28th June 2021 by Jason Vincent
How to Live Plastic Free for 24 Hours (in London)
I know what you’re thinking… “24 hours is nothing! How hard can it be?”. Well, surprisingly hard it turns out.
After working on numerous projects as part of Aeguana to deliver on “eco-dispense” solutions designed to eliminate (or at the very least reduce) plastic waste, it’s become a personal passion of mine and something I was keep to explore further.
Rather than set a goal that would prove unachievable for busy Londoners (shamefully relying on convenience stores for lunch on most days), I thought I’d start with doing plastic free for a single day. But before we get into that, what exactly do I mean by “Plastic Free”? I decided to define it as follows
“Single use or short use plastic that has a useable life of under 12 months”
Living a day plastic free seems simple on the surface since we have most of what we need at home already. However, the rules meant that nothing could be used, even if it was purchased previously. Suddenly the challenge got a lot more challenging… Some of the more interesting products to source were:
- Shampoo – I didn’t know how hard it was to find shampoo bars (like a bar of soap but with, well, shampoo).
- Toothpaste – It turns out plastic free toothpaste is weird. Very weird. Like brushing your teeth with salt weird.
- Deodorant – Also surprisingly limited options, and I can only compare it to using a UHU stick on your armpits.
The only exclusion we came up with when preparing for the day which we accepted wouldn’t be feasible, was medicine. These are next to impossible to source plastic free, and are needed for obvious reasons. We didn’t actually end up consuming any, but it was an important one to set aside.
Preparing for the day
Someone correctly pointed out when I mentioned this experiment to them that I could simply stay in bed or fast for the day… That would have definitely made the day easier, but where’s the challenge in that?!
In preparation for the day I visited a “Plastic Free” store called Swop Market (check them out here: https://www.swop.market/). I happened to meet the owners, and I have to say they were incredibly friendly and supportive during the start of this intimidating journey. They talked me through all the things to watch out for. We discussed toothpaste at length, and I was assured if I stuck it out I’d never look back (so far so good!).
Trying to think ahead about all the things you need, even just for a day, proved to be hard! Distractions also abound… Peanut butter freshly made from a machine? Yes please…
So how do plastic free stores actually work? As my first time visiting, I was intrigued by the strength of the community. Containers are donated and made available for free – from glass jars and bottles to paper bags. The idea is simple… you arrive with your jars (or collect one there), weigh it and write down the weight, then proceed to fill it with whatever you want.
Once at the checkout the weight of the jar is deducted from the overall weight, and you’re billed accordingly. Simple, right? It does lead to a lengthy checkout process, but it also means you’re literally buying everything by weight which is quite cool.
After aimlessly browsing for what felt like hours, I settled on some fruit and vegetables, a jar filled with coffee beans, another filled with dried pasta, and some obligatory peanut butter. Then there were all the “essentials”: Shampoo bar, deodorant stick, toothpaste tin and a few other random bits. Finally a refill of fresh Oat Milk (in this case provided by the awesome guys at Minor Figures).
On the day… Sunday 27th June 2021
The day finally arrived… Perhaps due to not-so-great planning, it happened to coincide with an almost full-day course I’d booked myself onto. No problem I thought. I’ll just prepare ahead of time and make some food to take in.
07:00 – Time to get going
An early start for a Sunday, but there were a lot of “first times” to get through. First up was brushing my teeth using a grey, extremely salty, and strangely mouth-watering paste. After being warned by the staff at Swop Market, I felt suitably prepared for the experience, and in all honesty it really wasn’t that bad after a few seconds. It helped that I already had a bamboo toothbrush on hand which was just waiting to rise to the occasion.
Showering with a soap and shampoo bar was also uneventful, followed by a strange experience applying deodorant from a questionable paper tube. This might be one to work on for next time…
Next up was breakfast. I hadn’t done too well preparing for this, so I thought I’d keep it simple and make a cup of coffee to begin the day, using the beans I’d bought a few days before and the oat milk bottle I’d refilled. So far so good – the day was starting off great.
I’d prepared a few snacks for the course ahead – some bananas, foil-wrapped chocolate and I was also contemplating a small side salad. Perfect diet food, and plastic free of course ;).
08:30 – Starting the course
I arrived on time to the shocking realisation that I’d left everything I’d meticulously prepared at home on the kitchen counter. This was not good. I didn’t have the time to go back, and now faced 8 hours of study with no lunch, no snacks, and ever-decreasing willpower when it came to banning plastic from my life.
I decided to take it one step at a time – perhaps fasting for 8 hours would be a good option after all…
12:30 – Lunch time?
