I was prompted by someone on Twitter to write about this – it’s been on the (very long) list for a while now.
It’s a bit of a thorny issue and something which gets quite a lot of discussion already – it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to say anything that has never been said before on this, but you never know.
Here’s the question. Is it the premise of the middle classes only (and presumably those richer than the middle class) to make plastic-free choices? Is it possible to be poor and still go plastic-free? When, for example, a plastic-free deodorant costs maybe two or three times the price of a plastic roll-on bought in a supermarket? (I tried, I really did… I will do a final report on the Great Deodorant Experiment one day). When supermarkets charge more for loose fruit and vegetables than they do for the produce wrapped in plastic? (This article discusses why that might be the case).
A couple of things have happened recently which have made me think about this issue, particularly in relation to fruit and vegetable shopping. It is of course a much wider issue than just food choices, but I’ve seen some eco-influencers (with sexy Instagram accounts and monetised blogs, so they must be doing something right) saying that they have massively reduced their food spend since implementing changes to live more sustainably. They manage to shop mainly organic and plastic-free (including, as one of them mentioned, the fortnightly Ocado shop…) and still save money.
So here’s our little story. As I posted way back many moons ago when this blog was in its infancy, we like to go to our local greengrocers for our fruit and veg as much as possible, to get predominantly organic and plastic-free produce. I very rarely buy produce in the supermarket now. In normal times, going to the greengrocer is an almost daily outing – the small one loves it, I get to speak to a grown-up, there’s no plastic wrapping to deal with, everyone’s a winner. But at the moment it’s hard for us to manage these trips – I can’t take the boy in the buggy and maintain social distancing and safety, as he’s still small and touches or licks things and it’s just too stressful. My husband can’t easily go during the daytime and the shop is running reduced opening hours to protect their staff, which is totally understandable. So we’ve been buying fruit and veg from the supermarket and oh my god the plastic is a pain in the arse to put in the ecobrick. So in the spirit of my recent ecobricking resolutions, I decided to do something about it and order us a fruit and veg box. And here it is, in all its glory.
Critical point to mention – it’s from a New Covent Garden supplier, who normally sell produce to restaurants, but in the current situation they are using their supply chain to get produce directly to customers at home. So they’re not marketing themselves as plastic-free, local or seasonal. This medium sized fruit and veg box cost £32 and to be fair, it is amazing quality and will probably last us nearly two weeks. BUT. I put the same produce into the online shopping calculator on the Asda website and it’s half the price. Also, it’s not completely plastic-free, as you can see in the picture. (Only the salad bag, herbs, cucumber, bananas and some of the potatoes were in plastic though, and of course in the supermarket nearly all of it would be in plastic packaging.) And it’s not seasonal or local.
Other cheaper veg boxes are available – for example the Oddbox equivalent medium box is £14.99. This is a brilliant initiative to reduce food waste by selling imperfect produce rejected by supermarkets. It’s local and seasonal and all packaging is recyclable. But they only cover the London area and they deliver overnight – I want to try them out but I have concerns that our box would get nicked or ravaged by foxes before we got to it. Riverford is also cheaper and much better on the plastic and local produce front. But they’re running a waiting list at the moment and I believe you have to commit to a regular order. So there is more research to be done.
But, back to the privilege point. We all have to buy food. Most people buy food in a supermarket because it’s a cheap option – Mr Tesco et al have massive economies of scale that smaller shops struggle to replicate. We also shop in supermarkets because it’s easy – it’s all there in one place, they’re open long hours and you don’t have to think too much or make lots of decisions. So, in my view, privilege is about more than just money. Sure, you can probably find a veg box which is a similar price point to supermarkets, and maybe a refill shop where some things are cheaper and some things are more expensive, so it evens out – remember my surprisingly cheap organic thyme? So much of this, though, depends on time (see what I did there?) and choice, and that’s the crux of privilege. Time to do the research for the best veg box, and time to go to four different shops each week to get what you need, not to mention the financial head room to pay the plastic-free premium where it does exist. (Do families need to be in a position to have a stay at home parent to actually pull this off? Usually a woman? Is plastic a feminist issue…? Why does every post I write lead me to though processes for about another ten?)
And interestingly, the current situation where it’s been hard to get hold of certain foods seems to caused this particular penny to drop for some eco-influencers – those hardcore anti-plastic folk who couldn’t get to their local zero waste shop for rice, so had to buy it in plastic from Asda. Their choice has been taken away from them. So maybe this will engender some more empathy and understanding for people who work full-time and can’t fit in multiple shopping trips each week, or people who have no childcare support and can’t drag multiple kids to multiple shops, or are so frazzled by their life that they can’t work out if a veg box would be cheaper than Asda and they haven’t got time to do the admin anyway.
