Before we get started, a slightly unrelated (but surprisingly relevant) message. ripple - Cardiff's first not-for-profit zero waste store - is running a Kickstarter at the moment. Please go check it out, share with your friends and support if you can. Every bit will help to bring a zero waste store to Cardiff!
I have been struggling a bit with how to write this post (in fact the date on the draft goes back to May) because I don't want to discourage anyone from trying to reduce their waste and single-use plastic consumption. But the simple fact is that for me right now buying zero waste (or plastic free) groceries is on the whole much more expensive, and I think that would be the case for many people in the UK.
At the ripple Kickstarter launch this week, founder Sophie related the money that we spend to energy and an expression of our values (I wish I wrote down the exact quote!). I love this sentiment as it recognises that the benefits of avoiding waste through the decisions we make go beyond the environmental benefits - there is also the positivity that comes with doing something that you are passionate about and believe in. So while I recognise that it is a privilege to be able to spend a bit more on groceries to make sure they don't come in ten layers of plastic, this perspective also recognises the positive side of spending in accordance with your values.
In Melbourne we purchased most of our food from Terra Madre in Northcote (I still don't understand how they sell organic food so cheaply!) or Friends of the Earth in Collingwood - both about a 10 minute bike ride from where we lived (which in Melbourne is close!). We'd also shop at various old school deli-type places around Brunswick and Thornbury that would have things like chickpeas in massive sacks on the floor and were happy enough for us to use our own bags. Shopping like this was for the most part even cheaper than going to a supermarket, where they would sell things like freekeh and buckwheat in teeny little packages in the 'health food' aisle.
(Slightly amusing tangent - when I first arrived in Cardiff I rocked up at the Friends of the Earth campaign office thinking it would be like the co-op/cafe in Melbourne. It was not!)
Meanwhile in the UK, I'm not quite sure why, but it seems like bulk aisles in supermarkets and bulk food stores have not really existed until very recently (many opened in just the last year). People, like Sophie, are opening zero waste stores because they are passionate about helping people to reduce their plastic consumption (which skyrocketed in the public consciousness after Blue Planet II last year). So the price of products at these stores is a bit higher - not because someone is making a huge profit somewhere (in fact ripple is a not-for-profit), but because setting up a small, independent business costs money.
(The price of food is also likely more reflective of its true cost, rather than being artificially manipulated by the big supermarkets, but perhaps that is a topic for another time.)
I've been banging on about this for a while, but since coming to Cardiff I have been searching for places to buy food without packaging. I came across the Plastic Free Pantry a little while ago. They are an online shop that delivers plastic-free foods (like grains, legumes, spices) and other products all over the UK. You can also send them your bags and containers to fill, which is pretty awesome.
I dismissed it at first because ordering food online still seems a bit over the top to me. (Why have someone drive something to your door when you can go for a lovely walk or ride and pick it up yourself?) But also because looking at the prices laid out on their lovely website made me baulk a little. Shopping online means losing some of the experience of shopping in a bulk food store (if you think I am usually excitable, just wait until you see me in a bulk food store, it is like a lolly shop for adults) - and it is easier for the mean, analytical side of my brain to tell me that buying things at four times the price of a supermarket just to save some plastic is silly!
I soon realised that wasn't particularly sensible because (a) the closest zero waste shop is currently in Crickhowell, and (b) having things delivered can be much less carbon intensive than driving to the shops yourself, because delivery drivers will pack their vans full of other things and also optimise routes to be efficient. But also (c) I can afford to pay a bit extra for my groceries!
I also did some actual cost comparisons and realised that for some things the price difference wasn't actually that great anyway. I have shared that comparison below, because Plastic Free Pantry deliver all over the UK so it might be handy for anyone else living without a local bulk food store (it also includes a comparison for purchasing milk in glass bottles from Milk&More).
Comparison of the cost of purchasing plastic-free food compared with food at a typical supermarket (I chose Tesco because it turns out their online site is quite easy to use). Most of the prices are on a per kilogram basis, except those items with a * (cocoa is per 250g, tea and spices are per 100g, milk and yogurt are per pint).
As many others have pointed out, money is not the only privilege that enables me to pursue a zero waste lifestyle. While I work full time, I'm able to gad about after work on the weekends to shop at different markets and spend as much time as I like making quince paste, yogurt, biscuits and hummus from scratch. The graph above shows the cost of the ingredients for making yogurt from milk in glass bottles at less than a plastic tub of yogurt, but it takes me quite a while standing over a pot with a thermometer to make it (which I don't usually mind, I'll just switch on a podcast and probably multitask with some other cooking, but with the brilliant weather recently I have prioritised spending time outside). Not everyone has this luxury!
