Losing our bottle – long-term plastics reduction

Plastics reduction has really caught public attention recently, with the “Blue Planet” effect and with some people in the UK giving up single-use plastic for Lent. LittleEcoFlat doesn’t observe Lent particularly, but this wave of interest does tie in with one of our aims for around a year now to reduce our plastic waste. So we thought we’d share some changes we’ve made – if any of you have been ditching the disposables and want to keep your momentum going, maybe some of these ideas will be useful for you!

We were surprised to see the theme of toiletries and cosmetics come up repeatedly, and realised we were wasteful here because we were stuck thinking this area “doesn’t count”. Finding that my actions and my ideals clashed made me feel pretty awful, but I think overall it’s best not to get disheartened; looking for these blind spots in your thinking is an ongoing part of being human, and an opportunity to grow.

(Apologies to anyone who received a notification about the draft version of this article – a mess-up on my part and I hope you enjoy the finished article below)

Reduce > Reuse > Recycle

The biggest gains we made were by “levelling up” from recycling to making sure the plastic doesn’t enter the house in the first place. But recycling is a good, simple place to start. If you want an easy guide you can find videos on how to recycle different items from recyclenow linked here, and a guide to what recycling bins you get and what you can put in them here, just enter your postcode here.

At LittleEcoFlat, we have drop-off points but no specific collections from the household, so we take everything off to the larger neighbourhood bins. We have set up a stack of IKEA Sorteras which sort all our cardboard, plastic, aluminium, glass, and tetrapak. Tetrapack, WEEE waste, other metal, and batteries all go to special collection points in the local area. Wood and any useful cardboard goes to our allotment to be reused.

Not all plastics are equal

Some plastics are easier to recycle, like PET, polyethylene, and polypropylene (a nice summary linked here). Others are hard to recycle, like Polystyrene. Generally rigid plastic packaging is single-type and recycle-able. But foams and plastic films/wraps are rarely separated for recycling or incineration and end up in landfill. Mixed materials also pose a big issue; any paper or card which is plastic film coated (tetrapak, disposable coffee cups) is very difficult to recycle or compost, and needs to be kept separate and taken to a special drop-off point.

Cleaning Products

Before – Plastic contentedness rating 4/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 8/10

Setting up a food group last year allowed LittleEcoFlat to join LittleEcoTerrace’s habit of getting all the laundry liquid, fabric conditioner, washing up liquid and hand wash in bulk. Our 5 litre containers massively reduce the plastic coming in with these products, and we use a funnel and re-use a set of small containers to decant it out for easy use.

For surface cleaning I use washing up liquid and a sponge, and make up bicarbonate of soda scrub for anything stubborn. For window/shower cleaning I make up solutions of lemon juice and vinegar in a reusable spray bottle. These reduce incoming one-use spray bottles and a side effect is better indoor air quality. Two papers published recently found firstly that VOCs in cleaning products have a higher impact on city air quality than previously thought, and secondly that cleaning products reduce the lung function of women cleaning regularly, with a particular concern over spray bottles making cleaning chemicals easy to breathe in. I’m planning to follow their recommendation to get a microfibre cloth and do more cleaning just with clean water.
The dishwasher tablets are bought in bulk but still come individually wrapped in film pockets which is clearly an area to keep working on. We still buy toilet cleaner in individual bottles.


Before – Plastic contentedness rating 5/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 7/10

Not masses has changed here, buying food in bulk and storing it in glass jars means the kitchen is a fairly low plastic zone. For years we used emptied jam jars of various sizes, last year we decided it made sense to get a “proper set” from IKEA.

Early in the year we completed a gradual shift away from tetrapak to plastic juice bottles – easier to recycle. We still have tetrapak cartons for the soya milk. Our loved local Co-Op seems to be lagging behind other supermarkets in switching away from tetrapak juice but we hope they will soon.

We bought ourselves an infusing teapot to make it really easy to use loose leaf black tea instead of teabags. You may be surprised to learn (I was!) that most paper teabags have plastic in the binding which doesn’t decompose and will leave plastic fibres in the compost. We use allotment-grown sage and mint for herb teas last year and aim to up production this year.

Much of our single-use plastic film arrives in the flat as food packaging. Growing some of our own veg on the allotment and salad on the windowsill has helped a bit. An unexpected result was ending up in the Co-op, having just come from the allotment, trying to explain to the cashier why I had a leek with no barcode on it. We still have a fair bit of film in the landfill bin and we’re scratching our heads what to do about it. Meat is a tough one to crack for this, but certainly for veg it’d be nice if paper bags were more prevalent in shops.

Both of us have got ourselves a travelling coffee cup over the past year to kill off our disposable coffee cup use. We take trains a lot and often treat ourselves to a coffee in the station, but these paper cups are again plastic coated making them a nightmare to recycle or compost.
We still don’t do amazingly well with convenience food, such as packed sandwiches when we’re on the move. To improve we can keep taking packed-up food and reusable cultery with us on our wanderings, as well as reducing how often we buy these things.

Toiletries & Cosmetics

Before – Plastic contentedness rating 3/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 8/10

The biggest change for us was installing a shower dispenser for shampoo/bodywash and conditioner. We bought 4 x 5l containers from Suma in grapefruit and in rose scents, rather than 40 x small bottles. Most of my extra odds and ends (moisturisers, body scrubs, face masks etc) are from Lush and they sell things in paper or take the bottles back. With 5 empties = 1 new face mask this is definitely my favourite way to recycle.

