My first attempt at plastic-free supermarket shopping made me think Plastic Free July might actually save money – because there was so little I could buy!
Fear not though, we won’t actually starve.
Since then, I’ve tried several more options:
- switched supermarket
- visited the fish van
- tried local shops
- took bags to the market
- signed up for milk delivered in glass bottles
- sowed some seeds
- refilled containers at a bulk shop
- prepped packed lunches
- found substitute snacks
Here’s what I’ve learnt from my first week trying to buy food plastic-free.
Table of Contents
As mentioned in my previous post, I emerged from my first plastic-free shopping trip to the Co-op with a couple of loose peppers. And yes, they were more expensive than buying mixed peppers in a plastic bag.
Previous post: Plastic Free July on a budget
Undeterred, I headed to Morrisons, one of the few supermarkets to have taken concrete action to reduce plastic waste. Morrisons provides paper bags for loose fruit and veg, and allows customers to provide their own containers when ordering from the fish, meat and deli counters.
Kudos to Morrisons for also selling cucumbers that aren’t shrink wrapped, though the range of loose fruit and veg in our branch was limited. I had to sail past all the soft fruit and salad wrapped in plastic, and ended up buying more exotic options (asparagus, melon, celeriac) alongside my ordinary veg.
I could definitely have improved matters if:
a) I’d shown up while the meat and fish counters were still open. Apparently they close around 5pm, even when the store doesn’t shut till 10pm.
b) I’d actually remembered to take my own containers for meat and fish (doh)
However, many thanks to Rena on the deli counter for being so helpful about cutting a chunk of cheddar, and going along with my weird request for paper not plastic packaging.
I had to steer my trolley straight past the dairy, meat and fish aisles, and the only option left for unpackaged bread was pick and mix brown rolls (£1.50 for 6).
Buying Heinz tomato ketchup in a glass bottle, rather the big plastic bottles on special offer, also cost twice as much: £1.44 for 342g rather than £3 for 1.4kg (so 42.1p/100g rather than 21.4p/100g).
I ended up swearing at the pasta and rice shelves, all neatly in plastic bags, and had to back track for potatoes instead.
As a budget cook, it was also frustrating to find it was easier to buy processed food plastic free, such as beef pie and crumbed fish in cardboard boxes and foil containers, than to buy raw ingredients. Hence the Young’s Chip Shop fillets and the yellow-snickered Morrisons sausage rolls, which turned out to have a plastic window in the paper bag 🙁
Visited the fish van
On day 2 of Plastic Free July, I headed to the George pub car park. Obvs.
Hadleigh doesn’t have a fishmonger, but this is where Paul Utting brings his fish van on Tuesday mornings. He was very happy to fold up smoked haddock straight into the box I offered, and said several other customers do the same.
However, it also reminded me that I normally benefit from yellow-stickered food. I rarely buy fish that isn’t reduced by 50%. I got great quality smoked haddock, fresh from the smokery, but it cost nearly a tenner.
Tried local shops
Next stop: Andrews the butchers.
Again, the butcher was happy to pack mince into the box I’d brought, although I’m not sure how much plastic waste I avoided, as he weighed it into a plastic bag first. The butcher also offered advice on storage, suggesting that I put it in the fridge on a plate with another plate on top, rather than leaving the mince to sweat in a plastic box.
Again, I’m used to paying £3.33 for 500g of 5% fat mince in a Morrisons ‘3 for £10’ offer, or roughly half that if I can find it yellow-stickered. At Andrews, my mince cost more at £4.18 for 500g.
Took bags to the market
Friday is market day in Hadleigh, and my best bet for buying loose fruit, veg and bread in brown paper bags. Only trouble is that Carl the greengrocer is a one man band, so I faced a lengthy queue before I could load up.
Stuff like the chunky lemons, vine-ripened tomatoes and cherries are all great quality and good prices. However, I couldn’t get everything on my list – no celery, no oranges so got large satsumas, no ordinary peaches so went for flat versions, no iceberg lettuce, so got a frilly green version instead. Going plastic-free does seem to involve a lot of swaps and substitutions.
I asked about buying soft fruit without a plastic box, and Carl explained I could bring back the punnets for him to use again, so I succumbed to some strawberries.
Elsewhere the bread at Woosters stall is always good, but it still costs £2.20 odd each for a small soft batch white loaf or a wholemeal loaf. I’m used to buying cheap super market bread for 60p to 85p a loaf.
Couldn’t resist the Crystal Waters fish van either – though again, I hadn’t brought plastic boxes as I wasn’t expecting to use them. I ended up buying smoked mackerel in a small ordinary plastic bag and salmon fillets in a fully decomposable plastic bag. Not ideal, but suppose at least it didn’t involve buying polystyrene trays. Again, good quality, but I didn’t get much change out of £20.
Signed up for milk delivered in glass bottles
As a family, we get through a lot of milk. Our local authority does claim to recycle plastic milk cartons. However, for Plastic Free July I was keen to try milk delivered in glass bottles, which I could rinse and return.
Turns out you can get 20% off your first delivery over £5 from Milk & More with code MILK20, so I loaded the first order with extra milk, orange juice and a breakfast pack of eggs, more orange juice and bacon (sadly plastic wrapped). There are loads of other tempting photos for bread, veg boxes, yogurt and so on, but most options seem to be organic rather than plastic free.
