The plastic-free challenge: how easy is it to survive a week without using products which come in plastic packaging?

plastic bottles

I read an article recently about someone who was attempting to go plastic free for a month. It seemed like a good idea so I thought I would give it a go. I am definitely not brave enough to attempt a whole month and I am also not convinced I will manage to go completely plastic free straight away so I have decided to have a week of avoiding plastic instead. The main purpose of this week is to start noticing the everyday things that I buy which come in plastic wrappers and to start thinking about alternatives. To motivate me, I thought I would keep all of the wrappers and plastic that I do use as a visual reminder of what I accumulate over the course of a week… I may regret this decision!

Day 1

So day 1 has not gone well. I had porridge for breakfast and the oats came in plastic packaging. I did not have enough time to make lunch for today’s work trip so I bought lunch from the shop. It turns out that most ready to eat lunch options are sold in a plastic container of some sort. I may also have succumbed to the temptation of the fizzy drinks aisle… and they were on offer if you bought two bottles and I was feeling the need for caffeine having had an early morning start… I did however use cutlery from the kitchen at work to eat my pasta salad rather than a disposable plastic fork like I usually do. I also had a flapjack which was organic (good) but came wrapped in plastic (less good). I had an apple too which had no packaging at all J Day one’s dinner was home cooked from mainly fresh ingredients so not too much packaging consumed there.

Day 2

As it happens, day 2 coincides with us going on holiday. Having learned my lesson about plastic free lunch being tricky to buy when out and about, on the evening of day 1, I made sandwiches for day 2. I went to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread but couldn’t find any which wasn’t in a plastic wrapper. Even the freshly baked bread came wrapped in plastic. I was hoping there might be a paper bag option but no such luck. I put the sandwiches in a lunch box on the basis that whilst this is still made from plastic it is at least reusable so preferable to cling film or buying food in a plastic wrapper. I also filled up my flask at home to avoid needing to buy a drink in a plastic bottle.

I am not sure why, but for some reason I always feel entitled to some sort of snack or treat on long car journeys. It is almost as if my brain thinks the calories don’t count when I am in the car! For this journey, I bought popcorn which came in a foil/plastic type bag. It did occur to me that I might be able to make my own popcorn at home and bring it along for the journey to remove the need for packaging. I will look out for a suitable recipe to test (an excellent excuse to eat more popcorn!) If I find something that tastes good, I will share it on the website.

Back to day two, and dinner was reasonably successful because we stopped at a restaurant so the food was served on plates rather than coming in lots of plastic packaging.

Day 3

So it is day 3 and we are now on holiday – yay! We had porridge for breakfast (involving oats from a plastic bag again). We went out for the day on a woodland bike ride. We had lunch in the café which meant that the food itself mainly came on plates although we did buy sandwiches which came in a paper and plastic wrapper and also bought drinks in plastic bottles.

You may be noticing a trend here… it seems that the main thing I buy in plastic packaging is food. As we were packing to go on holiday I did also notice that quite a lot of household products such as toiletries, laundry liquid, dishwasher tablets and loo roll all come in plastic containers/wrappers. There is a health food shop locally where you can take your laundry liquid bottle for a refill so I thought I might try that as a way to get more use out of that particular plastic bottle. I am also thinking of swapping back to bars rather than liquid soap which always comes in a plastic bottle.

I should probably mention that with two young children we get through a lot of milk (as well as mountains of food!) and currently we buy milk from the shop in a plastic bottle. I am thinking of swapping over to getting milk delivered by the local milkman as then it would come in glass bottles which we could return to be reused.

The new legislation has just come in to force regarding shops having to charge for plastic bags which is an added incentive to start making more use of the little fold-up bag for life I carry around in my handbag so that is another small reduction in plastic used in our household.

Day 4

So it is day 4 and I do need to level with you at this point by admitting that the amount of plastic accumulated over just the last three days is really starting to get in the way. I have therefore abandoned the idea of collecting all of the packaging that I use as it just isn’t practical, particularly whilst on holiday. What it has shown me is that I use way more plastic than I thought I did. It seems to me that finding non plastic substitutes is going to require more time and forward planning than I can muster with 1 week’s notice.

Broadly speaking, the items that I buy in plastic packaging can be split into (1) things I buy for the household (cooking ingredients, toiletries, cleaning products, loo roll etc.) and (2) snack food and drinks that we buy when out and about.

With regard to household purchases, I am going to look out for brands/shops which have more environmentally friendly packaging. This could be achieved by having less packaging on the item in the first place, by having packaging made from more environmentally friendly materials, or where I can get refills and reuse the original container. It also occurred to me that buying in bulk might be preferable as it would involve one large packet rather than lots of little ones (which probably use more materials overall).

In terms of snacks and meals whilst out and about, I am going to plan ahead more and make lunch to take with me or eat in a restaurant where the food comes on a plate rather than in a packet. With enough planning ahead, I could also bake some homemade treats such as flapjack rather than buying snacks but this will require more time which is something I don’t seem to have a lot of right now.

Another easy win is to take drinks with me more often although in all honesty I am struggling to give up fizzy pop! My plastic free challenge has also got me thinking about whether buying drinks in glass bottles or aluminium cans might be better for the environment than buying them in plastic bottles. From what I can gather from a brief bit of internet research, they all have a cost to the environment. Apparently even glass has a significant environmental impact as it is made from non-renewable resources (sand, silica and limestone) and these elements have to be heated to a very high temperature to make glass which requires a lot of energy. So it seems the best option for the environment is to use a flask or reusable water bottle where possible. This does leave me with a fizzy drinks conundrum though as I am struggling to give them up and they generally come in a bottle or can of some sort!

Day 5

So by day 5, I am feeling a little defeated by my plastic free challenge as it doesn’t seem to have gone well. I even wondered whether to write about this at all (as I feel like it has been a bit of a disaster). However, the point of this blog is to be honest about my journey to going green and the challenges that I encounter. After all, if it were really easy then we would all have done it already. I realise that to a hardcore environmentalist I am probably sounding like a bit of a wet blanket at this point in time complaining that I don’t want to give up fizzy pop. However, the point is to try to find workable compromises that we can all live with whilst also reducing our impact on the planet. If we all made a few little changes that would add up to a big change. Sometimes I think the reason it has taken me so long to wake up to climate change is because the task of addressing it feels like such an impossibly big challenge that I didn’t want to even begin to contemplate it. If we break it down into small changes then it starts to feel a lot more manageable and achievable on a day to day basis.

Summing up

In answer to the question ‘how easy is it to survive a week without using products which come in plastic packaging?’ the answer for me personally is that it is surprisingly tricky. It is definitely possible to go plastic free but it will require changing some habits which have become fairly ingrained.

On the plus side, I am now a lot more aware of how and when I use plastic packaging and I have already made some straight forward switches to alternative products. This week still feels like a bit of a failure though given that I really wanted to get as close to being completely plastic free as I could. Possibly I was a little over ambitious on this occasion. I think I will just have to be satisfied with a reduction in plastic use for now and keep looking for further alternatives and opportunities to reduce waste. I might even repeat the plastic free challenge in a few months’ time to see if I fare any better. It has also given me an excellent excuse to start taste testing homemade popcorn!