Plastic fast update: that weekend newspaper problem

7th September 2012 by

Back in June and July I was blogging here about my household’s attempt to go cold-turkey, no-ifs-no-buts plastic-free for one month. I’ve left a bit of a gap before coming back to reflect on how it went and what we learned, and I’ll definitely be writing some wrap-up thoughts on that before too long.  But first there are some plastic-fast loose ends to tie up.

For example, the weekend newspaper.  A langurous devouring of the weekend paper and all those supplements used to be a weekly ritual in my house.  Realising we’d have to cut it out was one of the shocks of the plastic fast, because our paper of choice (the Guardian), packages all its magazines, guides, reviews, etc in a plastic bag.  As long-time readers of that paper, we were pretty disappointed, so we got in touch to explain why we were going to be cancelling the paper.

Is a pollution-causing, one-use, throwaway plastic bag the only way to keep all these supplements together?

A tweet – direct to the paper’s sustainability team – got no response, but we did get a speedy reply to an email.  Here’s how the exchange went:


Will you look for a way of packaging your Saturday edition in a plastic-free way – and keep us up to date so we know when we can start buying it again?

The Guardian:

Hi, I understand your frustration. We have written about this before and the problem is that the supermarkets demand that the various sections are already pulled together on delivery, whereas in the past it used to be done at the newsagents.

Also we have had many problems in the past of people stealing the sections they wanted, such as the guide, and then readers complaining they were missing.

What we have done is explored alternatives and also reduced the amount of plastic used in the packaging.

I have also cc’d our environment manager who may be able to give you an update.

best wishes


I appreciate that there have been some complaints about parts of the paper missing. However other newspapers, such as the Saturday Independent and Independent on Sunday, manage fine without the plastic bag. Moreover these newspapers do not use glossy paper in their magazine so it is less toxic.

When you referred to exploring alternatives, what alternatives did you explore and what were the conclusions of that process?

Have  you explored the use of paper packaging which can be used as a branding exercise, such as ‘your guardian in paper bag’, or potato starch packaging for example, which is biodegradable.

The Guardian (now from the Environment and Sustainability Manager):


I admire and support your cause and do attempt to make changes in my own life to reduce plastics and chemicals i.e stainless steel water bottle and food containers.

But more importantly, back to the Guardian Sustainability.  We are in the process of publishing our 2012 sustainability report, but this is the link to the 2011 operations sections

We are both committed and passionate about the environment and our impacts on it.

I have included the conclusions from our previous research into the polybagging (this was before my time), but I am aware that we should re-investigate this issue.

We focus our efforts on primary impact areas. So we have concentrated on where our paper comes from,  now 98% is from recycled or certified virgin source. We report energy consumption from all the paper mills (58% of our carbon footprint) and are planning to build a similar water database. We have reduced the the weight and density of the magazine paper, but have to consider quality which affects breakages and waste in the printing process.

We also are looking at your glossy magazine concerns in terms of the sustainability of other paper additives. Certain grades of paper, especially those used in magazines, may use a significant proportion of non-fibre (i.e paper pulp)  additives to improve gloss, brightness and other properties. Many of these additives are mineral- based and the extraction and processing of the raw materials may have the potential to result in habitat loss and pollution. This is an issue which tends to be conveniently ignored by the industry.

We are also supporting leading academic research into understanding the impacts of our Digital Media, which is too easily seen as “Carbon Lite”. The footprint of is approximately 10,000tco2e in 2011_12 (not yet published), we believe no other website has done this.

We are not perfect and we acknowledge that in our annual reports. But do try to make a difference and are committed to constantly improving.  I am more than happy for you to come to Kings Place for a coffee and chat.

So the conclusions of the 2008 study on plastic wraps:

Case study: Polybagging

The science of sustainability can be incredibly complex, as we found out when we investigated how to create a more environmentally-friendly wrapping to our weekend papers.

We have become increasingly ill at ease about the use of see-through polybags, even though commercially they are essential given the need to hold together our multi-sectioned weekend papers and the insistence of some of our supermarket clients to have our publications ready bundled.