The website reckons deliveries should arrive before 7am, but ours didn’t show up until somewhere between 9.45am and 10.45am, after multiple checks and a couple of calls to customer services. The lady on the phone swore blind that the Ipswich route does usually show up earlier, and subsequent deliveries have been fine.
On the face of it, the milk is distinctly more expensive. Normally I can get 8 pints for £2.18 to £2.20 at Morrisons or the Co-op, which is just 27.5p a pint. With Milk & More, a pint of ordinary semi-skimmed in a glass bottle costs 81p, nearly three times as much. Ouch.
However, one member of the Much More With Less #MoneySavingYear group over on Facebook (do come and join us!) pointed out that she saves money by getting milk delivered, because then she doesn’t spend more on top up shops when nipping out for milk.
Sowed some seeds
It seems hard to find salad leaves or herbs without plastic packaging, so I tracked down my seed packets in an attempt to grow my own. I now have pots of coriander, parsley, rocket and assorted cut-and-come-again salad leaves sitting on the kitchen window sill. Given I used seeds, flower pots and compost I already had, I spent a grand total of 0p.
So far the salad leaves are sprouting but I haven’t spotted any movement in the other pots. My track record with house plants is not great, so keep your fingers crossed…
Refilled containers at a bulk shop
On Saturday, we went on a voyage of discovery to a new bulk shop in Tiptree, the REco Store. Yup, rock ‘n’ roll!
I was mainly interested plastic-free sources of cereal, rice and pasta, as I could see rebellion brewing at home if I consigned everyone to Quaker Oats and potatoes.
With bulk or refill stores, you take your own containers to be filled up, thus avoiding single use plastic packaging. The shop weighs your container before and after filling it, so it can calculate the quantity you’ve bought.
This time, I did load up with an assortment of plastic containers, jam jars, cloth bags and paper bags from the market, though it was tricky working out what to take without knowing exactly what the REco Store stocked.
Turns out it may not be a big space, but they’ve packed in loads of different dry foods, plus toiletries, cleaning products and assorted other plastic-free options, which the owner was more than happy to explain.
Starting on the left in the pic above, we went for penne pasta, cous cous, fancy muesli, popcorn kernels, dried apple slices, puffed rice and raisins. My daughter was also delighted to find chocolate-covered raisins to spend her pocket money on.
It’s tricky to do a price comparison as I didn’t get an itemised receipt. Think I spent about a tenner on the food stuff? Next time I’ll scribble down more prices. I figured we already had quite a lot of rice and pulses like lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans, but we may yet be back for more!
Prepped for packed lunches
Turns out plastic-free July means chucking out my normal packed lunch preparations. For the kids, I usually make sandwiches and add items from multi packs of fruit shoots, crisps, yogurt tubes and whichever chocolate biscuits like Penguins or Clubs are on offer – but they’re all wrapped in plastic.
My daughter and I were invited to a birthday picnic on Sunday, so I ended up refilling a bottle with squash, making popcorn from the REco Store kernels and baking choc chip cookies. I took along the dried apple slices from the REco Store, big chunks of watermelon from the market, and reused paper bags to wrap our sandwiches.
For a work trip, I also had to grab a super speedy ham sandwich, apple and satsuma when rushing out of the door. I suddenly realised that a £3.99 meal deal at the station (sandwich, crisps, orange juice) would all be packed in plastic.
Found substitute snacks
One highlight of Plastic Free July – turns out my free Krispy Kreme doughnut, via the Krispy Kreme app, came in a paper bag!
Top tips from my first attempts at plastic-free food shopping
After a week, my main conclusions so far are:
- Allow extra time. I couldn’t find everything in a single supermarket, but ended up visiting local shops and stalls plus a longer journey to the refill store. As a I work from home, I could also make it to a market on a Friday morning, and potentially Morrisons while the counters are still open. That wouldn’t be an option if I was still working full time in an office.
- Grit your teeth for extra expense. Loose fruit and veg often cost more than pre-packaged. I’m sad virtually everything in the yellow-stickered sections are now off limits. I’m sure the bread, fish and meat I’ve bought plastic-free was better quality, but it also cost more. Plastic-free shopping shouldn’t be an expensive luxury.
- Plan ahead. Grabbing food on the go is trickier, if you want to avoid plastic. I had to prepare picnics, packed lunches and snacks beforehand.
- Get cooking. Although some convenience food was easier to find plastic-free than raw ingredients, I’ve had to make our own versions of stuff like popcorn and biscuits. The kids aren’t delighted that most sweets are now off the table.
- Resign yourself to more limited choice. Bye bye celery, welcome celeriac, in my case.
- Don’t forget your boxes and bags! It’s weird trying to guess what I’m going to buy and how much, so I can take the right containers.
- Bring cash, when shopping at markets.
- Paper bags and glass bottles do have drawbacks, creating more carbon dioxide during the manufacturing process, plus the costs of transporting heavier glass. So do reuse both. I’ve also been washing out heavy duty plastic freezer bags, used a fruit punnet as a flower pot for some of my seeds and hoarded empty shampoo bottles to take to the refill store.
- People were happy to help. I was actually surprised how people in shops and stalls went out of their way to help, when I explained about Plastic Free July. Long may it continue!
Now – over to you. What are your top tips for food shopping plastic-free? Still have a lot to learn, so do share in the comments, I’d love to hear!