Why is it so difficult to shop without buying plastic?

One Change: It’s only when you try to get things packaging-free that you realise our dependency

Being fully aware of your consumption of plastics is the first step in trying to reduce it. Photograph: iStock

Want to make your life awkward? Try shopping at a supermarket without buying any plastic. This single-use packaging is on just about everything in the big multiples, from rice packets to toothpicks and cucumbers. And it all contributes to the estimated eight million tonnes of plastic that end up the oceans every year, finding its way into the stomachs of whales, albatrosses and many other animals, with devastating effects.

We’ve become so accustomed to this way of purchasing food, however, that it’s only when you try to buy something without plastic that you start to see the extent of our dependency it. Or so I realised the other day, setting off to do some shopping with what seemed like the simple task of bringing home as little plastic packaging as possible.

First stop was the fruit and vegetables section in my nearby Tesco. Here, I was limited to peppers, onions, apples and pineapples, which were the only loose items available on the day. Everything else was wrapped in plastic. I weighed three peppers, put them in a cloth bag that I had brought with me, then realised I’d forgotten to take account of the stickers from the machine (but I decided to give myself a pass on that).

Plastic consumption

I had a bit more luck in the bakery area, where I picked up some rolls and put them in my own bag. I bought tins of tomatoes, butter, and cartons of milk and juice, but all meats were out. Cereals were out too, because most come either in a plastic bag, or in cardboard with a plastic package inside. I left the shop with a dismal amount of food for a family of four, and a startling new awareness of just how inescapable plastic is.


In her fascinating book Turning the Tide on Plastic, author Lucy Siegle says that being fully aware of your consumption of plastics is the first step in trying to reduce it. Though it’s very clear that consumers cannot do this alone – the Government and businesses need to make urgent changes too.

My experience is much the same in SuperValu, though with the addition of a green bin to leave packaging behind. In Lidl and Aldi, they’ve gone one step further, with recycling bins for different types of dry plastics and paper. It’s a welcome recent development, but far from a solution; you’re still using plastic packaging, even if you’re not taking it with you.

But I like to think that leaving the packaging behind in the shop sends a message to food producers that we need a change. Or that’s what I kept telling myself as I stood at the counter in a busy Lidl store one afternoon, taking the packaging off the pasta I had just bought. My two children watched, a little embarrassed, as I emptied the contents into small cloth bags, bits of dry spaghetti and fusilli spilling out onto the ground around us.

One Change is a weekly column about the changes, big and small, that we can make in our daily lives for the good of the planet.