'Plastic-Free' Might Be the Ultimate Form of Clean Eating

Is plastic food packaging the next thing millennials are going to kill?

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Aug 30 2018, 9:43am

I make the decision to reduce my use of plastic for one reason: puffins. Tiny, adorable puffins with bright orange beaks and rotund little bodies—so cute and pudgy that I just want to squeeze them like soft toys. Puffins and their clown-like waddles and surprisingly powerful wings, which carry them for miles over the Atlantic Ocean and flap up to 400 times a minute.

This epiphany (epuffiny?) comes after I take a trip to the Farne Islands, a scattering of rocky outposts just off the coast of Northumberland. Aside from National Trust rangers, the islands are uninhabited by humans. Between April and July, they become a key breeding ground for puffins. I join a boat of tourists and birdwatchers from the mainland, and watch the happy birds swoop from the sky and fish for sand eels, gathering in monochromatic huddles on the edge of the cliff. We marvel as puffin chicks emerge from their nest burrows, fluffy and sweetly disorientated.

It is an idyllic puffin paradise and I am on the verge of tears. Is this what Earth would look like if human beings weren’t so hooked on diesel vehicles and rampant consumerism?

I go home and do some research. More than a million seabirds die every year because of plastic, and puffin numbers on mainland Shetland have fallen dramatically in recent years, in part due to plastic buildup on its beaches. By 2050, it is predicted that 99 percent of the world’s seabirds will have plastic in their guts.

On an average day, I might buy a plastic-wrapped sandwich from Pret; a plastic yogurt tub or punnet of grapes; sometimes a coffee in a plastic-lined disposable cup. I think about the puffins and feel like a monster.

BBC documentary series Blue Planet II showed the impact of plastic pollution on sea creatures. Photo courtesy BBC.

I’m not the only one worried about plastic. Last year, the BBC broadcast Blue Planet II, David Attenborough’s ocean documentary series. In the final episode, the veteran naturalist looked at the impact of humans on marine life. Over 37 million UK viewers—62 percent of the British population—watched in horror as a turtle struggled in a piece of plastic sacking and albatross babies fed on plastic debris.

Suddenly, the problem of single-use plastics was unignorable. Twitter was alight with heartfelt promises to never again touch a plastic bag. The government announced a ban on plastic microbeads, and restaurant chains ditched plastic straws. Shortly after Blue Planet II aired, over 60 percent of viewers surveyed by the BBC reported wanting to reduce their environmental impact. Even your drives-everywhere-and-owns-a-wood-burning-stove uncle probably thinks twice about buying a plastic water bottle now.

“I could write a book just on that episode and the ripple effect afterwards,” laughs Lucy Siegle, environmental journalist and author of Turning the Tide on Plastic. She explains: “Plastic food packaging is something that had almost become minimised as a threat. I don’t think it was perceived as a threat and then Blue Planet II really crystalised that in such an incredible way.”

The food industry is one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste. Of the 170 million tonnes of waste produced in the UK every year, much of it is plastic food packaging, which ends up in landfill. A recent report from the National Audit Office criticised the Environment Agency’s oversight of waste management, warning that British plastic waste shipped abroad could be “sent to landfill or contribute to pollution.”

With plastic waste now on the national agenda, growing numbers of people are making drastic changes to their shopping and eating habits. Not content with simply taking canvas bags to the supermarket or refusing plastic cutlery, they aim to cut single-use plastics almost entirely out of their lives. Many are young and active on social media, aligning under monikers like “minimal waste” and “low-plastic”, and making eco-friendly living part of their online brand. So basically, millennials who are determined to be environmentally woke.

Twenty-two-year-old Aino Ojala started her “plastic-free, zero-waste” Instagram account, @ainowonders, about a year ago after going vegan and beginning to think more seriously about her impact on the environment. Her posts range from homemade tofu displayed in glass Kilner jars to tips on using old coffee grounds as a body scrub. There are a lot of green leaf emojis.

“I wanted to cut down my waste and document it,” Ojala tells me over email from her home in Finland. “Ainowonders is a big motivator for me and it allows me not only to spread the word about zero-waste, but keep track on my own improvement. It's kinda like my zero-waste diary.”

