How To Go Plastic-Free Part 3: Food Shopping

For our #plasticfreejuly series -By Marianne Jordan  founder of local plastic-free support group Ethical Fridays (@ethical_fridays on Instagram) and winner of St Albans Mayor’s Pride Award “Environmentalist of the Year 2020”


The big picture

During Plastic-Free July we are looking at different ways of reducing your plastic footprint, but in doing so we must not forget about our carbon footprint. Sometimes these two come into conflict with one another: glass is much heavier to transport than plastic so has a larger transportation carbon footprint.

However, the packaging and transportation carbon cost is only a small part of the total carbon footprint of our foods – how the food is produced and the type of food has a much bigger influence on its final carbon footprint than how locally it has been produced e.g. beans or nuts imported from South America still have a lower carbon footprint than beef from your nearest farm. For more on this see these articles:  Food Choice vs Eating Local and Less Meat or Sustainable Meat.

Other ethical considerations are sustainability/destruction of natural habitats e.g. fish stocks, palm oil; animal welfare e.g. factory farming and Fair Trade working conditions. Although the packaging is only a small part of the carbon footprint, the damage plastic does to the environment and especially the oceans is irreversible, so choosing plastic-free food is really important. Here are some tips to get you started.

Plastic Free - Part 3 - veggie sausages

Fruit and Veg

There are many ways to buy fruit and vegetables which are not wrapped in plastic. We are very lucky in St Albans to have the twice-weekly market (as well as the farmers’ market) and traders are happy to put produce straight into your shopping bag. If you look around you can also find herbs and lettuce without plastic, which are almost impossible to get plastic-free in a supermarket. Harpenden also has a fruit and veg stall plus Reads Florist (next to Costa) sells some fresh produce.

If you don’t want to waste your Saturdays battling with crowds and fighting over a parking space to get into St Albans, there are plenty of other ways to find fresh plastic-free produce.

Carpenters Nursery

This is on the St Albans Road towards Sandridge have a great farm shop, where they sell their own vegetables (grown on site) including tomatoes in card punnets as well as many other locally produced items, including bread. Remember to bring your own produce bags!

carpenters

Smallford Farm Shop

This farm shop is on the Hatfield Road sells their own grown tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and aubergines as well as stocking a range of loose fruit and veg. They have a cheese and deli counter and sell locally made bread. Most of the other dried goods are packed in plastic.

There are also small local shops which sell plastic-free produce, including Al Barka Mini Market on Hatfield Road (opposite Kwikfit) and Buongiorno Italia on Lattimore Road.

Many people choose to have a veg box delivery. The advantages of these are they are delivered to your door and you don’t need to think about what vegetables are in season. Also it makes you eat more veg as you know more are arriving next week! Some companies allow you to have a “don’t send” list, so you are not paying for veggies you won’t eat. There are plenty of options on sizes, contents, British grown only, totally plastic free, exotic fruits etc., so there is a box out there for you.

box local

Locally grown foods are delivered by Box Local (St Albans) , The Seasonal Food Company (Hertford)  and Church Farm, Ardeley (Nr Stevenage).

Other local delivery companies supplying produce from wholesalers are Sparshotts (Bricket Wood)    or Harpenden Fruit and Veg. Also check out FoodSmiles St Albans for their local food map.

There are a number of national veg box delivery companies, including Abel & Cole, Riverford, Farmdrop, Milk&More, Ocado or if you are bored of courgettes and leeks, try an exotic box from Vital Pantry.

Plastic Free - Part 3 - Plastic free pantry
Plastic-free pantry: glass jars refilled with food from Eat Wholefoods and The Refill Pantry.

Dried goods 

In St Albans we have two fabulous shops which sell plastic-free food: The Refill Pantry on London Road (just down from the Peahen) and Eat Wholefoods market stall opposite Metro bank and warehouse on Hatfield Road, next to Kwikfit.

Both of these shops sell a vast range of dried goods and we have already covered all the cleaning and household products they sell. Rice, pasta, couscous, quinoa, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, beans, lentils, spices, herbs, sugar, baking powder, flour, oil, vinegar and not forgetting chocolate chips!

Eat Wholefoods packaging is home compostable or bring your own containers to the warehouse for them to fill. They also offer an online service with FREE delivery to all addresses in St Albans, Harpenden and surrounding area.

At the Refill Pantry, bring your own containers to weigh and fill, or buy a container from them the first time you go and then use it over and over.


There are only a very few items which cannot be bought at one or the other of these shops, but don’t despair, there are online zero-waste shops which might stock your ingredient.


I get light brown sugar from Real Foods, whose own-brand items are sold in compostable cellophane. Other online zero waste food shops are Eco Refill  or Zero Waste Bulk Foods . Get together with a couple of neighbours to share the postage. Things like custard powder, veggie burger mix or TVP soya mince are made by Suma and sold in paper bags; Suma also sell agave syrup in glass bottles, available from various places online including RealFoods.

