Experiences of going plastic-free for a month in Cambridge

At Cambridge Carbon Footprint we believe that we can all be part of the solution in creating a healthier environment for people, the planet and for future generations. Many members of the Cambridge community recognise the importance of making changes in their everyday lives. Members such as Sally and her partner Terry who last November decided to go plastic-free, pledging to bring no new plastic home for a whole month! They have kindly shared their inspiring challenge and their experiences along the way with some useful tips for people who too might want to take the plunge into reducing their own plastic usage. 

Plastic pollution causes immense damage to our natural world, polluting waterways and oceans, causing a whole host of problems for marine wildlife. Since plastic is non-biodegradable it will always be present in the environment, getting broken down into smaller microplastics which are consumed by animals, which we then also digest! Plastic is not just a waste issue, its production is heavily chemical and oil dependent too. To find out more about plastics and its impacts see our action page.

Sally and Terry have both been involved in issues around the environment and climate change in the past. Sally is a charity worker and editor, with a background in nutritional health, who spends her free time volunteering with Cambridge Sustainable Food and has campaigned around the impacts of food waste. As a journalist focusing on corporate power, the environment and social justice, Terry has been writing about climate change and the impact of fossil fuels for many years. Their shared love of wild swimming has made them aware of the large amount of single use plastic present in society and how much of it ends up in our oceans. After hearing Lucy Siegle talking about her book, Turning the Tide on Plastic, at the Cambridge Literary Festival back in 2018, Sally connected to the  practical ways that they could adopt shopping patterns that didn’t contribute to the plastic problem that the book highlighted, motivating them to try this plastic-free challenge!

Prior to going plastic-free, they kept a plastic diary for one month, recording every piece of plastic they bought into the house. They categorised it as avoidable, useful or necessary and recorded whether it was single or multiple use, and whether it could be recycled or would go to landfill. After one month of recording they ended up with a very long list! 

Next they designated November 2020 as plastic-free, pledging to bring no new plastic home for that month! This entailed a lot of initial leg work including searching out shops that would sell goods in compostable containers or allowed them to refill their own; remembering reusable cups when they were out and not buying takeaways unless available in compostable containers. It also meant more time in the kitchen making food items that they ate regularly but are always sold in plastic such as, oatcakes, tofu, yoghurt and hummus. 

Other steps they had to take to avoid unnecessary plastic was asking stallholders to wrap their food in paper before they reached for the clingfilm and remembering to buy produce in the market rather than having to rely on the plastic heavy corner shop. 

When asked about the successes of going plastic-free Sally emphasised the usefulness of their ‘mistake’ bag which contained plastic from when they momentarily forgot their plastic-free month or couldn’t see a way around a plastic purchase. By the end of November it actually contained very few items – highlighting that plastic-free shopping is achievable in Cambridge! She also shared the small pleasant surprises they encountered through the month, such as their homemade food actually tasting better than shop bought varieties:

Plastic-free fruit and vegetable delivery
Homemade oatcakes to avoid plastic packaging

“Homemade oatcakes and yoghurt taste better than shop-bought varieties. Small achievements at Christmas were sourcing crackers with no plastic gizmos inside and greetings cards not sheathed in plastic.”

They did face some challenges during the month though, with many essentials such as frozen food, medicines, nutritional supplements etc. all being sold in plastic, as well as most gardening supplies. It also raised questions on what was more sustainable when it came to certain elements of food shopping; for instance Sally and Terry receive an Oddbox vegetable and fruit delivery where some items come plastic-wrapped so they had a dilemma over rescuing unwanted food or not using plastic bags. They also thought ahead to the summer and weighed up the impact of driving to pick-your-own farms with their own containers vs. buying berries in plastic punnets. 

Their plastic-free habitat slipped slightly over Christmas, however since then they have been refocusing and making non-plastic shopping their ‘set point’, setting attainable personal goals that make a difference. For instance, Sally is avoiding plastics in garden and household cleaning products and is ensuring any parcels that she orders are wrapped in compostable materials. Sally did share a final insight that nicely sums up her experience going plastic-free:

“Do it – it’s surprisingly good fun and not the hassle you might imagine. There are plenty of shops and companies supplying quality, plastic-free goods, we don’t have to buy into the plastic tsunami that is supermarket shopping. You may never feel the same way about supermarkets again.”

Sally’s resources and tips to help you reduce your plastic consumption in Cambridge

  • Emerald Foods, Daily Bread Co-operative and Arjuna Wholefoods use compostable bags, derived from wood
  • Full Circle, Daily Bread Co-operative and the Radmore Farm Shop offer refills
  • The Cheese Stall in market uses paper wraps
  • Take your own containers to supermarkets
  • Mill Rd Butchers uses brown bags
  • Use your own dish at the Fish Van  
  • Prospects Trust Unwrapped shop in Ely
  • Coton Farm Shop sells loose frozen fruit and veg.

Useful finds

  • Plastic free toilet paper – Who Gives A Crap 
  • Dishwasher tablets – Ecoleaf at Arjuna Wholefoods
  • Firelighters – If You Care at Revital
  • Interdental brushes – The Humble Co  

Online stores

Household cleaning products, all filled with refills from the local shop

If you have been inspired by Sally’s plastic-free journey and want to be part of the solution in Cambridge, discover the simple (and more advanced!) changes you can take through our carbon footprint calculator.