The default for Lent is food: give up chocolate, carbs, alcohol, biscuits. All great and difficult things to abandon for 40 days. But can you live without plastic? That’s the question my boyfriend and I were asking two nights before Lent began, on a bit of a whim. We spent a pensive dinner thinking of plastic items we’d struggle with. At first only one dragged up: loo roll, because there’s no way we could last Lent without buying a multi pack of Andrex, all wrapped up in a glossy death trap for the oceans made from crude oil. But other than that we optimistically thought we’d maybe manage it.
Then we devised the rules. Don’t worry, they’re simple: if it’s in plastic and we can’t recycle it, we can’t buy it.
If you live in London you’ll think this easy, nearly everything is recyclable: plastic wrappers, fruit punnets, tubs even bags. If it’s clean they’ll take it. But where I live, out in the middle of nowhere where bin day is every two weeks and stops at Christmas and bank holidays, they only recycle bottles. So we could basically only have milk in a plastic carton all Lent.
Two days before Lent started we did only one bit of preparation: my boyfriend nobly took it upon himself to buy fancy chocolate wrapped in cardboard and tin foil, just to make sure it was plastic free. I know, he’s a saint.
When Lent began the first week was surprisingly easy. We found we had stocks and stocks of plastic in the cupboards- we had pasta, rice, cereal, biscuits. We were up to ours ears in the see-through stuff. It was also convenient Lent began on the Wednesday and we’d only decided to give up plastic on the Monday, we’d been shopping over the weekend and still had our nicely plastic packaged meat from Tesco, all our vegetables were unnecessarily air tight and our bread was snuggling down in a wrapper.
So we made a new rule: we could only eat perishable items in plastic that we owned pre-lent. The cupboards were off limits, the meat and bread were stowed in the freezer and we were, essentially, at square one. I was dreaming about that pack of Boarders biscuits stowed away, painstakingly obvious in the cupboard all Lent, not to mention the pasta and rice were tempting when we found ourselves in a squeeze. But we desisted.
So this brings us to week two. Also a doddle, my boyfriend was on an all expenses paid business trip and found himself eating out every night and for lunch, courtesy of his company. I was in slightly more of a pickle but thanks to my dad spontaneously being in the country (he works in Mexico) I was treated to three meals out and cooked two meals by friends. Lunch proved to be more difficult but again not impossible, I had tins of chickpeas and sauce, soups, and potatoes and beans. I did frequent the canteen a bit more than my budget would have necessarily allowed, but it was, by the by, ok.
Then we were at week three. This where things got real, and our plastic free existence really began to hit home. Our first trouble was meat. Go into Tesco and find any meat that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic. Want to know the only bit we found? Some frozen chicken Kiev’s, and a frozen box of Birds Eye chicken dippers. These became our staple quick meal, alongside a loose potatoes and broccoli (honestly I ate so many broccoli heads in the quest to find unwrapped vegetables, I think I’m turning green).
But with weekends there came time to plan, and if you give up plastic you really need to plan. Quick tortellini’s and pizzas on the fly, meal deal lunches and snatched cereal bar breakfasts are not an option. Luckily, our part of the middle of nowhere is surprisingly environmentally friendly and we have a butcher at the farm shop who wraps everything in paper and wax (take that London!).
We went on Sundays mornings to stock up, the meats normally nicer than the supermarkets’ and since you can order the amount you need we found ourselves having less food waste. That recipe that asks for 350g of mince, but you can only find 500g in the shop? Only need three rashes of bacon but they come in packs of 8 at Tesco? Scaling up a recipe and need a strange number of casserole steaks? Not a problem with a butcher. Only downside is the meat was expensive. We paid slightly more on some cuts (although it’s cheaper than Tesco for topside), but it was all ethically sourced, not plastic wrapped and free range.
Next there was dried foods to contend with. Again, weirdly environmentally friendly middle of nowhere, we have a plastic free shop. Bring your own containers. We washed up glass jars, grabbed all available Tupperware, and even brought a fairy bottle or two and my boyfriend heading over there. We still have plastic free rice jostling in a cereal container on the counter, it’s great. Again, slightly more expensive, but you know the food miles are low, it’s environmentally and locally sourced and the soap (which is £7 for a full Fairy Bottle equivalent) is safe to go in rivers or streams without any impact on the lovely fishes.
