Packaging-Free Shopping: Why the Past Needs to Inspire Our Future


The idea of a packaging-free weekly shop is gathering momentum all over the country.

London’s first plastic-free shop has been launched. Sainsbury’s is boasting a 33% reduction in own brand packaging since 2005. And at the time of writing, even Chancellor Philip Hammond is getting involved. He’s assessing how taxes could help tackle the issue of packaging waste in 2018.

So how big a problem is single-use packaging for our environment? And what does a world without it actually look like?

Plastic: Convenience Vs. Catastrophe

We live in a world where everything we buy is unnecessarily preserved. Food veiled in plastic packaging is commonplace. Disposable coffee cups, takeaway boxes, straws and plastic cutlery. They’re so convenient that we have convinced ourselves that we need them. We have unwittingly become a nation of plastic addicts.

Yet we aren’t completely oblivious to the implications of single-use packaging. We know that ‘disposable’ doesn’t mean biodegradable, recyclable or reusable. It’s no secret that landfill is accumulating an alarming amount of this stuff at a startling rate. A staggering 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year, and half of it is single-use.

No less ‘hush hush’ is the fact that eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the oceans every year. Nor is the fact it’s poisoning and killing marine life. The BBC recently tackled the issue of marine pollution in Blue Planet II. Millions of viewers watched a whale mourning her dead calf. Its death was caused by chemical contamination from plastic.

We’re becoming increasingly aware of the environmental implications of single-use plastics. The majority of us ‘do our bit’ by putting out our recycling bins once a fortnight. But that alone isn’t enough.

Would it help if we start to imagine what a packaging-free way of life looks like? Perhaps that’s exactly what we need to start making some drastic plastic changes…


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Nostalgic Notions: Going Back to Move Forward

Food free from packaging may be a new and alien concept to many. But a futuristic world without it is actually a return to the days of yesteryear. Generations shopped this way for years. Ask your grandparents about the good ol’ days of butchers, bakers and milkmen. Of pick n’ mix type jars lining the walls. Of people busy filling and refilling baskets with carefully weighed produce.

The best bit? This scene is becoming increasingly familiar in the London of today. You just need to know where to look…

Bulk Market is a pop up packaging-free supermarket in London. Founded by Ingrid Caldironi, it’s described as a ‘zero waste oasis’. Bulk Market has ditched single-use packaging to make it easy for people to avoid it. In turn, it also promote less food waste. And, we’re not talking about a little shop that only stocks a few jars of pasta and cereal. Oh no. You can buy everything you need, from organic cleaning products and beauty items to dog food.

Similarly Unpackaged relaunched in 2015 with a concession in Planet Organic. Here you’ll find loose cereal, cous-cous, chocolate, cleaning products and dried fruit. All ready to be weighed on the world’s first fully automated customer self-service scale. This is taking control of your necessities on a wonderful new level.

And don’t think going packaging free means you don’t get to have fun. Borough Wines have a refill system allowing you to fill up with red, white or rosé wines on tap.

You need not even leave your house to help save the world. Companies like Plastic Free Pantry deliver produce to your home. They can refill your jars and bottles right from their vans. Similarly, Mylk Man is a plastic free company who produce and deliver 100% nut milks to your door in reusable glass bottles. You can leave your bottles out to be collected, saving money on your next order.

Great I’m Sold! But What About the Kids?

So while we’re getting excited about a back to basics approach, will our children be so welcoming of the idea? How far do you rely on packaging to entice your children to get excited about food? (Or to do anything at all? I’ll be honest. The task of getting my daughter to brush her teeth was solved by a pretty fairy on the toothbrush packaging.)

Brightly coloured yoghurt pots with cows and ‘milk monsters’ plastered on them. Cereal boxes with games printed on the back. Bubble bath bottles in the shapes of pirates. These all lure our kids in.

But taking our children to supermarkets like Bulk Market could help. It could be the start of them appreciating food for what it is and not for the image on the box. Imagine our children understanding the concepts of need and waste? And welcoming food unembellished with fancy packaging! This could be the gateway, the in-road. The means of educating a new generation on healthy, fuss-free eating.

Not to mention that a huge amount of waste comes from our children. Fruit Shoots and lunchbox-ready individually wrapped biscuits and sweets are packaging nightmares. Landfill sites are shrinking at the very thought of our kids being on board!

How to Get Started with Packaging-Free Shopping: Five Small Steps

If this all seems a bit overwhelming then don’t worry. We don’t need to transport ourselves back to the 1940s. But we could all be doing a bit more to help the environment and any small step is a step in the right direction.

1. Make a List

Check recipes, make lists and only buy what you need. Being prepared means you’re less likely to pick up unnecessary packaged foods you won’t end up eating.

2. Take Your Own Bags

Thanks to the 2015 5p carrier bag charge, a lot of us do take our own bags shopping now. And most major supermarkets sell non-plastic bags for life.

3. Dig out the Tupperware

Everyone has Tupperware lurking in their cupboards right? Well dig it out! It’s washable, reusable and perfect for putting your work lunch in. And you can bring it along to Bulk Market for filling.

4. Bring Your Own Cup to Coffee Shops

Did you know that Starbucks and Costa Coffee will give you a 25p discount when you bring your own cup, and Pret has just increased their discount to 50p off? Café Nero also rewards you with extra stamps on your loyalty card.

5. Opt for Boxes Instead of Plastic

Simply looking more carefully at what we’re taking off the shelves means we’ll make better decisions. Choosing cardboard instead of plastic where possible could make a big difference.

Plastic Progress

We’re definitely waking up to the devastating consequences of single use packaging. The effects are now too glaring and there’s no hiding from them.

Some exciting progress is being made to help our environment, but we can all be a part of that movement. Whether it’s opting for the box of washing powder over the plastic bottle of liquid. Or going out armed and determined with refillable jars. Every one of us can help to create change.