We skipped the whole microbeads thing. It genuinely confused me why companies thought we would want plastic rubbed all over us, and I feel it was irresponsibly marketed. If you are after a good replacement exfoliant try making a sugar scrub or buying something where the exfoliating media are biodegradable like rice granules.

For toothbrushes, the plastic handled and bristled ones are difficult to dispose of responsibly and are one type of plastic waste found in the great ocean garbage patches. Initially we landed on an alternative of bamboo handled ones but unfortunately matters are rarely simple and we found out from this article that some of the ones which we thought were plastic free actually have plastic rather than bamboo viscose bristles.  We’re taking caution now and aiming for options with genuine bamboo viscose bristles, or pig bristles, the latter of which obviously won’t work for vegans or vegetarians.

Now to the bad stuff. I was buying cotton buds with plastic sticks, like the one that this seahorse is clinging to for support. I hadn’t used my brain and realised how horrible these are. The central bits end up in the sea, they don’t degrade, and they get stuck in the ears and mouths of turtles. There isn’t even any functionality by that being plastic, it’s just that these are the type available in the shop. We quickly found you can get these perfectly fine and inexpensive cotton buds with a cardboard stick. I felt very upset that I’d not realised this was a problem sooner. When we sorted out our supply, paper stick buds were rare so we got them online from Ecotopia (now closed), but it looks like pressure is working on mainstream supermarkets to offer paper options.
For deodorant we tried solid powder and solid cream types but to be honest they didn’t deliver. So we’re still using plastic roll-on containers which is not amazing and we will keep looking for options.

When it comes to makeup, I have a personal dislike of most of it, so this doesn’t generate much plastic. I use a couple of lipsticks, eyeliner kohl, and solid perfume. I have a lot of nail varnishes because it helped me get my nails long and nice, but overall these and the remover are stuffed with nasties so more recently I’ve stopped using them and use a buffer bar which just keeps them neat and short. I work with a lot of grease and dirt so my nails get stained if I grow them long, if anyone has a handy eco tip for avoiding that do let us know!

Point where the article diverges

So, that’s our general household plastic reduction efforts, I hope you have found something of interest. The last section of this article is about a large source of waste for many women, which is monthly products like tampons and sanitary towels. If that’s not something you find relevant or interesting, this is your stop, and thank you for checking out the article!

Monthly products

Before – Plastic contentedness rating 1/10
After – Plastic contentedness rating 10/10!!!

I wasn’t initially sure about sharing this bit but it’s important; well performing monthly products are critical for a huge chunk of humanity, but the main options – conventional tampons or conventional sanitary towels – create large amounts of plastic waste. The Women’s Environmental Network says in their “Environmenstrual” campaign that pads are around 90% plastic. It’s not a practical or sustainable situation, and women need functionally excellent options which don’t commit them to such heavy waste production.

This is one area that I was highly resistant to looking at for many years, I lacked confidence that eco alternatives would deliver and I didn’t want to take risks. This is a personal area so I’m glad I took time and came around to considering it in my own way, but I needn’t have worried. The option I use now is much more comfortable and to my real shock, much more pleasant and sanitary-feeling. Specifically I get less irritable skin during my period, something I’d incorrectly chalked up to my contraception option not my menstrual option. I now feel that the options in shops impose this idea that everything needs to be clean perfect white and seem desperate to work against, not with, something that’s a reality every four weeks for a huge chunk of the population and isn’t all that bad. I’m not sure how this has happened but it’s rather odd. I’m sure women will have been involved in development of the plastic-y options too, but it feels like a new wave of products are more loudly and boldly being designed by women for women.

The main alternatives are menstrual cups like MoonCup, and washable menstrual pads or underwear like CheekyWipes. I was confused by Thinx, because their adverts imply it replaces tampons/sanitary towels completely, but their product pages use hedging language over whether it’s truly an alternative for heavy flow days which I found unhelpful. That said, I really recommend that this area is up to you and you should research and decide what’s best for your unique case. The manufacturer websites are friendly, not scary or gross, so it’s safe to do a quick search and find out what’s out there. Remember that considering how much you spend on the disposable stuff over your life, it makes financial sense to buy a couple of options and decide which you like. If that helps you find the right one, you’ll still be saving money and plastic overall. That’s what I did and waited until I happened upon a correctly timed weekend about the house so there was no risk in trying something new.Reuse means whichever option you take you’ll be washing what you use. This is not the Carrie-like scenario you may be envisioning. I was sceptical, and yes it’s not the most glam, but it’s fine and it’s comparable to the faff of wrapping and disposing things. To be honest we all know blood is a thing and we deal with it each month, this is not shocking or weird to anyone who experiences it.

I’m really glad that I made a switch in the end, I genuinely feel I have something not just equivalent functionality but actually better for me, and I hope that in the future we’re going to get better as a society at offering environmental options to our teenage girls so that they don’t get locked in, like I did, to generating plastic waste for many years and lacking confidence to try alternatives. If you haven’t considered a switch yet, please don’t feel pressured, I needed time myself. My message is you deserve to have an option that works very well for you, and also slots in with your environmental ideals.


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