How easy is it to avoid single-use plastics for one week?

Plastic free shopping bag

We catch up with students that took the Plastic Free July challenge to avoid single-use plastics to see how they got on.

  • 26 July 2021
  • 7 min read
Plastic Free July is a global movement to encourage us to rethink our relationship with plastic.

This year staff and students at the University staff rose to the challenge as part of our Revolution Plastics initiative.

Here three students explain how easy, or difficult, it is to avoid single-use plastics for just one week. And recommend their best eco-friendly, plastic free swaps.

Serena Cunsolo

Serena Cunsolo, PhD student studying plastic pollution

Plastic Free July sparked my creativity. It gave me the chance to reflect and change the habits I’ve been struggling with and try some sustainable alternatives.

Serena Cunsolo, PhD student studying plastic pollution

The Plastic Free July challenge was difficult because plastic is everywhere. It has a constant presence in our lives. While I’m used to reducing the amount of single-use plastics in my daily life, going plastic free for one week was still a huge challenge. 

This was mainly because it was hard to find items at the supermarket that weren’t wrapped in plastic. In order to find plastic free alternatives, you need to source food and products from different shops and locations, which isn’t convenient. 

Besides the accessibility of the products, another barrier to going plastic free was the higher price for some of the sustainable alternatives ‒ especially toiletries. I can’t afford to purchase plastic free options on a regular basis.

The hardest habits to change were giving up nuts and dairy for one week. In a city, it’s difficult to source plastic free dairy products. For instance, I wanted to buy milk in glass bottles, but I couldn’t find a supplier that delivers to my postcode area. And farm shops are located relatively far away. As for nuts, zero waste shops can provide plastic free alternatives but they are often a lot more expensive. 

As a celiac, my food intolerance plays a role too. The availability of plastic free, gluten free food is limited. However, this has motivated me to better plan my meals. At the beginning I struggled, but once I got used to the new routine I noticed the difference. The impact it had in terms of the amount of plastic waste in my bins was evident. 

For me, the easiest plastic swaps were the ones I had already tried:

  • buying loose vegetables and fruits at the supermarket
  • using a bamboo toothbrush (while recycling the bristles made of nylon) and tablets instead of toothpaste in a plastic tube
  • reusable bags
  • glass or reusable plastic Tupperware tubs
  • ‘Keep cup’ (reusable glass cup for hot drinks)
  • stainless steel water bottle
  • bamboo cotton buds
  • homemade face cream
  • homemade lip balm
  • reusable cotton eye pad 
  • coconut oil in glass jar (as makeup remover) 
  • reusable face mask

Plastic Free July sparked my creativity. It gave me the chance to reflect and change the habits I’ve been struggling with and try some sustainable alternatives.

These are the swaps I made which I’ll continue for the rest of the month and beyond:

  • Going to a local farm shop for veggies and fruits that I can’t find loose at the supermarket
  • Going to a butcher or fishmonger where you can take your own container. Some supermarkets allow this too, but have temporarily stopped due to Covid-19 restrictions.
  • Making homemade bread 
  • Trialling a homemade deodorant
  • Planning to buy reusable menstrual pads
Serena Cunsolo collected her plastic week for one week

Throughout the challenge, Serena collected the single-use plastics she couldn't avoid in a jar

The biggest lesson learned for me is that we don’t need to be anti-plastic warriors to make an impact. It’s okay if we’re not able to avoid plastic completely – as my one-week plastic waste jar photo shows. We can reduce our plastic footprint by saying no to unnecessary plastics. 

My suggestion for those who would like to switch to a low-waste lifestyle is to not get overwhelmed by the feeling of responsibility, which can lead to guilt. By focusing on small changes in our habits, one-step at a time, it’s possible to make long-lasting eco-swaps.

My suggestion for those who would like to switch to a low-waste lifestyle is to not get overwhelmed by the feeling of responsibility. By focusing on small changes in our habits, one-step at a time, it’s possible to make long-lasting eco-swaps.