Ojala isn’t the only one using Instagram to chart her plastic reduction journey. I search #plasticfree on Instagram shortly after returning from the Farne Islands, and find hundreds of artfully lit images of pasta in glass jars, freshly baked bread, and glass milk bottles; as well as captions explaining how to bulk-buy food and store perishable goods without plastic. Someone even made a “Hotline Bling” meme about plastic-wrapped broccoli.

There are plastic-free “influencers” too. Popular low-waste lifestyle accounts @zerowastehome and @simply.living.well have 166,000 and 45,800 followers respectively, while Lauren Singer, CEO of the New York-based Package Free Shop, has over 250,000 followers, and uploads sponsored posts from eco-friendly alcohol brands alongside tasteful selfies with reusable water bottles.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between these high profile, plastic-free Instagrammers and those of the wellness movement that swept our social feeds a few years back. Seeing an image of a beautiful woman with a string bag slung over her shoulder, shopping for loose vegetables at her local farmers market, with a caption that implores you to keep it waste free with my @packagefreeshop produce bags!! feels pretty similar to scrolling over Deliciously Ella hawking her latest plant-based cookbook. Both are promising you a better life.

Whether Instagramming homemade body scrub will become as aspirational as a SoulCycle geotag remains to be seen, but plastic-free living does seem to be growing in popularity among the Instagram-savvy demographic. Earlier this summer, luxury fashion retailer Net-a-Porter pledged to make its magazine plastic-free, and Princess Eugenie revealed in an interview with Vogue that her upcoming wedding would also be “anti-plastic.” As I’m writing this, a promotional email from a trendy East London gym lands in my inbox, announcing that it will be removing single-use plastic bottles from its facilities. There is a link at the bottom to buy a stainless steel Liberty-print water bottle for £42.

I ask Ojala whether she thinks plastic-free is now a trend, like clean eating and wellness before it.

“Possibly,” she replies, “and what an amazing trend would that be, if more and more people started cutting down their waste. I see no problem with that. Seeing people on Instagram doing the same things I do and trying their best to lower their impact on the earth makes me happy.”

Foods packaged in a variety of non-plastic bags. Photo courtesy The Zero Waste Maker/Instagram.

Rose Lloyd Owen, chef and founder of the catering company Peardrop London, sees a more defined link between the recent trend for ditching plastic and the wellness movement. In May, she held a plastic-free supper club, featuring dishes prepared without single-use plastics by eco-minded chefs Tom Hunt and Chantelle Nicholson. At the end of the meal, guests were encouraged to make a “plastic pledge” and eschew all plastic straws, bags, and coffee cups for a week.

“It’s become cool,” Lloyd Owen says, referring to plastic-free living.

She continues: “The health thing was incredible to watch—the boom, and then I think it has now plateaued and we’re living with an achievable and healthy approach for young people. I think that’s part of caring about the environment too, so it’s not just Blue Planet, it’s an approach to mind, body, and environment that has come out of it [the health and wellness trend].”

Seeing an image of a beautiful woman with a string bag slung over her shoulder, shopping for loose vegetables at her local farmers market, feels pretty similar to scrolling over Deliciously Ella hawking her latest plant-based cookbook.

Siegle, however, sees the anti-plastic movement as bigger than the Instagram generation. As ethical living columnist for the Guardian and The One Show contributor, she has been reporting on plastic waste for over a decade and thinks that the problem engages “a real variety of people.”

“This is the one eco issue that I’ve found that has resonance across regions, class, socio-economic background, and political viewpoints,” she says. “We did one beach clean and there was a guy who was a UKIP councillor. I don’t want to make judgements on that basis, but I was surprised to see him there. We had a chat about plastic and he felt very strongly about it.”

Indeed more than 162,000 people responded to a recent government consultation on plastic waste, an unprecedented number of whom supported tougher action on single-use plastics. “I think it chimes with totally different people and different personalities,” says Siegle.

Shelves of pasta, oats, pulses, and other dry foods at Harmless, a plastic-free shop in North London. Photo by the author.

Low-plastic activism isn’t confined to the internet, either. On one of the stickiest days of the summer, I visit Harmless, a plastic-free grocery shop in North London. Opened four months ago by Tami Jarvis, its walls are lined with shelves of glass jars holding pasta, rice, lentils, flour, tea, coffee, and other dry goods. Customers bring their own bags or containers to fill and Jarvis charges them by weight.

“Pasta was the main thing that set me off because I eat a lot of pasta and it comes in 500-gram bags,” she explains. “And then obviously, that goes straight in the bin after two uses.”

