Another Perspective From eXXpedition Leg Four; Plastic Swap January

Who am I now?

I was offered a plastic bottle of water on a flight today and without thinking, I looked back at the kind cabin attendant with a level of disgust that might indicate she had just offered me urine to drink. I was ashamed at my reaction. Of course, I apologised immediately and was surprised at where this deep reaction had come from. Only a few months ago, whilst I knew plastic wasn’t good for the environment, I confess, I was not particularly conscientious about not using single-use plastic. eXXpedition and my attempt at plastic swap January have instilled in me an environmental conscience or even sub conscience that I have never previously experienced.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still no angel but I have definitely made progress!

So, what did I do in January?

Plastic and metal utensils.

Plastic utensils vs. metal utensils.

For each day of the month of January, I attempted to swap one single-use plastic item for something more sustainable. I used Instagram as a tool for ensuring accountability, making this a conversation for those who are interested and getting advice and help along the journey. I can’t thank my sisters, Nicola and Rachel O’Callaghan who have lived plastic free for two years, enough for their advice and help in pursuing this. 

What caused me to do it?

I undertook this, after completing Leg 4 of eXXpedition where I saw first-hand the microplastics in the ocean, the mistreatment of it on land and some of the issues caused in the ocean. I came back, knowing I wanted to be an agent for change but not really knowing how to channel my skills and knowledge into finding solutions to the problem. I felt that doing an activity such as this would give me more knowledge and potentially spark different ideas on how possible solutions could affect consumers.

So, what did I learn?

There were some great positives and negatives to the experience.

In terms of those positives, the pressure to consider something every day to swap meant that the issue was constantly on my mind. It clearly influenced my sub conscious behaviours today. I found it penetrated all aspects of my life and did start to kick start some of the thoughts around how I personally can address this issue. Planning was key to increase my chances of success!

This also had a secondary positive of conversations with others on the topic occurred more naturally than if I had not been doing this. I felt like a proud parent when someone told me that they had made a swap or those who came back to me after an initial conversation to tell me that something had occurred to them around our use of plastic such as the number of throwaway plastic pens that are used on a daily basis.

It has also allowed me to reflect on the fact that the culture of use and throw away is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Growing up, I remember the milkman bringing milk in bottles, there were no wet wipes or face wipes in my life and my mother happily informs me I used terry towels as nappies. My parents also always bought old furniture, a significant moment when I was 11 and we were on a family holiday in Cornwall and my father bought a chair made from new material from a local carpenter. The fact this sticks in my memory, shows how rarely new items were bought in the house. Therefore, you would think, it shouldn’t be that hard to go back. 30 years ago, there was a lot less plastic being used.

There really are some great companies out there who really make a difference. For example, for toiletries, there are some great providers online. However, the best resource I found was my local bulk store. It was an invaluable resource and affordable. I think affordability is a real barrier and even in London this is a challenge where there is perhaps more competition for consumers than other areas. 

Packaged hummus and homage hummus.

Packaged hummus vs. homemade hummus.

I was really fortunate to find my local bulk store which is a not for profit organisation where you take in your own containers and
can pick up all sorts of store cupboard ingredients and some fresh ones too. As this is a not for profit, this was affordable, however many of the other ‘eco-friendly or organic shops’ I looked in may have done better with plastic, but the price point was astonishing. My biggest expense in terms of consumables was on a glass jar of yoghurt which cost over £6.00 for not more than 300g from Selfridges and it still had a plastic lid. This was an important swap for me because my emotional struggle was that by having yoghurt in plastic, I have failed every day before I had even left home.

As alluded to above, the biggest challenge for me as a goal-oriented person are the days when I failed with the challenge. Either because I successfully swapped an item, but that item didn’t work for me, such as a razor or shampoo bars or where something wasn’t quite plastic free such as a Tupperware box for my lunches. There is literally no material available which met my needs. My final failure was where I had thought something was plastic free but in fact it wasn’t, such as coffee in a bag. This did then turn into one of my best experiences as I was not prepared to be defeated so took my tin to the coffee shop where they filled it.

The double-edged sword of being more conscious about the plastic is that you start to see it everywhere. Walking the supermarket aisles is a truly depressing experience, row upon row of products wrapped in plastic. 

Final thoughts.

My final takeaway from the experience is that whilst individuals can be more conscious and make changes. I will be continuing to be more conscious and make swaps. This is not going to be the answer that makes the biggest difference to our oceans. There has to be an emphasis on changing business models and putting legal requirements in place for each country.