Simple Supermarket Swaps

Here I talk about some of the easiest changes that you can make in your bid to lead a life with less plastic, and all that it requires is that you visit the supermarket or your online site as normal, and then take a few moments to make some simple swaps along the way!

So, if like I was, you have been putting off the effort and waiting for the ‘right time’ to reduce your plastic footprint, you can stop. By which, I also mean start.

As this website is all about making it easy, I have designed a simple infographic to summarise the simple swaps, just in case you are about to rush out the door.

If you are looking for a bit more information then feel free to read ahead where you will find a little more explanation behind each of the swaps and a few more examples of the swaps you could make and how easy they are to do.


Simple Supermarket Swaps Infographic

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Before leaving the house….

This part isn’t essential, some of the swaps require you to take absolutely nothing more to the shops with you than is usual, however, to get the most out of this I would suggest that you make it part of your routine to take with you:

  • Canvas or strong reusable plastic bags (hopefully you already do this)
  • A small selection of reusable and leak-proof containers (preferably BPA-free plastic, or glass)
  • Brown paper bags for some fruit and veg.

Liquid hand-wash – Bar soap

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How many plastic bottles of hand-wash do you have around the house right now?

How quickly do you tend to get through them?

Think about those two questions and then think about how many bottles of plastic hand-wash you go through in a year.

I imagine it is a lot.

Some of you probably have hand soap dispensers too, the pretty ones that look way nicer in the bathroom. I know because I used to have them, and I would decant the hand-wash from its plastic bottle almost as soon as I unpacked it, making the plastic bottle not only an item of waste, but also a pretty much redundant tool once off the shelf.

You can recycle these bottles of course, like most bathroom items in plastic bottles, but as the saying goes – reduce, reuse and then recycle.

So, my simple swap is bar soap.

It is cheaper, just as effective and even lasts longer than a bottle of hand-wash, of which half the soap probably ends up on the sink instead of on your hands. Most supermarkets will have a small selection of bar soaps in exactly the same section of the store as the bottles, just try to pick out those with as little packaging as possible.

Is bar soap as effective?

Most liquid hand-washes advertise themselves as being antibacterial, so am I going to have dirty hands if I use bar soap? This is something that quite a few people will probably be wondering, especially considering how many adverts push the idea of antibacterial properties into our heads on a daily basis.

You can rest assured however that the use of bar soap will not contaminate your hands with bacteria. For starters, bacteria need a moist surface to live on and if you use a well-draining soap dish, it will not only dry the soap out quickly, it will also mean it lasts longer. Secondly, when a study in 1988 investigated the use of bars of soap, contaminated with 70% more bacteria than would be present on regular bars of soap, there was no transfer of bacteria to people’s hands after use.

The link to the article is here if you would like to read it

The only thing I would encourage you to think about, should you have the time, is the environmental impact of the bars of soap. Many of them use oil derived from palm forests, which if not farmed sustainably, can have devastating effects on local wildlife.

Body wash – Bar soap

The only thing I would say about this, which is different to hand soap, is that it can feel a little bit more drying on your skin, especially if you live in a hard water area. This only seemed to make a difference to me when we moved to a hard water area, and after a week or so my skin is just used to it now. I also never felt like my skin stayed dry for any significant length of time, it was really only noticeable the few minutes after showering, so I wouldn’t let it put you off.


Liquid washing detergent – Washing powder

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Such an easy fix that I hate how it took me so long to think of it myself and get others to make the switch. Consider the size of the bottles of detergent you buy and then think about just how quickly you get through them. Research has suggested the average family gets through 8 loads of laundry per week. Let’s say you use a 40 load size bottle of detergent, which as far as I can see is about the average size, that is 11 bottles in a year. In 2016 the Office for National Statistics recorded 18.9 million families in the UK. If only 50% of these families use liquid detergent then, by my maths, that is around 104 million bottles of detergent that we use and discard every year.

20 years from now that is a stack of over 2 billion bottles!

And that is just the UK.

Of course hopefully most of these packages get recycled, which means 20 years from now we shouldn’t be looking a giant stack of plastic bottles in the face. However, some will inevitably still make their way to landfill, some will probably end up in rivers and oceans, and some will be intended for recycling only to still end up in landfill because the recycling process as we know it has so many issues.

I also feel that I should make you aware that in researching these packaging options, I have also come across some interesting articles on the plastic vs paper based packaging. It is research that was quite new to me and presented an argument for plastic packaging over paper, based on the carbon footprint of both options.

I hope in time to do more research on this so that I can present a better summary of the different arguments, however based on what I have read so far and the way in which this plastic detergent packaging is used, I still believe that in this case, cardboard over plastic is better.


