It pays to be good. The BBC’s Blue Planet II shocked the world into action over plastic waste suffocating the oceans. Here’s what you can do to cut your dependence on plastic – and save money while you do it.
We had the Stone Age, then we had the Iron Age, and today we have the Plastic Age. Each period of time brought technological changes that led to huge jumps in human development, but have we taken it one step too far this time?
Many of us saw the BBC’s documentary series Blue Planet II late last year and the horrendous effects of plastic on millions of organisms worldwide, including ourselves.
Plastic is accumulating in our seas, rivers, deserts and countryside at an alarming rate – current estimates from the education group Ocean Crusaders indicate about 6.4 million tonnes a year.
The problem is that plastic is a man-made material, which means there are very few organisms that can naturally break it down. Unlike organic debris, which is biodegradable, plastic only disintegrates into ever smaller pieces, which are eaten by marine creatures from plankton to whales and get into our drinking water.
The government this year launched an action plan to try to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. This includes plans to charge shoppers in England 5p for plastic bags at all retailers (not just larger ones), as well as plans for a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers.
But we can also take action ourselves to reduce our dependence on plastic – and save money at the same time.
1. Ditch plastic water bottles
Bottled water can be 1,000 times more expensive than water coming out of your tap, and there is little difference between the two. What would you rather pay, £1 for a litre of water or just 0.01p?
If you were buying a bottle of water three times a week, ditching it equates to a saving of around £150 per year and potentially more than 150 bottles removed from the sea of plastic.
If you want water from a bottle, use a glass or metal bottle and refill it from the tap.
2. Buy loose fruit and veg
When you next go to the supermarket, take a look around you: there is plastic everywhere. There is a good reason for this, as it helps prevents food spoilage.
One way to cut back on food and plastic waste is to only buy what you need. In the UK in 2015 alone, £13 billion of edible food was thrown away from our homes, according to the charity WRAP. Another way is to buy loose fruit and vegetables and simply stick them in your trolley or recyclable bag. There is no plastic and you can save money.
I found a packet of four Royal Gala apples from Sainsbury’s, for example, weighing 630g and costing £1.45. That is £2.30 per kg. Yet the loose apples were £2 per kg – a 15% saving and you’re not contributing towards plastic waste.
Another example I found was pre-prepared, bagged carrots at Sainsbury’s, which cost £1.67 per kg. The same kind of carrots sold intact and loose were just 6p per kg – a saving of about 96%.
3. Use your own shopping bags
I wince whenever I see someone shelling out 5p per plastic bag in a supermarket – it’s such a waste of money and plastic.
Since the government introduced the 5p law, single-use plastic bag volume has decreased by 80%, or about 7 billion bags.
4. Swap packaged snacks for fruit
This idea is a tough one for lovers of chocolate and crisps, and it takes a bit of willpower. But swap a 60p packet of crisps for a loose apple costing about 35p and you’ll save about £1.25 per week. This adds up to £50 over a year. As most packaging for crisps and sweets is not recyclable, it also means you avoid dumping plastic into landfill or maybe even the sea.
5. Bulk-buy larger items
If you can afford it, bulk-buy items in large sizes and multipacks, as you can save money and reduce packaging. For example, recycled toilet rolls from Sainsbury’s cost £3.30 for a pack of nine. Compare this to £1.80 for a pack of four; that’s a saving of 19.5%. Plus, since the surface area to volume ratio is smaller when items are larger, multipacks use less packaging per item.
6. Avoid shop-bought flowers
You’ve just completed the weekly shop when a romantic idea pops into your head as you pass the cut flower section at the supermarket. A beautiful bunch of blooms for your beloved – what a lovely idea.
Unfortunately, it may not be. Those flowers are wrapped in plastic and they may have come from Kenya or a greenhouse in the Netherlands, which bumps up your CO2 imprint as well as your plastic mini-mountain.
Consider a nice free gesture when you arrive home instead, such as a relaxing massage for your partner.
7. Bring your own coffee cup
If you bring your own cup, several of the high street coffee chains will now fill it and give you a 25p discount – Pret A Manger recently upped this to 50p. That’s a nice little saving and it helps to reduce the billions of takeaway cups that end up in landfill.
8. Replace plastic seedling pots with paper alternatives
A paper potter is an easy way to recycle old newspapers to make your own seedling pots and avoid the cost of plastic equivalents. You simply wrap a sheet of newspaper around a wooden mould to make a pot. When seedlings are ready to plant out, you can transplant them straight into the garden in their biodegradable paper pots.
After the first 24 pots (to cover the cost of the potter, which you can buy for about £12), you will save 50p for each plant, which is £25 for 50 plants.
Once planted out, your seedlings are vulnerable to attack from pigeons, slugs and many other pests, so it is a good idea to protect them with a cloche. Again, rather than buying a plastic product, ask your friends and family for old plastic drinks bottles, cut off the bottoms, secure them over your plants and, hey presto, you have a ready-made cloche to help young plants until they are established and growing strongly. Just 10 of these can save you £40 compared to equivalent shop-bought products.
9. Grow your own
If you have the space and inclination to grow your own fruit and veg, you could set aside an area to grow carrots, tomatoes, beetroot, radishes, lettuce, parsnips, leeks or whatever else grabs your fancy. Just a 3m by 1m area can supply a whole range of produce in good volumes. You can save pounds and plastic if you eat your homegrown veg; it’s a good feeling and it tastes great too.
10. Switch lightbulbs to LED
Back indoors, replace halogen spotlights with LED ones. When you look at the two types of GU10 bulbs they look very similar, with the same amount of plastic per bulb. However, a halogen bulb only lasts a maximum of 4,000 hours, compared to 50,000 hours for an LED. This means you use 12-plus halogen bulbs to one LED.
If you change just five bulbs in your home to LED, you save £29 (including the cost of bulbs) on your energy bill in the first year, and then £39 for many years after that. This could also reduce your CO2 imprint by 125kg a year.
11. Make your own cleaning agents
Another way to cut plastic and the pennies is to make your own cleaning agents. One simple idea that takes very little effort is window cleaner. Just put undiluted white vinegar into a spray bottle, apply to your windows, then dry with a soft cloth. This saves about £1 per litre compared to commercial glass-cleaning sprays. If you use a litre of vinegar solution every month, over a year you would save £12 and reduce plastic bottle pollution by 12 times.
Tony Whittingham is director of EcoFrenzy.com, a non-commercial and not-for-profit organisation that helps you save money and the environment in everyday life by minimising waste, pollution and carbon dioxide output.