My Drastic Plastic Fast part 3 – Heroes!

19th June 2012 by

As I write it’s Day 8 of my month-long plastic fast, and as someone who hates shopping I’m surprised to find myself buzzing even two days after my weekend shopping trip.

Following countless recommendations from colleagues and from the brilliantly helpful comments people left at part 1 and part 2 of this blog series, I made my way to Unpackaged - which does what it says on the tin (tin not provided).

Run by Kath Conway (far right, with Michael and Bridget), Unpackaged began as a simple market stall and then, when it became clear that there was a hunger out there for minimum-waste, packaging-free grocery shopping, it graduated four and a half years ago to its cute premises on Amwell Street, north London.

All along the inside of the windows, as well as taking centre stage in the main room of the shop, are great square tubs of dried goods, from pasta to nuts, lentils to risotto. You bring your own containers and scoop as much as you need before the Unpackaged team weigh and price your goods. If you haven’t brought your own containers you can invest in the shop’s selection of jars and swing-top bottles so you’re well-equipped on your next visit.

Along a high shelf sit gleaming metal vats of oils from which you can fill your old empty bottles. Certified ‘anti-mafia’ wine can be decanted from wooden barrels beside the counter.








Refills of eco-friendly Ecover cleaning products were available, but unusually the Unpackaged team will even do toilet cleaner refills – one of the plastic-banishing innovations I thought I’d never find.

And one of the best surprises was that you can even bring your jars to get refills of jam, pickles, chutneys and mustard. Oh, most important of all: Unpackaged has solved the coffee problem too. So anyone who has to spend time with me of a morning will be relieved by that news.

The shop should be upping sticks and moving to Hackney in east London later in the year, with plans for a bigger premises and an on-site cafe. And ultimately? Kath’s clearly passionate about doing her bit to destroy the grubby paradigm of waste, disposability and overpackaging we’re all herded into taking part in, so her ambition is to see Unpackaged branch out into other parts of London, and then possibly still further as a replicable ‘social franchise’. If you know Otesha, you’ll know the idea of replicating socially and environmentally positive ideas gets our juices flowing, so this was great to hear.  Taking this beyond a niche and middle-class market is essential, and that is definitely on Unpackaged’s agenda.

To answer a couple of common questions about Unpackaged: No, the bulk dried goods don’t generally arrive in plastic before being decanted into the tubs – most of them are delivered in large paper sacks. And is it more expensive to buy groceries this way? Kath says it depends on what you buy: the produce is high quality, so of course your organic Unpackaged muesli won’t compete on price with a Tesco Value equivalent – but if you compare like with like, with comparable quality, a lot of it works out cheaper than your overpackaged products elsewhere, she says. And though Unpackaged helps its customers to reduce their waste, what about the shop’s own garbage footprint? Well Kath says they put out perhaps half of one regular refuse sack per week, which is pretty incredible – and compares well with the five left out by a nearby shop.








Next it was on to Lush, inside Liverpool Street Station, to try to solve some more thorny plastic-avoiding conundrums: shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste. How am I going to keep my curls luscious and my pearly whites pearly white without plastic containers?  Lush – and its amazingly well-informed staff – had the answers.  For shampoo and conditioner: solid rather than liquid products, and wrapped in paper. Oh, and deodorant too. And for my teeth? Well, no paste but instead…

… ‘toothy tabs’. Looking, frankly, like something you might be offered in a dodgy nightclub, these round tablets are a solid equivalent to toothpaste, packaged in a matchbox-like cardboard container. The idea is that you give them a bit of a nibble, get brushing – and they should foam up. I got one (Fairtrade) ‘Atomic’, which is clove and ginger flavoured, and one ‘Dirty’ spearmint-flavoured version.  If I’m honest, I’m not looking forward to this – I might be pleasantly surprised, but at this stage I’m not rushing to try them. I’ll definitely report back afterwards – watch this space.  The solid hair products I’m actually looking forward to trying (though I do wish Lush would tone down the scents and offer some unperfumed products). But hats off to Lush for answering a lot of the plastic problems I thought might scupper the plastic fast – and hats off to the staff for their knowledge and passion, which was infectious.

