Once upon a time, the weekly supermarket shop often sent me into meltdown. The weird woman sobbing in her car on Asda car-park, or on her front drive the second she got her ton of bags-for-life home? Yup, that was me. I never quite fathomed why it upset me so badly… that is, until Hubcap and I ‘woke’ to the issues of plastic pollution, palm oil, and the havoc that gross over-consumption is wreaking on the planet (not to mention human health).
So, determined to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging we used and the amount of palm oil we ate, we did a shopping review. As committed long-term micro-consumers and recyclers, we’d always felt pretty smug about our frugal housekeeping and wholesome, largely home-cooked diet; but that soon changed to horrified shame when we realised what bad habits we’d fallen into, the staggering amounts of palm oil we were inadvertently ingesting, and the equally staggering amounts of avoidable waste we were generating, week in and week out. For instance, we’d developed a routine of Tuesday Kit-kats and Friday night treats consisting of a bag of crisps or nachos and a confectionery bar each; and since discovering Hubcap’s gluten sensitivity, had both become addicted to ready-made gluten-free cakes and biscuits, (essential high-calorie additions to the snap-tin of a labouring bloke) – much of it laden with palm oil and wasteful packaging. For our lunch sandwiches, I bought tubs of hummus and packs of sliced deli meats, plus disposable bags to put them in, supplemented by individually-wrapped and boxed fruit/nut/cereal bars, multi-mini-packs of raisins, ‘shot’ tubes of nuts and seeds, and individual bags of pulse- or corn-based savouries. Around the house, we routinely used plastic bottles of hand-wash/cream and body-wash; and I’d taken to buying those seductively convenient disposable wipes for the kitchen and bathroom, (even flushed some of the supposedly flushable ones down the loo). And so it went on…
Gulp. At least now, having recognised the extent of the problem, we could do something about it – PDQ. The first, and simplest decision, was to kick out all the palm oil. That knocked a huge range of items off my shopping list in one fell swoop: almost all the big-name confectionery products, breads, gluten-free baked goods, cereals, margarine, solid vegetable fats and gravy granules, to name but a few. It was well worth making lifestyle changes to eliminate this noxious, environmentally-damaging substance from our diet; I duly switched back to good old butter and lard wrapped in paper or foil, and made time in my schedule for baking. Ever since, instead of plastic-packed, mass-produced stuff containing a list of additives as long as your arm, we eat flapjacks, biscuits, scones and buns freshly-made from a handful of traditional, wholesome ingredients – much cheaper, better tasting, better for us, and makes the house smell like heaven!
Then, bidding a sad farewell to our beloved Nakd and Palaeo bars, we kicked out all the individual packaging. I bought plastic containers for lunch-box portions decanted from single large packs of salted nuts/pulses, dried fruits and unsalted nuts, jumbo tubs of yoghurt and so on; made my own hummus using fresh lemon and garlic, and chickpeas and oil from recyclable containers; and substituted childhood favourites like Spam, potted beef and Sandwich Spread in tins and glass jars for the plastic-encased sliced meats (I find a single tin of thinly-sliced Spam does us for a whole week’s butties). To eke out my home-baking, I made delicious, economical and relatively healthy rice puddings, jellies with home-grown berries or tinned fruit, and chocolate blancmange from semi-skimmed milk, cornflour, sugar and Fairtrade cocoa powder. To our mutual surprise and delight, I discovered that baking gluten-free bread is a piece of cake, (so to speak), with results infinitely superior to – and far cheaper than – the dry, cloying, badly-mixed mass-produced brands. I religiously saved all film and polythene bags for re-use as sandwich wrap, bit-bin liners or when I went shopping for loose fruit and veg, (the latter supplemented by as much organic produce as we can grow or glean). Instead of taking away, we took to dining in the restaurant (more fun and less washing up); and for our regular Saturday ‘convenience’ stir-fry, I substituted hand-chopped loose veg for packs of ready-shredded, dried rice noodles (two servings apiece in a small packet) for fresh noodles (one serving apiece in a large pack), and sauces in glass jars (or home-made) for plastic sachets – and by doing so, found I could make two nights’ dinner for the price of one. Even Henry Wowler did his bit, happily switching from plastic pouches, expensive (and useless) ‘lite’ biscuits in a plastic sack, and plastic-bottled spring water, to tinned cat food, bog-standard biscuits in paper sacks, and rainwater from the water-butt (when he’s not drinking soiled muck out of the bird-bath, that is). The garden birds were also happy to help by changing from commercial to home-made fat blocks (lard, flour, crushed peanuts/sunflower hearts/mealworms and nyger seed, melted together and poured into plastic moulds saved from the mass-produced versions)!
