‘Bring a bag and use refills’: how to cut down on plastic waste | Money

The Big Plastic Count, an experiment conducted in May this year by Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic involving nearly 100,000 households, found that the average household throws away 66 single-use plastic bags in a week – the equivalent of 3,432 items in a year. How do you shrink this mountain of plastic – and do you save money by doing so?

Assess the problem

Steve Hynd of environmental non-profit City to Sea says: “Keep all the plastic you use in a week and then make changes based on what you use most. Different things may show up for different households.”

Cut in the kitchen

The most common items piling up in the Big Plastic Count were fruit and vegetable wrappers and packets of snacks.

Wendy Graham, author of the Moral Fibers eco blog, says: “The kitchen is the most difficult room in the house to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic. Supermarkets are not doing nearly enough to reduce their plastic packaging and in many cases, buying plastic-free groceries is not affordable or accessible.”

Fruits and vegetables in plastic
Fruit and vegetable wraps and snack wraps were the most common items piling up in the Big Plastic Count. Photo: Angela Glienicke/Greenpeace/PA

Rather than viewing plastic reduction as an all-or-nothing exercise, Graham says, “Focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t.”

Changing a few habits can help. “We don’t use cling film. Instead, we use old Tupperware containers to store food, or cover them with plates or pan lids. We also do not buy kitchen roll wrapped in plastic foil. Instead, I keep a basket of reusable cloths to wipe up spills. It’s just old cotton towels or old t-shirts that are worn to the point of being worn out and then cut into squares,” she says.

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Think about your bag

The 5p charge on single-use plastic bags introduced in 2015 has helped reduce their consumption by up to 97%. However, in 2019 the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace said supermarkets had sold 1.58 billion “bags for life” – the equivalent of 57 per UK household and more than one bag a week.

“People walk into the supermarket and think, ‘Oh, I don’t have my bag with me. I just buy one of these bags for life and it’s going to be really useful because next time I’ll have it,’” says Hynd.

Unless, of course, the same thing happens next time. Making a habit of always having a bag in your purse, stroller, laptop bag, or trunk can help break the cycle.

Someone who carries plastic bags
Do you take bags to put your groceries in or do you buy another plastic bag? Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Find out where to refill

When City to Sea’s refill campaign began, research showed that one in five people routinely carried a refillable water bottle. In 2020, that had risen to every second person.

The campaign began as an attempt to reduce the number of plastic bottles used annually (around 13 billion used in the UK in 2017, including 7.7 billion water bottles).

The organization’s research showed that a key reason people bought bottled water was because they didn’t know if and where they could refill a reusable bottle.

The campaign started with Bristol cafes, pubs and shops putting stickers in their windows to let passers-by know they could come in and ask for a free water refill, but has since grown into an app covering 135 countries and has been translated into nine languages. “All National Trust properties have just signed up for this and we have a partnership with the Welsh Coast Path which shows where people can fill up their water bottles along the way.”

A reusable bamboo coffee mug.
Some outlets offer discounts on coffee if customers bring their own mugs. Photo: Ter Pengilley/The Guardian

It now includes coffee in reusable cups, bulk products in their own containers and take-aways to fill your lunch box. “It can geolocate you and match you to the nearest refill points. All of the Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Caffè Nero, McDonald’s and Morrisons supermarkets are pictured there, as well as plenty of independent stores,” says Hynd.

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There are also discounts to be had. Starbucks, for example, offers a 25p discount if you bring your own mug. Pret a Manger trumps them at 50p, while Costa offers extra loyalty points if customers bring refillable cups.

At work

People who bought lunch to go were responsible for about 10.7 billion single-use plastic waste in 2019. “An easy way to reduce this and also save money is to bring groceries from home,” says resource activist Anna Leitner and supply chain at Global 2000, an Austrian environmental organization and part of the Friends of the Earth network. “Make an extra portion the night before and take it to work in a lunch box.”

Otherwise, pick up your takeaway food in a reusable box.

“In our office, we have a box full of Tupperware containers by the door,” says Hynd.

“When people go out to buy their lunch, they grab one and take it to get their salad or soup or whatever they’re buying. Then they wash it and put it back in the box.”

beauty and bath plastics

“The easiest and most obvious switch is switching from sparkling bottled hand soap to bars of soap. You can get cheap supermarket own brand soap sold in a carton.

“The next step is to swap out bottled shampoo for solid shampoo,” says Hynd.

For beauty products, the “use up first” mantra is the simplest and most cost-effective solution, says Graham.

“If you have a closet or drawer full of products, try to use them before you buy anything new.”

Plastic-free times

An average box of sanitary napkins contains as much plastic as five tote bags, according to Natracare, a maker of “plastic-free” period products, while tampons are often wrapped in plastic, have a plastic applicator, and even contain plastic in the absorbent elements and the string.

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Switching to reusable menstrual products will reduce plastic waste by up to 99% and save money, too, says Leitner.

“You can get a menstrual cup for as little as £10 and it will last up to 10 years – by comparison, women spend an average of £100 a year on disposable hygiene products.”

Website hey girls… sells menstrual cups for £10.40 (and other plastic-free period products), while mooncups are £20.95 (of which £1 goes to City to Sea).

Period proof trousers are available from retailers everywhere – at Marks & Spencer (from £18 for three), John Lewis (from £10) and Primark (from £6) to name a few. Prices and absorbency vary, as do periods, but they can offer the same protection as up to three tampons. A pack of 18 Tampax Compak Regular (with plastic applicators) is £2.10.

In the garden

“Plant pots are probably the biggest plastic problem,” says Alys Fowler, author of The Thrifty Gardener.

“A lot of them are pretty well made, so it’s all about storing and reusing them, washing them and stacking them properly because you get very annoyed with them when there are too many of them.”

When buying, keep the pots in mind, she adds. “Anyone who buys a plant in a pot should also see the pot as a resource. If you don’t want more pots, don’t buy the plant.”

Close up of three young tomato seedlings growing in small brown plastic pots on brown tray in sunshine
Do you really need another plastic flower pot? Photo: Julie Fryer Images/Alamy

Instead, she says, consider growing more from seed, reusing your existing pots, or ordering bare-root plants directly from nurseries. “Nearly every nursery is now doing online sales,” says Fowler. The best time to buy and plant is during the colder months when the plants are dormant.

Made from durable plastic, compost bags can be used as garbage bags or perforated for ventilation and used for leaf mulching. Everted and with holes for drainage, they can make containers for growing potatoes.

In the meantime, learn to live with weeds or uproot them instead of trying to prevent them with plastic. “Home gardeners often buy plastic weed suppressing membranes. It’s a pretty tough plastic, but it will degrade over time — right into the ground,” says Fowler.

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