Plastic-Free Living: Buy Nothing January

Are we crazy?

I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it was the bombardment of months of consumerism as we bounced from Halloween ‘trick or treat’ tat to crazy Black Friday sales before the over indulgence of Christmas; but with only days to go until new year, I felt the need to run from all of it.

I found myself mulling over changes I wanted to make as the new year’s midnight chimes would toll, despite not being a New Year resolutions kind of girl, yet the overarching desire was ‘I wish we could just stop it all - the spending, indulgence, the waste.’

We’ve heard it before - ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ but in all honesty, as I considered buying nothing and cutting our plastic and waste, I wondered if I was biting off more than I could chew. Was I being a bit too radical? And I was questioning whether I really could change, or did I just want everyone else to get on with it instead?

I tend to jump into things with both feet and so as I shared my thoughts to buy nothing for a full year with my much more realistic better half, we agreed to try one month instead, dubbing our project ‘Buy Nothing January’.

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

What’s the point?

At its heart, Buy Nothing January wasn’t about never spending a penny. It wasn’t about needing a deodorant but refusing to buy it, leaving poor friends and family to suffer the smelly consequences of our eco-passion!

In essence, it was about meeting our needs whilst avoiding plastic consumption or increasing our waste, ideally by re-purposing and attributing value to things we already owned and being very considerate with our purchases.

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail…so we planned!

We knew that needs would arise throughout the month, so we formulated a plan of action. Firstly, to decide whether we really needed the item. Could we repurpose or reuse something we owned instead? If not, could we repair it or source a replacement second hand? If we absolutely had to make a purchase, could we source a reduced price, reusable and plastic free alternative?

The Rules - 2 things we could do, 2 things we couldn’t!

We agreed we could pay our bills, and we could pay for everyday consumables such as petrol and food. We would aim to choose plastic, waste free, recyclable and reusable alternatives as much as possible. I made an inventory of everything in the house to avoid unnecessary purchases, and was happily surprised, but equally shocked, when I was also able to make a three-week dinner meal plan before I would need to buy any more food!

What we couldn’t do was straight forward. No unnecessary purchases - no clothes, trinkets, gadgets, or pay day splurges! Also, no eating out, on the go snacks, no take-out coffees or treats. These purchases create such a huge amount of single use plastic waste, so we cut these purchases entirely and instead I pre-planned everything we needed if we were out.

Our goals for the challenge were simple - buy nothing unnecessary; buy as little plastic as possible and fill our 15-lt. waste bin only once in the whole month!

Day to day challenges

We hit a big challenge on day 2 when we conceded that, after months of back pain, only a new bed would solve the problem. I was determined not to buy new, yet health needs dictated we couldn’t buy poor quality either. Whilst discussing our options, my parents reminded me that I had given them a bed a few years previously which was practically still brand new - and they gifted it right back to us! Challenge conquered!

It seemed to be the month for furniture problems as shortly after, our 6-year-old, Gumtree purchased, thrice repaired bookcases fell apart! As a home educator (possibly with Type A tendencies!) I need our books to be organised. But with nothing local available for immediate collection, IKEA came to the rescue with a bookshelf and storage unit that were on sale because the plastic packaging had come off! It was perfect! No waste, reduced cost and it met our needs perfectly! A happy coincidence that was repeated when I needed, and found, a new family calendar that was reduced for exactly the same reasons!

Despite being pleased about my increased recycling I was also really convicted about it too! In Northern Ireland only 49% of recycling actually gets recycled so I couldn’t help but conclude that I could no longer only aim to cut my waste, but I needed to reduce my recycling too.

I sourced outlets where glass containers could be refilled with milk and yoghurt, we tried baking our own bread, made our own dishwasher powder, and I tentatively broached the subject of using Family Cloth with my husband. That particular conversation was over very quickly, but we agreed to buy ‘Who Gives A Crap’ toilet paper as a compromise as it is both recycled and wrapped in paper, not plastic.

As I used up freezer food, it meant using up my ‘Migraine Stash’- my store of quickly made meals for when my frequent migraines hit! I hadn’t realised but they all appeared to be in ‘Not Yet Recyclable’ packaging! I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Should I leave the food in the freezer and avoid creating waste? Or buy food without packaging, avoid creating waste but make unnecessary purchases? In the end, I reluctantly added four non-recyclable bags to the waste bin as it felt like it would break the integrity of the challenge to buy food when there was already some in my freezer.

Realising that cheese, rice, pasta, crisps and some convenience foods come in non-recyclable packaging was a shock. It seems unthinkable that when it is so imperative to stem the flow of plastic waste, there remains staple foods, which tend to be purchased in enormous quantities, packaged in non-recyclable plastic like this.

I quickly realised a big part of the challenge was about repurposing non-recyclable items. We all know plastic can hang about for 600 years so, why not make that work for us? Cereal insert bags became sandwich bags, Kinder eggs became storage for seeds for next year’s gardening, and vegetable nets became bird feeders.

It was also frustrating to acknowledge the amount of plastic imposed upon us from outside sources that we really have very little control over- non-recyclable carcinogenic receipts; plastic windows from junk mail envelopes; treats wrapped in plastic from visitors; and the one that broke my heart the most was when my son’s nursery asked me to pack his snack in plastic after he dropped his glass tub and it broke on the floor! I hadn’t bought plastic storage in at least 5 years! And now, in the middle of Buy Nothing January, with the sole aim of cutting plastic… here I was buying plastic!

In the end, we managed to fill our bin once in the whole month - just like we hoped, and we created 185g of waste in total. Some items we had been using for some time that helped cut plastic were:

·       glass storage

·       stainless steel straws

·       silicone lids instead of kitchen foil

·       toothpowder instead of plastic toothpaste tubes

·       shampoo and shaving bars

·       stainless steel water canteens

·       kitchen cloths to replace kitchen roll and it’s plastic wrapping

·       beeswax wraps instead of clingfilm

·       reusable sanitary products to replace disposable

·       soap nuts instead of chemical laden detergents wrapped in plastic with plastic scoops

·       fabric produce and shopping bags

·       reusable baby wipes to replace disposable wipes

·       homemade cleaning products stored in glass bottles to replace toxic products in plastic bottles

We recently started using reusable razors, so we no longer throw away disposable razors, and we also recently purchased silicone Ziplock storage bags to store food more efficiently and reduce food waste.

During the month we learnt about some great schemes too. Smalls for All took some un-needed underwear Christmas gifts off our hands, and the nationwide Teracycle Recycling Scheme accepted crisp packets that otherwise would have gone into my waste bin. I tested my skills and decided that whilst visiting a hairdresser wouldn’t necessarily break the ‘rules’, it would be one less purchase if I gave it a try and happily, we avoided horrendous consequences!

I share my plastic/waste/chemical free ideas on my Instagram page, @Mybundleofboysandme, and it was great to see other people joining in and it was a real source of accountability and inspiration as we shared ideas with each other.

There’s still a very long way to go to becoming a fully plastic free and waste free family, and it takes time and small steps, but as Anne Marie Bonneau says, ‘We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.’

Well, I can commit to imperfection! What about you? Can we be perfectly imperfect zero waste heroes together?

Author bio

Kathryn is a home educating mum to three young boys, living in the countryside of Northern Ireland. She shares her school free, screen free, chemical free, plastic free, waste free life on Instagram as @Mybundleofboysandme where you can see more of her Buy Nothing January journey.