One last hero to namecheck today: Looking for a breakfast snack in Otesha’s neighbourhood, I came across Loves Cafe at 20 Gravel Lane, London E1. This plastic fast means nipping out for an impulse snack is really challenging, but this place wraps at least some of its sandwiches in a plant starch-derived ‘eco-wrapper’. They sit alongside a fair bit of actual plastic, but the owner, Peter, is clearly thinking about what his business can do to tread more lightly than the average caff. Nice one.

So lots of progress, lots of alternatives found.  But can you help with these?

  • Compost – where can I get this without carrying home a plastic sack?
  • Medicine – if we get sick and need a prescription, or want a quick headache cure, now what?
  • Stationery – and, if we’re going to nitpick (and we are, as this experiment is all about nitpicking), what about the plastic cylinders inside even wooden ballpoint pens?

That’s it for now.  Next update might be a confessional, I’m afraid…

Disclaimer: No freebies or any other benefits were received from Unpackaged, Lush or Loves for being mentioned here! Just good vibes, inspiration and really interesting conversations.


15 Responses to “My Drastic Plastic Fast part 3 – Heroes!”

  1. polythenepam says:

    I so want to have a shop like that near me! Really I try not to be bitter …. but sometimes it really is grim up north.

    As for pens, I do have a refillable fountain pen BUT all the ink comes in bottles with plastic lids. Luckily I love the funky Quink bottels and use them for spices. As I hardly ever write I dont have that many. Lucky then that I dont cook that much either.

    When I do have to write a non keepable note – ie to my milk man with glass returnable botles….. I use a pencil. Cunning eh? And I have metal pencil sharpener.

  2. polythenepam says:

    oh yes you can buy flourescent pencil highlighter “pens” too. Links on blog if you need them.

  3. polythenepam says:

    As for compost – you didnt fancy the worm bin then?

  4. Gavin says:

    These are all brilliant tips, thanks Pam. As for the worm bin – we have one at the Otesha office, which provides us with really powerful fertiliser – but at home I live in a flat with relatively little space – enough for balcony pots, but for a wormery? Doubtful…

  5. Lucy says:

    See how you get on with Lush shampoo bars but we found them really harsh. A much nicer non-plastic alternative is the shampoo and conditioner bars from Spiral Soaps. They even have one for people prone to a bit of flake which is good for the hubby.

    Ps – promise I’m not remotely linked to the company or had any freebies – I was just delighted to find them after my failure with Lush. We still get lush toothy tabs tho :-)

  6. polythenepam says:

    I use soap with a vinegar rinse to keep my hair lovely – some soaps are better then others but you can experiment. I have also used washing powder which worked really well. And the washing up liquid from ecover is just dandy for the gym. Ah c’mon it’s all just soap.

  7. polythenepam says:

    lots of plastic free hair tips here – the orange juice hairspray works in a crispy kind of way

  8. Linkesh says:

    This might not be what you’re looking for on the Medicine front, but for things like headaches you can generally use pressure points, fresh air, and time outdoors.

    Prescription drugs… man… that is nit-picking! Good Luck!

  9. Gavin says:

    I like those tips, Linkesh, a good reality check in a lot of cases.

    Nitpicking? Well, this month is ALL about the nitpicking.

  10. polythenepam says:

    oh dear if you’ve got nits….. not my area of expertise buy home made mayonaise and vinegar apparently

  11. Kerry Lane says:

    Cornstarch pens?

    Oh and another possibility for compost is checking out local council green waste recycling schemes as you can often just go and pick up compost from them. The quality is variable though.

  12. Gavin says:

    Pam – that phrase may have been lost in translation… I definitely don’t have nits… good tip, though!

  13. Tom says:

    For medicines for minor things like headaches you could try making your own herbal things. I don’t really know which is best but there are many books such as this out there:
    They’re usually pretty easy to pick up in charity shops

    For compost maybe you could try contacting local farmers or gardens to see if they have spare or any they’d like to sell.

  14. Gavin says:

    Yup. V keen to get to know more about the world of herbalism, and have already been delving into a few tomes.

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