The dreaded lunch time came fast. The hunger had set in, exacerbated by a hard 5 hours, and everything started to look appetising. As more people took out their lunches, I decided I would walk to the only shop within walking distance – a Co-Op supermarket – and inevitably find *something* to eat.
10 minutes later I was walking through the door and headed straight for the fresh food aisle. Surely fruit and vegetables were my best bet in here? Oh how wrong I was. In the entire aisle I was limited to bananas, peppers, onions and garlic. Not the best combination, really. I settled for 2 bananas and thought I’d continue my quest.
Walking around the rest of the store, aisle by aisle, I was shocked by just how few options there were. Apart from some Lindt chocolate (which I somehow managed to refrain from buying) there was virtually nothing plastic-free. How could this be possible?
I queued for the checkout holding 2 solitary bananas, and wondering what I was doing with my life… In the last few feet I noticed the bakery stand, with a surprising selection of pastries. This was my supermarket oasis it seemed. Getting closer I realised the paper packaging had plastic windows on them. Damn. I tried not to wonder why – knowing this would just lead to increasing frustrating. Instead, I headed for the till when it was my turn, and asked if I could pay for a chocolate twist (which I was not holding), but that I was going to grab it on the way out to avoid the packaging. The lady seemed very confused. After repeating myself again, just on the off chance she’d not heard (we’re living in an age of masks after all), she just nodded and added one to my order. Success! Lunch was saved.
14:00 – Snack time
During a 1 hour break in the course while I waited for my next session, I decided to run across the road and pop into my colleague and friend’s house (Pambo for those of you who know him). He knew I was on this crazy challenge, and I thought I’d get some sympathy. Whilst he seemed amused by my struggles, his wife seemed suitable confused, marginally outraged. Everything they offered me I had to politely turn down… coffee? Nope, it’s a Nespresso capsule. Tea? The bags had plastic… Eventually we found one that passed the test, but when it came to milk it was going to have to be a hard no. How could this be so difficult?
They did, however, tell me about a great company called Earth Bits (you can see them here: https://earthbits.com/) that do a range of plastic-free utensils and other things. I’ll definitely be spending some time browsing their website over the coming weeks.
17:30 – Dinner? I think so
Arriving home exceptionally hungry, dinner was high on the agenda. This was actually the easiest part – having bought some fresh pasta and vegetables, and having a re-usable bottle of Olive Oil on hand, a quick pasta dish was ready in no time, followed by some more chocolate (it’s surprisingly easy to find plastic free chocolate!).
I couldn’t, however, wash the dishes *after* dinner since it hadn’t occurred to me to buy a sponge-equivalent and washing up liquid. A slight oversight…
After 24 hours, I thought I’d reflect on some of my key observations:
- If you’re going to live plastic free, you have to prepare. Impulse purchases or going to a local grocery store every day to buy food simply won’t work – the infrastructure simply isn’t there (yet).
- It’s a surprisingly cheap way to live. Yes, setting things up has a cost – I’ve never paid quite so much for toothpaste or deodorant before. But even then, my entire experiment cost me £32.93 and included a lot of products that will last for weeks. Of this, £13.44 was toothpaste and deodorant… *facepalm*.
- It’s also surprisingly healthy. Goodbye impulse purchases at the petrol station. Pretty much everything you could be tempted by has plastic, so you’re likely to focus on a much healthier and nutritious diet.
- If desperate, focus on fruit, vegetables and eggs! They’re easily accessible in most stores, and increasingly plastic-free. Eggs in particular are a life-saver.
What comes next
This was only the first step in the experiment. My goal is to build up to a solid 30 days, single-use plastic free. Next up is a weekend (00:00 Friday to 00:00 Monday) which will be on the 24th and 25th July. There are some key learnings from the day that I will be carrying forward including “essentials” missed, and stores I need to find:
- Cheese. it’s important… And it’s hard to find dairy in plastic-free stores. Finding a local(ish) cheesemonger will be important.
- Fresh fruit and vegetables. Whilst the store I visited had a few essentials, there wasn’t much to choose from. I’ll be looking for better options on this, and hopefully this will be easy to find.
- A bakery for, well, bread.
- Detergents and cleaning products – I mistakenly forgot about this completely and couldn’t do the dishes for a full day (even though I did use the dishwasher with water-soluble tablets covered in plastic). I haven’t looked into the environmental impact of these yet.
Want to join me?
This is both a professional and personal journey for me. Personally I’m intrigued by the challenge, and the possibility of a more sustainable world. Professionally, I see so much opportunity to solve these problems, and I feel we’re all only scratching the surface of what is possible.
If you’d like to take part (perhaps do a day of your own, or join me for the challenge over a weekend), drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear your ideas and struggles tackling this challenge.