Illustration of different pieces of single-use plastic in a pileiStock

Going plastic-free is tough - here are some tips that might help

Let's stop killing the planet, y'all

Ashitha Nagesh
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This year we've heard the message loud and clear - single-use plastic is bad, bad, bad.

Ever since Blue Planet II aired one year ago this month, we've been increasingly conscious of the vast islands of plastic floating in the ocean. Graphic images of dead albatrosses and whales with plastic spilling out of their stomachs have circulated on the internet, sparking a national debate.

It wasn’t too long ago that many of us didn’t even think twice about this stuff. We’d pick up a coffee in a disposable cup on our way into work, get food to go for lunch in a takeaway container, and at the end of the day grab some shopping from the supermarket - carried home in a plastic bag.

Then we’d throw all of that plastic away. Sometimes it might go into the recycling bin, while we felt smug thinking we’d done our bit. Little did we know that not all of it would be recycled, instead getting dumped in landfills overseas.

So now we know the harm single-use plastics can do, many of us are looking for ways to use less of it - but it can, at times, feel like mission impossible.

So, we’ve picked the brains of some eco–experts whose advice covers everything from what you eat, to what you use when you’re on your period. Here are their top tips.

Invest in a lunchbox

You can save so much plastic by doing something as simple as taking a packed lunch in your own lunchbox. Take your own portable cutlery and avoid using cling film too for extra eco-points.

Make your sandwiches the night before if you're not a morning person.

Pawan Saunya, who set up an online plastic-free grocery shop, tells BBC Three that you don’t need to buy fancy metal tiffin boxes: “Just take in an old ice cream tub or take-away box, if you have one.”

Or invest in that unicorn-covered lunchbox that you always wanted but your parents refused to buy you.

See, going plastic-free can be fun.

Drink coffee out of jam jars

Plastic Tips CupsiStock

Most disposable coffee cups have a hidden plastic lining, which makes them particularly hard to recycle - for the moment, there are only a small number of specialist plants in the UK that are able to process them. Which is why only one in 400 of them ends up actually being recycled.

So one of the easiest ways you can cut down on plastic use is by getting a reusable coffee cup.

Pawan says that, despite lots of high-profile marketing campaigns, if you want to save money then you don’t actually need to spend loads on a tumbler or reusable glass.

“You can just use an old jam or peanut butter jar that you have at home,” he suggests. “Just take that into a cafe and they’ll fill it up for you.”

Obviously, we should warn you that you'll need a rubber cover or something to protect your hands from the burning heat. Plus, you should look up the kind of glass your jam jar is made of, just to make sure it's suitable for boiling water.

Change up your toilet paper

That's right - nothing is off-limits here.

You've probably noticed that whenever you buy loo roll, it's wrapped up in a load of plastic. Not great.

Claudi Williams, who runs a blog about how she and her family live totally plastic-free, says this was one of the biggest challenges when she first gave up plastic three years ago.

"There was an urgency, like, 'ahh, we're running out of toilet paper!' that also made it really fun to find alternatives," she explains (although running out of loo roll sounds like the least fun thing to us).

"I just went online and searched, and eventually came across a company that delivers toilet paper wrapped in paper, and the paper itself was sustainable and bamboo, so very natural."

So now you can wipe without guilt.

Think about the fish you eat

Yes, we’re sorry to say that your Friday night fish and chips is contributing to plastic pollution, too.

All because of (drum roll please)... fishing nets.

According to recent surveys of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, plastic fishing nets and other discarded fishing paraphernalia made up 46% of the waste pile.

Forty. Six. Percent. That is a hell of a lot of fishing stuff.

This is why Claudi says that she doesn’t eat fish at all.

“Things like straws aren’t as important to me,” she tells BBC Three. “Plastic straws only represent 0.3% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - while fishing nets are actually 46%. So if you really want to make a difference, stop eating fish, or maybe do some campaigning to change the fishing industry.”

Shop at plastic-free supermarkets

Plastic Tips Bags3iStock

Basically, plastic-free supermarkets are exactly what they sound like: shops where the stuff you need to buy isn’t wrapped in plastic, or handed to you in plastic bags. They're not super common, but they do exist.

Instead, you take your own cloth bag and grocery containers and fill them up with whatever you want. Usually, these are then charged by weight.