Around the house, we’ve gone back to paper-wrapped soap and old-fashioned washable flannels and dish-cloths, with coir or loofah scrubbing pads to replace synthetic sponges; and are phasing out toiletries in plastic bottles or aerosol cans in favour of solid shampoo bars, eco-friendly deodorant sticks in cardboard tubes, tooth-powder in glass jars, hand-cream in tins, bamboo toothbrushes, and traditional razors with disposable/recyclable metal blades. For the laundry, I abandoned plastic bottles of eco-liquid and invested in an Eco-Egg containing mineral pellets, supplemented by a small amount of washing powder in an economy-size cardboard box (lasts at least a year) for large or heavily-soiled loads; I also wash some small loads by hand using old-fashioned soap flakes. As for the washing up: we don’t (and never will) have any dishwasher except our own hands, which now use concentrated eco-liquids we dilute in re-usable bottles, or solid dish-washing soap.
And lo! Within a week, our household waste output fell by two-thirds, thanks solely to a little more thought and planning and some minor housekeeping adjustments. I saved so much money by making more vegetarian and vegan dishes from scratch, and cutting out plastic/palm-oil infested snacks and unnecessary disposables like the ubiquitous wet-wipes, that we could afford to buy pricier eco-products, occasional treats like quality Fairtrade chocolate wrapped in paper/tinfoil and local free-range meat, and get milk and juice delivered by a milkman – thereby supporting local farmers and reducing our waste even more. (It’s wonderfully encouraging to hear that milkmen are making a huge comeback everywhere, with a correspondingly huge drop in our national consumption of plastic bottles and tetra-packs).
The other instant result: no more crying in the car-park. The weekly supermarket trawl immediately turned into an interesting (if often frustrating) challenge, rather than a depressing burden, a satisfying lifestyle hobby of seeking ever more ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and shop more ethically and sustainably. Although we’re still far from zero-waste, I’m thrilled and amazed by how much we’ve achieved over the past three years for very little effort and no real sacrifice; I don’t even miss former favourite chocolates, Nutella and biscuits – in fact now I’m ‘woke’ to their flavour of orang-utan blood, rain-forest smoke, the sweat of child slave-labour and the tears of indigenous peoples, I find them more repellent than tempting.
Best of all, it’s not rocket science. Although the compromises involved in making the most ethical shopping choices are often highly complex, you can make a massive difference to your consumption/waste output simply by reverting to traditional ingredients in minimal/recyclable packaging, and doing things in traditional ways (like carrying a re-usable container of squash instead of buying a can or bottle of soft drink every time you go out!).
And to illustrate just how massive that difference can be, I’ve quantified these examples of plastic packaging our small household now saves per annum:
Cat: 365 pouches, 12 sacks, 12 bottles = 389 items
Birds: c. 300 fat-block trays
Chocolate/confectionery: c. 100 Kit-kat/200 other wrappers = 300 items
Savoury snacks: c. 400 crisp, nacho and ‘shot’ packets
Sweet snack bars: c. 1000 packets
Ready-made hummus; c. 100 tubs
Margarine: c. 12 tubs
Deli: c. 150 meat packs/50 pate tubs = 200 items
Individual yoghurt/dessert pots: c. 500
Gluten-free biscuit/cake trays: c. 100
Gluten-free bread bags: c. 75
Takeaway containers: c. 50
Stir-frys: c. 50 sachets/100 bags = 150 items
Shampoo bottles; c. 10
Toothpaste tubes: c. 12
Hand/body wash or lotion bottles: c. 30
Wet-wipes: c. 24 packets/1000 wipes = 1024 items
Synthetic sponges: c. 50
Laundry liquid bottles: c. 10
Washing up liquid bottles: c. 10
Milk bottles: c. 120
Grand total: c. 4842 items
Whew! That’s a lot of wheelie-bin-loads. So if you loathe wasteful consumerism as much as we do, take heart: you could make many of these improvements too, with or without the support of your nearest and dearest. And next time someone says, ‘Oh, there’s no point making an effort, one person can’t make any difference’, you can respectfully contradict them by sharing this blog!