Like Ojala, Jarvis went vegan around two years ago, and began researching related environmental issues. Facebook was a main source of information. She watched videos of animals affected by plastic waste and connected with environmental activists. She stopped using palm oil and began reducing her plastic use, but it didn’t feel like enough.

“That was building up for this massive fall where it just all hit me,” Jarvis remembers. “I was only 25 but I had a complete emotional breakdown. Everything: the world, famine, everything. It all came into it because I was learning so much about how it was related.”

Tami Jarvis, founder of Harmless.

Jarvis quit her job in hairdressing product sales last year and began crowdfunding to open Harmless. It is one of a number of new low-waste shops in London founded by young women, along with Hetu in Clapham and Hackney’s Bulk Market. While one of Jarvis’ motivations for opening the shop was to communicate environmental issues to people in the real world, she credits social media with helping highlight the issue of plastic waste.

“Humans naturally are compassionate but I still think it’s social media,” she says. “Before social media came along, we all lived by newspapers. We were fed the information and whatever was given to us. But now with the internet, it’s a domino effect. One person will see a Facebook video and tell three people. When you’re presented with that information in a video form of a turtle having a straw pulled out of its nose and hearing the turtle scream, you can't deny it's happening.”

Listening to Jarvis talk among the neat jars of organic quinoa, I immediately want to change everything about the way I shop for food. I fantasise about making shopping lists on Sunday afternoons and cycling to my local bulk-buy shop with a collection of cute metal tiffin boxes. I would cook more and eat better and save money—all while helping the environment! Jarvis offers me a dried apricot and it’s probably the best piece of dehydrated fruit I have ever eaten in my life. Back at the office, I linger over the email with the fancy water bottles, despite knowing I should reuse the old plastic one I have at the bottom of a bag somewhere.

"Before social media came along, we all lived by newspapers. We were fed the information and whatever was given to us. But now with the internet, it’s a domino effect."

For all its promises of a back-to-basics existence, it’s hard to separate the plastic-free food trend from the unchecked consumerism that arguably got us into this mess. Starbucks may have banned plastic straws (and to much promotional fanfare), but the company still wants us to buy endless cappuccinos in notoriously hard to recycle cups. Nestle’s recent pledge to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025 was slammed by Greenpeace as “green-washing baby steps … full of ambiguous or non-existent targets.”

I also wonder how accessible the low-plastic lifestyle is to people without the means to buy cute metal tiffin boxes. Planning meals ahead and shopping in special zero-waste stores can end up being more time-consuming and costly than mainstream supermarkets, making it near impossible for the time poor or those on low incomes.

Siegle attempts to tackle these issues in Turning the Tide on Plastic. Subtitled “How humanity (and you) can make our globe clean again,” the book has no time for corporate green-washing (“The moment you don’t buy something is always a win for the planet” is one of her more acerbic lines) and offers practical advice for anyone trying to reduce their plastic footprint, regardless of earnings or time constraints. And much of it is exactly that: practical, and not very Instagrammable.

“In the book, we have not made any assumptions that people are going to be able to go to bulk-buy stores, we’ve actually addressed that head on in several places. We talk about supermarkets hacks,” Siegle says, referring to tips such as using paper bags intended for mushrooms to package other loose vegetables, and buying unwrapped bread from the bakery counter.

In fact, Siegle sees plastic-free as less of an IRL identity, more of an aspiration. Which, I suppose, is true of pretty much any lifestyle promoted on Instagram. “For me, going plastic-free is a good aspiration for some people and I see why they’re attracted to it, but it’s not the aim of my book,” she says.

Jarvis takes a different view when I put it to her that zero-waste stores may not be accessible for all. “Everyone will always argue about convenience, but convenience now is not going to be convenient for your children in the future,” she points out.

Plastic bottles on a beach in Norway. Photo via Flickr user Bo Eide.

Quitting plastic may be easier for some people than others right now, but unlike many of the trends that proliferate our social feeds, it’s one that needs to spread. Without serious changes to the way we shop and eat, marine experts warn there will be more plastic than fish in the seas by 2050.

“Ultimately, the top line is really, really simple,” says Siegle. “However you define yourself—citizen, consumer, policy maker, opinion leader, whatever the hell you call yourself—if we don’t stop the flow of plastic, then we are in so much trouble. It has to stop, there is no alternative.”