Plastic-free July: The verdict

It’s been a busy month, made busier by my attempts to try and curb the amount of waste emanating from our small (ish) household of two adults, one baby and two small dogs.

One of the reasons I decided to try the plastic-free July experiement was the mountains of stuff we were throwing out every week. We compost, we recycle everything we can, the dogs eat most of our waste food. I thought we were doing really well, until I started noting the types of materials we were throwing in the recycling bin and realised that most of them were not, in fact, recyclable. Doing a bit of research made me realise that even when they are recycled, it still just adds one more use to their life before they end up in landfill or worse, floating in the sea, maybe not right in front of my house, but somewhere on the globe.

I’ve opened my eyes to the amount of plastic pollution around us (I wrote about this here) and it is horrifying. It is everywhere, it’s not going away and we are just continually adding to it. But there are things we can do. The changes are small but if we all try, they are meaningful.

It was an eye opening month. I joined a lot of Zero Waste Facebook groups and learned a lot about how people are trying their best despite the overwhelming indifference of retailers and the government.

Of course, there are problems within “the movement” as there are within every group, and the one-upmanship even in these information sharing Facebook groups was at times unpalatable. The level of nitpicking would really put you off even trying.

For example, when I tweeted about the amount of packaging that came home in a shop my husband did (while carting around the baby, during renovations and on a busy work week)… this response I got from, I think, a retailer in Dublin, illustrated exactly why “normal people” don’t feel they can even try.

Attacking people who are already aware there is an issue and trying to do something by at least complaining to those who can change it, is not helpful. Attacking them for not going for a niche, more expensive option that most people can’t afford is pure stupidity. We also have a thing in our house called ‘broke July’, because for some reason we are always absolutely flat broke in July. So the budget just didn’t allow for a lot of extra spending, which I think most people will relate to. I don’t even mention Farmers’ Markets in the below list because despite all the markets operating in Cork, I was so busy I didn’t make it to even one in the entire month of July, and many people don’t have access to one.

Making people feel small for trying to make their own small changes, within their budget – the single biggest constraint most of us have – is exactly why people react badly to Green initiatives. Every time we discuss cars, for example, on our radio show, we get complaints about how the Greens increased what they pay for their car. People need to be able to afford to do the right thing. Haranguing them will not fix their spending ability.

Here’s a list of what we did and how hard it was…

Investing in a keep cup and a water bottle
This was probably both the easiest change I made and the most effective. The keep cup cost me about €21 in Hickeys of Maylor Street in Cork, it’s glass with a cork ring around the outside and a plastic lid but you can also buy them made from plastic and stainless steel. I buy one coffee a day, sometimes two on work days (cutting down my coffee spend is a project for another day, but I do like to support local coffee shops).

I bought my coffees in shops that support keep cups by giving a discount for use (Cork Coffee Roasters, Cafe Idaho, Cafe Velo, and a few more in town), so my usual large americano was 50c cheaper than normal. That’s a euro saved every work day… so this one worked out cost neutral. The water bottle I had already (it came attached to a crap Aldi blender I bought to make baby food, another unnecessary bit of plastic in my house as I have a nutribullet plus we did baby led weaning) and probably saved me buying about ten bottles of water. So a good cost saving there.

Verdict: Easy and saves money. You just have to remember to bring it and to use it!

Buying food with less packaging

This was really, really, incredibly challenging. Nobody makes this easy for you.

While I work in the city centre, I travel by train so doing my big shop in the English Market is not really practical. I buy the odd few bits there and found it was the best place to buy meat with no packaging – I brought my own clean tupperware boxes and the guys in O’Mahony’s Butchers were happy to oblige. However, they aren’t the cheapest so this would be restricted to the weekly steak maybe! The Chicken Inn will also sell you chicken fillets etc and let you use your own containers. I’m told Mr Bells will do this, but the day I went in there I had forgotten to bring my lunchboxes so that one was a waste of time, while Superfruit in the market sell most things singly and unpackaged as do ABC Bread. The English Market is by far the best option for zero waste shopping in Cork but if you don’t drive in and out of the city it’s not ideal for everyone.

Closer to home I found the options in Cobh pretty awful. I prefer to buy in Super Valu when I can because I like how they support Irish brands. But their approach to packaging is awful. Everything is wrapped, mostly unnecessary, and it feels like they have restricted the fresh produce that is available unpackaged in recent months. It’s a no go zone if you want to avoid plastic – even the bread bags for fresh loaves now have a plastic window. I’ve tweeted them about this to no response. Centra, their Musgrave stablemate, is as bad.

