Plastic free supermarket

I joined the #wastefree movement for a week to find out how much going plastic free actually costs

The time, the money, the preparation... should it really be this hard?

We all use too much plastic. So much plastic that there’s an entire plastic island floating in the Pacific Ocean, fish washing up with bellies full of q-tips, and birds trying to feed their chicks on plastic cable ties.

Slowly but surely, consciousness around the amount we waste is growing. Those trendy water bottles are everywhere, we’ve got a lot better about taking our own bags to the supermarket, premium eco-brands flaunt their low-plastic packaging, and the #plasticfree and #wastefree hashtags have hundreds of thousands of pics on Instagram.

But are we finally managing to bridge the gap between that girl who managed to fit two years worth of trash in a jar and, well, everyone else? Is it possible to find a normal practicable way of cutting down what we throw out that we can all be part of – regardless of how much spare time, money and desire to take part we’ve got?

My theory is it’s not. I decided to spend one week without buying or throwing away any single-use plastic, to see how much it would cost me in time, and money.

Plastic inception

Putting it to the test

Once you start looking for plastic, you see it everywhere. In the days leading up to the start of my ‘experiment’ I bought a plastic lip-balm, with protective plastic wrapped around it. I bought an orange (designed by nature to have a handy protective skin) and it had plastic around it. We're living in some kind of plastic Inception. Wrapping things in plastic has become our norm, the people who reject it are still a minority.

To make sure I was ready for my mission I contacted one of those people – Beth Terry, who runs the My Plastic Free Life blog. I'm worried about my initial outlay – the internet (and the hashtags) is awash with reusable coffee cups, stainless steel water bottles, wooden toothbrushes, cloth bags for my veg.

But Beth's not convinced by my theory: “Yes, purchasing brand new plastic-free containers and bottles can be expensive,” she says. “But there are many other ways that living plastic-free actually saves money.”

Apparently, I was going about this in entirely the wrong way. Rather than focussing on how much new stuff I need to buy, and how much it’d cost, I should be thinking about what I’m not buying.

“Being an ethical consumer is about more than just buying ‘green’ products,” Beth says. “A more ethical choice is reducing what we buy in the first place and choosing secondhand items when possible.”

Beth directs me to her blog where she details all her ‘ethical’ swap-ins. It’s got lots of good ideas on it – using a jar rather than buying a new stainless steel water bottle might be less insta-friendly, but it sure is cheaper. I reluctantly close the ‘10 Best Reusable Bottles Of 2017’ tab on my computer, wash (and rewash and wash again) an old pickle jar I found in the cupboard. Beth just saved me 20 quid.

But there’s also stuff that I’m just not ready for. Beth’s given up expensive cosmetics and cleaning products in favour of baking soda: baking soda as deodorant, baking soda as shampoo, baking soda as an all-purpose cleaner for dishes, the stove, work surfaces.

Bulk store washing up liquid
Sorry, how much?

The trouble with washing up liquid

It’s super admirable. But it’s not for me. And when on the very first day of my week-long experiment I got the text I’d been dreading – “can you pick up some washing-up liquid on your way home please x” – I set about looking for another way.

There are a lot of so-called eco-friendly washing-up liquids on the market. Most of which come in biodegradable plastic, and most of which don’t cost that any more than Fairy Liquid. But according to a UN scientist, those ‘biodegradable’ plastic bottles are a “false solution” to the problem of plastics in our oceans, and still don’t break down fast enough.

Ecover, one of the UK’s most recognisable eco-cleaning brands, apparently offers refills in selected stores. But the website was down so I couldn’t find out where to do that. I could buy in bulk online, but it wouldn’t be there in time to solve the problem of the mountain of washing up building up in my kitchen (also, confusingly, made of plastic).

Bulk Market
Ideas like Bulk Store make life easier (for the already converted)

Hipsters to the rescue

By some stroke of luck, I find Bulk Market – a new ‘concept store’ that’s opened up near the Economy office in Hackney in London. Customers bring their own containers, and fill them up from big bulk jars. It’s only open until 1800 on Mondays, so I have to leave work early to get there (which doesn’t bode well for dispelling my theory that this isn’t possible for normal people with normal lives).

“This idea came from my own needs,” says Ingrid Caldioni, who launched Bulk Market as pop-up in late August. Like me, she wanted to be able to shop easily without creating waste, “but there wasn't anything like that in London".

The bulk market concept solves a lot of the problems I could foresee with my challenge – while fresh fruit and veg is now relatively easy to buy without plastic (although carrying six apples and a box of eggs home from the shop when you’re caught short without a bag is not exactly fun) store cupboard staples like rice and pasta are pretty bad culprits for single-use plastic. 

