Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Ready, steady... Getting ready for the #plasticchallenge

Lent starts tomorrow and to kick it off is an update from top Plastic Challenger Elspeth Owens. Elspeth has preparing for the challenge for some weeks and her support the campaign has also been invaluable! Thanks Elspeth - we look forward to seeing how you get on. 

For those of you who haven't been following the excitement on Twitter then make sure you follow us for daily updates: @emily4smith @mcsuk @seachampions #plasticchallenge

Ready steady... Getting ready for the Plastic Challenge  

By Elspeth Owens


The amount of unnecessary plastic we throw away each day of our lives is mind-blowing.  According to http://www.recycling-guide.org.uk,  275,000 tonnes of plastic are used each year in the UK  (about 15 million bottles per day). Whilst a reasonable amount of this is now recycled (although that in itself uses precious energy and contributes to our carbon foot-print), a lot of it ends up in landfill, and a worrying amount of it ends up in our oceans and on our beaches.

The plastic that ends up in our oceans not only spoils the natural beauty of the sea, but also causes devastating harm to wildlife, at a time when most of our wildlife desperate needs a helping hand. It also adds to the huge gyres of rubbish in the oceans and, perhaps most worryingly, breaks down into a plastic soup which leaches chemicals into the environment and risks entering the food chain.

That is why I am taking the Plastic Challenge. I am a London Sea Champion for the Marine Conservation Society. I am going to try to give up single-use plastics for Lent.


There is no one definition of what constitutes “single-use plastic”. Everyone taking the challenge can define it as they think best. The mantra I am going to try to live by for the next 40 day and 40 nights is, “I am not going to throw any plastic away”.

The focus of my challenge is very much on plastic packaging. Food, toiletries, cleaning products, I am going to try to buy things with no plastic packaging, or where I really can’t avoid buying plastic packaging, I am going to try to find re-fills or ways to re-use the plastic.

This is not to say that all plastic is bad. Plastic is a great material when used in the proper place. I am not trying to say that we should never use it, and sometimes plastic might even be the most environmentally friendly option available.

To me, what this challenge is about is asking people to focus on the unnecessary plastic in our lives. The plastic packaging that your apples are wrapped in just so that you can carry them to the till, where you put them inside another plastic bag to take them home, before you throw the plastic wrapping away. To me, that use of plastic is unnecessary, and that is what we should be trying to eliminate. Do I really need to take this plastic bag at the till? Do I really need to buy plastic packaged potatoes?

On your marks...

In getting ready for the #plasticchallenge, I was particular unsure about how I was going to make my bathroom a plastic free zone. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, toilet cleaner, toothpaste...? How do you live without plastic in the bathroom?

Starting with toiletries, the first step was easy – switch the shower gel and gel hand soap for soap bars. You can get some lovely soap bars and save some money at the same time. Shampoo and conditioner was trickier. Whilst I am very reluctant to give up my favourite brand of shampoo and conditioner (clean hair that I can get a brush through is important to me!), I have decided to try out shampoo and conditioner bars. I will let you know how I get on.

Moving on to face wash – much to my dismay, I recently discovered that the brand of exfoliating face wash that I have been using ever since I was a teenager contains plastic micro-beads. I have recently learned that plastic micro-beads are found is hundreds of exfoliating beauty products and even some toothpaste.  When these are washed down our plugholes, they are not captured by many sewage treatment facilities and wash out into the sea. These plastic particles accumulate in oceans gyres, adding to the plastic soup, or are eaten by marine animals (fish, mussels, worms...) and enter the food chain. Most of us have no idea that we are contributing to this problem by using these products. 

 So, I set out to find a face wash that doesn’t contain micro-beads. I discovered that it is extremely difficult to find any exfoliating face wash that doesn’t contain plastic micro-beads (there are some - the “Beat the Micro Bead” app lets you scan barcodes on your smart phone when you are out shopping to help you find them), so decided that the best option was to avoid exfoliating products until the industry has sorted out this problem.  However, given that I am giving up all single-use plastic for Lent, eliminating the plastic micro-beads was not enough – I needed to find a face wash without plastic packaging. The only solution I have found (and I would be grateful to hear suggestions if anyone reading this has any other ideas) was to go for a Lush product. Whilst Lush cleansers come in plastic tubs, they will take the tubs back when you are finished with them and re-use them. This seems like a good idea to me.

