Plastic may not be fantastic but it is more convenient

Trying to survive without purchasing plastic for a month proved tough for Ellie O’Byrne and those who want us to cut down on using it for environmental reasons must find cheaper alternatives.

Reporter/blogger Ellie O'Byrne who cut down the purchase and use of plastic products for a month. Picture: Larry Cummins

Stir-fried veg and rice for dinner again. “Can I have some juice?” My daughter asks. “No, darling, there isn’t any. Have water.” After dinner, the kids disappear to their respective bedrooms. The living room is in darkness; the lightbulb went and I haven’t been able to buy a replacement. I’d love a cup of tea, but we’re out of milk.

Welcome to our life without plastic.

I wanted to see if a single-parent family on a limited income could cut out plastics entirely from our lives. As an experiment, my children and I would live for one month without buying any plastics.

At current rates of consumption, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating trash-heap with a periphery of 3.5 million square miles, hides a nasty secret: 70% has degraded into micro-plastics, tiny particles that get ingested by sea-life, entering the food chain as toxins.

Only 36% of Irish plastic waste goes into recycling bins, according to Repak. Of that, it’s unclear how much is actually recycled. But as our soothing green bin placates us into believing we’re taking action, plastics production increases unchecked: globally, 311 million tonnes of plastic were produced in 2014, a 20-fold increase in 50 years.

I don’t want all this plastic, but is it possible to do without? When I announced the plan to the kids, 17 and 11, there was eye-rolling and sarcasm. “I suppose we’ll have to grow dreadlocks, too?” 17-year-old said.

WEEK ONE

I put together a “shopping kit” to bring with me whenever I buy groceries: cloth bags, re-used brown paper bags and a roll of greaseproof paper for purchases like meat and cheese.

First forays reveal that I’m not going to be able to shop in any larger retail chains. Tesco is terrible: even the bread is mostly plastic-wrapped, presumably to prolong product shelf-life. Milk, cheese, pasta, fruit juice…even most vegetables are out of bounds.

We go without milk for a week. Mahon Point Farmer’s Market sells milk in re-usable glass bottles, but a two-hour round trip by bike is unfeasible; other farmer’s markets offer milk in glass, but the closest, Wilton Farmer’s market on a Tuesday, clashes with my teaching hours on the other side of the city.

School lunches don’t suffer. In the cold weather, my daughter prefers warm cordial in a flask to cold juices for her lunchbox. Greaseproof-wrapped sandwiches and pieces of fruit are standard, so it’s only little extras like pots of yoghurt that are off-menu.

WEEK TWO

I’ve wised up fast, of necessity. The English Market, Colin Wolfe’s Farm shop on Cornmarket Street and speciality stores like Wedlina Polish Supermarket become my haunts.

At butchers’ stalls, my quirky no-plastic request is entertaining: “Look, Helen, it’s like 1957!” Ken, a butcher for 37 years, calls to his wife as he wraps my purchases in greaseproof I provide him with.

Tips in response to my blog pour in: Did I know that Lush do shampoo bars? Have I seen the Dunmanway dairy farm that reverted to glass bottles? Why don’t I make my own hemp milk? (Um, where would I get hemp seeds that didn’t come from a plastic bag?!) I start baking my own bread.

The kids adapt cheerfully; bread fresh from the oven is a perk. Frequent shopping means our food is fresher, and there’s little processed food in our diet. I’m getting plenty of exercise cycling the city in search of specialist food stores.

WEEK THREE

Four rolls of toilet paper, packaged in compostable plant-based materials, is over €4. “You know what would be cheaper? Go to the bank and buy currency from a country with huge inflation and use that.” my boyfriend suggests, mostly to his own amusement.

Getting my period is a challenge; commenters urge me to try the Mooncup, a reusable silicon device used like a tampon, but I decide it’s a step too far. Again, it’s Health food shops that win out, with several fully biodegradable brands of pads and tampons on offer. The downside, yet again, is the cost.

It feels depressing, like doing the right thing is a luxury, and ecologically sound living is an aspirational, middle-class hobby.

Then, even more depressingly, I fail. Smoking is a stupid habit, and I feel awful: having started the month with a stock of Duty-Free, when I run out, I go two finger-gnawing days before crumbling and buying a 25g pouch of tobacco.

WEEK FOUR

We see out the month, regardless of my failure. By day 31, I have bought just one plastic tobacco pouch and, inadvertently, a couple of bottle lids with hidden plastic seals.

My usual food budget of €280 per month soared to €463.20.

That’s €45.80 per week extra on food and household goods, and we didn’t run out of any cleaning products or hygiene products such as shampoo or soap. We frequently missed staples and our diet suffered due to the poor availability of fresh salads, fish, nuts and cereals.

I spent a staggering 14 extra hours on dedicated grocery-buying journeys over the course of the month.

If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that until eco-friendly options are widely available at comparable costs to their polluting counterparts, most people simply can’t afford to make the right choice.

With no onus on industry to provide better options, legislative changes are needed as motivation.

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