It's the start of a new year, and a new decade, and as such many people resolve to make changes to improve their lives. But we all know that these good intentions rarely last the year and their impact is never truly felt.
However, a resolution to reduce plastic use throughout the year is much easier to keep, because unlike resolving to lose weight, stop smoking, or drink less - which all require significant changes to habits - reducing plastics comes down to small changes. Even better, many of them are changes to your purchasing habits and don't require daily actions.
So, what are the changes you can roll out throughout the year to have a positive impact on the environment and your wallet? Yes, your wallet - because even though some changes require a larger initial investment, over time you should end up saving money by making more sustainable choices!
Here are a five 'high impact' swaps to get you started..
1. Take your own drink. This means carrying a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water, or a flask of coffee or tea instead of buying takeaway. One of the best Facebook memes in 2019 said, "Bottled water companies don't make water. They make plastic bottles." 7.7 billion plastic bottles are used in the UK each year and most of those end up in landfill (recent statistics estimate 25% may get recycled).
Last spring (2019), Hugh Fearnely Whittingstall drew attention to the fact that the majority of takeaway coffee cups are lined with plastic and therefore not recyclable. Though some companies are making the effort to change this, sorting machines and humans at recycling centres can't tell the difference so you can't be guaranteed that your recyclable paper cup will actually be recycled!
Taking your own water or coffee adds up to significant savings, too! The 7.7 billion bottles above averages out to 3 bottles of water per week per person in the UK. Not buying three 70p bottles of water every week would save £109.20 over one year. Using £2 as the cost of a cup of coffee (though who has paid £2 for a Starbucks or Costa Coffee in the last decade?) each day on the way to work, by bringing your own you could save more than £480 in one year.
2. Reuse plastic bags. When the 5p charge on plastic bags was introduced, the number of carrier bags being sold at supermarkets plummeted. It seemed like the carrier bag charge had a hugely positive impact, right? Except, it may not be that simple. Channel 4 news Fact Check discovered that government figures claiming a 90% reduction only accounted for single-use bags. Meanwhile, sales of Bags for Life - heavier duty plastic bags that contain more plastic by weight than the single-use bags we used to get for free - are barely changed.
The hard part of bags is remembering them! So try to make it as easy on yourself as possible. Keep a couple of sturdier plastic bags, which fold down small and are very lightweight, in your car, in your handbag, your gym bag, etc. By having stashes in multiple spots, you're less likely to be caught out without a bag and need to buy another. Some supermarkets have empty cardboard boxes near the tills that you can take for free, so if you find yourself without a bag, check if that option is open to you before stumping up for yet another 'bag for life'.
3. Change your razor. Disposable razors are very hard to recycle, because they are made from mixed materials and some recycling centres won't accept them because they contain sharps (blades). Disposable razors are made from plastic and come packaged in more plastic. They range in price from 20p for single-bladed fixed handled razors to £16 for fancy multi-blade removable cartridge razors where replacement heads average £2.50. It doesn't matter what sort of disposable razor you choose, you're having an impact on the planet and wasting money on products designed to be thrown away. Not to mention the 'pink tax' that means ladies' razors often cost more than mens' razors with no appreciable difference in design or performance!
Swap instead to a stainless steel safety razor with replaceable blades. Many report a superior shave, and less need for moisturisers and balms after shaving because a single blade is less drying than four or five blades scraping across the skin. After the initial investment in the razor (which can be as low as £12 to £15), replacement blades cost pennies (a pack of 5 averages £1.50) and are recyclable.
4. Switch to sustainable dental care. Looking after our teeth generates so much plastic waste! Think about it - a new toothbrush four times a year, plastic floss in plastic dispensers (even worse - those horrible single-use floss picks!), toothpaste tubes, interdental brushes.. There are plenty of plastic-free products on the market to get the job done:
- Bamboo toothbrushes, or if you use an electric toothbrush find replacement heads that are made from recycled plastic
- Silk or bamboo dental floss in a refillable glass dispenser
- Toothpaste tablets or toothpaste packaged in glass rather than plastic tubes
- Bamboo-handle interdental brushes
5. Buy from packaging-free shops. Supermarkets are filled with foods wrapped in plastic packaging marked 'not currently recycled'. Rice, pasta, beans, cereals... so much plastic waste (and food waste) results from food packaging.
There are more zero-waste or 'refill' shops opening up all over the UK every month. These shops let you bring your own containers and buy foods, cleaning products, and some toiletries (shampoos, conditioner, etc.) by weight. This translates to less plastic packaging going to landfill and by buying only what you need instead of pre-packaged quantities you waste less food and spend less money.
These are just five swaps you can make, but over time they will amount to a significant reduction in your plastic waste, not to mention leaving a few more pennies in your pocket at the end of the year. With small incremental changes in behaviour, a New Year's resolution to reduce your consumption of single-use plastics is a doddle to stick to.