How to cut down on plastic and save money
With reports suggesting that by 2050 there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish, how difficult and costly is it to stop using single-use plastics? We tried it to find out...
Thanks to David Attenborough and Blue Planet 2, we're more conscious than ever before of the plastic we're using in our everyday lives - and how unavoidable it is. Whether you're buying a sandwich, some loo roll or a toothbrush, you're probably buying plastic that you'll end up chucking in the bin.
The big sticking point is that plastic is the cheapest and most convenient option for products and packaging, and opting for the eco-friendly choice often means spending more money... or does it?
One of Save the Student's editors, Jess, put this theory to the test by replacing all her single-use plastics with environmentally friendly alternatives. This is how much it cost her...
What’s on this page?
Why go plastic free?
Almost everything we buy contains plastic in some form, and the problem is, this plastic never goes away.
Here are some key stats to help you understand just how serious a problem plastic pollution is:
- 8 million pieces of plastic enter our oceans every single day
- 33% of plastic is used once and then thrown away. It cannot biodegrade, and ends up in our oceans where it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics
- Our oceans contain 5.2 trillion pieces of microscopic plastic, weighing a total of 269,000 tonnes
- A plastic bottle can last 450 years in our oceans - it will eventually become microscopic, but it will never go away
- 1 in 3 fish caught for human consumption contain plastic - so not only are our fish ingesting these microplastics, we are too
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is three times the size of France, and it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than 1% of it.
You might be wondering how one person going plastic-free is going to make any difference in the face of such a huge problem. And you do have a point.
But at the risk of sounding clichéd, big societal changes start with individual people making small changes. Plus, if you can convince your friends and family to join you, then you're no longer just one person. Never underestimate the impact of your individual actions.
What is the plastic free challenge?
There are different variations of the plastic free challenge out there, many of which involve trying to completely avoid plastic for a week or month.
While these are great initiatives, they're not easy to sustain. So the challenge I set myself was to try and find alternatives to all single-use plastics in my life over a series of weeks.
Single-use plastics are plastic products that you use once before throwing away (mainly plastic packaging and containers), or things you only use briefly before chucking (makeup, toothbrushes or pens, for example).
Going plastic free doesn't (like some people think) involve completely cutting out plastic from your life - I'm currently sat on a plastic chair using a plastic keyboard to type this. Using plastic in some form is inescapable.
But single-use plastics which aren't recycled are the most harmful plastics, ending up in our oceans and harming our marine life - and that's what we should be aiming to cut down on.
When I sat down to figure out how I was going to get rid of plastics in my life, it became clear there were three main categories to deal with: toiletries, food and cleaning products.
Here's how I did it:
Your first step on the road to plastic-free toiletries is a good bar of soap. You can get these from pretty much anywhere, but remember they're often wrapped in plastic at supermarkets. I got a bright blue bar from Lush for £4.50 - it was called Outback Mate, and contains peppermint and eucalyptus oils, apparently. Basically, it smelled super nice.
Next step was a good old-fashioned flannel, and you might want to invest in two: one for your body, and another for your face (and say bye-bye to face wipes). I got a face cloth for £2.50 from Sainsbury's.
Lush have loads of different shampoo bars to choose from, so you should be able to find one that will complement your hair type and with a scent that suits you. I went for the lemon one (Montalbano) and I'm seriously impressed.
It only takes a few quick rubs on your hair to foam up, and I can imagine it will last a long time too. I'm going to predict it will last me a good 2-3 months, which for £6.50 is a pretty sound investment!
Ok, so I'll admit that I was pretty sceptical about this one. Firstly, how are you meant to rub a square deodorant on a round armpit?! Will my skin actually absorb it? Will it leave white patches on my clothes? I had some serious doubts.
I went for the cheapest option Lush had: Aromaco, which was £4.95 for 100g. The scent is unusual, and not one I would typically go for, but to give it credit, the smell lasted all day.
The application experience is nowhere near as nice as roll-on or spray (expect friction), but a few gentle rubs will have you covered. Plus, this will last for aaaaages. I seriously can't image running out over the next year - Lush recommends you keep the bar wrapped up (in paper) to maintain the scent for longer. Bargain!
Toothbrush and toothpaste
This was by far the worst bit of the challenge.
The toothbrush from Save Some Green is one of the most environmentally-friendly you can get. The handle is made from (panda-friendly, sustainable) bamboo, and the bristles are BPA-free* biodegradable nylon 4 (meaning they are plastic, but they will degrade), and they're also infused with bamboo.
*BPA is a chemical used in plastics that some experts claim is toxic and should be avoided.
Personally I absolutely hated the taste of wood in my mouth. It felt like I was licking a tree. However, the actual brushing experience was no different than you'd get with a normal toothbrush, so if you can get past the taste, it's a decent alternative.
