Even if you didn’t watch Blue Planet 2, you almost certainly know we have a ‘Plastic Problem’: all the packaging we throw away is literally chocking the world to death. The realisation of the environmental costs of our throw-away culture has prompted leaders across the globe to make bold pledges to reduce the use of disposable plastics, but these are so engrained in our society that it seems a very far-off reality. Practically every time we shop we inevitably contribute to the problem. Imagine if all the plastic packaging you used in a year was piled up in one big heap…I’m embarrassed to even imagine how much it would be for me. But I’m not here to make you feel guilty. As students we have tremendous power to drive social change. Currently it is simply much more convenient and easier to buy things wrapped in plastic – and that won’t change unless we demand it. Competition between big businesses is fierce so they have to be attentive to our wants if they hope to benefit from our purchasing power. The way you shop sends them a message and can help to make real change happen.
So, for a student in Sheffield, how realistic (and affordable) is it to go plastic-free?
Fresh Fruit and Veg:
In some shops, it seems impossible to find a single piece of fruit that isn’t pre-wrapped in a plastic cocoon. But if you venture beyond the ubiquitous Sainsburys, you can find many places that sell loose vegetables and fruit. World food shops such as Ozmens and greengrocers including Beanies (Crookesmoor), New Roots (Glossop Road) and Fruit Appeal (Broomhill) are popular for students. But my favourite has to be the Moor Market- with so much variety and choice, it’s worth investing in a shopping trolley! Even better, the prices are typically way below the supermarket equivalents. Although some fruits are contained in plastic punnets, you can often empty the contents into your own bags and return them to the seller to use again. You could also consider ordering a weekly Fruit and Veg box from Regather, especially if you are in a flatshare.
Meat and Fish:
As supermarket meat is typically pre-wrapped, your best bets for plastic-free versions are independent delis, butchers and fishmongers. Personal favourites are Simmonites (Division Street) and the Moor Market. Many of the butchers’ stalls sell loose cuts of meat a which you can have weighed into in your own container. Prices are typically similar to or less than the supermarket.
This is where plastic free can get expensive and tricky…. especially if you drink a lot of milk. Certain independent shops do sell glass-bottled Our Cow Molly milk – for a list of suppliers, see here. My big love is yoghurt but so far I have only managed to find one place that sells a plastic free version: Manole yoghurt from Ozmens World Food Shop, made from cow, buffalo, goat or sheep’s milk. Some would call it an acquired taste: the texture is so thick, it seems more like a cheese! But the unique, pastoral taste has certainly grown on me and at £1.59 for 500g, the price isn’t too extravagant.
You would be amazed at what you can buy in a tin these days – fruit, veg, beans, sauces, spaghetti – even complete meals. Besides being easily recyclable, tinned food is cheap and lasts a long time, making it an ideal store-cupboard standby when you need a quick meal. For myself, I enjoy a tin of (sustainably certified) mackerel once a week for my dose of Omega-3. Don’t forget also that many deli items – pickles; olives; sauerkraut, jams and chutneys etc.- often come in glass jars, also easily recycled.
But what about foods that don’t often come tinned – cereals, spices, nuts? To get these (and so much more!) plastic free, head to our Student Union’s very own Zero-Waste Shop. Simply fill the jug with as much as you need, have it weighed at the counter, pay then decant into your own container. Most of the foods are priced similar to or even cheaper than the plastic versions sold elsewhere. And the range is extensive – my diet has suddenly expanded to include a repertoire of ingredients I hadn’t realised existed, for instance blue poppy seeds, smoked paprika and cayenne powder. It’s great fun to experiment, especially as you can buy a small amount to try something for the first time, rather than a huge packet.
Toiletries and Laundry:
Once again, the SU Zero-Waste Shop comes to the rescue! Need shampoo, conditioner or washing up liquid? Just bring your own bottle and fill it up from their bulk dispensers. Much of it is reasonably priced (250 ml of shampoo for instance, costs just £1.29) and from eco-friendly brands that only use environmentally-safe chemical ingredients. Certain things are a little more expensive: I get through so many toothbrushes that I am not sure I could afford £2.95 each time for a bamboo one. But I have pledged to buy my toilet rolls loose from now on: £0.59 per roll seems a reasonable cost to avoid buying a plastic wrapper that could end up being a hazard for wildlife.
It’s unlikely that you will be able to afford to buy all your essentials plastic free, so choose the options that are most practical for you. For myself, I have pledged to buy as much of my fruit and vegetables loose but I love yoghurt so much that I couldn’t afford to buy the glass-jarred versions every time. So, I have made a concession and make sure I rinse out and recycle all the pots.
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the problem and that one person can’t really make a dent in the mountain of plastic waste we generate. But you can increase your impact by encouraging your friends to reduce the amount of disposable plastic they buy and asking supermarkets to make more of their products plastic-free. You could upload a photo of any ‘excessive’ packaging on Twitter and tag the name of the shop or mention it on a customer survey form. When shopping plastic-free becomes affordable and easy for everyone, then we will really start to see change!