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Why Plastic-Free Isn’t Always Better For the Environment

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Why plastic-free isn’t always better for the environment, and how to navigate this minefield.

My recent post on plastic-free toilet paper sent a few of you into a spin. Many of you didn’t realise that recycled toilet paper that’s made in the UK/EU and wrapped in plastic has a lower carbon footprint than plastic-free toilet paper shipped from China. That includes the popular brand Who Gives A Crap.

Plastic Doesn’t Always Equal Bad

plastic free isn't always better for the environment

It’s not just endemic to toilet paper. A recent study showed that a paper bag has to be re-used four times before it’s more environmentally friendly (in terms of carbon emissions) than a plastic bag. Meanwhile, a reusable cotton bag must be used a staggering 131 times before it has a lower carbon footprint (and therefore, lower global warming potential) than a plastic bag.

Now take a basket of plastic-free fruit and vegetables that are flown in from Egypt or South America. These are going to, mostly, have a higher carbon footprint than seasonal UK produce wrapped in plastic. Plastic that’s often there in the first place to prolong freshness and prevent food waste.

The carbon footprint of packaging is only about 10% of the food we eat. It’s a tricky one to get your head around that plastic-free isn’t always equal better for the environment.

Sustainability and Nuance

What this means is that sustainability is a lot more nuanced than just saying plastic is bad, whilst paper, glass, cardboard, cotton, and other natural materials are good.

Plastic reduction is a great entry point to sustainability. This is because plastic is a very visible reminder of our impact on the environment. However, there’s also a whole lot more at play, and the problem at hand is too important to allow plastic to be the limits of our work to reduce our impact on the environment.

Whilst reducing plastic is important for our physical environment, we also need to look at other issues in parallel. These issues, in the case of toilet paper or fresh produce, include the impact of shipping goods from the other side of the globe. However, they also concern our consumption patterns and the impacts on climate change.

Not sure what this should look like? The WWF’s Carbon Footprint calculator is a handy guide to show us where we can make the most impactful changes to reduce our individual global warming potential. Note that reducing plastic isn’t on there, but it often goes hand in hand with reducing our consumption of stuff.

Sustainability & Privilege

The other bigger problem is that saying sustainability is all about plastic, then that immediately dismisses and disengages many. This includes the large percentage of people who due to disability can’t prepare fresh vegetables. Or the percentage of the population that can’t afford the often costlier plastic-free options. And those who don’t have access to plastic-free options, such as bulk shops.

By saying that sustainability is all about being plastic-free, sustainability becomes an unwelcome tool to segregate and divide society. It becomes a big blinking neon beacon of privilege, at a time when we need everyone to work together.

What does this mean in terms of decision-making when we need to buy things? How do we navigate this minefield that sometimes plastic-free isn’t always better?

A single blog post on how to navigate life would be overwhelming. But I thought that taking one bit of it might be helpful. I’m taking the bit I get asked about the most often – food shopping. There are lots of lessons we can learn from the food that we buy that we can then apply to other aspects of life.

Lower Carbon Food Shopping

So let me share my approach to lower-carbon food shopping. It’s one rooted in a wholly imperfect food system. Then I want to look at the lessons from that, that can be applied to life in general:

My Approach to Lower Carbon Food

tomatoes on a white background

I’m limited in what produce we can buy because I live in a less well-off area, that has a 35% child poverty level. This means no zero-waste stores and no Waitrose stores.

The fact that 35% of kids live in poverty upsets me 100% more than the fact that there are no zero-waste bulk shops near me. I’d rather everyone could eat and didn’t have to rely on food banks rather than there being a zero-waste shop in our area that only a privileged few could afford to shop at. Wringing my hands over a lack of zero-waste places to shop seems like a privilege too far, so I don’t.

For me to visit a zero-waste shop would necessitate a 24-mile round trip to my nearest zero-waste shop. The time, money and extra fuel involved to do so means I don’t. So this is my approach to low-carbon food at the supermarket. I’m not perfect. Our food systems aren’t perfect. And your food shopping processes might look different depending on what you have access to, and on your capacity. But let’s give this a go:

Fruit and Veg

I try to buy loose seasonal UK fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. If there is only UK seasonal produce wrapped in plastic then I’ll opt for that. This is because the carbon footprint of plastic packaging is often (but, for an added complication, not always!) far less than that of unpackaged fruit and vegetables shipped from places like Chile.