Fish and meat – Head to the counter

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The plastic trays which line the shelves are yet another example of single use plastics, designed to display and package our meat and fish, only to be discarded as soon as the contents are taken out to be cooked. It is highly convenient, provides a surface on which to display product information and it keeps the food fresh and free of contamination.

So why ditch it?

Because it really isn’t all that necessary. Unless you do all of you shopping online and never frequent a physical supermarket, it is entirely possible, and pretty easy too, to take your own containers and use the butchers counter or fish mongers section in the supermarket. If you are afraid of a bit of meat juice leakage, take a plastic bag with you to wrap your containers in and just re-use it each time you go.

The only type of meat you are likely to have trouble sourcing in this way is chicken, probably the most popular type of meat on the shelf. In this case, try to opt for clear plastic trays over black. The black trays are not recyclable and so will end up in landfill or contaminating a good batch of recycling.


Takeaway meals – Ditch black plastic trays, opt for oven baked

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On the same note of black vs clear plastic, takeaway meals have become a nightmare for plastic waste. It would seem from browsing the supermarket shelves that black plastic has earned a reputation for looking upmarket. Poor old clear plastic has found itself burdened with the value meal branding, whilst it’s difficult to recycle cousin has risen up the ranks to the status of upmarket and premium.

It’s true, that eye-catching meal looks way more delectable when its colours are made to stand out against a sleek black background. It catches the eye, looks premium and so we are swayed to opt for this over the other options available. The problem is that black plastic cannot currently be recycled in most centres, and even if it could be, the products from it have so little value that for many companies it isn’t worth it.

So, next time you are choosing a ready meal, first check out the prepared food counter. Many of these have options for takeaway meals and like the fish and the meat, you can even bring your own containers. For those of you that can’t, try to opt for the oven bake options in metal trays first and if there is still no luck, choose the clear stuff.


Breaded/prepared meat and fish – Try frozen

Again on the topic of takeaway food and meats, this swap focuses on the fish and meat options that might come pre-prepared, for example in breadcrumbs. I for one can’t resist a deliciously garlic chicken kiev at times, in fact there is one in the oven right now, and recently I have realised that if I don’t have the time to make them from scratch (a seriously time-consuming task) I can buy them frozen and the only packaging is a cardboard box. The same goes for lots of types of fish too and a range of other meals once you start looking.


Frozen foods – Choose cardboard

As above – can you find a cardboard alternative.

It is the beauty of frozen, everything is pretty much solid and so isn’t quite so reliant on being contained in a plastic prison. You won’t be able to swap everything in plastic for cardboard, but there is definitely room to make some swaps. Personally I see it as a great reward that by championing cardboard over plastic, I get to eat potato smileys and waffles. Who wouldn’t want that!?

Even better – try and opt to buy fresh over frozen, lots of veggies can be frozen at home if need be and things like chips and wedges are actually really easy to make from scratch.


Fruit and veg Go loose

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This is quite simply about opting for fruit and veg that isn’t wrapped up in plastic. It isn’t always possible and often depends on the size of the supermarket. I have found that the smaller and more local supermarkets tend to have fewer loose options unfortunately. It is often cheaper to buy loose, just look at the price per kg section to check this. Even when it might appear cheaper by the kg, look at the quantity. Are you going to end up throwing some away? Is it possible to freeze the ones you don’t need? Depending on the answers to those questions, the price per kg might not actually be applicable.

Carrots are a good example. Sometimes you can find a value bag that is cheaper per kg than the loose option. They last a pretty long time in the fridge, so you might think a large back between two of you will be fine. I used to do this quite a lot and I would always end up with some left over slimy carrots still sitting in the bag and headed for the bin. Factoring this into account, it costs about the same to buy loose, I only buy what I need, so I don’t get lots of food waste, I have more room in the fridge and I there is no single use plastic.

The other thing to note here is that when you are buying loose fruit and veg, skip the plastic carrier bags they provide! You don’t need them. The vegetables won’t contaminate one another and I am fairly certain that they won’t see it as an opportunity to escape the trolley either. The only reason you might need a bag is for the smaller veg like mushrooms, which you can use your handy, brown paper bags for!

You may face a bit of resistance at the checkout with this method. I remember when my mum phoned to tell me she had binned the plastic vegetable bags, only to be met with a grumpy checkout worker who seemed offended by the fact that she now had to make the effort of handling loose fruit and veg. My mum simply explained why she was doing it, which I’m not sure did much to impress the worker, but I would advise anyone else who is met with this attitude to do the same.


