An Instagram post recently introduced me to the idea of a Recycling Bin Audit: reviewing the contents of your recycling bin to identify the biggest source of single-use plastics.

It’s something that I’ve been doing passively already. Every time I empty the recycling I’m aware of the amount of plastic that still passes through our house, and honestly, it makes me sick. We’ve made improvements, but there’s still a lot to do.

As mentioned last week, by the far biggest source for us is food and drink packaging, so that’s what I’m focusing on this week.

Low Hanging Fruit

We’ve picked the Low Hanging Fruit — by that I mean we’ve identified easy wins and made simple changes, such as:

  • Reusable bottles
  • Reusable cups
  • Beeswax wraps — A more recent acquisition used in place of plastic wrap and bags. We have a selection from Bee Bee wraps, but struggle to cover large loaves of bread with the largest of them, so we’ll be trying this extra-large roll from Amazon soon.
  • Packed lunches — This was one of my resolutions at the beginning of the year and I’m pleased to say that it’s stuck.
  • Camping cutlery
  • Silicon straws

The trouble is, the remaining fruit — the high hanging or hard to reach — is wrapped in plastic and sat on a Styrofoam tray.

Harder-to-Reach Fruit

Vegetables and Fresh Produce

One of the difficulties of work is a reduction of options. In the same way that it’s difficult to get to a bank during operating hours, it can be difficult to shop at speciality stores or visit other outlets such as markets.

Our grocery shopping is constantly in conflict between the need to reduce plastic, and the needs to reduce food miles and eat healthier. The places that I can shop typically don’t sell much local produce and the organic food always comes wrapped in plastic.

Add in the further restrictions we’ve experienced during the pandemic (closures and reduced opening times, availability of stock, logistics meaning that the shopping experience got longer) and it looked like an unsolvable problem.

The solution, however, stared me in the face: veg boxes. Full disclosure, I used to subscribe to a veg box years ago, but I cancelled it because I got bored with the lack of variety.

Now though, veg boxes could be the answer to my problems. Local produce? Check. Organic? Check. Minimal plastic packaging? Check. Now I just have to find the right one and hope that the upsurge in demand due to the pandemic hasn’t made them all unavailable.

Through all this, I realise that I have to jettison a fourth need: saving money. There’s no way to satisfy one of the above needs and eat cheaply. I’m not too worried about this as I’ve long subscribed to the principle that when it comes to food you should buy the best you can afford. I don’t mean spending on things that are overpriced, or status items, but at the end of the day, you’re putting this stuff in your bodies.

At the very least treat your body like a temple. Don’t know what went into a product? Don’t know what pesticides or treatments were used? Don’t know where it’s from? Don’t take the risk.

Of course, there is a solution to all four needs which is just as obvious: growing your own. You can’t get more local, it’s easy(ish) to grow organic, and you don’t need plastic. Aside from the cost of seeds and fertiliser and I guess a few tools it would also be cheap. The downside comes in having space and time, but hey I didn’t say it was perfect. Depending on where you are, allotment spaces can be incredibly hard to come by, and for a lot of us, time is a premium. Still, we can keep dreaming of the Good Life and moving towards it.

Bulk Ingredients

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of zero-waste stores in recent years, which is great. As mentioned above, a lot of them have had to close at least partially during the pandemic, so can be difficult to get to. Hopefully, most are now beginning to reopen.

The plan is to set aside time to visit a local store and, critically, planning ahead. Thinking about what we might need ahead of time so as much as possible can be bought. This would remove the temptation to nip to the supermarket for that one missing and plastic-wrapped ingredient.

This is key for me. The last couple of times I’ve been to one of these stores, it’s without anything in mind. We’ve picked up a bamboo toothbrush, or some soap … and little else. We love the concept, but don’t take advantage of it.

Milk and Juice

One of the best ways of approaching a plastic-free lifestyle is by looking backwards. The plastic takeover is not that old that we can’t remember when we used to be more conscious about how we used resources.

Milk in plastic is a great example. I grew up with milk in glass bottles and I’m not that old. Yet we all sold our souls for the convenience of buying it by the gallon in our local supermarket.

Yes, it requires a bit of forethought, but is that really so difficult? I keep banging on about this, but we’ve allowed convenience to take over to the point where we no longer are capable of planning. Work out how much milk you drink and order that much. If it starts backing up or running low, amend the order.

The challenge is that my partner and I have been using non-dairy milk for years. I’m aware that there are companies who deliver non-dairy milk, I just need to find out if there are any near me. I’d also like to find someone who can fulfil our juice requirements. In the same way, as fresh produce noted above, our options are limited in this area: plastic or plastic-coated cardboard.


And I end on the biggest challenge: Finding plastic-free meat. I’m not aware of any way of buying meat that doesn’t require at least some plastic footprint. I could go to my local butchers, but they’re as bad as the supermarkets. I’m sure they would serve into my containers, but even then I’ve watched them pack away at the end of the night. Sheets and sheets of plastic used to wrap and to separate unsold items, plastic tubs, and plastic lids. It’s unavoidable.

There’s another obvious answer here, and you can probably sense my reluctance to acknowledge it: go meat-free. There are arguments on both sides of the meat versus meat-free debate that I agree with and some that I don’t, but maybe it’s something to explore in a later post.

For now, I’ve decided on a two-stage approach: eat less meat, whilst prioritising options that use less plastic.

In Summary

There’s a solution to most of the problems outlined above, even if I don’t always like them. I have to constantly evaluate what is the right thing for me and my pack against what is the right thing for the planet. And here lies the crux of the plastic-free problem. On the surface it’s easy, but when you get into the detail, it can be quite complicated.

We’ve addressed the easier ones, the low hanging fruit, as those require small habitual changes: remember to take your reusable cups and bottles with you, be smart about where you get takeaway food, and be bold enough to refuse single-use. What remains are the harder, more complicated challenges, those that require more planning and forethought.

Plan for Week 3

Next week I‘ll look at cleaning products: cleaning yourselves and cleaning your house. It’s less of an impact than food packaging, but easily the next biggest area.

As always, I hope you can join me on this challenge and I’d love to hear from you. What has helped you reduce the plastics in your food shop, and where have you struggled?

I’ve had some great suggestions so far in terms of reducing the plastics in toiletries and household cleaning, but if you have any recommendations I’d love to hear them.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, please consider signing up to my newsletter. I publish weekly to highlight my new writing and share things I found of interest.

Related stories: