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For Zero Waste Week (Sep 2-6) we’re sharing this story from Philippa, a married mum-of-four from Newcastle. She explains why her family decided to go plastic-free in 2019 – and how they’re getting on.

Last year I saw that picture of a floating island of plastic. It sickened me, especially as some of the bags shown in the picture were from supermarkets I used. Realising that I was contributing to this plastic epidemic, I knew I had to change something. 

It took six months of research before we went for it in January 2019. The easiest thing to change was taking my own containers to the butcher. They want my business, so they’re happy to accommodate it. When I go, the butcher says: "This lady brings her own tubs because she's saving the planet one plastic container at a time.” I also started buying fruit and veg from farm shops or grocery shops, and milk in glass bottles from a local milkman.

I decided just not to buy things wrapped in plastic. If they don’t have a plastic-free alternative, I don't buy it. Grapes are my saddest loss – although some markets do sell them loose. It did take time to find washing-up liquid and fabric conditioner that didn’t come in plastic containers.

I don’t throw out any usable plastic containers; I use them over and over. Ice-cream tubs make great storage items in store cupboards or freezer, and cereal bags make excellent freezer bags. If I can't source breakfast cereals at a refill shop I do still buy them from the supermarket, but reuse the packaging until it falls apart. Refill shops are becoming increasingly popular, and they stock a larger range of products.

With two teenage daughters we have the sanitary product issue. I don’t think the washable products are quite as effective, but it’s worth it to cut down on discarded products going to landfill. I used washable nappies when the children were babies: it's just a different way of embarking on an unpleasant aspect of life! Modern machines do a great job of washing them if you rinse them out thoroughly first.

We’ve learned to bake bread, using both the old school method and in a bread machine. It’s also easy to make yoghurt in thermos flasks. We take our own water bottles and coffee mugs out with us. Some of our friends have started using bamboo toothbrushes and ‘Who Gives a Crap' loo rolls now. People come to us for advice on which plastic-free alternatives we’d recommend. I think when people know you're up and running with plastic-free living, you become an easy short-cut, as it’s time-consuming to find out where to source things.  

You can buy bars of shampoo or conditioner online or in an increasing number of shops. I dissolve them in boiling water, then put them in existing bottles. Pet food can be bought in tins or sacks. Lots of chocolate bars come in paper and foil; the foil can be reused as a food cover. Beeswax wraps are fun – a bit pricey but they last ages. Butter wrapping or similar can be used to grease tins when baking.

We’ve learned a lot – and we’re still learning – but some of the changes aren’t as hard as you’d expect. Start small, and keep going – we really can all make a difference!

You can find more top tips on cutting down on plastic on the Tearfund Action page.

Philippa Pugh