That ugly lollipop on the right is solid toothpaste, something I found through the No Plastic Shop - it was definitely the most expensive thing on my list (£9.99 plus postage) but I was intrigued so gave it a shot.
It didn't taste of anything really and since it's made of all natural ingredients it didn't foam up at all. While I appreciate how eco-friendly it is, I didn't particularly enjoy using it and wouldn't trust it to keep my teeth clean.
Hence, why I tried out 'truthpaste' from &Keep as well. This had a really strong mint flavour - just as strong as any normal toothpaste - which is exactly what you want for that minty fresh feeling.
However, it also doesn't contain any foaming agents, so it feels very different to normal. Plus, the beige colour isn't the most attractive. But if you can get past all that, this is one of your best alternatives for plastic-free tooth-brushing.
Makeup is one of the hardest areas to go plastic-free, as all the major brands use plastic in their packaging.
I chose my two essential makeup items (eyeliner and mascara) and bought plastic-free versions from Luna Beauty - and they were actually cheaper than what I would pay for those products normally.
The eyeliner (on the right) is a bit more greasy than what I would usually buy, and I found it's best to use a really minimal amount as it will smudge and rub off easily. However, when I applied it with a sharp angled brush to get a nice neat line, I couldn't really notice the difference from my normal look.
For the mascara (left) you'll have to recycle an old mascara brush in order to apply it, and it can be a bit messy as the tube is so wide at the top that there's no way to brush off any excess (as you can with a normal mascara tube). On my first go I ended up getting it everywhere and resorting to wiping the brush with toilet paper. which seemed like a waste.
The mascara was also quite bitty/clumpy; it didn't look anywhere near as smooth as my normal mascara does, which was a real shame.
I was also able to continue using the tub of Vaseline I use every day anyway, since it comes in a metal tin.
Yep, loo roll might be made of paper, but it comes wrapped in that pesky plastic.
I'd heard good things about Who Gives A Crap, but it's not exactly cheap (even compared to brand names like Andrex). If you buy direct from their website, you have to buy in bulk - £36 for 48 rolls for instance, which works out at 75p per roll.
By contrast, an 18-pack of Andrex will cost £8.75 - around 18p per roll.
I managed to get three rolls for £3 from Peace With the Wild, and they are seriously pretty - you wouldn't be able to post a picture of your Andrex on Instagram, would you?
It can be much easier to find plastic-free food at local independent stores, like butchers, delis, grocers or markets. But to keep this challenge as accessible as possible, I stuck to my local Sainsbury's, meaning you should be able to recreate everything I've done at your nearest supermarket pretty easily.
One night after work I grabbed a trolley and a notepad and roamed every single aisle, noting down everything that was plastic-free. Annoyingly, there are no set rules on how companies must label their packaging.
For example, all Sainsbury's-own products have a handy labelling system that shows every type of material included in the packaging, and whether it's recyclable or not. Other products don't label their packaging at all.
This resulted in lots of shaking of cardboard boxes to listen out for the tell-tale rustle of a plastic wrapper inside, or feeling up paper-looking packaging to determine whether it was actually just plastic in disguise. Other than a dodgy reputation among the Sainsbury's staff, I made some interesting findings:
- Fruit and veg - As you would expect, the fruit and veg aisle contains the most plastic-free stuff. Always go for loose veg as opposed to the pre-packaged stuff - this also allows you to only buy as much as you need and will help you save money in the long-run. There's no need to put your veg in those plastic bags either! Your onion will come to no harm if you leave it loose.
- Meat - Most fresh and raw meat comes wrapped in plastic, but the freezer aisle is your friend here. Frozen fish fillets and chicken steaks often come in cardboard boxes, but annoyingly it's only the breaded stuff that comes completely plastic-free (which isn't the healthiest option).
- Tins - You can get so much food in the tin aisle! Beans, tomatoes, sweetcorn, tuna, soup - even bacon brunch, whatever that is! Plus, they all have long use by dates so they'll stop you from chucking away uneaten food.
- Look out for one-offs - I found a Sainsbury's Basics apple pie which comes in just a cardboard box and a foil carton. Pair that with a tin of custard and you have a dream dessert! Going plastic-free doesn't mean having to cut out all luxuries.
- Carbs - This is where you'll struggle the most. I couldn't find any plastic-free rice, pasta or even bread! The best I could find was bread buns (minus the plastic bags you're supposed to put them in) and good old carby potatoes.
Once I'd listed pretty much every plastic-free product, I then organised them into actual meals that I could eat - and more importantly, meals that I would actually want to eat.
Disclaimer: I cannot cook. I'm seriously rubbish. Plus, I'm not going to pretend that I have the time or the inclination to cook amazing recipes from scratch everyday. I chose to make plastic-free meals which would fit in with my busy lifestyle, which includes a couple of nice home-cooked meals but also... well, fish fingers and spaghetti hoops. Please don't judge me.
I thought breakfast would be pretty easy, but when I couldn't find any plastic-free bread or cereal, I hit a wall. I wandered the cereal aisle for a while staring aimlessly at all the cardboard boxes of cereal, filled with plastic wrappers, and said farewell to my usual Weetabix Minis.
In the end I found Flahavan's Organic Jumbo Oats which come in a paper bag which is apparently 100% biodegradable. To jazz it up a little bit I bought a glass jar of Sainsbury's basics honey.
I'm lucky enough to live in an area with a milk delivery service, so I get my milk delivered in glass bottles each week. These kind of services are back on the rise, so have a Google to see if there are any in your area. If not, try a farmers' market or a farm shop for glass bottled milk.
Other breakfast options:
- Eggs - Scrambled, boiled, poached or fried, however you prefer them, their cardboard packaging is a lifesaver. You could have them with tinned baked beans
- Fruit - Apples, kiwis, pears and melons can all be bought plastic-free. And don't forget the millennial staple, avocados.
Lunch and snacks
For lunch I mainly stuck to jacket potatoes and salad. You can buy jacket potatoes either frozen (packaged in cardboard) or loose, and then you can add fillings like tuna mayo or baked beans.
As exciting as it (doesn't) sound, salad is also a great shout. You can easily get veggies like peppers, carrots, avocado and tomatoes (and eggs) without plastic packaging.
Snacks are definitely the hardest. As you can imagine, things like crisps and chocolate always come wrapped in plastic, so it's fruit and veggies all the way.
Apples, bananas and oranges are great at keeping the hunger pains at bay in the afternoons. You could also try making your own vegetable crisps by roasting some peelings.
Basically, if you're looking for a health kick, going plastic-free is a really useful way of getting one.
I committed myself to coming up with at least seven plastic-free recipes that I could recreate easily, and some of these had to be simple enough that I could rustle them up in a few minutes after a long day - and these are the results.
These are by no means the limit of what you can create plastic-free, but they should give you a good idea of what kind of ingredients are available, and what you could easily rustle while also protecting the environment.
For my first plastic-free meal, I decided to play it safe. I went for some popcorn chicken bites, with a mixed bean salad and home-made guacamole.
For the bean salad, I simply bought a tin of Sainsbury's mixed bean salad and added red onion, sweetcorn, lime and lemon juice and some spices like cumin and chilli powder. Guacamole is super easy to make too - simply scoop out an avocado and add it to a blender with a load of lime juice.
Then add some finely chopped red onion and garlic. Ok, so I did crave a tortilla wrap and some cheese, but this isn't a bad plastic-free Mexican substitute.
Craving a curry? Plastic-free chicken and rice are hard to come by. In the end, I decided to use mushroom, potato, aubergine and onion as I figured altogether they would be chunky enough to fill me up without any rice.
I then added coconut milk and curry paste (yes, Korma cos I'm weak and clearly addicted to the taste of coconuts) but you could use any curry paste you wanted. I won't inflict the finished result on your eyes because, let's just say it didn't look the tastiest, but believe me it was good - and I didn't even miss the rice.
There are some days when you're super busy, and don't really have time to make a proper dinner. Normally I would turn to a ready meal or pizza, but if you want to avoid plastic, you'll have to turn to alternative fast food. Enter fish fingers and spaghetti hoops.
It only took me a few minutes to rustle up, and I added some broccoli just to make sure there was a little bit of healthy stuff in there. Proof that going plastic-free doesn't have to involve complicated recipes and meal plans.
Another super simple plastic-free meal is a jacket potato with tuna mayo and egg filling (this would also make a good lunch time meal). I know you can use a normal potato for this, but these frozen jacket potatoes last longer and only come in a cardboard box. Plus, there's really no reason not to go for mayo in a jar rather than a squeezy tube.
What do you have on Fridays? Fish and chips, of course (I've never followed this tradition in my entire life, but for some reason decided now would be a good time to start)! Most breaded fish from the frozen section will come in just a cardboard box, but unfortunately frozen fries come in plastic bags, so I made my own sweet potato fries instead.
When I couldn't find any frozen peas that didn't come in a plastic bag, I opted for tinned mushy peas instead. They don't look that sexy, but they tasted pretty good.
Then I decided to go more experimental. I bought a butternut squash simply because I've never tried one before, and along with an onion, sweet potato, red pepper and some garlic, I cooked it with some chopped tomatoes and spices. It was tasty enough, but a bit too boring and repetitive for me - and I really craved some extra carbs here.
Plastic-free Sunday dinner? Well, I gave it a go. The closest thing I could find for the meat came in the form of some frozen lemon and garlic breaded chicken, but it was pretty pricey for only two fillets. I then made some mashed potato, added some broccoli and - my favourite plastic free food - used Aunt Bessie's Bake at Home Yorkshire's for the finishing touch.
