month without buying or accepting plastic
She detailed the highs and lows in her blog...
...and received 1,800 comments

So 63 of those 116 items were nappies, leaving just 53 other pieces of plastic ranging from a couple of milk bottles to some beer widgets to a stick for a balloon.

Some of the problems I or others foresaw did not materialise: we did not have huge amounts of food waste - in fact we probably wasted less than usual.

However, I suspect that this is because food shopping became such a tricky task that I was very keen to ensure that every last scrap of cheese or leaf of cabbage was used up before having to buy some more.

That said, I did not have to spend hours on the hunt for plastic-free food. Yes, I tended to visit the butcher and local market stalls rather than the supermarket but asking a stallholder for a pound of spuds, four apples, a few onions etc actually took less time than playing trolley slalom in the aisles.

My family and I did have to forgo plenty of our usual fare, though. No yoghurt, no biscuits (I know, I could have made some but I didn't get around to it, ok?), no celery, no crisps, no strawberries or raspberries.

Cheese was out unless wrapped in wax or paper, as were takeaway meals.

I did relent on the apple juice when out and about as that is top of my son's list of priorities (along with trains and lemurs).

I also drew the line at homemade toothpaste - having tried some I had concocted - and we got a tube of our usual brand.

Back to black (bags)

So, with August over and all restrictions lifted, will I go back to my old plastic-using ways?

Yes and no. I will be glad to get bin bags back - although enough people commenting on the blog which accompanied this project recommended a bokashi bin for dealing with waste to encourage me to give that a try.

Tupperware
New face of the takeaway? Bring your own Tupperware

And a more normal food shopping pattern will be welcome. As the packaging industry is at pains to point out, plastic is often used to wrap food because it is the optimum choice for protecting the product and transporting with low cost and carbon emissions.

However, living for a month without plastic has changed the way that I think about disposable items, no matter what material they are made from.

After all, even a biodegradable paper cup requires resources to produce and will take energy to recycle. Or if it ends up in landfill it risks breaking down in poor conditions which may produce the potent greenhouse gas, methane.

I have got into the habit of taking a reusable water bottle with me wherever I go and I now keep a mug at work - both were easy changes to make and I'm sure I'll keep them up.

The idea of taking my own reusable containers to shops such as the butchers or even the local takeaway curry house - as suggested by some "zero waste" enthusiasts on the blog - feels a little odd but it is logical and maybe something we will all be doing in future years, just like the way that reusable bags have taken off.

Real bread

We found we prefer bread from the bakers rather than the pre-sliced loaf so we'll be staying with that on grounds of taste if nothing else.

And the milk delivery can stay as it's very convenient, although it's good to be able to top up from the shop round the corner.

The wooden toothbrush, however, was not a winner for me and will be redeployed as a mini-scrubbing brush.

The big pile of plastic I collected in the previous month will be recycled as far as I am able to. This is something which should become easier in the next few years as Britain's first mixed plastics recycling plants start up.

And with a rising oil price and dwindling resources, there is even talk of mining landfill sites for the old plastic to turn into fuel - the first conference about this will be held in London this autumn (see Internet links on right).

Could plastic waste be eventually upgraded from the cheap stuff we throw away to our most valuable asset?

Maybe I should hang on to those all those bottles, bags and tubs a while longer.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My family and I lived for two years on a tea and wattle estate in Njombe, Tanzania, a day's drive south-west from Dar Es Salaam. It was very difficult here to buy any plastic. I would go to the market with two big wicker bags and lots of Tupperware shipped from home, and fill up my containers with rice, sugar, flour, dried fish and so at the different stalls. Vegetables were all sold loose. Eggs nestled on top of my rice and flour. Milk came from the dairy in a big metal jug and we had to scald it ourselves. It was like stepping back 50 years. I loved it. But every time we drove to the train station at our nearest rail link town, Makambako, it looked to us as if the only crop grown in the fields either side of the road was plastic bags - thousands of them blooming white and green and pink like unnatural flowers. And that in itself was strange, because rural Africans ordinarily waste nothing: they are the most eco-friendly people I know.
Patti Kleeb, Burlington, Canada

When I used to visit my grandparents in Debden, Essex, we always got pie & mash take-away on Saturdays and would go down the shop with a bag full of ice cream tubs and Tupperware. I haven't been in 15 years so not sure if people still do it these days. Now I live in Bangkok and people here are not so eco-minded, though it is changing. But at supermarkets you will end up with 5 plastic bags for 10 items unless you intervene and at the 7-11 they try and put a single can of Coke in a bag with several straws.
Nelly, Bangkok