The current polywrap is made from 100% polythene and as such is a type 2 recyclable material, but it is difficult finding recycling places, other than supermarkets that offer plastic bag recycling.

Our readers too have consistently been unhappy with the current practice with 92% saying in our reader survey that it is important the plastic is made of recycled material or is biodegradable.

Prince Charles joined the debate, writing to the chief executive of our parent company GMG in April 2008, to ask if we “have any cunning ideas about how this practice could be altered. Otherwise the Pacific Ocean will become even more clogged up!”

We had already been working on switching to alternative bio-plastics made from potato or corn starch, commissioning a lifecycle analysis of the environmental impact of polybagging in 2007.

Following an inconclusive initial report, a secondary study was commissioned which suggested that unless disposed of in the correct way through composting, bio-plastics would be more harmful to the environment than regular plastic wrapping due to the emission of harmful greenhouse gases, including methane, when disposed of through landfill.

This information led to our environment editor writing a front page splash on the dangers of these plastics, which are used by many supermarkets for wrapping food products.

While continuing to investigate an alternative, we have in the meantime taken action on our existing plastic wrap, by reducing its thickness by 20%. We have also successfully tested the use of 25% recycled polythene and hope to roll this out in 2009.


So that’s where the Guardian was at.  They really went out of their way to get detailed replies to us, which is really encouraging, and the level of detail they’ve put into examining and quantifying their impact is impressive. It was also good of them to share their as-yet unpublished figure for the carbon footprint of their digital operations.  And the concerns about the environmental impact of bioplastics is troubling – something I haven’t looked at closely enough (or at all) in these blog posts.  That said, some of the Guaridan’s answers were a bit hmmm. For example…

It’s odd to blame the supermarkets’ demands when, for example, the Independent doesn’t bag its own supplements on the weekend – are the supermarkets really asking one thing of the Guardian and another of the Independent?

And then… why plastic or bioplastic at all?  If the supplements absolutely have to be bound in some way, why not in a recycled paper envelope or bag – the Guardian’s designers could even have a lot of fun with the design and branding (you could even print the crosswords on it!)

And… off the plastic topic a bit, but if glossy paper is so harmful (with “the potential to result in habitat loss and pollution”) and the industry is turning a blind eye, why is the Guardian still using it? There are plenty of non-gloss options out there – just do it!

So the Guardian (no doubt other papers are as bad or worse) has ‘fessed up in a lot of detail to the problem of its plastic addiction and other harmful effects of its production, but hasn’t really set out what it’s firmly planning to do about it, which is disappointing.  Hopefully it will be in their 2012 sustainability report, but it’s not very clear.  If they want to get in touch and fill us in on where they go next on this one, we’d love to hear from them!

[There, I managed to get through this post without going off on a rant about newspapers reporting on the environmental crisis and yet continuing to publish travel sections promoting long-haul destinations and flying, fashion spreads encouraging one-season wardrobes, Christmas features cheering on turbo-charged consumerism and… oops.]

Plastic fast part 5: Down the tubes!

5th July 2012 by

It’s week 4 of my drastic plastic fast. One of the rules I set myself was that we could keep on using plastic-packaged products that we had bought before the fast began – but that when those ran out, we’d have to stock up with a plastic-free alternative.

One of the products that had me stumped for a while was toothpaste – they all seem to come in plastic tubes, and I don’t recall seeing those old-school metal tubes for a long time – and even they would most likely have plastic caps. So a bit of investigation (and some brilliant advice from commenters on this blog and from Facebook friends – thank you!) unearthed some more sustainable options.

First up: toothy tabs! These strange creatures are basically toothpaste in the form of a dry tablet. They weren’t too hard to find in London. But to be honest I found the idea pretty out there and not very appealing, so I’ve been putting off trying them. Yesterday morning, however, I finally bit the bullet (or the tablet, rather). Here’s what happened:

OK, not bad at all. Thanks to Karen from The Rubbish Diet for pointing me to these. Much less weird an experience than I’d feared. But I’m afraid a little pricey compared to regular tubes: 40 tablets in a box, that’s 10 days’ worth of brushing in my house; cost: £2.50-3.50 per box depending on what flavours you go for.

