Plastic free challenge – by Sam Pringle

Last September on a beach clean in Musselburgh, I met another Sam. I remember our conversation because she was doing something which I believed was impossible – she had stopped using single use plastic for the month of July, a campaign set up by the Marine Conservation Society. I questioned her about her intention and wondered in disbelief how she could achieve this with a family. I mean the crisps, biscuits, magazines and all that stuff which appear go hand in hand with having a family. So I rather despondently judged that such an undertaking sounded like a lot of work which I couldn’t commit too but that I could recycle. Which lead me to the second memorable conversation that day with Martin Whitfield. He had joined us for the beach clean as the MSP for East Lothian and he shared with us some knowledge he had about recycling plastics in the UK. At that point I no longer felt content with my decision.

 In the UK we only recycle 20-30% of our plastics. Some 447 million Kgs of plastics are exported to countries like Turkey where they are incinerated. We don’t have the technology or capacity to sort and recycle different types of plastics so much of it is incinerated abroad.

 At that point I no longer felt content with my decision.

 The main things which are thrown away are coffee cups – some 2.5 BILLION which would reach 5 1/2 times round the world (read more about #contactlesscoffee to prevent this). The second offender is takeway food. I know during the covid crisis we may have missed someone else making our food but these reactionary decisions come at long term cost to our society though it’s low cost and convenient to our wallet.

 After looking into some of these facts we decided as a family to try and reduce our demand. Well more accurately I should say the the cook of the house who also happens to be an Ex Marine Biologist became more conscious about our family’s use of Single Use Plastic’s (SUPs).

 Fast forward one year and I can say there is no going back to our plastic way of life. However our recycling bin is still full every other week which still surprises me, but there is no plastic in it. We do still throw some plastic into general waste which is usually in the form of meat packaging and plastic film. I’m still confused about where it can be recycled because of contamination but that’s another enquiry.

 So now let I’ll let you into our secret that made this possible! We have the Edinburgh Refillery 5 mins away from our house and it has revolutionized our purchasing. I refill all my cooking produce from chocolate to granola, tea, coffee and of course milk which in our house was the main plastic offender. My son plays a lot of sport – well he did before they closed the swimming pools – and therefore drinks a lot of smoothies though we have got him drinking oat milk which they also make at the Refillery.

 The items that I feel most proud of are our cleaning products & cosmetics which are also kinder to the environment and we don’t throw away any bottles like washing up liquid which appear to run out every week in a lock down!

 I should share that I love food! I spend hours in the kitchen making stuff! So I didn’t want to stop eating the things I like. The kids were resistant about giving up snacks like crisps up so we haven’t. Yep we are not perfect! But none of our organic fruit and veg have plastic wrapping which is a relief – I mean isn’t it ironic to buy something organic because of reducing the impact on the environment and its wrapped in oil?

 We use a lot more glass and I believe recycling glass is easier in the UK unlike plastic. We also eat more food in line with the seasons – I’ve stopped buying salad bags every week and now buy when its available  – so our food miles have reduced enormously too.

 This has led to another unintended consequence and benefit. My choices are restricted. I don’t have 200 types of cereals or bread to choose from. I’ve realized that this too is a relief. Choice creates an emotional burden for me of making the “right’ choice. Of trying to please others including myself, which in our house is near on impossible. Now I have an either or. I take what’s available. Halleluiah – my brain energy can be put into other decisions more exciting than brands offering much the same thing! The unintended consequence is I have started eating things I might not have done before – like vegan cheese which I tried and was surprised how good it was and bought it again. And my husband even ate vegan pies a change from his usual steak – and guess what he liked it. My new treat I have discovered are nut butters from Almighty. I wouldn’t like to say how many jars I have eaten but its sweet and nutritious. And like much of the nation we now make or buy Sourdough and there’s definitely no going back from that food!

And so what’s been the price you may ask? Well of course there’s the short term financial cost. Local organic veg is much the same price as the super market. My cleaning products are much the same price too. We don’t buy in bulk so I go to the shop 3 times a week, I don’t buy 20 toilet rolls at a time in plastic but I could order all my products online in paper bags or glass bottles if I wanted. During the lockdown coming to the shop has given me a sense of purpose and community to be supporting a local business and creating a more circular economy. It also means that other people don’t have to clean up after me quite as much, though my husband would say our washing up has increased!

 And yes you will have seen us in the MacDonalds and Costa queue when they reopened but it’s a conscious decision, not an automatic one whilst 90% of the other purchasing decisions we make are ethical and environmental. The last remaining bastion is organic meat which none of us want to give up but we do buy from local farms.

So I encourage everyone to have a go at #PlasticFreeJuly or just become more aware of what you use and where you could refill products. Its certainly one way to reduce my feelings of guilt as a parent!




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