Although for now there are only a small number of physical plastic-free shops in the UK, there are plenty of plastic-free online shops - so get Googling.

Make your own toiletries

We’re aware this one seems a bit hardcore - but it does make sense.

Claudi started by making her own toothpaste: “Once I found a recipe I just tried it out, and it worked straight away. The homemade stuff is made from some of the same ingredients as many commercial toothpastes - bicarbonate of soda, vegetable glycerine and peppermint oil.”

Obviously, if you live quite a busy life, it can seem a bit of a pain to sit down and make your own toothpaste from scratch - but Claudi insists it’s actually really quick.

“Really, it only takes a minute to make a batch that lasts you and your family a week,” she says.

She applies the same principle to other toiletries, too. If it comes in a plastic tube or bottle, she either finds a plastic-free alternative or makes it herself.

Oh, and speaking of toiletries…

Make your periods plastic-free

Yup. Sounds messy, but hear us out.

Sanitary pads are the most popular form of period-control around the world, and the average woman throws away more than 10,000 of them in her lifetime.

BUT, wait a second - did you know that pads are in some cases made up of about 90% plastic? And that they contain as much plastic as four - four - supermarket bags?

Even tampons, which are mostly made up of cotton and rayon, have components that are made up of polyester materials - and of course, a lot of them come inside plastic applicators.

And all this period waste has to end up somewhere - and that somewhere appears to be on our beaches. According to the Marine Conservation Society, during their 2017 annual clean up they found hundreds of pads, tampons and applicators washed up among the sand and pebbles.

So if you want to go plastic-free during your time of the month, it may be time to invest in a reusable alternative - that is, a menstrual cup.

In case you have no idea how they work, you basically pop one in, bleed into it and then empty, wash it out and re-use it as often as you need to.

Turn your plastic into art

Daniel Webb kept all of his plastic for a yearOllie Harrop/Everyday Plastic
Daniel Webb kept all of his plastic for a year

Let's say you've followed all of these tips but you just can't kick the crisp habit. (It's hard, OK, they're just so salty and potatoey and good...)

Well in that case, at least do something constructive with your waste, rather than sending them all away to landfill. Such as turning all of it into art.

Like Daniel Webb. Daniel is an artist who collected all the plastic he used in a year and stuck it to a massive billboard in Margate, to make a point about how much single-use plastic the average person can plough through.

At the end of the 12 months, he sorted through the whole thing and counted out how many pieces of plastic he would have wasted. Turns out, he went through 4,500 individual items - all of which would have ended up in landfill.

But he's optimistic. He says that previous law changes, such as the 5p plastic bag charge and the microbeads ban, show that such changes can work.

“The government added a 5p charge to plastic bags, and then all of a sudden people just started bringing their own bags until usage fell by 85%. It can happen like that with a lot of other single-use items as well - so we need to be pushing for that change.”

Then there's Veronika Richterova, a Czech artist who makes sculptures out of old plastic bottles.

Once she's done with them, they end up looking like massive plastic crocodiles, penguins, cactuses, and seemingly any other animal or plant you can think of.

Veronika says on her site that she's been making these plastic sculptures since 2004, when she first realised that you could change the shape of the bottles just by heating them up enough.

"I didn’t anticipate that plastic bottles would become such an obsession for me for many years," she adds. 

And last but, clearly, not least...

Always carry a canvas bag

Yeah yeah, we know, you've heard this one a million times before - but it's such an obvious tip that we couldn't not include it.

It’s hard to believe that each person in England once got through 140 single-use plastic carrier bags in a year. Since the government introduced a 5p charge on the bags in October 2015, that figure is closer to around 25 bags each - a reduction of more than six billion bags. Well done humans.

So this seems like the best place to start, if you haven't already. If you’re still using plastic shopping bags when you go to the supermarket, start taking your own reusable cloth bags instead.

You don’t need to buy specially made bags for life or anything like that, either. Just take an old rucksack or something with you to the shop.

So, there you go - if you've read all the way to bottom of this, then there really is no excuse for you not to start your plastic-free life immediately. 

For more tips follow the BBC's Plastic Actions - and for some environmental inspo, watch Drowning in Plastic on BBC One.