Bread 

Buy a nice fresh loaf from a bakery or market stall; why not try Redbournbury Mill? They grind  local wheat into flour and also sell yeast and cakes.

When you are out shopping, ask for paper bags – or take your own! Or when lockdown is over, bring your own cloth bread bag. Cloth bread bags can go in the freezer as well.

Or make your own bread; use a ready-made bread mix to make your own loaf in an hour, or get local flour from Carpenters, the Refill Pantry or Redbournbury Mill and start from scratch.

mill baking course
Some of the breads made on Redbournbury Mill’s one day break-making course

Why not sign up for one of Redbournbury Mill’s brilliant bread making classes?

Supermarkets

You may have already got the impression that to go plastic-free you need to avoid supermarkets. The only things I get from a supermarket are tins and jars plus there are a few brands which are plastic-free to look out for: oats (Waitrose Duchy organic oats, Flahavans Oats, Quaker Porage Oats), pasta (Barilla, De Cecco, Napolina wholewheat and 50/50 pasta all come in cardboard boxes), chocolate (Divine, Seed & Bean), potatoes in a paper sack, veggie sausages (Linda McCartney frozen in card box), bread mix (Wrights), crackers (Leksands crispbread, Wasa crispbread both Ocado), Ecover washing powder, Pieminister vegan patties. 

Watch out for sneaky plastic: Ryvita and Weetabix wrappers might look like paper but are coated in plastic. Breakfast cereal is a still a big empty space when it comes to plastic-free options, so it may be time to change what you are eating at breakfast time. (Hint: learn to love oats!)

Dairy/Meat/Fish

As discussed in the introduction, animal products have a much higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods, so trying to dramatically reduce your consumption of these items is the way to go in order to combat the climate emergency. However, as a special treat you might like to buy some ethically produced animal products. Milk, cream and yogurt in glass can be bought from Milk&More and Farmdrop and Abel & Cole sells yogurt in glass. 

It is pretty hard to go plastic free when it comes to butter, so think about how you can reduce the amount you eat. Coconut oil in a glass jar is one option (you can also buy unflavoured e.g. Biona Coconut Cuisine.) Margarine tubs are collected for recycling, but they are made from low grade plastic and are actually very rarely recycled, as there are few facilities in the UK to process them and low demand for the recycled product. Butter wrappers are made from a mixture of 3 materials including plastic, so must go in the landfill bin, but are at least less waste than tubs. Non-dairy best buy is the palm oil free Naturli Vegan Block (Sainsbury’s online, Farmdrop) or for dairy butter Yeo Valley organic is Ethical Consumer’s recommendation, or buy from smaller local producers. Abel & Cole sell a range of butters including one wrapped in greaseproof paper. 

Many supermarkets let you bring your own containers to the deli counter, for cheese, meat and fish.  Some market stalls also let you use your own container. Local shops such as Buongiorno Italia, Bishop’s Cave and Fleetville Larder sell cheese and other items which can be wrapped in paper or your own container. It’s always worth asking, as although there may still be lockdown restrictions now, this will hopefully change in the future. 

Meat and fish can also be ordered through the veg box companies. These will not be plastic-free but will at least be organic and not factory farmed. 

Is fish ever sustainable?

According to Paul Watson, Founder of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, there is no such thing as sustainable fishing. Even farmed salmon are fed with ocean caught fish. Listen to his interview on Eat for the Planet here: https://eftp.co/paul-watson  The Marine Conservation Society produces a list of “sustainable” fish, so please check this list if you really must eat some https://www.mcsuk.org/responsible-seafood/

Photo: Tangled Guillemot at Perranporth Beach, Cornwall. Photo credit: Christopher Easton (Surfers Against Sewage website)

However, if you are serious about reducing or at least not adding to the amount of plastic in the ocean, consider giving up fish altogether, as nearly 50% of the plastic found in the ocean is from the fishing industry: lost or abandoned nets and gear. “Ghost” nets can be huge and drift for decades across oceans causing the deaths of so many marine creatures trapped in them. Every time you eat a fish, many more marine creatures die as a result of bycatch and ghost nets. 

Birds and seals are regularly found entangled in bits of fishing gear around UK coastlines. According to Surfers Against Sewage, one marine mammal or sea bird dies every 30 seconds due to plastic pollution: https://www.sas.org.uk/news/killed-injured-by-plastic-pollution-individual-animal-stories/ . For more information on ghost nets read: The Most Dangerous Single Source of Ocean Plastic No One Wants to Talk About  https://www.seashepherdglobal.org/latest-news/marine-debris-plastic-fishing-gear/

If you love the taste of fish, how about trying one of these 15 fish-free recipes using plant-based food instead? https://www.elephantasticvegan.com/vegan-fish-seafood-recipes/ 

 

Next time we will be looking at plastic-free drinks and snacks. 

 

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