Become a member
Follow us:

My impossible week without plastic

Words: Richard Walker

Illustrations: Thinh Nguyen

Follow us:

Look around you. How much plastic do you see? Now try and imagine going plastic-free. Completely. For an entire week. That’s exactly what 5 challenged journalist Richard Walker to do, to see what he could learn about plastic’s role in our daily lives. Here’s his diary.

Plastic is everywhere and makes modern life possible. But of the 380 million tons of plastic produced globally each year, how much do we really need, and why do we dump over 10 million tons of it in the oceans? I’m ready to tackle the problem single-handed by going cold plastic turkey. And I’ve got a head start – I already own a reusable shopping bag.

Monday – The quest

When tackling any serious task, British nationals like myself all begin the same way: with a cup of tea. But already there’s a snag – my kettle is 70% aluminium but the handle is plastic. No matter, I’ll use my 100% metal saucepan to boil the water. But my gas hob ignition button is plastic. I find some old matches, but the ageing match-heads crumble on the strike. Actually I don’t need a cup of tea, water is more refreshing anyway.

Let’s consider the quest I’m embarking on. If I really am going plastic-free, what do I have to replace? My computer, TV, microwave, in fact everything electrical, would have to be thrown out thanks to the plastic-coated cables, knobs, buttons. Most saucepans, utensil handles, even my Ikea cupboard doors, have a thick plastic coating. My sheets and duvet are all cotton and feathers so at least I can sleep, but my mattress has plastic buttons stitched onto it. I’ll have to sleep on the floor. 

I can’t face the bathroom and merely add “bar of soap” to my shopping list. The shower head is plastic so it’s baths only from now on. At least my books are safely made of paper. But my bookcase isn’t – the shelf brackets and shelves are all plastic coated. I’ll have to replace the lot with steel and wood.

“I need to think like a politician. They don’t admit defeat, they redefine the problem”

Which clothes can I still wear? Most contain acrylic, nylon, polyester, or have shiny plastic buttons. I’m left with one brown cashmere sweater, a pair of check linen trousers, one polo shirt (its plastic button fell off a while ago), an unopened pack of Y-fronts, and a pair of leather sandals with rubber soles (all my sneakers and boots contain plastic polymer soles). An unfortunate wardrobe, but not impractical in summertime. Sadly it’s still only 6℃ outside.

I feel deflated. I can’t use my toilet unless I don’t flush (plastic button); I can’t eat unless refrigeration is optional (fridge interior entirely plastic); and I can’t get back into my house unless I leave a window open and come in like a burglar (my hi-tech keys and front door lock contain small hard plastic components).

I need to think like a politician. They don’t admit defeat, they redefine the problem. So: I shall neither buy nor consume any new plastic this week; I will only use plastic that already exists in my home as part of a consumer durable that will one day be recycled responsibly. I promise.

Tuesday – Plastic Armageddon

Armed with my reusable shopping bag I head to the supermarket dressed in the sandals/check trousers combo. I feel cold but powerful. My shopping bag turns out to be 100% polyester so I renounce it. Picking up a new cloth shopping bag at a household goods store, I’m offered a plastic bag to put it in.

I live in Amsterdam, among the Dutch, who have sayings for everything. There’s a popular one that goes, “God made the world in six days and on the seventh day the Dutch made the Netherlands”, to which one might add, “of plastic”. Single-use plastic here, especially for food packaging, is chronically abundant. And worse, plastic recycling points are scarce. I spent an hour yesterday afternoon biking around with a big sack of used plastic packaging slung over one shoulder in search of an eco-repository, like a green trash-Santa. Ho ho ho, kids have I got some used yoghurt pots for you!

“I’ve avoided arrest but there’s nothing in the super-plastic-market for me but jars of pesto”

At my local supermarket it’s plastic Armageddon. I need apples, but even they are problematic because each one has a plastic name-label stuck to it. I pick up a Kanzi apple and begin to scratch off the label, but a supermarket security officer is watching me – he thinks I’m trying to pass off this premium Kanzi as a Granny Smith. Two other shoppers nervously move away towards the safety of a tangerine pyramid. Good idea, tangerines come in their own netted bag. But the tangerine dream is spoiled when I find the 1kg netted bags have big plastic barcode labels attached. Shall I tear off the label? A CCTV camera pointing at me seems to say, “No”.

At the bakery counter I ask for a fresh loaf not in a plastic bag. Using tongs the young baker takes one straight from the oven and hands it to me. It’s too hot to hold and I have to drop it on the floor. Standing back, me and a man holding a baby stare at it like it’s toxic waste.

