Plastic-free July: Sustainability Struggles

Hello my lovelies! We are in the final stretch of plastic-free July now and Steph has asked people to talk about where they are still struggling when it comes to reducing plastic. You can read her post here.

Before I go into the areas where I’m still struggling to find an alternative, I should tell you that I will definitely not be continuing with my efforts to use close to zero plastic beyond July. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop caring about single-use plastic and buy things willy nilly – I didn’t do that before this month either! But I won’t spend the rest of my life basing all my decisions about what to cook/eat on whether it comes in plastic or not. It went okay this month, only because I allowed myself to use things we already had and made exceptions for a couple of things, but not buying any single-use plastic is not sustainable over the long-term. And now some products I’ve had trouble finding alternatives for.

Toothpaste. I have been using the toothpaste I already had throughout this month, but I’ve also had a think about how it could be replaced. I did notice that Lush has dental tab things but they were in a plastic bottle. There was a note saying the bottle was made from 50% recycled plastic, but it’s still a single-use plastic bottle!

Milk. I know milk in glass bottles is a thing that exists, but I’ve checked every supermarket local to me (plus the big one behind the train station) and none of them have milk in glass bottles. I know at least one brand in Germany has milk in glass bottles but going to Germany just to buy milk seems excessive! For the record, milk bottles here can be returned to supermarkets for recycling. The same with PET drinks bottles – I’ve even seen adverts in the tram recently telling people to take their drinks bottles to a PET container rather than throwing them in the bin!

Bin liners. This is one I’m not going to be able to do anything about. The plastic-free July website suggests alternatives to plastic including lining your bins with paper, but that isn’t going to work here. As I’ve mentioned before, general household rubbish is allowed to go in bags of 2 sizes, which you then stick either half a sticker or a full one on based on their volume (one whole sticker for a 35l bag). Also, general waste is incinerated here, so whether I use plastic bags or paper it’s all getting burned! (In Basel city, they don’t have stickers but an official bin bag – called Bebbi Sack. If your rubbish isn’t in a Bebbi Sack they simply won’t take it.)

Cheese. We found one kind of soft goat’s cheese that was wrapped in paper rather than plastic and one brand of flavoured Cheddar (they had smoked and garlic & chive) that was in wax with a sticker on. Other than that, every cheese in the supermarkets is wrapped in plastic. Even if you go to the cheese counter, they have the large blocks wrapped in cling film. Technically I am not throwing away single-use plastic in that case (if I can persuade them to give me my piece of cheese in a container from home instead of wrapping it in plastic) but passing the buck doesn’t make the plastic disappear!

Frozen vegetables. Yes, it’s always better to buy fresh vegetables, but I do like to have some frozen veg on hand, in particular spinach and peas. In Germany, I used to buy frozen spinach in cardboard boxes but I’ve checked every supermarket here and all of them use plastic bags. For the record, fresh spinach also comes in plastic bags here (you can possibly get loose spinach at markets but my local market is on from 7 a.m.-11 a.m. on Fridays and I have to work so that’s not happening).

Meat. I’ve barely eaten any meat this month simply because it is all in plastic packaging. Even if you go to the meat counter, they wrap your purchases in plastic. Admittedly I haven’t tried asking them to put it in my own container – trying to explain in German was a challenge I wasn’t ready to take on – but I suspect there are some health and safety rules that speak against it. And I’m sure at least one person out there is now thinking I could solve most of my problems (milk, cheese and meat) by going vegan – which is sooo much better for the planet anyway. But all the vegetarian/vegan alternatives are packaged in plastic as well. The milk issue applies just as much to almond, oat and soy milk and all the veggie burgers, etc. are packaged in plastic. Also, a lot of alternatives are based on soy, which can affect your hormones. I’m already infertile as it is without adding excess soy consumption to the mix!

Bread. Here, I’m talking the toastable kind. I usually have toast for breakfast but I haven’t been able to do that for the whole of July. I’ve been having organic cocoa porridge most days but 1) it’s too hot for that and 2) it also comes in plastic (the outer packaging is cardboard, but inside there’s a plastic bag). If I hadn’t already had it in my cupboard, I wouldn’t have been able to buy it (which would have made breakfast even more difficult!). Of course I could buy ordinary loaves of bread at a bakers, so bread is not out entirely, but I do like a bit of toast in the morning.

Cleaning products. Tips for this include buying cleaning products in glass bottles (do those exist? Not in Switzerland!) and making your own. I have actually tried the second option before – I’ve used the baking soda and vinegar trick to unblock a shower many times. (It doesn’t work for long, by the way. In my experience once a plunger stops doing the trick harsh chemicals are the way to go. Sorry). In this country, baking soda comes in little packets wrapped in plastic. The kind of vinegar you use for cleaning comes in plastic bottles (and also stinks!). Lemons are pretty much the only thing I can buy without plastic. I will have to take another look at the zero-waster supermarkets, but as far as I could see they only had washing powder, washing liquid, dishwasher powder (we use the tabs) and washing-up liquid. So for now I will keep buying eco-friendly bathroom cleaner in plastic spray bottles.

I think that’s all the things I haven’t been able to find an alternative to. There are a few things that there are alternatives too if I’m willing to go out of my way. For instance, at the supermarkets the organic vegetables are wrapped in plastic while the non-organic stuff is loose. I want organic vegetables. There is an organic supermarket in town that sells loose vegetables, but its opening hours aren’t great if you work full time. I also discovered that the only pasta at my local supermarket that features no plastic is green lasagne sheets. All the other ones in cardboard boxes – including the ordinary yellow lasagne sheets in the same brand – have a little plastic window. Obviously I can go to one of the zero-waste supermarkets and fill my own container with pasta, but again the opening hours aren’t the best if you work full time (actually the one that’s basically at the other side of town has slightly better opening hours, but I shouldn’t have to go all the way across town just to buy some pasta without plastic!). Of course inconvenience is no excuse. Buying pasta (or rice) in a plastic bag because I would either have to leave the second I finish work or sacrifice part of my Saturday otherwise is sheer laziness in my case. But that’s me. Other people don’t even have the option of going to those places. Elderly or disabled people can’t be expected to cross town just to buy some groceries. People in the villages surrounding Basel shouldn’t have to travel into town to buy their groceries. And plenty of people don’t finish work until 6 or later… the organic supermarket and the zero-waste supermarket closest to me both close at 6:30. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to get there and actually do your shopping! So while I will, of course, continue to do my bit and save plastic where I can, as of August I will be going back to buying meat and toast in plastic containers. Sorry, but there’s only so much an individual can do. Now if only the supermarkets (or, really, the producers behind them) would start doing their bit to help those of us who are trying our best!