THE first lesson Roger Nagle learned when their family went plastic-free was that “Porridge is inedible without raisins.” And raisins mostly come packaged in plastic.
Roger and Angie Nagle of Ballyclough stopped buying plastic for a month, meaning no purchases containing plastic – no coffee cups with plastic lids, no water bottles, no wrapped biscuits. Even worse, no cereals, no pasta, no bagged bread and veg, and no sultanas.
The challenge was to get rid of single-use plastic, the stuff that’s used once and then tossed. It might sound simple enough, but once they started, the Nagles’ shopping and eating habits changed, dramatically.
While plastic is an obvious burden on the environment, for Roger and Angie the wake-up call came with the birth of their third child. With two still in diapers, their garbage heap was growing and they felt “disgusted” by their contribution to the problem. They’d seen some documentaries on the prevalence of single-use plastic, did more research, and for them “it felt like a crisis,” says Roger.
“When you have kids, you sort of get freaked out by the state of the world,” adds Angie. Already environmentally aware, the moment seemed right to try and live even more responsibly.
They set a goal to begin June 1, then found out about a plastic-free July initiative (plasticfreejuly.org). Using this as their start date gave them much-needed time for preparation.
They first assessed their own use, lining up two week’s worth of waste and taking stock. Nappies aside – they shifted to cloth diapers and tried early potty training – the main offenders were wrappings from cereals, pasta, bread, and produce.
Angie did an initial June test shop at Lidl. Standing “paralysed” in the aisle, unable to imagine shopping differently, it was Emma, 5, their oldest, who spotted unwrapped items.
Angie brought a coffee mug and tupperware everywhere, using her own containers at the fish and cheese counters and supermarkets. She got some strange glances but, “I did it kind of publicly,” she explains, not afraid to raise awareness about the sheer excess of single-use plastic.
Meanwhile, on lunch breaks in the city, Roger did dry food recon, exploring some specialty shops in Cork, like Asian markets. Mostly finding wrapping everywhere, his best discovery was Mr. Bell’s, at the English Market. They carry loose dry goods in bulk – rice, lentils, and beans they’d never tried before.
Even with prep time, the first week without plastic was like a long, uninspiring French picnic, falling back on meals of bread and cheese because they couldn’t think of what else to eat. They often got things backwards — “we’d go shopping then plan our meals.” Dinners tended to be a bit “eclectic,” Angie says, saved by the hens, some omelettes getting them through, and admittedly living on leftovers from their previous plastic life. But the cupboards were soon cleaned out.
“Then we slickened up,” Angie explains. They started to get quantities right, planned in advance, and knew where to get what.
But some friends visited mid-month and thought Roger and Angie looked thinner.
“We were hungry a lot,” Angie admits. “There were times when you’d go snacking and not find anything.” Roger’s love of browsing the supermarket shelves for new treats dwindled, as he couldn’t buy much. And he missed his evening snack of a bowl of Fruit ‘n Fibre.
High drama came during the ritual of Friday home movie and popcorn night. Relying on Tesco’s brand, in plastic, Roger found some loose corn at Mr. Bells, but “I didn’t buy enough!”
They ran out, popcorn-less, children in tears, but resisted the urge to go plastic. Of supermarkets, Super Valu was where they often found the same produce both wrapped and unwrapped. John Curran, head of sustainability at Musgrave Group explains that customers very much determine what they carry. If more people want unwrapped items, that’s what they’ll find, to a point.
Packaging, he says, is complicated, and often needed for protection and preservation of shelf-life in long supply chains. But it’s not always needed. Supervalu seeks to “minimise and optimise” packaging, Curran explains.
At the local level, if customers opt for unpackaged goods, it saves for the seller. “It’s a cost for me if I put everything in plastic bags,” says Richard Hooton, of Richard’s Little Farm at the Mallow market, one of the Nagle’s favorite Friday morning stops.
“I don’t find it necessary for most things,” he adds. Some delicate salads stay better, but much of what they carry does well on its own. Bagging also takes “time and effort,” says Hooton. He would gladly cut down if the customers didn’t demand it.
Going plastic free often means shopping more locally, and more frequently. The Nagles ran out of things faster and relied on outposts which aren’t always accessible.
Market trips might also sound like a splurge, but their budget didn’t change. “You’d buy what you need, really high quality things, and waste less of it,” Angie explains. “Everything was very precious.” And less processed. Having to get creative for sorely lacking snacks, Angie made granola and yogurt, neither of which Roger really warmed to, but the kids loved it.
They also had to bend some rules – they went from plastic milk containers to Tetra-paks, which are recyclable paper, with some plastic. They searched for glass bottles, but unsuccessfully. And traveling was near impossible. The moment they hit the road for a trip to Dungarvan, Angie broke down, picking up some disposable nappies.
Friends were mostly supportive and inspired, but they faced some dismissiveness from a certain generation who remembered life without plastic. They often heard, “You’re just a drop in the bucket, you’re not going to make any difference.”
Angie disagrees. She feels even more committed. Admittedly, going totally plastic-free was, “too hard,” Roger says. While their dream of a zero-waste life is on hold until the world meets them half-way, their habits have changed for the better.
Their new norm is “somewhere in between what was going on during the month and what we did before,” says Roger. They’ll stick with Mr. Bell’s and keep looking for milk.
“The education was very good,” Roger explains. “but there were things we had to do without that I just didn’t want to live without.” Frozen foods were missed.
And, “I want raisins in my porridge, dammit!” Keeping up their quest, they’ve just found a shop carrying raisins in cardboard boxes.
Bring reusable bags and containers to shops. It will also save the shop on costs.
Local farmer’s markets like Mallow’s on Friday mornings have more unwrapped fruit and
vegetables. Mr Bell’s in the English Market was the Nagle’s favourite for dry goods. Supervalu has a wide local selection and Lidl carries loose nuts.
Go for unwrapped when given the option at supermarkets. Eat what you buy and store it well at home. As Curran says, homes are among the worst offenders for food waste.
Buying better quality isn’t always bad for the budget and can create less waste.
Lush and the Quay Co-op carry unpackaged soaps.
Plan and prepare. Meal planning made it easier for the Nagles to buy and use fresher items.
Be patient. Finding convenient shops for your own needs takes time. The Nagles often felt “plastic-free fatigue” but soon their habits shifted.