My week without plastic packaging: Is it really possible to go plastic free?

Laura Fitch - Research Director.jpg

Plastic is the hot topic of the moment

Amid mounting pressure, Theresa May has promised to eliminate avoidable plastic waste in the next 25 years and called on supermarkets to introduce ‘plastic free’ aisles.

Iceland has thrown down the gauntlet as the first retailer to vow to eliminate plastic altogether from their own label products.

 

The real world challenges of minimising plastic

But as I found out, from a consumer perspective limiting plastic use is far from easy.

  • Time and effort

Avoiding plastic is a hassle. Every purchase decision takes longer as you weigh up the options and implications. Intuitive system 1 thinking often dominates in supermarkets as we seek the easiest and quickest option but this calls on more considered system 2.

It also involves careful planning. You need to be prepared to visit multiple stores to make the most of available loose and re-fillable options. As a busy working parent I simply didn’t have the time or the energy.

  • Lack of information

Like many people, I’m pretty hazy on the environmental pros and cons of aluminium vs plastic vs tetrapaks, never mind different types of plastic.

Each local authority differs on the types of plastic you can and can’t recycle, adding to the confusion. Not helped by the fact that many products aren’t clearly marked with the plastic type meaning waste either gets wrongly consigned to landfill or contaminates a batch of recycling.

  • Our quest for perfection

We all want to buy products in pristine condition. And to be able to easily transport, store and use them. Whilst loose or paper wrapped products are better for the environment, in many cases they couldn’t offer the protection and ease I wanted.  

  • Category black spots

If fresh fruit and veg are the easiest categories to buy loose some categories are downright impossible. I’d never even considered the issues of buying shampoo, vitamins or milk in
plastic-free form.

  • Convenience channels

Food to go presents even bigger challenges: all those coffee cup lids, plastic forks and tiny pots of salad dressing. Somehow convenience has become synonymous with excessive packaging.

 

Where do we go from here?

Manufacturers and retailers can help consumers by: 

  • Making it easy – fundamentally we all want to take the easy option. Sometimes this means taking away choice. The more products, brands and categories that only offer minimal packaging the easier it will be for consumers to embrace.
  • Education – consumers need more help to understand which products can and can’t be recycled and which packaging options are more eco-friendly. There is a definite role for clearer signposting on pack and at point of sale.
  • Identifying quick wins – Taking fabric conditioner bottles to the supermarket to be refilled is a big shift in consumer behaviour. But doing without plastic straws or putting your spuds in a paper rather than plastic bag is not. These smaller ‘nudges’ help consumers to gradually adapt their behaviour and feel positive about their role rather than overwhelmed.
  • Providing an incentive – refill sachets of shampoo, coffee and laundry powder are the norm in many markets. Whilst they’re still plastic they generate less waste than bottles. They are also cheaper, offering consumers a clear incentive to do the right thing.

 

Minimising plastic waste isn’t going to happen overnight but with more help to support consumers in gradual habit changes it can be done.  

 

Laura Fitch, Research Director

Chris Handford