Hunting down plastic-free food & drink
Like many people I see the need to be kinder to the environment, and lately I’ve been focusing more attention on the food and drink that I buy. In particular I’ve been trying to avoid single use plastic, but it turns up unexpectedly all over the place now: most teabags, most wrappers, and even almost-invisibly lining some cardboard boxes. It takes some doing.
I’ve also been trying to avoid buying so much food and drink related plastic in general after finding out that some so-called recyclable plastics aren’t actually that easy to recycle. For example, many black plastic trays end up in landfill because their colour cannot be picked out by most sorting machines.
For me, cutting back on plastic has required more than one approach. I switched to reusables such as metal water bottles and glass jars a while back, and more recently I’ve been trying out food shops that offer container refills and finding brands that sell their food and drink in completely plastic-free packaging.
When I was a kid there was a plastic-free shop in the dustiest, most run down part of our town’s indoor market. I think we just called it ‘the barrel shop’ and it was the bargain sub-basement of all the local bargain basements. Everything in it was sold out of big blue barrels with hatches on top, with scoops on strings tied to the hatch handles. You took your own containers along, had them weighed, and scooped out as much as you needed (or as much as you could afford, depending upon your circumstances).
If you forgot your own container you could use a paper bag. It was all dried goods: sugar, flour, oats, raisins, stock granules, lentils, beans, soup mixes, herbs and so on. You could stock up on your store cupboard essentials with ease, as long as you didn’t want anything too fancy, and the lack of plastic wasn’t even mentioned. Fast forward a few years and these shops had all but died out. And then…
…the concept has been brought back, smartened up and kind of had an image rehabilitation. It’s the same business model, but now we’re saving the planet. In my neighbourhood, two different plastic-free shops have opened within weeks of each other, both within hiking distance. The stock is similar to the barrel shop of old, but now much of it’s fairly traded and/or organic, although prices are reasonable all things considered due to the bulk buying and management ethos, and it costs less than the supermarket equivalents. Plus, y’know, no plastic.
Last month I headed over to the HISBE supermarket in Brighton to have a good nosey around their packaging-free section. They’ve been established for longer than the shops near to me, and offer a wider range of products including dried foods, refills of cleaning products, and refills of various types of shampoo, shower gel and other toiletries. Other parts of the store sell plastic-free baked goods, fruit and vegetables, and they have eco-friendly toothbrushes, deodorants, dishcloths and more.
While the shops near to me only cater to vegetarians and vegans, I found HISBE also sold meat and fish, and some packaged foods, much of which was wrapped in plastic. There’s clearly still some way to go, but in general the visit made me feel optimistic because they had plenty of customers and the staff were so enthusiastic.
While these new places are more pleasant to shop in, I still kind of miss the scruffy old barrel-and-scoop shops. Why? Because they’re still a great way to reduce the amount of plastic in circulation even if they aren’t pretty or fashionable, and they’re accessible to more people including those on a lower income. I don’t need to linger over an artisan-barista organic coffee with oatmilk in a bamboo cup while I grab a quick kilo of rice on the way home… Having said that, even if this movement is a bit, er, lifestyle-driven, so what? Less plastic is a good thing, I know, I know. It has to start somewhere.
Perhaps a few similar but cheaper no-frills shops will open now too. Or maybe some of the larger superstores will put a self-serve area among their other groceries?
The big supermarkets seem to be making all the right noises about removing plastic from their own-brand packaging, but in reality some of their proposed changes are moving at a glacial pace. I have to say though, some are better than others and I’ll be reporting back about new finds and developments as they happen. I’m planning some other store visits soon and will come back and let you know what I find.
Plastic-free branded food & drink
There have definitely been some worthwhile innovations lately from both large and small brands. For example, if you need a caffeine boost in the morning you can buy loose tea or loose coffee beans at a fill-your-own-container shop, but what if you’re still hankering after your favourite brand, or something close to it? There’s an increasing number of brands taking plastic out of their tea bags, and the choice of plastic-free coffee pods is growing too although they’re still kind of pricey.
My favourite option at the moment has to be Percol’s plastic-free versions of its coffee beans and ground coffee made in an espresso maker or cafetiere (picture above). The flavours are robust and reliable, and there are different roasts and blends for all kinds of tastes. After enjoying a good espresso kick in the morning I add the used grounds plus the packaging to the compost heap as they’re both fully compostable, and I hear they plan to make the rest of their range 100% free from plastic by the end of 2019. Their bags are made from a clever mixture of paper, plant fibres and eucalyptus wood pulp. The coffee’s sensibly priced too, and available to buy at Waitrose and health food shops.
Another interesting drink idea has to be the cans of still spring water from Life Water. They’re useful for emergencies if you or your guests are caught out without a refillable bottle, and use standard soft drinks cans with minimal ink on them that can essentially be recycled forever. Buy at Amazon UK and they arrive in 100% plastic free boxes, and each sale helps to fund clean water projects around the world. They’re sold in the cafe at the Natural History Museum, and I think these would be the perfect purchase for event planners and anyone working in hospitality too, especially in the warmer months.
We’ve all heard about lovely but expensive plastic-free fruit and veg box delivery schemes, but for good value frozen fruit, vegetables, bakery and fish where you can ‘scoop your own’ into your own containers, look out for field fare stockists such as farm shops and delis around the UK.
While non-recyclable plastic film is all over most supermarket foods, eco-friendly alternatives to it already exist. For example, in the wonderful world of chocolate, Seed & Bean and Eat Your Hat both package their choc bars in fully compostable film that looks like foil, and brands such as Divine Chocolate only wrap their bars in recyclable card and foil.
Finally, let’s not forget all the frozen food that’s available in fully recyclable cardboard cartons, including many supermarket own brand products such as pizzas and fish fingers, and quite a few of the Linda McCartney range of veggie sausages and vegan burgers. Some of these have been around for a while, and new lines continue to be developed – we’ve been enjoying the Linda McCartney chorizo-style vegetarian sausages sliced into stews and rice dishes.
Do you have any favourite plastic-free food or drink brands of your own? What are they? That’s it for today but I’ll be bringing you more shopping news and product reviews soon.
Full disclosure: this post contains a mixture of review samples and products I’ve purchased with my own money, and they’re all things I’ve really liked (no paid placements here).