If there are wonky fruits and vegetables available, then, regardless of where they have come from and how they are packaged, then these are a good buy. This is because these are fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be discarded (i.e. binned) because they are not deemed “perfect” enough for consumers.

With fruit that comes in a bunch, e.g. bananas, I buy the single ones, rather than immediately reaching for the ones already in a bunch. It’s been found that shoppers are less likely to choose single bananas. As such, these often get left behind and binned. Bananas have a surprisingly low carbon footprint (told you it’s complicated!).

We often buy canned vegetables, such as mushrooms. This is because we found when we bought fresh mushrooms these often went off in the fridge as we didn’t use them all in time. Now when we make vegan chilli or stew we use a whole can of mushrooms with no food waste. Alternatively, you can also dry mushrooms to help reduce waste.

If you need to opt for pre-prepared vegetables wrapped in plastic because of circumstance then you do that and do not ever feel guilty. Those of us who can prepare fresh vegetables will do the heavy lifting on this one.

Packaged Food

Vegan food packaged in plastic has a significantly lower carbon footprint than meat that you can buy unpackaged from the butcher. Particularly beef and lamb. I try not to buy too much, but vegan soft “cheese” and vegan yoghurt often feature in my shopping trolley.

The reduced section is a great place to buy any food, even meat if you eat it, particularly at the end of the day. This is because a) it’s generally very cheap and b) if you don’t buy it then it’s probably going to go in the bin. Not composted. Just straight in the bin, where it will create methane, which has a global warming potential that’s around 28 times higher than that of CO2. Of course, it’s only a good buy if you are actually going to eat it. Either make sure you eat it that day or check the label to see if it’s freezable, If so, freeze it and eat another day. If not, leave it for someone else who may appreciate it more.

As working parents, we don’t always have the time or energy to cook every meal from scratch. In the frozen section, a lot of vegetarian and vegan produce comes in cardboard boxes. I like to keep boxes of Quorn vegan fishless fingers to hand, for example, for those evenings.

At the moment I am buying staples such as pasta and rice in plastic because of a lack of other options. I try to buy the biggest bags I can to reduce plastic in that way. Sometimes I find Barilla pasta that comes in a cardboard box, but otherwise, I don’t sweat it.

Other Food & Shopping Tips

Taking my own bags and produce bags and remembering to use them is super important. Remember it takes 131 uses before a cotton bag has less global warming potential than a plastic bag.

Meal planning is king. Having an idea of what you are going to cook is a good idea so you only buy what you need.

Repurposing leftovers and having them for lunch the next day or dinner the next evening, or freezing for later, is key to avoiding waste, and saving money. If food waste were a country, scarily it would be the third-largest behind the US and China in terms of global warming potential.

With that in mind, getting creative with food waste is a good idea (including this!), and composting anything unused, if possible,

We bought a cheap slow cooker a couple of years ago. This makes cooking from scratch a whole lot easier on the days when we are both at work. We can pop it on in the morning if we’re not running around like headless chickens trying to get everyone out of the door and to the right place on time. Then we can return home in the evening to a home-cooked meal that’s low on packaging. If there are leftovers then that’s lunch for the next day, or a meal for the freezer.

I’m not always the best at this, but following on from this, taking lunch to work means I can make something vegan. Vegan takeaway options can really be hard to find in the town where I work. It also means I can save on packaging.

I’m sure there are a hundred thousand other tips on low-carbon food and eating. It’s easily a subject for an entire book, but this is my general philosophy towards food.

Key Lessons

How this discussion on food fits into the wider issue of environmentalism is that I hope it shows how a bit of pragmatism is needed. And that this pragmatism can be applied to all aspects of life:

  • Consuming only what we need is probably the biggest thing we can do, in all aspects of life, to be more sustainable.
  • Thinking about where an item has been made and shipped from and the emissions involved is an important consideration. This can be complex. I found this book- How Bad Are Bananas incredibly helpful.
  • Plastic-free doesn’t always mean better. It’s a great place to start but our environmental activism can and should extend beyond just a focus on plastic.
  • This doesn’t give us carte blanche to go mad on plastic. Reducing plastic where we practically can is still important. This is because of its impacts on the physical environment and marine life.
  • Reusing what we have and reducing waste, particularly food waste, is incredibly important and should not be underestimated.
  • Just because something doesn’t look perfect doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
  • Remember that not everyone has equal access/opportunities/abilities so everyone’s actions will look different.

