A life less plastic

It started when we moved house and inherited a milkman. In addition to the pleasant early morning chime of glass on glass I soon noticed that for the first time in years, without the bulk of plastic milk bottles, our recycling box was actually able to contain everything we needed to put in it. Around the same time I saw
this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1j60hs7u0E

If you don’t have four minutes to spare,I’ll just say it gives you a very clear idea where small items of waste plastic end up – and for me it tipped a switch.

Recycling is important, absolutely, but so much of this stuff needn’t be in circulation in the first place. We all know that, surely but its easy to forget how powerful we are as consumers. Products only get made because we buy them. Reducing and reusing does take a little extra effort and thought, but it sends a message that will be heeded if we all start doing it. After my milk bottle moment I started looking for other ways to tackle our waste output – and especially the plastic. The changes had to be simple, convenient and ideally cost neutral – life is busy,

Plastic waste on what should be a
pristine beach in the Shetland Isles

and household budgets are  tight. So we tried something new every few months, with the promise that if it didn’t work, we could go back, and not beat ourselves up about it. But as each change has become routine, I realised that over the years I’d increasingly allowed marketeers and retailers dictate what I buy, fallen for consumer myths, and been mislead by false economies, BOGOF deals and pseudo-convenience. It’s natural to be drawn to convenience, quality, hygiene, food safety, and value for money. But part of the problem is that many goods we’re brainwashed into thinking offer these advantages actually do nothing of the kind. Most of the changes we’ve made in the last five years have not only achieved the original intent of waste reduction, but also brought other advantages. Some also had drawbacks, but these have been minor. On balance we are living better, treading more lightly on the planet and saving money and time. The list below is by no means exhaustive. It’s just some of changes we found have made a difference, in more or less the order we made them.



Use a milkman
And remember to ask for glass bottles. They are heavier than plastic and require energy for washing but on balance they are better for the environment. We also asked our milkman to also supply fruit juice, butter and cream. It costs a bit more but with fewer reasons to visit a supermarket, we save time and avoid impulse buys.
Saved 182 plastic milk bottles a year

Buy laundry products in bulk
About three years ago, an online offer tempted me to buy three 15 litre boxes of Ecover laundry liquid (yes, 45 litres in total). I spent £90 – and yes there were yelps from a husbandly direction when the credit card bill came through. But that supply lasted almost two years. Since then I switched to power – Ecover Zero, still purchased in bulk,which is cheaper and more waste efficient still.
Saved waste (12 laundry liquid bottles per year)
Use soap bars for handwashing, bathing and showering
With help from the manufacturers there is a perception that liquid soaps and shower gels are better for your skin and more hygienic than bars of soap. Well actually, no. Low or neutral pH bars or those with glycerine needn’t dry your skin, and they are just as good at cleaning. Plus you use a lot less of them – especially in the shower, where it’s easy to slop on way more gel than you need. Rinse a soap bar after you’ve used it and use a draining soap dish so it doesn’t go soft. We use Dove bars for showering and bathing, and elsewhere we’re just working our way though the selection of posh soaps received as gifts – and at this rate I’ll probably never have to buy any.
Saved at least 20 hand soap and shower gel bottles and caps
Shampoo and conditioner from the brilliant Lush.co.uk


Use shampoo and conditioner bars
It took me a while to come around to solid hair products, partly because they aren’t as widely available as they should be. But not only do good solid shampoos have minimal packaging, they are indisputably better for the environment, with low impact production methods, and far fewer chemical nasties going down your plughole. The whole family now uses Lush shampoos and conditioner. The conditioner takes a bit of getting used to – you have to rub hard to get it into your hair, and you don’t get that slick slipperiness you might be used to from a regular conditioner. Unlike soap, I find it helps to leave the conditioner block in the shower to soften between uses. The end result is light, soft hair that smells lovely and feels really clean and healthy.
Saved 24 shampoo and conditioner bottles per year
Never buy anything with microbeads
Aaargh, whoever thought for a second this would be a good idea? Body scrubs and facial exfoliators I sort of get, if you’re into your extended skincare routines. But a gentle scrub with a loofah will do just as well on the tougher bits of your body. If you like the idea of a product that does the job there are plenty  of natural ones made with apricot kernels or peach stones, or even better you can make your own with sea salt in olive oil, or an handful of oatmeal. Read the label. Ban the beads.
Buy butter and cheese wrapped in waxed paper rather than in tubs or plastic
This means buying real butter rather than the spreadable varieties. But most better is perfectly spreadable if you don’t keep it in the fridge. You can’t generally buy the ‘healthy’ butter alternatives – those with vegetable oils or cholesterol busting ingredients – in paper because they are too soft. But you can at least reuse the tubs, which aren’t routinely recyclable.
Saved 52 tubs

 Reuse tubs with lids
Takeaway boxes and the tubs used for posh yogurts etc are useful for packed lunches or freezing other foods, storing meal portions or leftovers or organising bits and bobs in the DIY cupboard, garage or garden shed.

Cook and freeze in bulk
I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I have less time for it than I did, so recently I started routinely making couple or triple quantities to bung in the freezer, which is now full of soups, stews, cakes, bread, pies, mashed potato portions and sauces. There’s nothing new or revolutionary in this – my mum always did it – but that common sense is easily eroded by the availability of readymade foods in jars, tubs and sachets and buns from the in store bakery.  Cooking from first principles is cheaper, healthier and generates a whole lot less waste.
Make squashes and cordials
Making cordials at home is very easy, and the flavour is infinitely better than shop bought stuff. At the moment I’m making elderflower cordial, last year I used garden strawberries the slugs had nibbled (carefully washed of course), and when I see a good deal on oranges or lemons I make a batch of citrus squash.
Saved about  12 large plastic squash bottles a year
Simple Citrus Squash
10 oranges or lemons,  or a mixture of the two
500mls water
500g sugar
Peel the zest from the fruit (just the coloured part not the pith) and chop it smallish pieces. Put it in a pan with the sugar and water. Stir as you heat to a low boil, then bubble  for about 30 minutes, so that the  volume reduces, and the cordial becomes syrupy. Meanwhile squeeze all the juice from the fruit. Add the juice to the syrupy cordial, and heat once more to the point of boiling. Take off the heat and allow to cool before straining into clean bottles. Keeps up to three months in the fridge.

Fruit and veg delivered by a local Yorkshire
business, theorganicpantry.co.uk

Find alternatives to the supermarket
 Supermarkets package goods to maximise the efficiency of bulk transportation, storage and display, but if you’re buying local produce there’s little need for it. We use markets, farmshops, delis and a delivery scheme where veg comes come in a carboard box and reusable plastic bags. I’ve become a big fan dry goods shops like Scoops of Malton. They sell goods by weight, including branded cereals, baking ingredients, spices, dried fruit, sweets, nuts and a wide range of other groceries. They provide plastic bags to put things into – these are reusable if you transfer everything into tubs and jars at home then rinse and dry the bags, or you can take along your own containers to be filled. You can buy in bulk, or just the quantities you need for a recipe.
I spend less time and less money shopping this way than I did visiting a supermarket three times a week. We waste much less food, and chuck out vastly less packaging. This has been a winner all round.
What’s next?

With summer here, I’m remembering the marvellous machine my parents invested in about 1981, which my sister and I loved for several reasons. It made great fizzy drinks in reusable glass bottles, but also a variety of extraordinary hissing, parping noises. Yep… I’m on the lookout for a second-hand SodaStream.


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