I am lucky that I can choose to spend my money (and the time and energy it represents) supporting independent and local businesses like ripple and the Plastic Free Pantry. For the most part, living sustainably tends to go hand in hand with consuming less, and therefore spending less. So when I can, I'll continue to happily spend the money that I save in other areas to buy groceries and other life essentials from wonderful businesses that exist to help people live more ethically and sustainably.
Related reading and resources
Some fabulous initiatives have been set up that help tackle the massive issue of food waste while helping make food accessible to all:
Privilege in the zero waste movement has been a recurring topic over the last few years, here are some thoughtful articles that tackle it better than I can:
Attempting to live more sustainably seems to come with a bunch of dilemmas. There are some areas where the evidence points quite convincingly in one direction (for example, riding a bike is better for the environment than driving, a vegetarian diet results in less greenhouse gas emissions than eating lots of red meat). However there are some areas that are a bit more ambiguous than that.
I have been making a proper go of Plastic Free July for the first time ever this year. More than any other area, it seems trickier to work out what the 'right' thing to do is when attempting to avoid and reduce plastic consumption. For example:
There are too many dilemmas there to tackle in one blog post, so I'll just be focussing on the last one. However, one thing to keep in mind which is relevant to all these dilemmas (and others), is that we are making a values-based judgement when we choose to do (or buy or eat) one thing over another.
What does this mean?
As much as we try to quantify and compare environmental and socio-economic impacts of different options, the ultimate decision is largely based on what we choose to value. (Life cycle assessment is one technique for comparing options. This post might be a useful introduction to life cycle assessment indicators and what they mean.) A bunch of numbers on a page is compelling, but it is shocking images of adorable animals with stomachs full of plastic that have driven people all over the world to try to reduce their plastic consumption.
For many environmental issues (like climate change, overconsumption of resources, deforestation), the problems that are caused by our actions are quite disconnected from the actions themselves (i.e. it is difficult to relate driving to the shops right now with the drought that hits the other side of the world next summer). But when we see something like the iconic image below, we make an immediate connection with what we are putting in the bin and the problem it is causing, and then take action to make a change (even if it is just replacing a plastic item with a paper alternative).
So is it worth driving to a bulk food store?
I was super excited to visit the first zero waste shop in Wales recently (you can read about the excitement here). I tacked it on to a family holiday and remember thinking that it took rather a while to drive there. I did some quick maths in my head and thought it would probably take about 8-10 litres of fuel to do the round trip from Cardiff.
The main concern I have around driving and fuel consumption is the contribution it makes to anthropogenic climate change. So naturally I made a spreadsheet to compare the greenhouse gas emissions from driving and those attributable to plastic consumption. (You can check it out here, including background data and assumptions.)
I found that the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from a 120 km round trip from Cardiff to Crickhowell were equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacture and incineration of 8.2 kg of plastic (our non-recyclable plastic waste in Cardiff is incinerated, but the emissions from manufacture are much larger anyway). So in order to make it worth the trip (when considering the contribution to climate change), I would need to avoid 8.2 kg of plastic use each time. Put another way, a pasta packet weighs about 5 g, so it would be equivalent to the plastic of over 1,600 pasta packets. As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, we bought nowhere near that quantity of unpackaged goods!
Of course, we don't buy plastic free goods to reduce the impact on climate change. We do it because plastic pollution is also a massive global environmental issue. We see the litter in our streets and on our beaches, we see pictures of seahorses on social media, we see epic documentaries like Blue Planet II - these all encourage us to shift away from single use plastics.
But it still leaves us with a dilemma when the only options available have different (and not easily comparable) environmental impacts. As I noted above, what we choose to do is based on what we decide to value. It is possible to say that avoiding plastic is the most important consideration and therefore should be prioritised over all others (and I have seen some (unhelpfully mean) social media comments to that effect). Until such a time (hopefully in the very near future!) that a bulk food store opens in Cardiff, I think I am satisfied that shopping locally on my bike is a perfectly valid option - even if it means buying a few things in plastic for now.
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My name is Kara and I created this blog as a way to document all the lovely aspects of sustainability. You can find out more on my About page.
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