Week 1: The Plastic-Free Food Shop
I am now one whole week into my month-long challenge to give up single-use plastics this June. Thank you so much to those who have donated to the Marine Conservation Society, the incredible charity I am raising money and awareness for. And thank you also to all those who have given me invaluable tips and suggestions on where to find much needed items (namely, cheese) plastic-free! As promised, here is an update on the various solutions I have found so far. Plastic-free living, I have discovered, requires a degree of advanced-planning and a very modest upfront cost. But once you get into the swing of things, it surprisingly is not a huge inconvenience to everyday life.
First up, I thought I’d address everyone’s first question / main concern / most-hated-weekly-activity: The Food Shop.
No.1 – Avoiding Supermarkets
Before I started this challenge, I thought I would still be able to do at least some of my food shop in my local supermarket. I was thinking of stuff like potatoes, bananas, jars of stuff, etc. Then I remembered that about the only things in a supermarket not shrink-wrapped in plastic are the tabloid stand and the disembodied voice proclaiming you have something unexpected in your bagging area. Even potatoes come in cellophane nowadays. London supermarkets are particularly bad because their food offering is so convenience-focussed. It didn’t take me long to realise that my usual mini Waitrose in the petrol garage across the road was not going to yield much inspiration in the way of plastic-free living. Time to shop elsewhere.
I mean, this stuff has its own skin ffs.
No. 2 – Finding the markets
Fortunately, London has a huge variety of open-air fresh produce markets. Before I started researching for this challenge I had never appreciated how much just how much they have to offer. As well as locally-grown, seasonal fruit and vegetables, most weekend markets sell fresh loaves of bread, pastries, pies, cheese, meat, fish, cakes, wine, jars of jam and other goodies… Virtually everything fresh you can hope you buy in your weekly shop but with little or no packaging.
So far I have explored Pimlico Farmers Market, Ransome’s Dock Farmers Market (in Battersea), and the weekly Saturday market on Battersea High Street. This last one was the cheapest of the three, but only had fruit and veg. The farmers markets’ have more of an organic, sustainably-produced focus and so were priced a little higher. Whilst cheese, bread and meat/fish here are definitely more expensive than the supermarket equivalents (£2.90 for a loaf, for example), the fresh fruit and vegetables are not materially different in cost. Overall, I have been spending around £15-20 each week for enough fresh produce for two people (though, as a sidenote, we eat mostly vegetarian meals).
The best thing about the markets, actually, is how social they are. The people who run the stalls are often the farmers and producers themselves. As well as asking for advice on how to cook certain things, or how long something might keep, it is really interesting to learn about the story behind the food, and gain an insight into a more human process of manufacture that remains absent from our supermarket shelves.
Have a look on this site to see where your local farmers market is. There are plenty others too so be sure to ask around locally or look on TripAdvisor and Facebook local business pages to scout them out!
No. 3 – Buying in Bulk
But what all the other stuff, I hear you cry, like rice and porridge oats! The herbs, the spices, the bedtime hot cocoa? What about the essential stash of cupboard snacks, ye trusty humble Weetabix, the lifeforce-giving morning coffee?! Don’t worry people. To buy all this stuff plastic-free, we can thank the American concept of bulk-buy shopping, brought to the UK by yours truly WholeFoods Market.
Whilst it’s easy to loathe WholeFoods for its extravagantly above-average pricing (£5 for 3 small sweet potatoes anyone?), the bulk food section in its Kensington flagship store actually sells good value dried cupboard ingredients in bulk form. Multiple varieties of rice, grains, cous-cous, cereals, oats, nuts, dried fruits, biscuits, snacks are all available in serve-it-yourself plastic bins. WFM provide paper bags for you to fill what you need, but I preferred to take some larger mesh bags so as to fill up enough to last me a good while.
To give you an idea of pricing, here are some of the cupboard essentials I bought completely plastic-free:
- 1.4kg brown basmati rice : £2.30
- 800g wholewheat cous-cous : £1.85
- 400g freshly ground organic & fair-trade coffee : £6.70
- 400g Deglet Nour dates : £3.35
A total of £14.20 for these items is much cheaper than the £18.50 I would have spent in Tesco’s for the same quantity, and arguably of better quality. The coffee for example not only has highly ethical and sustainable origins, but was freshly ground for me once I had picked which variety of beans I fancied.
Other places in London that have bulk buy sections include As Nature Intended (stores all over London, including Balham) and Planet Organic (though only their Muswell Hill store currently). I’ll be checking these out soon so will report back!
No. 4 – Other bits and bobs
I have been trying to cut down on my own meat and dairy intake recently, for environmental reasons, hence why I haven’t mentioned much about plastic-free solutions to these items yet. However, after doing a bit of asking around, I am reliably informed that butchers are generally more than happy to put cuts of meat into your own containers, and in fact many wrap produce in paper anyway (such as The Ginger Pig).
As for milk, your best shot is the milkman. Milk&More (owned by Müller) deliver the traditional 1 pint glass bottles with foil tops all over London and beyond, with free delivery, and they also sell freshly squeezed orange juice in glass bottles. This old-school model of reusing long-lasting packaging is a really obvious, low-cost and low-effort solution to waste reduction – and it could definitely be applied to other forms of packaging!
No. 5 – The Logistics
Now if you’ve got this far down the page (firstly, thanks for sticking with me) I bet you’re thinking something along the lines of: Well this is all very interesting stuff Katie, but surely these plastic-free solutions take too much time and effort for busy 21st century lifestyles? Well, as someone used to just resort to the grab-the-supermarket-dinner-and-go option on the way home from work every single day, I actually think my plastic-free shopping habits have unexpectedly cut down the time I spend on the food-shop.
The bulk-buy cupboard shop only needs to be done once a month or so, as you can buy as much as you need (and might as well do so given bulk buy stores are usually a bit further to travel). Fresh produce is then bought just once a week, either Saturday or Sunday according to your local market; and milk, eggs and juice can be delivered up to three times a week from the milkman. The upfront cost to enable all of this plastic-free is the purchase of some mesh bags to store loose fresh produce (I bought 7 bags for £8.39) and large mason jars or similar containers to store your bulk cupboard items such as rice (a multipack of 3x 2l jars costs £12).
If all that still sounds like the itinerary of a martian to you, don’t worry I actually felt exactly the same as I was trying to work out how I was going to eat plastic-free. However now I know exactly where to go and how to timetable it into my schedule, I have realised that I really do not have to expend very much personal effort at all to go plastic-free. Better still, I am supporting local farmers and more sustainable food practices in the process. With the convenience culture of today, it is easy to forget that market-day and the bulk-buy shop are pretty much what food shopping was like for generations. If we managed without plastic for the majority of the 10,000 years since the Agricultural Revolution, I’m pretty sure we can find it in ourselves to go plastic-free once again… 🙂
That’s it from me this week! I would love to hear your thoughts on this post (comment below!). Next week, I’ll share how I have managed to go plastic-free with my toiletries and household cleaning items…
Finally, I am undertaking this month-long challenge in order to fundraise for the amazing Marine Conservation Society and basically give a massive #shoutout to the incredible work they do cleaning the UK’s beaches and researching solutions to the UK’s plastic consumption problem. If you, like me, think all things plastic have got a bit out of hand, and are concerned about the impact on our oceans, I would be so grateful if you would consider sponsoring my challenge! Every donation, however modest, is a contribution towards a better society and a healthier planet.
Thank you so much so those who have generously donated already!