Reducing plastics when shopping for food, toiletries, and travel products should be easy. So why is it so difficult?
Is plastic-free living only truly accessible to those with a significant disposable income? Photograph: Getty Images
A few months ago, my partner and I went snorkelling off the coast of Indonesia. We dove off tiny deserted islands and swam in the deep with giant manta rays, but what I remember most vividly about that trip was not the stunning coral or dazzling array of colourful, curious fish; it was the sheer amount of garbage in the water.
Shopping bags, plastic cups, toothpaste tubes, orange peel, all manner of human debris followed the currents; waves and waves of junk pooling in the shallow waters. In these parts of the reef, the water was cloudy and full of so much microscopic debris that it stung the skin. I remember watching a majestic giant turtle swim through the gloom as my head bumped against an old Coke bottle bobbing on the surface of the water.
The whole thing gave me a kind of queasy vertigo. So when my editor began talking about plastic-free July, I offered to do a dry run first. I was eager to see if it was actually possible to live without the stuff.
The first thing I did was look around my house to identify problem areas. It was a sobering survey: garbage bags, shopping bags, coffee cups, clingwrap, soap dispensers, spray bottles, cleaning products. And that was just one half of the kitchen. In the bathroom, I found shampoo bottles, deodorant, toothbrushes, disposable razors. I had that queasy feeling again, that sense that I was drowning in rubbish.
Food was the biggest and most obvious hurdle. So many of our waste products are food-related: the recent plastic bag ban in supermarkets has drawn attention to how we transport goods home from purchase but plastic plays a role before and after that too. Bags, tubs, wraps, bottles – nearly everything on supermarket shelves is encased in plastic. It is next to impossible to avoid, even with the best of intentions.
My first trip to my local supermarket brought this into sharp relief. I arrived at the shopping centre – enthusiastic about grocery shopping for once in my life – with a stash of calico and canvas tote bags collected over more than a decade working in the arts. I thought about that turtle again and was eager to rise to the challenge of not taking home a single piece of plastic. My shopping list was modest: rice, tomato paste, oats, face wash, toilet paper and food-intolerance friendly rice milk and coconut yoghurt. Easy enough, I thought.
Wrong. Immediately, problems presented themselves. The only rice not obviously packaged in plastic was a 10kg bulk pack. There was no way I was hauling 10kg of rice six blocks home on foot. I decided to buy couscous instead because it came in a carton. Problem not quite solved but it would do. Tomato paste mostly came in plastic sachets or bottles, but there were little aluminium cans for 70c. Not too shabby, I thought. Then I went to find the oats.
A kilo of home brand rolled oats cost $1.30 but they were in plastic bags. There was only one brand of oats that came in something other than plastic – Uncle Tobys, in a carton – and I was fully prepared to buy it until I saw the price. $5 for a kilo of basic, boring rolled oats! Were they magical oats? Did they make you sprout wings? (I realised later that the carton is just decorative; the oats themselves are in a bag inside the carton.)
I fared no better with rice milk or face wash, though I did find a bar of soap that came in a cardboard box. There was not a single brand of toilet paper available that wasn’t wrapped in plastic – even those that made a song and dance on their packaging about being 100% recycled. By the time I got to the yoghurt aisle, I was thoroughly depressed. If I wanted to make this plastic-free month successful, I was going to need to try harder.
I decided to tackle the toiletries and cleaning products issue by throwing money at it. I replaced my recently emptied plastic shampoo bottle with a shampoo bar that came in a cardboard box. I did the same with liquid soaps. I bought a stainless steel safety razor and blades and decided to quit disposable razors for good. I drew the line at bicarb toothpaste though, and I refuse to transition to “natural” deodorant unless I’m also forced to transition to a lifestyle involving markedly less stress and less high-intensity cardio.
I travel a lot, so from online ethical retailer Biome I ordered a collection of little glass and stainless steel bottles, jars and containers small enough to fit into my washbag. Into them, I siphoned things like moisturiser, make-up remover and lip balm from my already existing supplies, reducing the need to travel with bulky items or buy doubles – or submit to the temptation to use those little hotel-room bottles of shampoo and conditioner. As I squirted conditioner into one of the jars, I thought about an Indonesian hotel I had stayed at that had a shampoo dispenser fixed to the wall of the shower, and wondered why more places didn’t invest in something like that, or simply refillable ceramic bottles.
A plastic bag and other garbage floating near Pulau Bunaken, Indonesia. Photograph: Paul Kennedy/Getty Images
When I finally did go travelling though – heading to Tasmania for Dark Mofo – I packed frantically and badly. And as the coffee cart started making its way down the aisle of my plane, I realised I was in yet another impossible situation. Everything from the coffee cups to the little individual packets of cheese and crackers was wrapped in plastic. And how was I going to spend four days at a festival without single-use plastic? Too late, I realised the wisdom of a little kit I’d noticed my mother carrying around in her handbag: a keep cup, a clean handkerchief and a shopping bag made of parachute material that folds up to about matchbox size. I made a mental note about what I would add to that kit – perhaps a Tupperware container and cutlery.
When I got back to Sydney, with only little over a week left of my plastic-free month, I decided it was time to investigate buying dry goods – rice, oats, nuts – in ways that avoided plastic packaging. Bulk food stores seemed like the only way to go. Lined with huge bins of flour, nuts, grains and so on, they hark back to an older style of grocery store in which you can fill your own reusable containers – or supplied paper bags – with as much as you need, which is then sold by weight. It sounded like plastic-free heaven.
The closest to my home in Sydney’s inner west were Alfalfa House in Enmore and The Source Bulk Foods in Newtown – five train stops away. OK, I thought, maybe not an every day option, but perhaps once in a while? And then I checked out the prices. They seemed kind of high, so I took a quick look at what I had come to think of as my barometer food: oats. They were organic – and $8 a kilo. I nearly cried.
What I learnt
I did have some successes. I needed to spend a bit of money to get started, but those items I invested in, I am still using. I bought reusable beeswax wraps and essentially stopped using clingwrap. I got into the habit of piling loose fruit and veggies into my basket at the greengrocer and helping the cashier sort the pears from the apples before she weighed them. I stopped using garbage bags and saved paper bags and newspaper to wrap particularly messy scraps in or line the bottom of the bin. Although sometimes I didn’t even bother to do that – a few months earlier, I had set up a small, self-contained worm farm (yes, you can do this in an apartment!) and since the worms eat most of my food scraps and also a lot of paper and cardboard, even a modest reduction in plastic consumption meant there were suddenly so few items in the bin that emptying it was less a matter of necessity than habit.
But there are so few plastic-free options in most supermarkets that choosing plastic-free can often mean sacrificing other values – such as not buying things that contain unsustainably sourced palm oil or choosing the locally made option – or spectacularly blowing your household budget. If you have any kind of dietary restrictions, an already limited grocery shopping experience becomes nigh impossible once you start factoring in ethically sourced or packaged food. And most people don’t have ready access to a bulk food store – or simply can’t afford it.
And therein lies the rub. Currently organic, plastic-free living is a lifestyle option that’s only truly accessible to those with a significant disposable income and who live in particular areas. It is, in other words, a niche market. Time, money and access will restrict most people from being able to make ethical consumer decisions, even if they want to.
While we can make some significant changes to our own consumption habits, relying on market mechanisms or placing the burden of responsibility onto the consumer won’t solve the problem: plastic is a political issue.
That means nothing will change without collective, grassroots demands for reform at all levels – from how it is used to how it is sold to how it is disposed of. It’s a problem that requires thinking much bigger than the shopping cart – though perhaps the shopping cart is as good a place as any to start.