Top eight tips for plastic-free shopping

CCF Volunteer Alice Vodden shares her top tips for plastic free shopping

My top eight tips for plastic-free shopping

Since September last year, my family and I have been living plastic-free. This began initially as a month-long challenge to try to understand how much single-use plastic is used in packaging and how difficult it is to avoid. Once we realised how much plastic we had been throwing away, and how much we had managed to reduce, we decided to continue. Five months in and we are still going strong.

6 weeks worth of plastic rubbish from our household. Left: Recyclable, Right: Non-recyclable
6 weeks worth of plastic rubbish from our household. Left: Recyclable, Right: Non-recyclable

Recent media coverage of the devastating impact of plastics in the natural environment has given this issue an important platform, particularly as a result of Blue Planet 2, so here are my top tips for anyone thinking about trying to reduce the amount of plastics they consume.

  1. Shop around. Spend some time looking around local supermarkets. Even for those of us who are short of time, it is still worth mixing up which supermarkets you go to – we found it quite eye-opening how much the main supermarkets differed when it came to offering unpackaged items.
  2. Try smaller shops. Supermarkets were very difficult to shop in and we have been surprised by the items we found in smaller shops instead. For example, when visiting a village nearby, we were amazed to discover that the local shop had a freezer section with loose frozen fruit – an item we had found impossible to buy in any of our supermarkets. Plus, even if local shops do not have the items that you need, they tend to have more flexibility to order specific items if asked.
  3. Receiving our order of dried goods from the market. Left: walnuts Right: oats
    Receiving our order of dried goods from the market. Left: walnuts, Right: oats

    Pop down to the market. Markets have been brilliant for our plastic-free shopping. Market stall owners are generally more flexible and willing to do things slightly differently than larger chains. After chatting with the owner of a dried goods stall, we now get all of our nuts, dried fruit, muesli, oats etc. from them as they are happy to take our containers home to refill and then bring them back to the market next time. They are even considering selling reusable containers for their customers to encourage more people to do the same.

  4. It may not be as expensive as you think. One fear we had before starting this challenge was that everything would be more expensive. While some items are more expensive than their packaged counterparts, I believe we have saved in other areas. For example, the majority of snacks (particularly crisps and biscuits) are off limits or have to be homemade, reducing unnecessary impulse buys, and preparing packed lunches rather than buying a sandwich for lunch every day has really cut down on my food budget. However, this does depend on individual circumstances and my parents believe that, as historically frugal shoppers, they may have increased their food spend.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask. Asking people for advice or assistance isn’t something that comes naturally to me but it’s made me realise just how many people are interested in this topic and want to find out more. For example, when attending a Wildlife Trust café early on in our challenge we discovered that every single item on sale was packaged in plastic, including the disposable cups for the coffee machine. After speaking with the man at the desk he offered to lend us some cups from the staff room so that we didn’t need to waste a disposable one and was interested to find out more about why we were doing the challenge.
  6. Alice03Invest in reusable containers. To avoid packaging I now own the following: a reusable coffee cup; a reusable water bottle; a small cloth bag for buying fresh baked goods (croissants etc.); a number of larger cloth bags for general shopping; paper bags for vegetables; and small, airtight and reusable plastic boxes in a variety of sizes for buying items such as cheese, grains, nuts or muesli.
  7. Be prepared. This has very much been the key to everything we’ve done. The majority of products use plastic packaging so in order to avoid it we have needed to be prepared. It did take a bit of time to remember to carry my reusable coffee cup just in case or to bring lunch with me to work, but now I have got used to it, it’s become almost second nature.
  8. Take advantage of opportunities. One of the downfalls of buying everything unpackaged is that we have had to shop in a range of places. Therefore, it has been important to think about where I am going and whether I can buy anything I need at the same time. For example, if I am heading into town to meet someone for coffee, I will think about whether I need to order any dried goods from the market while I’m there. If one of us will be going past the village shop, we will pop in to stock up on frozen berries on the way home. This way you don’t need to travel all over the local area for your shop: it’s a case of being aware of when your activities will take you nearby and making the most of those opportunities.

Local tips:

BeeBee Wraps is a local company producing reusable wrappings for food

Daily Bread Cambridge wholefood shop is great for refilling toiletry and cleaning product bottles and for buying in bulk.

Arjuna Wholefoods on Mill Road is good for plastic packaging free herbs, spices, fruit, veg, bread and innovative alternatives to everyday items like toothbrushes.

Cambridge Market is home to Mac Daddy's - a plastic free mac 'n' cheese stall (vegan options too) and good for loose fruit and veg.