Just like we are NOT all in the same boat in relation to lockdown, we are not all in the same boat in how we can respond to the challenges of plastic pollution and climate change, and it’s important to remember that, now more than ever.
And here’s a little anonymous lockdown poem which has been doing the rounds on social media which I don’t hate, just for good measure (I’ve cut some bits out where I’ve seen various versions that don’t quite make sense).
WE ARE NOT IN THE SAME BOAT …
I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Your ship could be shipwrecked and mine might not be. Or vice versa.
For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflection, of re-connection, easy in flip flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial & family crisis.
For some that live alone they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest & time with their mother, father, sons & daughters.
Some are not getting on with family and domestic abuse is rife…we never know what goes on behind closed doors.
Some were concerned about getting a certain candy for Easter while others were concerned if there would be enough bread, milk and eggs for the weekend.
Some want to go back to work because they don’t qualify for unemployment and are running out of money. Others want to kill those who break the quarantine.
Some are home spending 2-3 hours/day helping their child with online schooling while others are spending 2-3 hours/day to educate their children on top of a 10-12 hour workday.
Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe this is a big deal.
Some have faith in God and expect miracles during this 2020. Others say the worst is yet to come.
So, friends, we are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different.
Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is very important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing.
We are all on different ships during this storm experiencing a very different journey.
Realize that and be kind.
My husband was very concerned at the beginning of our plastic free journey that it was going to be too expensive. Some time on, we find we have managed to cut our monthly outings by 25% . This is basically because
1, there are some things that you simply stop buying when you go plastic free and eco friendly. Examples would be kitchen towel, cling film, cleaning products
2. Some apparently moreExpensive eco friendly products – like shampoo bars – last so long. That they end up being REALLY CHEAP. Our first shampoo bar has been washing my sons hair for nearly two years and I would say we are only half way through. No kids shampoo bought in two years after spending a fiver. Not bad. A salt rock deodorant unpackaged sets you back a fiver and will also last about two years.
3. We buy certain things in giant quantities from a local fruit and veg market. A pound a bowl gets you two kilos of blueberries for example. that’s enough to freeze inPortions and last about two months in my house.
4. We use a packaging free buying collective for dry goods and personal goods. This is on average 30% cheaper than a supermarket.
5. We have reduced the amount of meat we eat which saves money. We spend the savings on treats from a farm but if I was trying to save even more money, I can get meat from loads of places that are cheaper than the supermarket and will just put it in my Tupperware. I’ve also found cheaper than supermarket cheese that I can take away in Tupperware.
6. The savings on all this stuff means we can buy expensive eco friendly options here and there including delivered milk and STILL enjoy much lower outgoings.
However, despite the cost savings, it’s still a MASSIVE sign of privilege. Because sourcing everything takes time and energy and if you’re working 12 hour shifts to make ends meet or you’re a struggling single parent, time and energy are things you don’t have. If that were me, I would probably still be ordering from Asda without a second thought because priorities.
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Thanks for this- really good points! Yes, the time and the energy expansion is just as important as the financial impact. Plus space for a big freezer! (You know I’m envious of your second freezer!)
You will have to tell me where you get your meat and cheese from.
Thanks for reading x
The freezer still hasn’t arrived 😂😂😂
Don’t know if you’ve tried Abel and Cole – they’ve closed to new orders but have some slots available for ‘refer a friend’ so can pass that on if you’re interested. They were doing a totally plastic free box but have streamlined their options to make packing quicker and easier.
And, yes, agree. I was managing to reduce plastic down but it was taking a lot of time, energy and mental space. And also car ownership to actually access the refill place!
Sorry, I missed this comment at the time! See latest post re Abel and Cole, they are brilliant!
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This was a great read, thank you! I grew up in low socioeconomic family, and try as we did to make sustainable choices, there just wasn’t enough education, time, or money. It is definitely possible to live a plastic-free lifestyle without spending more than usual, but it takes a lot more research and time, and diligence – things I still often struggle with now as a full time uni student.
This is a topic I was interested in as a personal trainer too. It’s equally hard for working class families to make generally healthier choices when it comes to food (which correlates a fair bit with plastic-free food). A lot of it comes down to education, time/stress (like you’ve touched on), and skills, which is why it’s so important for schools to teach kids life skills like cooking!
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Totally agree with this – so much is connected to education, and having the “headspace” to research and make decisions is in itself a privilege.