It’s Christmas Day. Mum and Dad are in the process of finishing up the Christmas lunch, my sister and I are admiring the presents we got this year (of which my parents seem to have bought from the what-to-give-a-student catalogue) and have been tasked with cleaning the living room to prepare it for lunch. We struggle to make our way through the mile-high pile of wrapping paper, occasionally getting stuck to the loose bits of tape and getting each other distracted.
For the next few days, I can’t help but think about how much waste we, as a family of fourwent through in just that day alone, all the paper, all the food? I cast my mind back to the month of preparation that led to Christmas; buying presents in different batches because I kept forgetting what to order, the packaging that inevitably came with each delivery, the number of tags and stickers I removed or cut off, and the one word that stuck out to me was, plastic. So instead of making an impossible New Year’s resolution, I decided that for one entire month, I would try to live my life without any plastic.
I can’t help but think about how much waste we, as a family of four, went through in just that da alone
The rules were simple: I was allowed to use any plastic products I already had, but I wasn’t allowed to buy any new products that contained plastic. I tailored a few exceptions for myself, for instance, I would have to buy sanitary pads and if I fell ill I could buy medicine. In the end, I managed only three weeks.
The first few days after returning from Christmas break was dedicated to dusting, unpacking my clothes and preparing my meals for the week ahead. I cannot stress enough how important meal preparation was during this challenge. If I forgot to make lunch for the days I was going onto campus, I’d only be allowed to eat at the cafes, pubs or restaurants, which would be fine as a one-off, but certainly not an affordable long term solution. As it turned out my roommate, who shall not be named, accidentally turned off the power to our fridge-freezer, meaning that I truly would have a clean slate to start off on.
I was curious to see how much the local Tesco’s would offer in terms of non-plastic products and felt encouraged from the haul I got. Whilst a lot of their fruit and veg options were wrapped in unnecessary plastic, a fair amount came without packaging. The caveat being they were certainly more expensive. As someone who still has meat and fish as part of their diet I was able to purchase from their butchers, fishmonger and cooked-meat section and use my own tupperware boxes to carry the meat (and in fact Tesco’s encourage their customers to bring in tupperware boxes in an effort to cut down on plastic waste). Additionally, I was able to buy bread from their own bakery without packaging and found a few jar options without any plastic seals. I did find, however, that, inevitably, you will end up with plastic stickers on the fruit or plastic receipts that they put onto your tupperware when you buy their meat/fish.
Inevitably, you will end up with plastic stickers on the fruit or plastic receipts that they put onto your tupperware
So my first shop was relatively successful, however, the quantity of produce I bought was nowhere near adequate for a weekly shop. I then turned my sights to Coventry Retail Market after reading a blog piece put out by Coventry University. From there I found a multitude of stores offering fresh fruit and veg at a cheap price, and importantly without plastic stickers on each fruit item. Armed with my tupperware box I bought a kilogram of halal chicken as well as 500g of ground coffee beans. Whilst the retail market was a cheaper alternative to buying at Tesco’s, the level of effort required, and the time investment needed to make the journey there and back twice a week was unrealistic. Indeed if there was one thing this experience taught me is that it is unrealistic to expect students, and by extension low-income households, to be able to afford the non-plastic life. For example, you could travel to Birmingham and shop at The Clean Kilo, a zero waste supermarket selling everything from fresh bread to homemade plant milk, and purchase their organic corn flakes for 75p per 100g, or you could go to your local Tesco and get their Tesco’s own brand corn flakes for 10p per 100g. Now whilst The Clean Kilo is a step in the right direction, the prohibitive price makes it untenable to low income shoppers; in a time when income is stagnating and disposable income hasn’t seen meaningful growth in years, an environmental conscience is a luxury most can’t afford.
It was three weeks in when I hit my breaking point. I had been doing well for the first two weeks, heading into Coventry twice to buy groceries and baking more frequently to compensate for my lack of a varied diet; I signed up for a milk delivery service so I could maintain a healthy calcium-intake and was getting creative with my recipes (I personally recommend from-scratch garlic tomato soup, spicy teriyaki chicken and oven-baked lemon and soya sauce salmon with rice). Despite all this, I discovered that many of the products I thought were plastic-free were actually plastic-lined, for example, foiled butter and labels on egg cartons. This not only dented the victory I thought I had achieved but left me both struggling to avoid the same mistake in the future and dismayed that I had been unable to avoid plastic entirely. As the third week dragged on, my stress began compounding. Trying to balance a non-plastic life whilst juggling lectures, revision for my March exams, extracurricular activities, and tutoring became impossible as no amount of planning could compensate for the sheer level of inconvenience my pledge entailed. I was just tired. Rather than dragging myself on a 30-minute walk each way, I just wanted to order a delivery and be done for the day. I wanted to be able to buy blueberries to make a smoothie without getting on a bus to Coventry, I wanted to eat a meal that didn’t cost twice the amount I was used to paying, and I just wanted a chocolate bar. So after three weeks, I gave up.
When I cast my mind back to the days leading up to the start of my challenge, I remember speaking to my friends and family about my decision. Whilst they were supportive and keen to offer their suggestions and advice, they all shared the same concern over the standard I’d be keeping myself to. In fact I was asked by my father why I would put myself through this experience and after having some time to reflect on it, I feel I began this challenge in response to the frustration I felt, both at myself for the environmental damage I may have caused, and at the incompetence of people more powerful than I am, with a bigger voice than I have. This experience has not dampened my hopes, however, if anything it has strengthened my resolve to keep fighting for greater environmental accountability.
This experience has not dampened my hopes, however, if anything, it has strengthened by resolve to keep fighting for greater environmental accountability
University students have more time on their hands than almost anyone, and whilst we might not have the most disposable income the fact that such a challenge was so difficult, even for someone in my position, proves how invasive plastic has become. The responsibility in truth can only lie with retailers, customers do not have the time, money or flexibility to compensate for the environmentally-ignorant decisions of corporations.