It’s certainly all food for thought. My hope is that these tips will help guide you through any purchasing decisions.

Maybe you have any other tips you would add? Maybe you have some you disagree with? Or maybe I’ve fried your brain? Either way, let’s chat!

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25 Comments

  1. Hi Wendy – thank you for this post, and especially for acknowledging the ways that circumstances (especially around disability and finances) mean that going completely plastic-free is not an option for many. Nuance is so important in these conversations, and “plastic-free” can feel like greenwashing. With that in mind, I was wondering if you’d looked further into the workings behind “wonky veg” boxes in the UK.

    American crop scientist and former farm-worker Sarah Taber has been quite vocal about this – in short, saying that “ugly” fruit/veg doesn’t get binned, it gets used in things like sauces, canned vegs, animal feed, or (if completely unsaleable) tilled back into the land so the nutrients aren’t lost. There’s a 2019 interview with her here: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/26/18240399/food-waste-ugly-produce-myths-farms

    Obviously not all of the criticisms she makes will apply to other countries, especially as the UK boxes are often part of a supermarket’s range rather than startups, but a quick search revealed this 2016 article from a UK-based farmer: https://www.fwi.co.uk/farm-life/opinion-bent-vegetable-logic-plain-wonky
    It’s rather more arch in tone, but makes the same core point that wonky veg rarely goes to waste within the industry.

    I’m all for boxes of mixed vegetables being available at lower-than-usual prices, but it may be greenwashing for sellers to suggest that wonky veg is a more environmentally-friendly choice when it is perhaps more akin to a rebrand of their “basics”/”value”/etc range. I found this site via your investigation into plastic-free tea bags – perhaps wonky veg could be another interesting one to look into?

  2. Thanks for sharing this nice article! I agree to many points you raised here.

    I do have a question about a sustainability topic that goes a bit in this direction. Would be interested in hearing your take on this. I try to go more and more towards “ecological” greens/veggies as I think these have a lower impact on the environment and are also healthier for me. However, I often find these wrapped in plastic. The non ecological version of it next to it often does not have plastic. Taken both come from the same country – which one would you consider the “better” (more sustainable/environmental friendly) option? The ecological one wrapped in plastic or the non ecological one not wrapped in plastic?

    Thanks a lot in advance. Curious to hear your opinion on this.

    1. Oh, that’s a real dilemma Klaus! I guess it all depends on your budget – i.e. can you afford to buy the organic version over the non-organic version. And also your own particular ethics – if you think reducing pesticide usage is more important than plastic reduction, or vice versa.

  3. Thanks for a level headed and inclusive piece on the whole plastic debate. I guess I’m generally like this so that’s good. Although not so good on the origin of my veg. Just been shopping though and only bought UK fruit and veg and single bananas. I’m now going to be a ‘Save the Single Banana’ activist :) Joking aside thank you for informing us about any small changes we can make ♡

  4. A great read!
    I have found it challenging in certain areas with regards to living this lifestyle as I like to support local businesses yet also believe in Fairtrade products too.
    I know both can be done in sustainable ways yet some products will be grown outside the UK and its finding out how they are sent to the UK in travel, packaging , people and stored.
    I know you wrote about mushrooms, one thing I do is with my mushrooms if they aren’t going to get eaten soon is chop them up, place them in a container and pit in my freezer!
    This works well because you can place in small containers for certain dishes like pizzas, stews, stir frys or toasties)
    (I try my best to only buy what I need and of course loose and in my own draw string bag)

  5. I disagree with the title. Plastic free may or may not be better for your carbon footprint. The long term impacts of plastic are huge and obviously not good for the environment.
    I would also like to comment that the cost of my weekly shop has gone down since going mostly plastic free. Moving to more plastic free options has resulted in changes to healthier food choices. I have also made changes to reduce my food waste. I have chosen to continue to buy a few items packaged in plastic. I don’t have the capacity to do anything difficult or time consuming. I also require several prescription meds.
    Regarding bags, there are issues with the carbon footprint, but the number of uses is just a time issue. The numbers look big and intimidating but just require time. I’ve used the same reusable produce bags weekly for nearly 10 years. I did start out with reusable plastic based shoping bags which only lasted a couple years. My current hessain bags I have been using weekly for years and have no signs of wear. When they do eventually die, they will be compsted, leaving no trace behind.
    Carbon footprints and plastics are two of many different environmental issues where we can assess our habits and make changes. They are all important, we just need to pick our own priorities. I think any change is a good change.