Bread proved more difficult, we brought fresh loaves from the baker in paper bags only to find neither of us could slice it very well. My chutney and roast beef sandwiches were created with the most unevenly sliced bread it became a running joke at work. We couldn’t get baguettes or rolls since the paper bread bags had a little (and pointless) plastic window. The bag is open at one end, if people really wanted to see what their bread looked like couldn’t they just peer in? Is the window really necessary??
Bread also had the added complexity of going off. We don’t have a bread bin so by day two it was pretty stale and since our Tupperware was previously engaged holding out plastic free pasta and rice we couldn’t always freeze it. It became a real difficulty that I even turned to kneading my own bread, to a varying degree of success.
We could get sauces, soups, chopped tomatoes and chutneys all in tins and jars (when they didn’t have that pointless plastic seal at the top) so we were ok to get some dried goods from Tesco. The real, and surprising struggle, turned out to be cheese. At the deli counter the chesses were all wrapped in cellophane so that one was out. We did find one, small pretentious wax cylinder that cost a fortune and was impossible to cut. We sparingly used it for sandwiches for a week but there was no chance it was being sprinkled over hunters chicken. Defeat, even after we managed to find a glass bottle of BBQ sauce.
And now theres the product that is most pointlessly wrapped in plastic: vegetables. And don’t claim its necessary to wrap them up, I’ve found peppers, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce (which is basically not wrapped up the bag is so open topped), cucumbers, onions, garlic, broccoli, spring onions all plastic less and can confirm the packaging makes no difference. They go off in just the same time.
We thought we could just head to the farmers market for these (again, middle of nowhere for the win) for some low plastic, low food mileage veg. This didn’t really pan out since the markets are only on when we’re at work and neither of us fancied getting the groceries at lunch and stowing away fresh veg in the office all afternoon. So we were left with Tesco’s selection of ‘free range’ veg. Queue the copious amount of broccoli I ate. Some things were sadly out: we couldn’t have salad, recipes that required celery (not a great loss in my opinion) and could only buy one type of potatoes- the ‘baking potato’. Not a great hardship though.
We got to the end of Lent making only a few mishaps. I ordered a milkshake in a restaurant and was thwarted by a plastic straw, my boyfriend got a sandwich which seemed to be in a paper bag but was lined with plastic and I brought a cardboard box of frozen mozzarella sticks which were in a pointless plastic bag inside the cardboard box. They tauntingly remained in our freezer all through Lent, alongside everything else wrapped in plastic.
There were some close calls: I ate a very undignified noodle dish with wooden chopsticks on a team lunch in a park since the forks were made of plastic, we got loo roll given to us by a kind church friend to stave us off from buying that glossy Andrex. Honestly, make the woman a Saint.
Then there were some genuine moments of hardship: a colleague brought in some plastic wrapped chocolate bars which it turns out he didn’t like, and offered them to the office, we went for a walk down the pier we used to visit as students and I had to turn down our traditional Frijj milkshakes, they were giving out free cereal bars at Paddington station and Lent’s possibly the only time I’ve ever turned down free food.
There’s one more thing that I didn’t expect. My boyfriend’s told me to stop mentioning it in polite conversation but here it is: our bins stunk. Filled with just scraps of food, without plastic to bulk them out, they filled up quickly and smelt grim. That, and the lack of cheese, is what I’ll always remember from this Lent.
So has giving up plastic for 40 days changed our lives? Yes. Undoubtedly. First, I went really broke. I was down to £37 two weeks before pay day in my account. The lack of meal deals meant that forgetting lunch was a sit down meal, quite expensive given I work in London, and the whole venture was just a bit pricey. Secondly, plastic is often so unnecessary. With a little effort you can avoid it, but really supermarkets don’t need it. Use paper bags for fresh bread, wrap meat in wax and paper, do away with the unnecessarily confined plastic wrappers on vegetables, let people decant rice, pasta and cereal into their own containers. Sell loo roll in paper. It’s all so unnecessary.
We’re going to keep a few things from the last 40 days: get our meat from the farm shop, although we’ve cut down on eating meat since it’s very expensive (probably for the best given our planet), buy pasta and rice and soap from the plastic free shop and I may actually not always reach for a meal deal when I forget my lunch. Buying fruit and vegetables loose and favouring jars and tins over pots and packaging. But we’re not going fully plastic free, sliced bread is a must, and I’m not going without cheese again. And, of course, we’ll be buying that big pack of Andrex first chance we get.
and if you were wondering what happened to all that food we froze, an unfortunate over night power cut on the last day of Lent meant we had to bin the meat and meals we’d dumped in the freezer over the last 40 days. But, defrosted and refrosted or not, I did finally manage to eat those mozzarella sticks.