I had high hopes for Lidl and Aldi but they too seem to have added more packaging in recent months. Lidl seems (from appearances) marginally better – they have more single fruits and vegetables. Things like buying two peppers instead of the flowpack of three (you pay the same amount, but I always end up throwing out one when I buy the flowpack), and buying single onions instead of the net (they are not recyclable) are possible. Again though if you shop with the aim of zero plastic you will come away with a strange looking selection. All of their pastas etc are packaged in plastic but I found their special range seems to be packaged in recyclable plastic while they do sell rice, couscous etc in cardboard packaging from time to time, so I stocked up on those the weeks they had them.

The best option for me locally was in fact the local Keating’s Londis, where the staff are by now used to the crazy woman who shouts “NO PLASTIC BAGS” every time they try and put the veg I have carefully selected due to lack of packaging into a hundred tiny plastic penny sweet bags. They are addicted to giving you plastic bags and not just in Londis. Almost everywhere I have deliberately gone out of my way to avoid plastic, a kind lady at a till has basically assumed I am insane and tried to wrap everything in two layers of plastic before I stop her. We did try asking for meat to be put in our tupperware boxes at the meat counter but this so confused the young lad working there that we ended up with more bags than usual. However, they have a much better selection of loose fruit and veg than any other shops on the island (yep, Cobh is on an island, making travelling to Midleton or the city mentally quite challenging apart from anything else) and I did quite a few bits of shopping there that I normally would have reserved for the big shop. It does add up though – you pay more for the convenience.

The local butchers, McCarthy’s, pre-package all their own meat, so unfortunately – although they were very nice about it and did their best to help – it was hard to cut down on the packaging.

Shopping this way has made me hyper sensitive to the amount and type of packaging on everything I buy. Bread is a bugbear – bread can be packaged in paper and the amount of places whose bread bags now have a plastic component is ridiculous. I absolutely love Cork based Arbutus Bread but I do not understand why they can’t sell their bread in paper bags without a plastic window.

Ditto teabags, pasta and other dried goods. There is no need for plastic for many of these things, it is just pure laziness on behalf of manufacturers and retailers.

One of the biggest lessons I learned was to shop in bulk where possible. For example buying large pots of yoghurt (the Glenisk large pots are cardboard, whereas their individual ones are plastic), large bags of pasta, rice, etc. Making your own food from scratch – for example bread, granola – also saves waste, but it isn’t practical for many people.

I also experimented with a veg box, an idea I’ve wanted to try for a long time. This was quite tough to research as most providers will only deliver to Dublin or to their local area and even the Cork-based Organic Republic doesn’t deliver to Cobh, which is a pain. Eventually I found Galway-based Green Earth Organics, which delivers nationwide using couriers (there is obviously a bit of an environmental question mark over this too, and I’m not sure about how good a model that is, but at least somebody would deliver to us). It’s not the cheapest – I ordered a veg box with a bag of fruit and a bag of rice and it came to €45. However, the produce was absolutely fantastic. I’m not pushed about organic, to be honest, but we really could taste the difference with the stuff from Green Earth Organics. The spuds were delicious new one, as good as my Dad’s, and the kale, beetroot and salad leaves were excellent too. I would love to do this on a regular basis, but it is a bit restrictive (I know, we’re all supposed to be eating seasonally, but sometimes you just want asparagus in January). On packaging, they were A1. Very little plastic – just the salad leaves – the rest is paper or cardboard and they take it back and reuse it on your next delivery. Absolutely perfect from that perspective, and while I won’t be getting a weekly delivery, I am considering booking a fortnightly one. Just need to work out the logistics.

Verdict: Way more difficult than it should be, expensive to maintain and you have to be very organised and not care particularly about following recipes, because you just can’t buy a lot of things without packaging without really really going out of your way.

The only way to address this that I can see is to tell retailers that you care about this and that you will be more likely to spend your money with them if they make changes.

Takeaway food

Another lesson was that convenience foods are not only bad for you (in general) but they are shockingly bad for the environment. One evening I was late home from work after meetings, exhausted, and I rang home to be told pick up food on my way home as the cupboard was bare. That’s a pretty common scenario for most of us. The shop I was passing at the time (Fitzpatrick’s of Glounthaune) has a famously excellent deli counter. But oh my God the packaging. I came away with six plastic containers, none of which are recyclable, for one evening meal. That is appalling, and not at all sustainable. Those lovely sundried tomatoes don’t taste half as good when you realise the packet you didn’t even think about buying will be on the planet for hundreds of years…

During the month we got a couple of takeaways. The local chipper, I can’t even remember which one, was pretty much fine – most of their packaging is paper, some of it waxed, which is compostable (I think?) if not recycable. The Chinese was a bit of a disaster. I reuse the plastic tubs, so at least they’re not single use, but the polystyrene container of chilli sauce is not recyclable (and I have an enormous bottle of chilli sauce in my house – I didn’t even want the fecking thing), and neither is the plastic bag of prawn crackers.