At Otesha we’ve got a bit of a DIY, make-do-and-mend ethos, so why not make your own toothpaste? I haven’t tried this yet, but I intend to.  One recipe goes like this:

  1. Mix three parts baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) with one part table salt (sodium chloride).
  2. Add three teaspoons of glycerine for every 1/4 cup of dry mixture.
  3. Add enough water to make a thick paste. If desired, a few drops of peppermint oil may be added to improve the taste.
  4. Apply and use just as you would any other toothpaste. Store unused toothpaste at room temperature in a covered container.

Click here for the source of that one and for more info.

There are more pearls of wisdom for your pearly whites at Polythene Pam’s blog. Pam has chosen the home-made route for herself – and though some people will tell you bicarb plus a bit of salt will do the job, Pam has gone all gourmet with her toothpaste recipe.

Or… how about going foraging for a twig to chew on – a combined brush-and-paste?

This one kind of tickles me – I love the idea of spurning shopping altogether and just finding my toothbrushing solution in a local park or garden. Of course, it has to be a twig from a tree with the right properties. In Senegal you’ll find people using gum tree twigs, among other species – and they’re said not only to clean as effectively as any brush and paste but also to have medicinal properties.

Of course people have found a way to make a buck out of naturally-occurring products. Buying it takes the fun out of it if you ask me. Wikipedia has a list of natural chew twig species – but of course, as with any wild plant consumption, please do your research thoroughly before you put anything in your mouth. NB. Reading something on Wikipedia does not constitute doing your research!

Talking of wild foods, there’s still time to join our east London wild food cycle, which takes place this Saturday, 7 July, and ends with a feast at Otesha HQ. All the details are here.

That’s it for now.  A final thought from National Geographic (thanks, Val, for finding this great image):





My Drastic Plastic Fast part 4: A confessional gallery

26th June 2012 by

It’s day 15 of my month-long plastic fast (see part 1 for an explanation). So far I’ve been pretty daunted by the scale of trying to avoid the stuff for a month. And then I’ve been cheered and inspired by the heroes that are helping to make the task easier.

But now, at the halfway stage, it’s time to ‘fess up. Where have I failed? Where have I weakened? Where have I been unable to avoid plastic? And where have I had plastic thrust upon me against my will or under my radar? Feast your eyes on the plastic fast confessional gallery…

1. Bottle cap

Ah, my great love is now my great nemesis. The underside of the cap on my sweet, sweet bottle of ale is made of plastic. Aaaargh!  Also under the lid of a jar of tahini, not pictured.

2. The drinking straw

For some reason, bar staff are hard-wired to put a straw into every soft drink that is ordered, as if we’re not grown adults who can drink safely directly from the rim of a glass. I’ve been pretty good at pre-empting this by specifying ‘No straw!’, but when I ordered my friend an apple juice this one slipped through. Whatever happened to paper drinking straws? Remember them? Yes, they went soggy before you finished your drink, but weren’t they wonderful?

3. The packet of cheese

How on earth did this one slip through the anti-plastic filter? Well I didn’t buy it myself, it was offered at a friend’s house, and it was only after I opened it and helped myself that I realised what I’d done.  To clarify the groundrules, by the way: we can accept unsolicited, unexpected gifts that might be plastic-wrapped, but to accept something shared that is plastic-wrapped is a no-no. Why? Well, it means that it’s used up quicker and a replacement will be bought quicker, so by sharing it I’m helping to send a market signal that says: “Make more plastic, we love it!”.

4. The sneaky sellotape

A cardboard box kept my lovely patisserie tarts safe as I cycled them home. What was the box secured shut with? D’oh!

5. The crisp packet

OK, so this is the one I’ve got absolutely no defence for except ‘Brainfreeze, m’lud’. I went to the bar, I ordered a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch, my mind was elsewhere. Total brainfreeze. This crisp packet has stalked my dreams ever since.

