“What do we think about when we go to the supermarket and everything is wrapped in loads of plastic?” I’m asking my nine-year-old son, Fred, because he often has quite a clear perspective on things. “It’s terrible!” he says. “Because when you’ve used it and you throw it away, it usually ends up in the sea.”
It’s a classic case of child-splaining: when your child tells you something that you know already because you’re not stupid, but somehow they make it so straightforward that you wonder how we got into this situation in the first place.
As a working mum juggling at least three jobs at any one time, along with the usual rollercoaster of homework, swimming lessons, dance classes and life in general, if the shopping can come to me, it gives me an extra couple of hours to cram with other stuff. I have a weekly Ocado delivery but I also shop at my local Lidl when I have time, and I stock up on frozen fish and berries at Iceland when I can.
So, I am excited about Iceland’s recent claim to be plastic-free by 2023, doing its bit to reduce the one-million tonnes of plastic waste generated by UK supermarkets each year. I have memories of shopping at Iceland as a child and helping scoop up loose frozen peas from the huge chest freezers like a giant grocery pick ‘n’ mix. Back in the 70s, they sold a lot of their produce unpackaged. If I see anything being sold in a similar way, like the nuts and dried fruit at Lidl, I’m a sucker for it. I know there are hipster supermarkets selling unpackaged groceries that are leading the way on this, but for most people, they are inaccessible and expensive.
While we all try to do our bit, it’s hard to make time to save the planet and trips to your local farmer’s market, fishmonger or baker are a luxury both in terms of time and, usually, money. Nevertheless, I’ve become acutely mindful of how much plastic I am including in my weekly shop. I have complete respect for those who have given up plastic for Lent, or have committed to be truly plastic-free, but it’s not practical for me to do detergent refills, I’m not sure about solid-bar shampoos and I just don’t have the time or the organisational skills to buy my provisions locally, little and often. I do have my milk delivered, which means old-fashioned glass bottles rather than plastic, but I will admit that’s more about convenience.
I’ve become acutely mindful of how much plastic I am including in my weekly shop but it’s not practical for me to do detergent refills, I’m not sure about solid-bar shampoos, and I just don’t have the time or the organisational skills to buy my provisions locally, little and often
Ultimately, using less plastic should be made as easy, efficient and cost-effective as possible. It should not be a form of martyrdom. Plastic-free should be the default setting. When online, I tend to set the shopping filter to “lowest” in terms of price and I wish I could filter out plastic packaging, too. The Ekoplaza supermarket in Amsterdam, which has introduced a plastic-free aisle, is a great inspiration – one that seems to me to be very easily achieved online. I try to apply my own plastic-free filter and it’s really, really hard. For a start, the shopping arrives in a flurry of plastic bags. I know that Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco offer a bagless delivery where your groceries are delivered loose in a big box. I should probably switch now, although Ocado has been recycling its carrier bags since 2007. Eight-seven per cent are returned for recycling.
Some simple switches can reduce your plastic footprint. I choose honey and mayo in glass jars rather than the more convenient “squeezy” options. I go for old-fashioned tinned golden syrup. I choose tomatoes that come in cardboard trays, rather than the black plastic ones that are a nightmare at the recycling plant because apparently the machines can’t identify them. I buy bulk clothes wash in a bag, and have a small container I refill. So much of it is common sense. But for a lot of loose, “naked” groceries, the options aren’t there. Bananas, for instance. Sure, they are Fairtrade, but do they have to come in a plastic bag? Orange juice? How about loose oranges and a bit of elbow power instead and save on a plastic bottle? And, while we are on the subject of citrus fruit, until biodegradable nets are standard in all supermarkets, I will be taking my own string bags and choosing loose fruit. According to the Austrian textiles brand, Lenzing, in the EU alone, 30,000 tonnes of plastic nets each year could be replaced with compostable ones made from sustainably sourced wood pulp.
While I understand that plastic keeps food fresher longer, I would love an option to have bread wrapped in paper like at the local bakery. I can always freeze any spare for later in the week. Lettuce? I don’t need it wrapped in cellophane. Avocados? Well, they are a whole other battlefield. I recently tried frozen ones – five to six avocados in a (plastic) bag as seems slightly preferable to all the hard plastic armour they usually come in. But they tasted like soap. Spinach, broccoli, cabbage, carrots and potatoes can all look after themselves, thank you, and would be better off in paper than plastic anyway. Or just in their own skins; I’ve switched my Pink Lady apple packaging from excessive bubble wrap to a shallow cardboard box.
Ultimately, I don’t want my weekly shop to be a guilt-laden battlefield. But until the supermarkets work out the best ways to reduce their plastic problem, just a bit of thought – and the common sense of a nine-year-old – can make a big difference.
Shop Smarter is part of our regular series on finding simple ways to shop in an eco-friendly way