I don’t buy that many lunches out generally (clearly, I spend enough on coffee) but during the month I did try and get them in places that supply their takeaways in Vegware, which is compostable – in Cork, the Rocketman, House Cafe, the new outdoor cafe at the Crawford Gallery and a few more use this, so that wasn’t as challenging as I expected. If you are going for fast food in the tradional sense, there are more difficulties.

Verdict: You have to tread carefully, and it’s going to cost you a bit more than average. Limited options

Around the house

This is where things get really complicated. Apart from food waste we generate so much plastic from things like cosmetics, cleaning products, our clothes, toys, furniture… it’s endless. When you’ve recently moved house as we have, you also realise just how much crap you have. I’m the ultimate consumer – I love buying things – but this month has really highlighted to me how much unnecessary stuff I buy (I can hear both my parents and my husband and probably even the baby muttering ‘hallelujah’ to themselves at this great revelation).

My buddy Lisa Regan is doing an experiment this year where she buys no clothing. As a super trendy lady this is an incredible thing for her to do and I’m following her with interest. I’ve recently found a good tailor and I’m looking at reshaping old clothes and wearing them differently, rather than buying new stuff. My problem is that I destroy clothes by staining them, ripping them, etc, so I’m not sure how workable this is. We can but try.

I’ve written before about using eco friendly cleaning products and I’m trying to go back to that properly now. You can get refills of Ecover products in a few outlets in Cork (Natural Choice in the city centre, and the health food shop in the English Market), while the packaging of Lilly’s Eco Clean products from West Cork is recyclable (although they don’t do bulk refills which is a terrible pity). You can also make a lot of your own products – I’m following a few Zero Waste Facebook groups that give tutorials etc. But again, most of us don’t have the time or storage capacity for that kind of thing.

As for cosmetics, I’ve switched to a shampoo brand called Evo, available through Chair in Cork City. It’s eco friendly, vegan, not tested on animals etc etc etc. They have all the credentials and the packaging is fully recyclable. Crucially for me it’s actually very good, too – I have experimented with Jason and some other vegan ones before and found them useless (I think Aveda are good in this regard too but haven’t checked recently). Using bar soap rather than shower gels and seeking out brands that do returns – Lush and Mac, but also Cork brand Bia Beauty – means you can cut down on packaging for cosmetics and makeup.

Verdict: Takes a bit of research but the options are out there

Sanitary products

This is the big one for anyone with kids, and also for the ladies… I had been interested in exploring cloth nappies and found a site,, where you can borrow 15 for two weeks and try them. They are great! We haven’t used them all the time – we had plenty of disposables in stock and 15 wouldn’t be enough unless you were doing a wash every day and using the tumble dryer. But they are way, way easier to use than I expected. They don’t need to be soaked in a bucket, there are no pins or terry towelling any more, you just wash them in the machine with detergent. Thumbs up apart from one thing… they are very, very expensive to buy. Yes, they last a long time and yes, you save in the long run between waste and purchasing costs, but the outlay is huge for them. You can buy them second hand – it’s a thriving market on line – but even then, they are pricey. I am keeping an eye out for secondhand ones and I will be gradually stocking up, but this one just doesn’t make financial sense as a short term outlay. Some kind of rent to buy or PCP scheme like for house or cars would make a lot of sense!

Women’s sanitary products are another waste generator and there are some solutions to this. You can buy eco friendly, flushable disposables in health food shops but they are pricey, but a better solution is the Moon Cup or reusable sanitary towels. Personally I tried the Moon Cup and couldn’t hack it (not for the faint hearted) but the reusable sanitary towels – available also from and also from – are the business. They are genuinely lovely and that is a weird testament to a sanitary product, but I promise you. Try them. You will not go back to sticky plastic Always Ultra.

Verdict: A big outlay but a viable option if you can afford to invest

Some of these changes I will maintain, but the hardest is going to be food shopping. Being so organised all the time is exhausting and we all have other priorities. No matter how much you care about the environment, are you really going to spend a whole day every week travelling between shops and markets and spending over the odds to avoid packaging? Apart from the carbon cost of all those miles, who has time, and money, for that? The best way I can see of effecting real change here is of asking retailers to sort themselves out, and that might be something only the Government can do. So get writing to your TD.

So, July isn’t over yet but this is how it’s gone. Did you try it? How did you get on?


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