  6. Terrific post Wendy and definitely food for thought.

    I’ve been thinking about all the zero waste online shops that have appeared along with physical shops, on the one hand I think it’s great to see new businesses but, on the other hand as you’ve rightly mentioned, it is a privilege to shop this way. Having spent £7 on deodorant in a cardboard tube alongside £7 on tooth powder and £7 on mouthwash tablets, both of which were in glass jars, this really isn’t financially sustainable. I’ve since made my own, very simple and quick to do, at a fraction of the cost and by repurposing the glass jars.

    With wages stagnating and household bills increasing I believe that more and more people simply won’t have a choice and choose cheaper products over eco-friendly ones.

    Buy less stuff would make the biggest difference I believe.

  7. Thank you so much for this. I’m disabled, and I find the whole environmental movement to be really off-putting, uninclusive and downright offensive to disabled people. I can’t ever go plastic free, because doing so would mean that I can’t take my meds. That would be bad. I would end up just lying in bed, in pain and dying. I think I’ll go with the plastic.

    I’ve seen other suggestions that include removing my independence or recommendations for alternative health remedies that will “cure” me of a neurological condition, a chronic illness and somehow magically make me able to hear so I won’t need plastic hearing aids and disposable batteries.

    Some people also have allergies or other intolerances. Package free is great, but if the bulk bin of pasta is next to the bulk bin of rice, are you going to take that risk if gluten makes you sick? My immune system isn’t always great, so I am not going to risk food that may have been contaminated by other people. Would I trust that someone hasn’t sneezed over that container of lentils? No.

    Like you, I don’t have access to any sort of zero waste shop. It’s a 30+ mile round trip. Same for waitrose. Looking at the prices on the website for my nearest one, I couldn’t afford it even if I lived next door. I’m a care worker, I don’t get paid a high wage. I can’t afford to spend £3 per kilo of pasta. It’s not an affordable option.

    If we want to mitigate climate change, we need to get people on board and tackle industry. We don’t need to guilt disabled people and people who don’t have much money for not being able to spend £50 a week per person on organic, ethically sourced, package free food. It’s not fair and it’s not reasonable.

    1. Dear Kathleen, Your post is really clearly put and makes clear points which just had me saying YES all the way! Something that is often forgotten is that poverty is actually very green, lack of money tends to mean less is bought, holidays are rare and carefully saved for rather than four times a year affairs and so on. So don’t beat yourself up about your supermarket packaging or tablets in plastic and keep as well as you can and thank you very much for your wisdom!

  8. Interesting.
    So many aspects of modern life depend on plastic, for safety and health. No-one wants water going through lead pipes again!
    Glass and paper disturb my conscience. In my shop, customers frequently recall memories of glass milk bottles and jam jars, returned and reused. I think – Food Hygiene, and injuries from broken glass!
    I still use a supermarket shopping bag I bought in Toronto in 2008.
    And I have a plastic lunchbox I bought in the early 1980s.

    Since reading this, I am inspired to finish a blog post I abandoned several months ago, about an aspect of Low Waste that’s been troubling me.

  9. I think we sometimes have to pick which end of the issue is most important to us. The paper bag can go in the paper recycling bin here, the plastic bag goes in landfill. It will last a long time. most of my cloth produce bags, handkerchiefs, cleaning cloths, are made from old sheets. Tee shirts or other clothing that would end up in landfill because they are not useable. So pick your battles and do something.

  10. The plastic free movement has made a lot of people not usually interested in the environment suddenly take note, which I think is good. It is a complicated issue though, I have a lot of people asking me for plastic free toiletries and simply switching to glass, which I not sure is a solution long term. I do wonder though, if we add the carbon emissions from landfill, or sending the plastic packaging to be recycled in to the mix, would the plastic wrapped UK version of loo roll still come out on top? I also think that as this is an emerging movement, buying plastic free is influencing what is available locally without plastic. For example I was chatting to my local zero waste shop owner and she said that she was in the process of sourcing UK recycled plastic free loo roll and it was likely due to the popularity of Who gives a crap that people were considering it. Personally we use a mix of Who gives a crap and family cloth and as I only buy from Who gives a crap twice a year I don’t feel too guilty at this point, but always good to find better alternatives.