So that, as far as I’m aware, is the entirety of the plastic I’ve bought or helped cause to be bought, in the last two weeks, halfway into the fast. It doesn’t look like much, but there were some silly lapses. What’s your verdict? Is this pile of plastic teeny enough to be impressive considering how much plastic is thrust upon us by consumer capitalism, or do I really need to raise my game over the next two weeks?

Read on for the great toothy tabs experiment…

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.


My Drastic Plastic Fast part 2 – Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

14th June 2012 by

It’s reached Day 3 of my Drastic Plastic Fast: my quest not to buy any plastic or plastic-packaged thing for one month. Part 1 explains why. And if you still need persuading that this is a subject that demands attention and action, have a look at this astonishingly beautiful but devastating video by Chris Jordan (who is trying to raise crowdfunding for what looks like a film well worth supporting).

My decision to try this plastic fast was a sudden one that I hadn’t given much thought to, and on the evening of Day 1 we sat down to figure out what it might mean for our household.

At first glance, it seemed like a piece of (unpackaged, home-baked) cake, which would need a wee bit of planning and few minor tweaks to our habits. So we wouldn’t buy plastic-wrapped vegetables? No problem! We tend to avoid them anyway.

But the more we thought it through, the more we realised just how much we’d bitten off – just how much plastic has pervaded our lives and our buying habits, including what we tend to think of as necessities as well as a lot of our favourite luxuries. Cutting down? No problemo! Cutting it out altogether? Ay caramba!

So here’s a list of the things that on Day 1 we quickly came to realise were going to present serious headaches if we were to find plastic-free alternatives. If you’ve got tips that will help, please get thee to the comments box below.

  • Coffee! Our Fairtrade organic coffee, bought from Oxfam, comes in a plastic pouch. We’re going to have to find a paper-wrapped alternative – but would it also be Fairtrade and organic?
  • Parmesan - aaargh!
  • Hair products – are we facing a month of dirty, fluffy hair when our shampoo and conditioner run out?
  • Saturday’s newspaper – we’re going to have to cancel it thanks to that plastic bag the magazine comes wrapped in – so no lazy Saturday morning in bed with the paper.
  • Cleaning materials – yes, we do already get refills of old bottles for our laundry liquid and washing up liquid – but have you ever seen toilet cleaner refills? Me neither. And what if we hadn’t wanted a plastic refill bottle in the first place?
  • Cooking oil and olive oil – even the glass bottles come with those plastic glugger things under the caps.
  • Compost – our organic peat-free compost comes in… plastic sacks of course.
  • Contact lenses!
  • No more money-saving big tubs of peanut butter
  • Cigarettes and lighters (obviously this is A Good Thing and a hurdle that I welcome!)
  • Washing up sponges – we’ve been using those plasticky foam ones (they’re so cheap, a pound or two for 10), and go through them quickly.
  • Our staples: couscous, rice, pasta.
  • Medicine – if we get sick, is it possible to have pills dispensed loose?!
  • Toothpaste – I’m stumped…
  • Bike bits – parts, tools, accessories.

To cut a long story short, we’ve got a lot of research to do, possibly a lot of travelling to find what we need in the packaging we need, and probably a bit of heavy lifting, for example if we need to upgrade to those massive hessian sacks of rice you can get in cash’n’carries (though aren’t even those sacks mostly plastic now?).  But it’s going to be really interesting, hopefully a lot of fun, very revealing and, I feel pretty sure, inspiring.

I’m sure we’ll come across some amazing alternatives that will take us by surprise, and I’ll be sharing those here when we find them.

So here’s find number 1: the washing up sponge issue is resolved already, thanks to a trip to Otesha’s local organic shop at Spitalfields. Here you see poor Sam on the right unhappily modelling the oil-derived, plasticky sponge of old. The happy fellow on the left, however, is sporting a luffa sponge. A fairly traded product from the Philippines, the label says it’s made of “a plant material that locks in carbon then biodegrades”, and grown without petrochemicals. The claim is that they last for up to a year, so I’ll be curious to see if that holds true. The cherry on the cake is that the makers encourage me to “recycle in your compost or wormery”. Happy to oblige.

 Head to Part 3 for some inspiring solutions

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