As plastic consumption increases, I wanted to explore available alternative materials. I am a firm believer in the benefits of plastics, as well as cartonboard, glass and aluminium.
All have benefits but all need to be disposed of responsibility. However, for those who do want to explore ‘plastic-free’ for a day, a week, a month or forever, how achievable is it? Plastic Free July® gives participants options when signing up:
- Avoid single-use plastic packaging
- Target takeaway items (bags, bottles, straws and cups)
- Go completely “plastic free”
Some of these options are easier to achieve than others but all require a significant effort in preparation, time and money. Time to research alternatives, time to prepare / make home-made alternative products and the money to spend on returnable / reusable alternatives.
Starting with a commodity product and one easily replaced with a reusable alternative to single-use plastic.
Milk bottle alternatives
The sustainability credentials cannot be fully assessed without conducting a lifecycle analysis, however general principles would be the glass bottle is more sustainable, if it is sourced locally through a milkman who delivers from a local farm using electric vehicles and the bottle is reused a minimum of 20 times.
Obviously, you can take this one stage further and replace cows milk with alternatives such as oat and soya, although in most cases these are supplied in single-use packaging.
Result: easy to purchase plastic-free milk but will cost more and not always more sustainable.
This is a tough one, shampoo bottles are almost all recyclable but unfortunately we aren’t recycling plastic packaging from our bathrooms as well as we do our kitchens. I personally use Nuddy bars and love them, my choice to move from liquid shampoo to bars was initially experimental to try the product and I’ve never looked back. They last a lot longer than a bottle of shampoo and therefore work out about the same financially. From a sustainability perspective, both options are recyclable but the bars are much more concentrated and therefore more efficient logistically even with the additional transit packaging needed with online purchases.
Result: easy to purchase plastic-free shampoo, costs about the same and is more sustainable.
Or make your own… this might sounds like a daunting task but I have found a recipe:
- Two tablespoon baking soda
- Two tablespoon of coconut oil
- Ten drops of essential oil
Everyone is different, but as a full-time working Mum homemade meals are probably my limit, I simply do not have the time to make toothpaste when I can buy it for £1.50. There are several plastic-free alternatives, most are in powder form or tablets with some pastes. I have tried powders and although they do clean teeth well, it just doesn’t feel the same to me. Powders do cost substantially more than traditional toothpaste however, some toothpaste tubes can be recycled but few are actually recycled by consumers. The glass jar will be much heavier than the tube, therefore without a full lifecycle analysis it’s impossible to say which is better for the environment.
Result: plastic-free toothpaste is available although it does cost substantially more but is more sustainable.
After research, I can find very few plastic free alternatives other than children’s medication, liquid / oral suspension can be sourced but offers limited convenience for consumers. Plastic really is the only packaging material to contain, protect and preserve medication in a convenient manner for on-the-go use. Without plastic packaging our healthcare system would not be able to operate in the same way, therefore saving lives. Obviously, paracetamol is not the strongest medication but is one many of us use on a regular basis for most common aches and pains.
Result: There is no plastic-free alternative and is required for pharmaceutical products.
If you wanted to go completely plastic-free, you need to go beyond packaging to domestic products, clothing and payment cards. During and after Covid 19, we have seem an acceleration of contactless payments and cash is used far less often. Cash would be a plastic-free solution in some cases and geographies, however many banknotes are now made from plastic (BOPP) including currency in the UK, Australia, Canada and India.
There are alternative credit cards on the market but none that are plastic-free, unless you go completely contactless with digital payments via smartphone / smartwatch. Thales have a bioplastic credit card made from PLA which is technical compostable (although I’m not sure people would cut up and compost a credit card) and they also have an Ocean plastic credit card which is made from plastics recovered from ocean pollution.
Result: these options are better than virgin plastic traditional credit cards however, there are very few providers and the vast majority of us choose credit providers based on interest rates rather than credit card substrate.
So if you did want to live ‘Plastic Free’ what would it mean?
There are some easy swaps which don’t have to cost a fortune, but this is not the case for all products. Many cost a lot more due to process and raw materials but in some cases plastic packaging is absolutely the right choice from an ecological perspective. Then there are some products which are almost impossible without plastic for example blood bags for medical use, vehicles where plastics are used both internally and externally to house components as well as forming part of the safety aspects and the componentry in our technology products. So, to live a life without plastic would require a significant lifestyle and behavioural change as well as the ability to invest a lot of time to make products from scratch which we all currently take for granted, such as toothpaste.
Yes, we do need to change behaviours, reduce our plastic consumption and dispose of all packaging and products responsibly, but in my opinion plastic does have a place in modern life. However, let’s not take it too far and plastic wrap a single banana or use excessive amounts of non-recyclable plastic when an economic recyclable option is available. I believe the approach should always be to select the packaging that is best for the product, consumer and the planet, always use the minimum needed to protect, preserve, promote and contain and importantly ensure that there is a route for disposal / recovery at end of life.