  11. Great post! I think the comments also make a valid point about going plastic free: it’s a relatively straightforward and tangible goal. Even though it’s more nuanced and complex if you dig deeper. And most people don’t have the time or energy to do so.
    I’ve also noticed that the downside of plastic are more news worthy in a way, as they are easier to play on our emotions (I’m thinking of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in it’s nose, or the dolphin that starved to death due to a plastic bottle cap ring being stuck around its beak), for the downsides of carbon emission, we don’t have these kind of viral news stories.

  12. Valued this post regarding the complex challenge of the issues. Re carbon footprint and plastic free guess it is a both/and rather than an either/or. Plastic free maybe something more tangible which folk can engage with more easily as a starting place? And noted all those interconnected questions: do I really need this/how much do I need, where did it come from, how did it get here, who grew or made it, where will it or it’s packaging go when I’m finished with it? (I’m afraid I think plastics recycling is currently a myth – witness China and Indonesia.) As noted for many, many people the first question is necessarily ‘how much does it cost?’ Possible solutions are in local veg box schemes, local community growing and cooking projects, local environmental learning projects – but those may depend on where you live. Information and education, such as your website provides are fundamental. Consider myself immensely lucky that growing and cooking are part of my work and also know the profound challenges many folk face. And am privileged in having the financial resources and location to access zero waste shop and good box scheme. But it is far from simple. Latest dilemma for me in answering the above series of questions is: milk – alongside the animal welfare issues – witness a) organic UK cow’s milk in frequently refilled glass from milkman but a multi-national company? b) organic one farm, local farm cow’s milk but in plastic carton delivered with veg box? c) soy milk in plastic carton, but many issues globally with soy and what is all the other stuff including shed loads of sugar in it? d) fresh made nut milks from zero waste shop in refillable glass but lots of nuts used, very expensive and I fear nuts have come from unsustainable orchards far away? d) home made oat milk from UK organic oats, made in own kitchen – guess what – no-one in my family would drink it…!!!? Hurrah back to the drawing board. Keep up the good work of raising the complexities and telling it how it is.

    1. Thanks so much and some great points! I think plastic free has been really taken onboard because it is a tangible goal with highly visible outcomes – carbon not so much!

  13. Some really good thinking in here, and you’ve answered some questions I’ve had about the co2 impact of seemingly ‘better’ options. Thank you for the tips, I’ll certainly be adding some of those to my shopping habits.

  14. Great post! I have the impression that often people around focus so much on no plastic they forget the cost of other packaging like paper, glass or metal. Or it can be just information fatigue, it’s too much to concider in the busy everyday life. But this made me think and hopefully will hjelp me spread the word in a kinder&gentler way to my friends and family that don’t live the childfree, minimalist life with all the time og not a care in world ;-)

    1. I think plastic free has been really taken onboard because it is a tangible goal with highly visible outcomes – carbon not so much! You can’t gaze upon a jar with all the carbon that you created that year!

      1. Thank you for this post! It is really an eye opener as I am new to this plastic free and zero waste lifestyle it has helped me reconsider my purchases. I’m always trying to learn more so I can help spread the word! I’ll admit it has left me somewhat puzzled as it was hard for me to get my head around the 131 uses of a cotton bag to have less global warming potential than a plastic bag, could you please elaborate? Also regarding the comment about nuts coming from unsustainable orchids far away, this also threw a spanner in the works. But I guess I’ll keep it simple and stick to your last points of the blog. Thank you again!

        1. Hi Danielle, certainly, it can be hard to get your head around. It takes a greater amount of energy to produce a cotton bag than a polythene one due to the land (that displaces food crops), water (cotton is a very thirsty crop), and fertiliser and pesticides (if the tote isn’t organic) required in the growing of cotton. Then there’s the energy needed to process and produce the bags in production (e.g powering the factories and machinery), as well as greater carbon emissions in their transportation due to their greater weight. This is an interesting article if you want to read more: https://mashable.com/2017/11/18/complimentary-tote-bags/?europe=true