I’ve avoided arrest but there’s nothing in the super-plastic-market for me but jars of pesto. There’s no option but to head for the fruit and vegetable outdoor market.

Wednesday – It wasn’t me

The first two fresh fruit and veg market stalls I visit have wrapped all their produce in cellophane, perhaps trying to help prevent the spread of Covid. Mercifully, the third one has left some of it unwrapped and unlabelled.

As with all market stalls, there’s no self-service and when I point at the Kanzi apples on display the grocer picks up random ones without first checking them for bruises. Before the Dutch words for “can you check them for bruises” formulate in my mind, he’s double-twisted the paper-bag with my apples, weighed them, told me how much I owe him and started serving someone else. His name is Jan-Bart, according to his overhead awning (made of vinyl/plastic). I ask Jan-Bart whether he thinks there’s any plastic in his paper bags – there’s often an invisible inner coating – but he just opens a fresh bag and holds it upside down to show me that it’s empty. This is a demonstration of Dutch humour. During my quest we will meet again, his stall being one of few sources of nutrition.

My research taught me to bring my own containers to the market. I ask a nut vendor for 500g of cashew nuts, handing him my bamboo lunch box to pour them into. He grabs a plastic box full of pre-weighed cashews, empties them into my box and then tosses the empty plastic container into his trash can. I didn’t add to the plastic waste problem today, he did. I was merely an accomplice.

Thursday – Dental DIY

If toothpaste comes in a tube not made of plastic then I’ve yet to find it. But I’ve just run out of it and I need to brush my teeth, which like many things about me, are sensitive. Online, just one solution presents itself: make your own. 

Google “how to make your own toothpaste” and an image comes up showing a toothbrush with toothpaste spewed all over the counter and only slightly over the toothbrush. Does making your own toothpaste make you forget how to use toothpaste?

“The three core ingredients mix into a paste that looks like something you’d use to re-tile your bathroom”

I found this toothpaste recipe: Bentonite Clay, baking soda, solid coconut oil. Other ingredients like Xylotil I could only find in plastic packaging. But the three core ingredients mix into a paste that looks like something you’d use to re-tile your bathroom. And it tastes how it sounds. Salty, gritty and oily. It’s like going for a swim in a shipping lane. And doesn’t Bentonite kill Superman? Anyway, my teeth do feel clean, and exfoliated.

Friday – Testy teen

On the grounds of plastic, I this week rejected the following requests from my daughter:

“Can I have some Haribo liquorice twirls; a new ruler for school; the Animal Crossing game cartridge for my Nintendo; bread rolls for lunch, I don’t like sliced bread; a replacement for my broken iPhone-case because if I don’t get a new one now and I drop my iPhone I’ll need a new iPhone; some proper shower gel, I’m not using that solid coconut oil”.

I made dinner last night from everything Jan-Bart had left that wasn’t packaged or had stickers on: a pineapple-turnip-butternut squash tagine. It wasn’t good. But I’m now less likely to get diabetes, apparently. The same can’t be said for my daughter who had Haribo and fries for dinner.

It turns out that the 100% no-plastic challenge is only possible if I sleep under a tree in a woollen sleeping bag, eating expensive organic fruit from the farmer’s market. Like a sort of rich hobo.

There’s no doubt that single-use plastic, especially in supermarket packaging, urgently needs to be re-thought. But at the same time, there are long-serving plastics which actively make life better. Their versatility makes them good alternatives for other more natural fabrics – I have a polyester tracksuit top I’ve been using since the 1980s, still going strong, whereas my cotton sports socks from that period died around the same time as the career of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Not long ago I made a radio piece for the BBC about new methods for making tooth implants made of plastic. And I’d like to thank my toilet flush button, doing the necessaries since the 1970s. Long-haul plastics are here to stay. It’s the disposable stuff we need to dispose of. If you know what I mean.

On the last day of my challenge, the daughter decides she wants a Starbucks and, as eco-warrior parent, I arm up with my new plastic-busting tools: two tin camping mugs, a metal straw and a bamboo spoon. When the server asks for our name I say “Tin Mugs”. I’m already relishing the moment they call it out and my daughter and I are identified as the only plastic-problem aware customers.

I’m sure she’s feeling proud too, she’s just hiding it.

Richard Walker

5 easy wins to beat the plastic problem

  • Get a reusable metal water bottle such as Ocean Bottle – every one bought funds collection equivalent to 1,000 plastic bottles.
  • Swap prepackaged liquid soaps and shampoos for bars.
  • See if there’s a zero-waste store such as Barcelona’s Yes Future near you.
  • Organise a beach or park clean-up. These are also a great way to raise awareness.
  • Buy less – especially disposable products likely to end up in landfill.