'It's just people selling you stuff you don't need': How to reduce plastics in your grocery shop
Waging war on plastic in our daily lives is a constant struggle but just how easy is it to cut plastic from your weekly shop? asks Kathy Donaghy
The "Attenborough effect" is credited with creating a sea change in our attitudes to plastic, prompting a green wave among consumers in their habits. It's shaping our choices in the supermarket aisles too with shoppers eager to do their bit for the planet.
Last month it was announced that a Waitrose supermarket in Oxford in England was trialling plastic-free shopping by allowing customers to bring in their own refillable containers for fruit and veg, pasta, cereals, coffee, and even wine.
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The supermarket chain, part of John Lewis & Partners, says it's the first to offer "pick and mix" frozen fruit as part of its bid to find out how people might shop in the future. The store is also offering customers a "borrow box" to take home their produce for a £5 deposit which is refundable when the box is returned.
When my editor asks me to see how my family would fare in trying to cut plastic from our shopping trolley I am more than willing to give it a go. My children - two boys aged 10 and seven - are very keen to take part. Plastics in the ocean and the harmful ways it enters the food chain is something they've learned about in school so they're enthusiastic to get on board, asking questions about how we might do this.
In April Lidl became the first Irish retailer to offer customers in-store recycling stations to reduce packaging waste bought in-store. Segregated recycling stations at the end of the customer checkouts were rolled out to all of its 160 stores across Ireland by the end of May.
I went to Lidl and brought my recyclable bags with me - which I keep in the car - but soon realised that I was unprepared. If I handed back the plastic packaging holding the blueberries, tomatoes and mushrooms, I would need some other container to put them into.
I went back to the drawing board and called Catherine Conway, the CEO of retail consultancy service Unpackaged Innovation. In the mid-noughties Conway set up a market stall in central London selling unpackaged dry goods. She sold everything from Ecover cleaning products to dried fruit and rice which people could only buy if they brought their own containers. It was to Conway Waitrose turned for advice in launching their trial in Oxford last month.
She tells me the first place to start is to do an audit of sorts on my bins. "See where most of your waste comes from and have a look at how you can change that. Then think of your shopping in categories. Don't try and change everything at once. You can't solve the problem in a week. Look at one type of product every week and try to make a switch there," she advises.
To do things differently, she says, you may need to look at your choices. This may mean asking yourself about where you shop. If you have the option of going to the old-fashioned green grocers, all the better.
However, because this isn't always possible and people in some areas may be reliant on their local supermarket, she advises people to switch up the type of things they buy to limit the amount of plastic they're buying.
Creating a "kit" is key to success, she says. Bringing different sizes of Tupperware dishes to do your shop is going to be important when it comes to cutting down on plastic.
Armed with my containers - albeit plastic ones for multiple use - I head to my local SuperValu in Carndonagh, Co Donegal. The supermarket, owned by Gerry Doherty, has long championed the cardboard box for taking home your shopping.
Taking Conway's advice to focus on one aspect of my weekly shop at a time, I look to the fruit and veg aisle as a place where I can make some changes. I opt for the loose fruit - and there's quite a bit of it here to choose from.
SuperValu says it was the first Irish retailer to replace plastic bags for loose fruit and vegetables with fully compostable produce bags. The bags are available in all SuperValu stores and as a result they have already removed 2.7 million single‑use plastic bags from its supply chain.
I load up on my apples, lemons, oranges and melons, putting the loose fruit in the trolley. I choose loose carrots and a bunch of bananas wrapped in paper over the ones in a bag. I've already checked to see if I can leave my unwanted packaging at the till, and I can. While many SuperValu stores do this, you may need to check with your local store before you do your shop.
At the till, I remove the plastic packaging from tomatoes and mushrooms putting them in the containers I've brought with me. I do the same with raspberries and strawberries and put a bag of potatoes in a small cardboard box. I take plastic wrapping off kitchen roll and packs of tinned goods.
These are not big changes but I've handed back quite a bit of plastic packaging at the till and filled my groceries into cardboard boxes which I can return to the shop.
There's still quite a few things in my shop - packets of sliced ham, a packet of bacon, sausages, yoghurt - to name just a few items that have plastic wrapping but I can't see a way to change my habits there until the manufacturers come up with new ways of packaging them.
In a follow-up call with Conway, she tells me that cleaning products are an area where I can cut down on my plastic consumption. "I don't believe you need more than a washing-up liquid, a laundry liquid and a multi-surface cleaner. Cleaning wipes are a habit people got into. A reusable cloth is just as good. These are challenges to our consumer culture. The message that we don't want is one of deprivation. It's just people selling you stuff you don't need," she says.
The next day I go to Tesco for a look at the cleaning product shelves. I can't live without Domestos so I put that in my trolley. But I do ditch the multi-surface wipes that had been making their way into my trolley of late. I also take on board Conway's message about not buying anything for my cleaning closet with a trigger spray. These are what she calls "complicated plastics". The caps, which have a metal spring attached to the plastic trigger, cannot be recycled. I have ditched the plastic soap dispensers for an old-fashioned soap. I'm also avoiding pumps in my shower gels and shampoos/conditioners and going for simple containers. Not perfect I know, but it's a start.
It seems like the retailers are all sitting up and paying attention to consumers' desires to curb plastic. They all say reducing plastic is high on their agenda. Tesco says where they can remove, reduce or re-use packaging, they do. Where they need packaging, because it serves a purpose, they do their best to ensure that where possible, it's recyclable. The supermarket does not currently allow customers to hand back packaging at the till but says they're on track to meet their target to end the use of hard-to-recycle materials by end 2019.
According to Aldi, a wide-ranging packaging and plastics reduction plan is being implemented across its Irish operations. "We have committed to ensuring that 100pc of our own label packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022 and achieving a 50pc reduction (relative to 2015 levels), in packaging across our own-label products by 2025," says John Curtin, Aldi Ireland's group buying director.
A couple of weeks into my plastic experiment, my family and I like the changes we are making. We're all thinking a bit more about the choices we're making and trying to cut down on the plastic packaging where we can.
As Catherine Conway says, none of us are perfect but making the effort to do better is what counts. The zero waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau sums it up when she says: "We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly".