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Food & Drink

How to go plastic-free on a budget

By 2050 there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish – so how much plastic do you throw away? Here's how to reduce waste while saving yourself some cash.

woman with plastic bottles

Single-use plastic is just about everywhere you look. 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 often 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?

Living a life free of plastic is actually not quite as difficult as you might initially think. We've listed the best ways to cut down on plastic while also saving money.

Why go plastic-free?

pile of plastic bottles pollution

Almost everything we buy contains plastic in some form, and the problem is, this plastic never really goes away.

Here are some key stats that show how serious the plastic pollution problem is:

  • Around eight million pieces of plastic pollution 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.
  • Some estimates suggest there are as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles in our oceans.
  • A plastic bottle can last 450 years in our oceans – it will eventually become microscopic, but it will never go away.
  • One in three fish caught in the UK are thought to contain plastic – so not only are our fish ingesting these microplastics, we likely 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 would 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.

Read on to find out the top ways to cut out plastic and massively reduce your waste.

How green is your university? Check out the university sustainability league table to find out.

23 ways to stop using plastic

Here are the best and cheapest ways to go plastic-free:

Toiletries written over wash bag shampoo

Credit: akvarelmed – Shutterstock

  1. Use an eco-friendly shampoo bar

    To go zero waste on a budget, one of the best ways to start is by getting shampoo bars instead of bottles of shampoo.

    Shampoo bars can be free from plastic packaging, they last longer and they're easy to use. Ideal all round!

    It's worth trying one from an independent seller on Etsy. Or, if you'd rather stick with a big-brand name, you could try Lush – they have loads to choose from so you can get one which matches your hair type.

    You could also have a look at other plastic-free online shops like The Plastic Free Shop and Plastic Freedom.

  2. Replace face wipes with a face cloth

    Face wipes might be convenient but they're really bad for the environment and expensive.

    They're single-use and come in plastic packaging. Plus, it's actually generally thought that they're not as effective at cleaning your skin as regular face wash and water.

    You can buy a couple of washable cloths for your face and another two or three for your body. That way, you'll still have fresh, clean ones while the other ones are in the wash.

  3. Buy sustainable bars of soaps

    shampoo, deodorant, cloth and soap

    Face cloth – £1.50, Asda; Bar of soap – £5.50 per 120g, Lush; Shampoo bar – £8, Lush; Deoderant bar – £6.50 per 100g, Lush. Prices correct at time of purchase.

    It might seem a tad old fashioned to use a bar of soap instead of a pump but, again, it'll last much longer, and it gets a wash after each use (unlike a plastic soap dispenser).

    Just make sure to find a bar that doesn't come wrapped in plastic. Again, you could look on sites like Etsy for independent soap sellers who use sustainable packaging.

  4. Use a wooden toothbrush

    Wooden toothbrushes aren't to everyone's tastes (we mean literally, it can feel a bit like licking a tree), but they're much more eco-friendly than regular plastic toothbrushes.

    Brushes from Save Some Green have handles 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.

    They're £2.50 each (or £1.75–£1.87 each if you buy in bulk).

    BPA is a chemical used in plastics that some experts claim is toxic and should be avoided.

  5. Use deodorant bars

    Like with the other plastic-free toiletry bars on this list, you can get deodorant bars from Etsy and Lush.

    Although they might take a little while to get used to, they're more environmentally-friendly than using a plastic roll-on or spray can.

    They last ages too – keeping your bar wrapped in paper will help to preserve its scent.

  6. Buy plastic-free makeup

    Woman with colourful makeup

    Credit: Jacob Lund – Shutterstock

    It can be quite difficult to go plastic-free with makeup when all the major cosmetics brands use plastic, but there are alternatives out there – like Glow Organic for example.

    You might not get quite the same level of quality that you might with bigger brands, but you'll get that extra glow knowing that you're saving the planet.

    We've got loads of tips on how to save money and recycle your makeup – including the Back to Mac scheme, which rewards you with a free lipstick for returning your packaging.
  7. Try a reusable 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 if they work for you.

    We recommend sticking with the leading menstrual cup brands like Mooncup so that you know they use safe materials.

    We've rounded up the cheapest sanitary products, including reusable ones, in our full guide.

  8. Get paper-wrapped toilet roll

    With Who Gives A Crap, you can get loo roll that's much more attractive than your usual while also being super eco-friendly.

    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. It might not be as cheap as you're used to, but you can get £5 off when you sign up with this link.

    Plus, to save money further while still at least cutting down on plastic, you could mix it up with your usual loo roll and buy a box of paper-wrapped rolls every now and then.

    Once you're finished with it, why not sell your loo roll tubes on to make back some cash? Yep, it really can be done. 💩

    Food-written-over-shopping-basket-supermarket

  9. Shop at local independent stores

    For food without plastic packaging, it's much better to shop at places like butchers, delis, grocers and markets, rather than mainstream supermarkets.

    For fruit and veg, in particular, you should be able to find them for pretty good prices on grocery stalls in a local market, free from plastic.

  10. Check food packaging labels carefully

    If you do ever need to buy something that has plastic packaging, you can cut down on plastic wastage by making sure the packaging's recyclable before getting it.

    You'll be surprised to find some food products aren't recyclable at all, while others are that you wouldn't expect.

    For example, things like cling film and many food and drink pouches can't be recycled, whereas breakfast cereal liners and frozen food bags can.

  11. Buy loose fruit and veg, not pre-packaged

    red and green peppers

    Credit: Thanakornbb – Shutterstock

    As well as helping you cut out plastic, buying loose fruit and vegetables will help you save money (and prevent food waste) in the long-run.

    There's also no need to put your veg in the little plastic bags they have in shops – you'd need to wash them before eating them anyway, so it's really not worth the extra packaging.

  12. Buy frozen meat and fish

    Most fresh and raw meat comes wrapped in plastic, but the freezer aisle is your friend when you're aiming to become plastic-free.

    Frozen fish fillets and chicken steaks often come in cardboard boxes, but annoyingly it tends to be breaded foods that come completely plastic-free (which aren't the healthiest options).

  13. Replace plastic-packaged food with tins

    You can get so much food in the tin aisle. Beans, tomatoes, sweetcorn, tuna, soup – even bacon brunch, whatever that is...

    Canned foods have recyclable packaging and they tend to be very cheap at supermarkets.

    Better yet, you can save even more money on them by buying them past their best-before date (but not their use-by date) from Approved Foods.

  14. Find shops that sell your favourite foods without plastic

    apple pie

    Credit: nelea33 – Shutterstock

    If your local food shop only has your favourite foods in plastic packaging, don't be disheartened – you might be able to find similar products in other shops without plastic.

    For example, do you love an apple pie, but can never find ones that are plastic-free? Try Sainsbury's.

    They sell apple pies that come in a cardboard box and a foil cartons. Pair that with a tin of custard and you have a dream dessert!

    When food shopping, always try to go for the cheapest brand available – the supermarket downshift can save you over £500 a year.
  15. 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 extra plastic packaging.

    Tupperware is useful for when you need an airtight container for food, but you want to avoid single-use plastic.

  16. Find a local milk delivery service

    As more people move to cut down on plastic, milk delivery services are becoming increasingly popular again.

    They allow you to get your milk delivered in glass bottles to your home. You then leave the empty bottles on your doorstep to be collected and reused – completely zero-waste! Some services even offer orange juice too.

    Have a quick look on Google to find milk delivery services in your area.

  17. Buy cereal in plastic-free packaging

    breakfast oats milk honey

    It can be difficult to find breakfast options that aren't packaged in plastic but if you do some extra digging, you'll find some.

    As an example, Flahavan's Organic Jumbo Oats come in a paper bag which is 100% recyclable. You can get 1kg of oats for £2.30 from Tesco.com (price correct at time of writing).

  18. Get a reusable shopping bag

    It sounds like an obvious one, but you'd be surprised how many people don't do this already. You can buy a reusable bag that folds up really small for a few quid, and it'll save you paying 5p for a plastic bag every time.

    For a no-plastic shopping bag, have a look at Etsy where you should be able to find plenty of reusable fabric ones from independent sellers.

  19. Avoid sweets and chocolate

    Things like sweets and chocolate usually come wrapped in plastic, so fruit and veggies are a great alternative.

    Apples, bananas and oranges are brilliant study snacks. You could also try making your own vegetable crisps by roasting some peelings.

    Or, when you do fancy a sweet treat, try to find chocolate wrapped in recyclable paper or card. Seed & Bean make ethical chocolate, with 100% compostable packaging (they use paper and a material called Natureflex™ for the inner foil, both of which you can recycle).

    Another way to get your hands on plastic-free fruit, vegetables and herbs is by growing your own in your kitchen or garden.
  20. Cut out chewing gum

    chewing gum

    Credit: Africa Studio – Shutterstock

    Did you know chewing gum is actually made from plastic?

    This means that once you ditch it, it won't degrade – hence why you see so many lining pavements. However, there are some brands, like Simply Gum, which have developed a plastic-free and biodegradable alternative.

  21. 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 bottles 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. Some places like Pret A Manger offer free water refills in-store when you have a reusable bottle.

    Equally, it's a great idea to get a reusable cup or flask for hot drinks, too – you can even get free hot drinks in some locations when you use a reusable cup.

    Cleaning-written-over-washing-up-liquid-bottles

    Credit: Sebastian Duda – Shutterstock

  22. Use laundry powder or detergent instead of capsules

    To avoid using plastic, avoid using the capsules that come sealed in plastic and opt for a good old-fashioned box of laundry powder 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.

    If you would like to keep using capsules, Smol send them in plastic-free boxes. And you can get your first nine washes for free when you first try them – you just have to pay £1 for postage.

  23. Clean with bicarbonate of soda

    Bicarbonate of soda makes a great alternative to traditional cleaning sprays which come in plastic bottles.

    Have a look online for bicarbonate of soda in plastic-free packaging, like this example in a recyclable box from Wilko. It's a pretty good price, at £1.75 for 500g.

  24. Use biodegradable bin bags

    Bin bags may at first seem like a type of single-use plastic that's impossible to avoid, but you can actually get biodegradable bags that are eco-friendly, making your waste a little less wasteful.

    Be careful though – some sites sell biodegradable and degradable bin bags. We'd suggest avoiding degradable bin bags.

    Unlike biodegradable bags which are broken down by living organisms, degradable ones contain chemicals that cause them to break down, and are therefore not as environmentally friendly.

    Unfortunately, though, biodegradable bin bags will likely be pretty pricey compared to your usual bags, so again you might want to consider getting them now and then as a way to reduce your use of plastic.

    For an idea of prices, EcoVibe sell 25 bin bags that are biodegradable and compostable, and that are each able to hold 50 litres of waste for £10.75.

As with most things – like quitting smoking or cutting out junk food – it's better to take small steps that you can maintain over a long period of time, rather than go cold turkey for a week and cut out every plastic product from your life immediately.

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.

While you're at it, have a go at cutting down on your food waste – here are some tips on making your food last longer.