In December 2017, I had recently moved to Bristol to study Geography. Plastic pollution was something that had been concerning me immensely for several years, and when I became responsible for all of my own food shopping, I wanted to try and avoid buying any plastic. The impact of plastic waste on marine life incited so much worry and guilt that I felt compelled to stop contributing to the problem.
Smaller Footprints, one of Bristol's many zero waste supermarkets
At first, I hadn’t discovered the wealth of zero-waste shops that Bristol has to offer, as there were none in my local area. I was shopping at supermarkets, buying only that which was loose or packaged in paper or cardboard. At the same time I was only buying UK grown fruit and veg, meaning I was working with two fairly limited categories. Student diets aren’t renowned for their nutritional value, but instead of subsisting on the typical frozen pizza, I was restricting myself to the few ethical ingredients I could buy, which was perhaps even worse, as I ended up ill often and with constant fatigue.
Once more zero-waste shops started opening in Bristol, life became a bit easier, as I had more choice nearby when going shopping. Unfortunately some of the products at zero-waste shops were often still out of budget, and at that time there were many things you simply could not buy zero-waste, such as milk alternatives.
Now, I try to strike a balance between minimising the amount of plastic I buy, while ensuring I am eating a wide range of foods, and eating healthily. I still shop at zero-waste shops, especially for grains, cereals, and dried pulses. But I am no longer wracked with guilt when buying things such as frozen berries, which I cannot buy plastic free. There are so many options to consider when thinking about which food option is the most ethical: is it local? How is it packaged? Is it organic or not? Is it vegan? It is easy to go into a tailspin when these aspects clash and this judgement becomes very difficult to make.
If you are going to try and live zero waste, the biggest thing I can recommend is planning out some plastic free meals which meet all of your nutritional needs, and starting by integrating a few into your week. As time goes on and you become more familiar with the options, you will be able to add more plastic free ingredients and meals to your repertoire. It is important to avoid perfectionism, especially when on a budget, as there are some things you simply will not be able to buy zero-waste. Avoid beating yourself up about these small obstacles, or restricting essential parts of your diet, as ultimately this does more harm than good.
As people who care about meaningful action on climate change and other environmental issues, we will be able to have a far greater impact if we are well fuelled, physically healthy, and mentally sharp. Evidently, we can make a difference to supply and demand through our consumption habits, but we need to refrain from putting all of the responsibility on ourselves. 50% of ocean plastic is discarded fishing nets, so there are clearly larger issues to focus energy on than our supermarket shops. Arguably, the amount of energy and time involved in living entirely plastic free on a budget could be far more impactfully used by campaigning against plastic pollution on a policy level, for example.