The biscuit barrel – Scrap the wrapped

Who doesn’t love a good biscuit!? They go perfect with a cup of tea and are a staple in most lunch boxes. They’re also packaged in plastic that isn’t easily recycled and so can end up in the bin. Because of how light they are and because they’re eaten on the go so often, they are also a terrible culprit, along with sweet wrappers, for littering the streets and inevitably the oceans.

My first argument would be to make your own, I can whip up a batch of cookies these days in less than 20 mins! That means you can even do it in the advert breaks. It is cheaper and they’re far tastier, plus it is loads of fun too! Cookies and ginger biscuits are my go to biscuits because not only are they tasty, they last ages too.

Of course, I did insist that you didn’t need to do anything different to complete these simple swaps, so for those of you who really wouldn’t find this practical, I would instead suggest look at the shelves to see which biscuit options use the least amount of packaging.

Most will be packaged in an outer layer of plastic, this is almost unavoidable as far as I can tell, but what is on the inside differs greatly. Try to avoid biscuits that are seated in black plastic trays, these are more difficult to recycle and could contaminate a batch of recycling if you try, or end up in landfill.

If you can, avoid biscuits which are individually wrapped in plastic too, there are biscuit options that use foil and paper instead (KitKats for example) and so I would recommend opting for these instead.

Better yet, for the traditional biscuit barrel, aim for those that aside from the outer plastic packaging, have nothing but simple biscuity goodness within.


Sweet treats – Go pick ‘n’ mix

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This just a fantastic opportunity to go old school and pick out all your faves whilst feeling extra good about the fact that you are also helping the environment. Plastic sweet wrappers, like biscuit wrappers, get everywhere. Unfortunately, due to the fact that they are made up of a mix of materials, they aren’t currently recycled due the difficulty and expense in obtaining the useful bits. They are also low in volume compared to the likes of larger paper and plastic items, making them pretty invaluable on an industrial scale. So instead they end up in landfill sights, blowing in the wind and drifting on rivers and oceans. This includes the wrappers that feel a lot like paper – so don’t be fooled. Best bet is to opt for cardboard tubes and boxes of sweets or use a paper bag for your favourite pick ‘n’ mix.

Good news is that some people out there are trying to help solve the issues I have mentioned above. RES Polyflow has been successful in designing technology that removes the need for sorting mixed materials, and as a result can turn much of what would currently go to landfill into fuel. Unfortunately the end product in this case results in the burning of said fuels and the release of carbon dioxide in the process, however as we currently rely heavily on fossil fuels for energy (we will cut them out eventually!), this is at least an alternative to newly drilled for oil.

Other solutions have come from people looking to up-cycle these plastic items instead of seeing them go to waste. There are companies out there that are using items such as candy wrappers to make bags, purses, wallets and jewellery, so it might be worth browsing the web to support these ventures too.


Bread – Buy fresh

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This may not always be a solution, as some supermarkets have now opted to put even fresh loaves in plastic, but have a look and see what you can find. It might mean a swap to bread buns instead of the sliced stuff, just pop them in bag that you can bring along yourself.


Ask Yourself – Is there a plastic free version?

This piece of advice applies to plenty of items, just ask yourself the above question when you pick something off the shelf.

Examples of where this might be possible include:

Pastas and rice– look for cardboard packaged options

Table sauces and spreads – choose glass

Butter – buy a dish and get the foil wrapped versions

Beans and pulses – get them in a tin

Plastic drinks bottles – do they come in glass or cans?


Buying tins/cans? – Make sure they’re not packaged in plastic!

This was something I hadn’t picked up on at first, but so often you will find that multi-packs of the tinned items come wrapped in plastic to keep them as a set. This can be wrapped around the entire pack of tins, or maybe it is just the turtle strangling plastic loops that sit around the necks of beer cans. Either way, they’re not necessary and completely defeat the objective to reduce plastic waste. Even more frustratingly, it often means spending more for the sake of buying the tins individually, which not everyone can or will want to do.

So what do you do?

Look for multi-packs that are cased in cardboard instead. There are plenty of options and hopefully some of these will also allow you to get a good deal on your purchases.

I have also found that in some cases the amount of food in each can is actually greater when you buy them individually, which means that the good deal you think you are getting from a multi-pack might not actually be as good as you think. This is especially true of items that require draining of liquid, so always check the drained weight on the side of the can.

Another option is to choose value/own brand good if you don’t already. Sure your kidney beans might be a little rough around the edges but seriously, who’s looking? These usually come in cheaper than the multi-packs, even when they’re on offer, so it’s a win win if you can find them.


It won’t be possible to swap out every item for a plastic free alternative, but hopefully this has provided some simple swaps that require little effort and will make a huge difference if we get more and more people to make them.