Toothpaste. I am militant about brushing my teeth and am reluctant to compromise on something so important. Many people taking this challenge would argue that, if you buy a large tube of toothpaste, it lasts long enough that the plastic packaging shouldn’t count as “single-use”. I think I agree, but out of interest I thought I would see if I could find a plastic-free alternative. Again, Lush has come up trumps with their toothy tabs (I promise I have not received any incentive from Lush to write this blog – they just have a decent selection of plastic-free toiletries). I will let you know what they are like.

How about toilet paper? I buy my toilet paper in bulk so currently have a good supply in the cupboard, but if this runs out during Lent (which it probably will...) I am really not sure where to source plastic-free loo roll. I seem to remember being able to buy a two pack of Andrew wrapped in paper packaging, but so far I can’t find this anywhere. Even Andrex’s Eco Toilet Tissue only seems to come wrapped in plastic. Any ideas..?

Finally – cleaning products. I have learned this week that the lovely people at Ecover sell 5L litre re-fills which you can buy and store at home and then use to fill up your smaller bottles of toilet cleaner, multi-purpose cleaner, washing up liquid etc etc. Whilst this does take up some precious cupboard space at home (but not as much as you might think), it means that I probably won’ t have to buy cleaning products for about a year. This should save me money and will also save me the hassle of remembering to pick up new supplies when I run out... The only negative here is that the supposedly green website I ordered these products from sent them out wrapped in, yes, plastic bubble wrap! So as not to fail the challenge, I have diligently packed away the bubble wrap to re-use at some point in the future (maybe when I eventually move house...)

Get set...

The bathroom is obviously not the only challenging room to eradicate single-use plastic from, and I have found the rest of the house equally challenging. I have replaced my plastic bin bags with (very expensive) compostable bin liners, my breakfast cereal with porridge oats (it was the only thing I could find in the cereal aisle that didn’t have plastic packaging inside the box!) and have decided that I will have to make my own bread and pasta (or go without) until Lent is over. Over the next few weeks there will be lots of blog posts from other people taking the Plastic Challenge, sharing their experiences and tips on issues like these.

In the meantime, if you feel inspired, why not give it a go yourself? Maybe do a plastic free supermarket shop (the brilliant people on the fish counter at my local supermarket let me buy my fish in a tupperware pot today!), or cook a plastic-free meal, or even just invest in a cloth bag and give up plastic bags! 


Elspeth Owens


  1. Hi I have just read through your article and think I may be able to help with a few suggestions when it comes to hair and beauty products. I am aware that many but not all, of the plastic packaging of davines hair products have been made microwaveable so that they can be reused in the kitchen as food storage for example so it is no longer a single use item. Also eve taylor do a face scrub that uses bamboo particles instead of plastic beads as the abrasive although the product does still come in a plastic container.

    I hope this may have helped a little. Sometimes a little research into product ranges show that some of them are making an effort to reduce the carbon foot print and the use of unnatural ingredients.

  2. Hi there, I am on a going single use plastic free journey too and it's great to find your blog! Instead of a face scrub you can use a loofah gently on your face - there are some sold for that purpose. I don't use shampoo, conditioner or shower gel. I do use olive oil soap occasionally, but I am trying to go shampoo free (this is a tough journey). I have recently started using bicarbonate of soda to brush my teeth, which I buy in bulk in paper bags from a local shop. I use the bicarb as a deodorant and I wash my dishes with it as well! It is a gentle abrasive, antibacterial and a deodoriser, and is very useful in a wide variety of situations. I also use lemon juice to get rid of limescale. Don't laugh but instead of toilet paper I use a water pistol!

  3. I have tried doing this one too before! It's quite hard for me because I practiced using plastics a long time ago.
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