Serena Cunsolo, PhD student studying plastic pollution

Steph Northen

Stephanie Northen, MRes Marine Biology student

The challenge has taught me to not be too hard on yourself when there aren’t alternatives available as you have made the effort to avoid plastic. The rest is for the government and companies to make important changes to control plastic production and consumption.

Steph Northen, MRes Marine Biology student

As a vegetarian, I found it fairly easy to find plastic free fruit and veg, such as peppers, onions, potatoes and courgettes, in mainstream supermarkets. But it was almost impossible to find salad vegetables, such as lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes that weren’t wrapped in plastic. Plastic free protein food for vegetarians is also very limited. This is something I eat regularly and I like to try interesting new food, but this is always in plastic packaging that is not recyclable in Portsmouth.

The most difficult part of this challenge was finding cosmetics and toiletries that are plastic free. Eco-friendly cleaning products are also a lot more expensive compared with products by leading brands. In this case I found these products easier to purchase from eco, refill stores around Portsmouth including Wild Thyme, The Package Free Larder and Herbies

I’d like to continue my plastic free journey the best I can, possibly with a ‘cheat’ day when my commitments make it hard to avoid some plastics. For example, I’ve found it difficult to be entirely plastic free when I’ve had plans with friends, such as catering for a BBQ. You can’t always buy meat or a large number of bread rolls to please everyone’s needs while still being affordable. But being more plastic free or ‘plastic conscious’ in my day-to-day life was definitely manageable within a busy schedule without too many obstacles. 

These are the plastic free swaps that I’ll continue to use:

  • Packing a spare Tupperware box, cutlery and a coffee cup in my bag when heading out
  • Using plastic free sanitary products and bamboo toothbrushes and razors
  • Refilling my shampoo and conditioner bottles and using soap bars.

I think these are the easiest changes individuals can make that don’t break the bank but reduce a significant amount of regular plastic consumption.

The Plastic Free July challenge has taught me to not be too hard on yourself when there aren’t alternatives available as you have made the effort to avoid plastic. The rest is for the government and companies to make important changes to control plastic production and consumption.

Being more plastic free or ‘plastic conscious’ in my day-to-day life was definitely manageable within a busy schedule without too many obstacles.

Steph Northen, MRes Marine Biology student

Laura Nieminen

Laura Nieminen, MSc Applied Aquatic Biology student

The biggest challenge to going plastic free was the availability of items not wrapped in plastic, particularly groceries. Manufacturers and supermarkets need to do better.

Laura Nieminen, MSc Applied Aquatic Biology student

The biggest challenge to going plastic free was the availability of items not wrapped in plastic. It is still very minimal in the leading supermarkets. For example, I love berries, and there was nowhere I could find them not wrapped in plastic. The greatest source of plastic in my household is definitely groceries. Manufacturers and supermarkets need to do better.

The easiest swaps were buying plastic free vegetables and using a refillable bottle rather than buying bottled water. And one swap that I’ll definitely continue is replacing my plastic coffee pods with aluminium, which is easier to recycle. I've also been using shampoo bars for a couple of years now, but after this week I’m going to try refillable shampoos and conditioners for a change.

I’m planning to continue the challenge of going plastic free beyond Plastic Free July. I try to minimise plastic wherever possible. Most of my cosmetics are plastic free  they’re packaged in glass jars with aluminium lids or lipstick in aluminium cases. I also use loofahs both in the shower and in the kitchen to save using plastic-based sponges.

I think the best way to take action on plastic is to first take stock of what you can easily change in your household and lifestyles. Start there and the hunger for reducing plastic grows the more you do it.

I think the best way to take action on plastic is to first take stock of what you can easily change in your household and lifestyles. Start there and the hunger for reducing plastic grows the more you do it.

Laura Nieminen, MSc Applied Aquatic Biology student

Share your experience

Did you take part in Plastic Free July? We’d love to know how you got on and hear your top tips for avoiding single-use plastics. Let us know over on Twitter, where you’ll also find Serena, Laura and Steph’s video diaries from their plastic free week.

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