What this helps provide is further evidence that even if we wish to reduce the amount of wrappers and plastic used in our every day lives, we are at the whim of the providers. I get quite annoyed that local and central government are continually trying to find ways to penalise me for the waste that I have to throw away, when I am only one link in the chain. If plastic wrapping was not given to me in supermarkets, I would not have to pass it on. (Why does a cucumber have to be shrink wrapped and then wrapped again in more plastic, it's in its own organic wrapper anyway.) It's the suppliers of this stuff who should be penalised for excessive wrapping to make them think about coming up with other alternatives.
Mark Woolley, Northwich, Cheshire

It behoves us to be as environmentally responsible as possible. I delude myself into thinking that because I have my own recycling ritual that I am doing my bit - however this experiment proves that there is much more I can do if I put my mind, energy and purse to the task. There is a line we will all draw, but please consider alternatives - toothpaste used to come in tins and fabric nappies are kind to children's skin and encourage them to toilet train more quickly. Thinking before buying and before throwing away is an excellent routine to get into.
Anita, Derbyshire

Very brave to try and forgo plastic altogether. Having looked after my sister's toddlers for a day recently I know how hard this can be with little ones around. Surely we can change some of the habits of the food world to work without plastic - how about three pepper for the same price even if there not packaged together, how about selling lettuce without the plastic - just stick the barcode on as I peel the first layer of leaves off anyway.
James Meadows, London

Congratulations on completing your month without plastic. As someone who, when researching an activity to do with a children's nature club, had their eyes opened with regards to food packaging (local fruit and veg being driven from Scotland to packaging plants in southern England and back again so that they can come in a convenient plastic bag), I know how difficult it can be to search out alternatives while still ensuring your family don't miss out. However, I do feel that we shouldn't be too anti-plastic. Perhaps for all of us, a life without plastic is a step too far - but what we could do is lead a life without unnecessary plastic instead.
Miranda, Aviemore

Reading the blog it became apparent how time-consuming this plastic-free crusade was - someone who had to hold down a job would not be able to cope however good their intentions. It also seemed to cost more. And these two points are the crux of the matter. Environmentalists need to work on efficient time- and money-saving ways of being eco-friendly, because ordinary people who do not share their passion are unlikely to do anything that is more expensive and time-consuming just because it is green.
Megan, Cheshire, UK

Well done you, I admire your dedication.
Mandi, Aviemore

It's great that you used so less plastic and can make some long-term changes. We have mixed recycling here and it amazes me how much my family of five goes through every week.
Matthew, Solon, Ohio, USA ex-England

This experiment does show that some areas, there are loads of alternatives and others that need improving. Personally, I don't like any of the green female sanitary products as I have tried myself and either were uncomfortable or leaked.
Helen, UK

Supermarkets should only stock products in plastic that is recyclable. They are the ones responsible for the waste produced. I bought four kiwifruits in one supermarket on "special" offer - packaged in a plastic punnet covered in that weird mesh. I think on the whole other countries do a better job at both recycling and not over-using packaging.
Ciara, Welwyn

No mention of whether she is going to continue using washable nappies...
Cecily Nattress, Shildon, Co Durham

Congratulations on making it through the month, Christine. I thoroughly enjoyed keeping up with your blog during August and must admit from a very selfish point of view I'm somewhat sad you're returning to normal life; depriving us of such an interesting read on the problems you have faced and the non-plastic solutions you (and other readers of your blog) have come up with to solve them.
Mark Jonison, London, UK

"I did relent on the apple juice when out and about as that is top of my son's list of priorities." Has this woman not heard of pressing her own apple juice? This is just another publicity stunt.
Mark Field, London

I had a handbag given for my birthday last week, I was surprised that instead of the usual paper to pack it out, it had eight large carrier bags stuffed inside it. Shame on you TopShop.
Helen, Bradford, England

Interesting, though fairly disappointing. It is incredibly frustrating you can only get a number of things in poly propylene (type 5 plastic), such as yogurt, which isn't recyclable as yet. I am planning to "Eat the Change" (though we've pre-bought and frozen cheese from a local shop). We've signed up to get milk delivered but the milkman seems to have gone on vacation. I think the best first step is to use an organic delivery company - home box schemes. Or use a farmer's market or similar, IF you have one near you and IF you can get to it when it's open. Making changes now will make it less of a hardship when you *have* to change.
PS: there are lots of lovely free blackberries out there at the moment.
Dave, South Normanton

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