20 pledges for 2020: How I made my kitchen plastic-free - and my weekly shop too

The range of food we eat has improved significantly, we’ve learned a bit about nutrition almost by accident

Kate Hughes
Saturday 14 March 2020 17:02 GMT
(AFP via Getty Images)

A couple of years ago, with a tiny baby in tow, we decided to change how we shopped so we didn’t produce any rubbish.

Six months before Blue Planet etched the sinister image of a white plastic bag slowly sliding down the flank of a newborn sperm whale into our brains, I’d become fixated by the scary articles doing the rounds about the kind of microplastics and nasty chemicals I could be feeding my kids along with all that overthought food when served from plastic cutlery, plates and every other brightly coloured kids kitchen implement going.

One Saturday morning I stripped our kitchen of every piece of plastic food packaging I could find, from the slightly slimy bag of pre-prepped salad at the bottom of the fridge to the ancient Chinese takeaway tubs we’d kept for all those batch cooking plans that never happened.

It was the start of a fundamental rethink of the items we bought and used throughout our home and wider lives - which I’ll get onto later, you can’t escape that easily - forcing us to finally make the connections between how an item is produced and delivered into our hands, how we use it, where it ends up when it leaves us, and the impact of those processes, replicated millions of times a minute, on the world around us.

Going cold turkey entirely and instantly on the plastic alone was unnecessarily difficult. It took us an arduous three months to retrain our brains not to simply reach for all ‘the usuals’ on the shopping list, to find different ways to consume.

I’ve written before about what zero waste food shopping means in practice for us – refilling glass jars and bottles, battered old canvas bags and the odd cardboard container with the ingredients we need, for example, and cooking absolutely everything from scratch.

We don’t shop in supermarkets at all anymore. With aisles, including many fruit and veg sections, that don’t contain a single item that isn’t encased in plastic there’s no point.

But we never saw many of the knock-on effects of going zero waste coming. With no pre-prepared food at all, our diet has changed completely as we learned more about how different things are made and worked out what we could be bothered to make on a regular basis.

Because we make the bread we eat, we consume it a lot less frequently because sometimes life is just way too short. There are no crisps, no chocolate bars, no premade cakes or cookies or biscuits in our house. I’ve found myself snacking on nuts and seeds, and trust me, I am not that kind of person.

The range of food we eat has improved significantly, we’ve learned a bit about nutrition almost by accident, picked up loads of new recipes, including invaluable shortcuts and I’ve lost around a stone and a half.

The food tastes different too. We’d never go back to bought peanut butter for example, it’s stupidly easy to make, there’s no palm oil in it and it tastes better. A lot better.

There have been some other benefits I never really anticipated either. There’s no race to leap out of bed and get the bin and recycling onto the pavement when the collection jerks you awake with the smashing of glass before dawn. That one stress fewer makes a surprising difference.

The kids have no pester power because nothing we buy is in branded packaging and we don’t do that deadly shuffle of snack seduction at checkouts.

That said, if we come hurtling through the front door at the end of the day without a plan for tea it is often harder than it used to be to rustle something up. We’ve needed to become a lot more organised. When we’re not, the last meal of the day can be a really weird one…

We’ve screwed up plenty along the way, starting with that first plastic strip out. Clearly, with the plastic already produced and crucially, bought, we should have used what we had to the maximum before recycling it.

Right now that’s the biggest challenge – how to deal with the plastic that has already been bought, the cash already handed over in a message of positive reinforcement to the retailer, and supplier and manufacturer that yes, we want these things, encased in a material that we will never be rid of. That we still believe in the language of throwing something ‘away’ because after it goes in the bin it somehow ceases to exist, which makes it all ok.

That convenience really is more important than anything else.

Our own consuming lives are now built around consciously breaking those automatic, constantly reinforced buying messages screaming from every primetime ad break, billboard, shop window, and, crucially the way everyone around us shops. So entrenched is our reliance on plastic, especially around food and drink, that it still sometimes gets through despite our best efforts.

And when - years after making the switch - we, or more often, the kids, are still handed plastic-wrapped treats by generous and kind friends, family and acquaintances who simply thought we might enjoy it, it’s still hard to know whether to make the point again or smile, thank them and just let the kids decide if they want to take the damned lollipop.

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