Ok, so it's the kind of roast dinner Gordon Ramsay would slate on Twitter, but I was happy with it.
Cleaning is another one of those unavoidable areas of life where you might be forced into using single-use plastics on the regular. In fact, it's super difficult to do your household cleaning with plastic-free products that: a) work and b) are not expensive.
Laundry is the easiest switch to make. Ditch those capsules that come in plastic bags and opt for good old-fashioned laundry powder/detergent instead (it's the cheapest option anyway).
It's difficult to say whether bio or non-bio laundry powder is better for the environment - bio powders contain enzymes which can irritate sensitive skin, but when using non-bio you'll usually have to wash your clothes at a higher temperature, which uses more energy.
Most cleaning cloths/sponges come wrapped in plastic, but I found this e-cloth which comes in cardboard packaging. However, it was a bit on the expensive side, and even though it's made of a more substantial material than normal cloths (so should hopefully last longer), I'm not sure it's worth it for the minimal amount of plastic saved.
For the cleaning product itself I did some research and discovered that bicarbonate of soda makes a great alternative to traditional cleaning sprays which come in plastic bottles. However, when I tracked it down in Sainsbury's I realised that it also comes in plastic - of course it does.
I found that you get some from the Plastic Free Pantry which comes wrapped in paper - and at 85p for 250g it was pretty cheap! However, the £3.50 delivery cost really bumped the price up so I'd recommend buying multiple products at once to help cancel this out.
Finally I tackled bin bags, which are in their very nature made of plastic. After a bit of hunting I found some biodegradable ones from Big Green Smile, so you don't have to worry about any harmful lasting impact on the environment.
They were only £1.99 for a pack of 20 but, again, I was stung on the postage - so it's best to buy in bulk or try and source some on the high street.
What I learnt from going plastic free
Firstly, plastic is a much bigger part of our lives than I realised. I thought it would be a relatively straightforward task but I soon ended up having to change every aspect of my life.
But like with most things - such as quitting smoking or cutting out junk food - it's better to take small steps that you can maintain over a long period of time, than go cold turkey for a week.
Going plastic free in certain areas is super easy - buying loose vegetables and cutting out carrier bags and bottled water, for example - so you should definitely make an effort to incorporate these into your life when possible. Plus, these things will actually save you money as well.
However, buying things like plastic-free toothpaste and loo roll was quite difficult, not to mention expensive. If you don't think you can sustain this, then don't force yourself.
Since the 5p carrier bag charge was introduced, the UK has used nine billion fewer carrier bags, showing just how much of an impact a small change can have if everyone gets on board.
So while going completely plastic free might not be feasible for everyone, we can all take small steps to start phasing plastic out our lives - and putting pressure on companies to stop selling us plastic at every available opportunity.
9 tips for going plastic-free on a budget
- Invest in a reusable shopping bag. It sounds like an obvious one, but you'd be surprised how many people don't do this. You can buy a reusable bag that folds up super small for a few quid, and it'll save you paying 5p every time you need a bag
- Buy a stainless steel water bottle. Of course plastic reusable water bottles are also an option here, but the plastic can go a bit funny after a few months and make your water taste weird, so we'd recommend stainless steel for longevity. Plus you'll save money in the long-run by cutting out those random bottles of water you buy when you're out and about. Apply the same logic to hot beverages and invest in a reusable coffee cup or flask
- It's been in the media a lot recently, but try and avoid plastic straws if you're in a position to be able to. Opt for no straw, or a paper/metal one instead
- Use your own tupperware. Any local butchers, grocers and delis (and some supermarkets) near you will likely allow you to take along your own tupperware to transport food in, cutting out the need for other plastic packaging. This will also help keep it airtight and stop it from going off as quickly
- Ditch the chewing gum. Did you know chewing gum is actually made from plastic? This means that once you ditch it, it won't degrade. However, Iceland have recently become the first UK supermarket to sell plastic free gum. Simply Gum is £2 a pack and comes in mint, ginger and maple flavour
- Try out a menstrual cup - If you're looking for a way to cut plastic out of your periods (and save money), then you could try out a menstrual cup or reusable sanitary pads. We've rounded up the cheapest sanitary products here.
- Choose a bar of soap over a plastic dispenser. People often think a bar of soap is gross as everyone uses it, but at least it gets a rinse after each use... unlike the pump on a dispenser
- When it comes round to your birthday or Christmas, why not ask for a refillable fountain pen? There might be a lot of pressure not to lose it, but you won't have to keep chucking away plastic pens every time they run dry
- Always choose an ice cream cone over a tub - duh!
Do you have any more tips on how to go plastic-free? Let us know in the comments!