But – as you could probably expect from an East London concept store, it comes at a price: washing up liquid is over £1 per 100ml (plus the cost of the jar, if, like me you don’t carry a glass bottle round with you on the off chance you find out you need some washing up liquid) in a supermarket Ecover costs around £2 a litre, Fairy around £2 a litre .

But the gimmick kind of works here. For those people who already have an interest in this stuff (and a few extra quid to burn) Bulk market definitely makes it easier, and the reaction online has been pretty immense. Plus I get a self-satisfied glow every time I do the washing up for the next week.

I do want to be really careful not to be snooty about this – the fact that it's fashionable is great. But I can’t help but be cynical. This only appeals to such a tiny group of people. How can it solve the problem on a bigger scale? A similar laundry detergent refill run by ASDA in 2011 was an absolute failure – there just wasn’t the interest, the supermarket said.

Plastic Free - Getting caught out
This would have never happened to Beth...

I wish I was a boy scout

Being waste-free is kind of like having a restrictive diet. It’s all fine if you’re prepared, but if you get caught out you’re in trouble. In fact, the majority of the time the only reason not buying plastic stuff was more expensive was because there’s so much less choice, and brands that do use non-plastic packaging tend to be premium. I forget my lunch one day and end up in the local Sainsbury’s trawling the shelves. In the end I plonk for a carton of soup, (it costs £1 more than an own-brand plastic pot).

Then there are the slip ups: I go to a football match and every pub in the surrounding area is serving pints in plastic cups. I ask for a bottle of beer instead, which sets me back £4 for 330ml – a pint's a fiver (#london). When someone else buys me a drink I think about the fish as I put my empty plastic cup on the top of an overflowing recycling bin the bar staff have hopefully put outside. ‘One more probably won’t make that much difference,’ I think guiltily.

We could all do with thinking a bit more carefully about how much we throw away. Beth’s words ring in my ear the whole way through my week living plastic-waste free – in a lot of cases it’s just easier to go without, rather than look for a plastic-free alternative.

Reduce, reuse, recycle: it’s a good mantra, but also one that puts the responsibility in the hands of the consumer – and at the moment I can’t help but think that responsibility is too much. Asking people to so fundamentally change their habits and go completely out of the way to find an alternative to Fairy Liquid feels like a very big ask. For enough people to change their behaviour in a meaningful way, it needs to be easy enough for everyone to do it without having to leave work early to get to a ‘concept store’.

It needs to be second nature, not an Instagram hashtag.

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  • Macrocompassion

    Look to who owns the land of Greece and why they are not using it properly!

    Discover how much the value of the land is being speculated in by holding it unused and the resulting lack of opportunity. Why can’t small scale farmers begin their own production of farm produce and the selling of it to local suppliers for domestic consumption?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”,
    1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being
    labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that
    tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land
    is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to
    other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly
    it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature
    (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its
    site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density
    in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals,
    animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently,
    most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its
    advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its
    general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its
    value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other
    kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big
    advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be
    used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site
    becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law,
    in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an
    item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison:
    “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are
    partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes
    more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always
    benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused
    land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this
    news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information,
    speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land
    values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based
    activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company
    investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes).
    The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values
    of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial
    benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly
    socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one
    method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes
    valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their
    efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable
    due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land
    values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the
    natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will
    deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and
    development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce
    competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and
    manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the
    high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision
    of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing
    wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing
    organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently
    this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit
    opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid
    work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land
    on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord
    who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or
    charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the
    landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land
    and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an
    entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from
    lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax
    system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing
    everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by
    Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists
    seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts.
    (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and
    Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other
    kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value
    tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except
    for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land
    dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and
    Ethics

    Four Aspects for Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national
    income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.

    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related
    taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.

    3. Consumers pay less for their
    purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater
    satisfaction with the management of national affairs.

    4. The national economy
    stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due
    to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

    5. LVT is progressive–owners of
    the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.

    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large
    proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result
    that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even
    when it is not used).

    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and
    the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.

    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even
    though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites
    become available, the competition for them is less fierce.

    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent
    hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that
    come into use.

    10. With LVT, land prices will
    initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their
    mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be
    introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer
    their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased
    demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

    11. With LVT, there is an
    incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.

    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a
    greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because
    entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because
    they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.

    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital
    goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:

    14. The collection of taxes from
    productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion
    by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from
    the land owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.

    15. Bribery and corruption on information
    about land cease. Before, this was due
    to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial
    development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and
    lawyers’ bank balances).

    16. The improved use of the more
    central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites
    being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when
    traveling between home and workplace.

    17. Because the LVT eliminates
    the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a
    greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in
    a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the
    value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT
    has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business
    ethics.