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The local heroes offering a real alternative in the war on packaging

Last week I bought a naked (i.e. plastic-free) cucumber from the market in Bishop's Stortford and it tasted terrific. My five-year-old and his friends wolfed it down in a single meal.

It got me thinking about packaging. I mean, why does a cucumber that has a tough skin of its own need plastic wrap?

There’s no getting away from the fact that plastic packaging is a massive problem. We use more than two million tonnes of it every year in the UK and most of it is used just once, then thrown away.

The refill station at the Eat17 indoor food market in Potter Street (14396410)
The refill station at the Eat17 indoor food market in Potter Street (14396410)

A little bit of me feels better when it’s recyclable, but the brutal truth is that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. Some 79% is either sent to landfill or ends up in nature.

So this week, I’m introducing you to some local businesses that offer a real alternative...

Hero No 1: Eat17 on Potter Street offers a wide range of fill-your-own products, including Ecover washing-up liquid, all-purpose cleaner, non-bio laundry liquid and fabric softener.

Shoppers can refill their containers for washing-up liquid, non bio laundry liquid and fabric softener (14396429)
Shoppers can refill their containers for washing-up liquid, non bio laundry liquid and fabric softener (14396429)

You can take along any bottle you like to fill as it’s sold by weight – just make sure to get your bottles weighed on the way in.

The store also offers wines and beers on tap, with glass bottles available to buy, cooking oils and vinegars, dried goods, coffees and a locally blended tea. Plus breads made on the premises and fish fresh from the boat, all in paper bags.

Hero No 2: The Modern Greengrocer delivers largely unpackaged fruit and veg to your door. The emphasis is on quality and they buy local when they can, such as tomatoes from Much Hadham and potatoes packed in Stansted.

Co-proprietor Joe Turner says that they are seeing "a massive increase in people asking for no plastic packaging". Home deliveries from their Great Dunmow HQ are piggy-backed onto existing wholesale deliveries, avoiding extra journeys.

Store manager Ben Caulfield at the store's beer refill station (14396433)
Store manager Ben Caulfield at the store's beer refill station (14396433)

Joe knows his cucumbers: apparently, the main reason for the plastic wrap is that the machines used to grade the cucumbers don’t work if you remove it. Aargh!

Hero No 3: Gifted. This independent shop in Thaxted has a filling station featuring laundry and cleaning products, shampoos and conditioners, body and hand washes.

You can take your own bottle as everything is sold by volume, or buy one to fill. They also have soap, shampoo bars and conditioner bars in paper packaging.

Gifted filling station in action (14162095)
Gifted filling station in action (14162095)

These heroes are paving the way. Their impact will always be local but they have a significant role to play by giving us the experience of something new and changing our expectations. That in turn changes what we ask for from our supermarkets and big brands.

Following the airing of Blue Planet 2 on the BBC, Waitrose's customer service team saw an 800% increase in questions about plastics, with more than 30,000 plastic-related comments on the company’s Twitter account. At the same time, customers started changing their behaviour, cutting their use of produce bags by 30% in 2018.

Companies can’t afford to ignore messages like that. Little surprise then that Waitrose is the first supermarket to run a comprehensive ‘fill-your-own’ trial in its Oxford store, for a range of products including pasta, cereals, fruit, veg and wine.

I predict that we will see a massive change in the way everyday products are packaged over the next few years, with less packaging, more fill-your-own opportunities (at better price points) and fully recyclable packaging becoming the norm. All the supermarkets are working on this and many are accelerating their plans.

In the meantime, let’s support our local heroes and take action where we can: why not try taking in your own reusable container next time you visit the deli counter?

This week’s swap

Replace single-use, non-recyclable clingfilm with a 100% natural beeswax wrap: a piece of cotton, impregnated with beeswax, tree resin and jojoba oil.

You can use it to wrap anything from cheese to bread, or use it to cover a bowl, as the warmth of your hands will seal it in place.

Beeswax wraps are breathable (helping food last longer), washable and reusable many times over.

I have been wanting to try them for a while, but to be honest I’ve been put off by the price as they typically cost £15-£20 each. Then I heard about another local hero, Nina Hall, proprietor of Little Hadham Stores and beekeeper, who’s running make-your-own beeswax wrap courses.

There are three dates coming up for £10, including refreshments and at least one 25cm x 25cm wrap to take home. Check it out on the Little Hadham Stores Facebook page.

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