Food for Thought: My First Supermarket Shop

I began this week faced with the most imminent task on my list – the supermarket shop. There I was, guiding my trolley with a positive plastic-free naivety, unaware of the difficulties and distress I was soon to encounter. Whilst my positive attitude remains intact, I am left with a more realistic view of what is available to a plastic savvy shopper in the average UK supermarket. The seriousness of this task began to unfold when I realised my favourite aisle – cheese, is chock-a-block with plastic (pardon the pun?). At the end of my trip to both Aldi and Morrisons, the reality struck that my weekly supermarket shop amounted to shelves-worth of loose fresh fruit and vegetables and cans of tinned… well everything. To make this challenge slightly easier for myself, I have allowed some leeway where I can continue to use plastic products until they run out. The real challenge begins when I start to re-purchase products, attempting to find a non-plastic alternative.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

On the whole, there seems to be a definitive lack of plastic-free options in two of the top UK supermarkets. Honestly, this is exactly what I expected but I remain hopeful about finding ways that I can get around this! Most animal produce is off-limits as meat, fish and dairy are packed with plastic to retain freshness. I don’t think I could live without milk which I depend upon to make the perfect Yorkshire Tea brew, so I continue my search for dairies which deliver to my address. I did look to buy my meat, fish and cheese from the counters at Morrisons. However, I enquired about their packaging and it is a paper-plastic mix – very inconvenient for this challenge. Knowing what I know now, I will arrive fully prepared with my own containers so that I can purchase these products on my next trip, bringing some much-needed variation to a new plastic-free diet. Most if not all dry products, staples such as pasta, rice are sold in plastic packaging. Whilst I have a short supply of these remaining in my cupboard I am on the lookout for any bulk stores or eco-suppliers with a cardboard alternative.

As I continued navigating the shelves of pointless plastic I did encounter a supermarket hero worth a mention. I discovered that a lot of Quorn and other frozen vegetarian products are packaged in cardboard. This is good news for vegetarians and could provide me with a nudge in the right direction towards adopting a better than ‘flexitarian’ attitude. Considering my options so far, I think I am somewhat doomed to a very healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, tinned beans and vegetarian frozen meals. One thing this challenge is really going to test is my resilience against temptation, as the realisation hits that everything from crisps, to chocolate and biscuits, are more or less out of the question. Nevertheless, I will continue my search for alternatives to my favourite indulgences (or I might ultimately have to admit defeat on the snack front).

During my grocery shop, I did extend my gaze ever so slightly to the toiletries aisle to find a bar of soap. A simple enough task you would assume, but almost all brands had packaged their soap bars in a plastic wrap. This act of plastic obsession forced me to purchase a Dettol branded product which, to be honest smells like their cleaning products. Although my hands may be clean as never before, I am hopeful that a trip to Lush will solve my toiletry problems.

ALDI V.S. MORRISONS

Aldi

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Price – I spent a total of £11.15, on 25 items. Aldi, as expected, was cheaper for most if not all products. However, this cost-benefit is slightly undermined by the fact that loose fruit and vegetables are more expensive than the packaged alternative. I completed this shopping trip with my housemates and their more indulgent shop in Aldi was only £7 more than my bag of vegetables and 23p cans of baked beans. This suggests that buying fresh despite being a healthier option, is not so healthy for your bank balance.

Availability – Aldi was by far the worst supermarket for packaging all of their fruit and vegetables. There goes my plan of going plastic-free on a budget… There was a significant shortage of loose fruit and vegetable products, as most were only available to buy in packs. So, in spite of Aldi’s more affordable prices, the lack of availability would suggest that you have to look elsewhere to satisfy this plastic challenge.

Quality – I am always pleasantly surprised by the quality of Aldi’s products, despite being at the lower price bracket of UK supermarkets. It is just a shame that they do not stock nearly enough plastic-free fresh produce.

Morrisons

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Price – I spent a total of £18.40 on 23 items. My trip to Morrisons on average was more expensive, even when purchasing a similar range of products. Due to the difference in availability, I am not able to directly compare prices, but I would assume if available, Aldi’s selection would be cheaper.

Availability – Morrisons had a much better selection of fresh produce and I was able to complete my shopping list. There was certainly a greater availability of deli and fresh bakery products. However, I wasn’t able to benefit from this selection, forgetting to take my own bags and containers to avoid their plastic wrap. Next time I will be sure to enter the supermarket armed with all the necessary equipment.

Quality – One benefit to choosing your own individual fruits and veg, rather than in packs, is the option to pick the best of the bunch. In addition, on average these items were much bigger than those in the classic 4 packs, so maybe the phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ applies to this particular situation!

FINAL THOUGHTS

It has rapidly dawned on me that this challenge will most likely result in a cut-down on plastic rather than a complete cut-out, as I realise it becomes increasingly impossible to find alternatives to suit every aspect of my daily life. Nevertheless, from my first shopping experience, I can offer a few preliminary tips to help any shoppers interested in reducing their plastic consumption:

1. Flexibility
I noticed a lot of products are bound into collections with plastic wraps, such as tins of beans. These are the exact plastics which are un-recyclable and set to plague this planet for years. Unfortunately, buying these products on their own is more expensive than in bulk. This is a huge thing to consider as the added cost towards a guilt-free conscience discriminates against shoppers on a strict budget. Understanding that this challenge is not accessible to everyone, it could be beneficial to look for one or two affordable alternatives, instead of a complete overhaul which undermines your weekly budget.

2. Preparation
Take a look around your local supermarket and see what packaging your essential weekly shopping items comes in. When these options are available from a fresh food counter, be prepared to take your own bag or container so that you can continue to eat the food you love without adding to your rubbish pile at home. It is also important to mention that if you would not like your fresh food touching the trolley or check-out conveyor belt, it would be a good idea to bring a paper bag to avoid the issue. I was not so prepared this first time around, so I gave the fresh produce a good rinse under the tap.

3. Look Around and Take Note
Whilst shopping I had a good scan of the aisles which gave me a much clearer idea of what products I could no longer buy from the supermarket. For example, toilet rolls which come in plastic wrap. This provided me with the insight to find alternatives online (and hope they do not arrive packaged in mounds of plastic). I will continue to do plenty of research to find milk deliveries, bulk products and the rest, as I progress on this journey of “plastic-free self-discovery”.

POINTLESS PLASTIC AWARDS

The most useless packaging award goes to:

Aldi

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For their reusable water bottle in a plastic bag. Why?

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A close second place is again Aldi… for putting packaging around fruit, which has been naturally developed to grow its own personal wrapper.

Disclaimer: most supermarkets are guilty of this, it just so happened that Aldi was my first and most obvious, point of call.

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