This post is part of the series “Real plastic-free homes”, in which we look to show you how normal people, just like you and us, reduce the plastic in their lives. We do so by showing you their achievements, their mistakes, the effort they put in along the way and what they learn throughout the process, without judgement and with a will to learn.
You can read the other articles in the series here.
Eirene and Pere are a couple, they live in a neighbourhood of Barcelona called Gràcia. They have been on their zero waste journey a couple of years now and have been working to overcome the challenges that living in the city throws at them.
In this interview Eirene tells us about how they started to reduce plastic at their place and she shares her best tips for avoiding this material.
Eirene, tell us about yourselves, and about how you and Pere started to look at reducing plastic?
We are a couple living in Barcelona (with our plant babies). Pere and I have been together for 11 years, we have lived in 3 different apartments over that time and in each apartment we have slowly been reducing our waste.
The first apartment we lived in together was on the 4th floor in a building without a lift. At the beginning we said “no problem, I’ll take the shopping upstairs” but soon you reach a point where you prefer it to be delivered to your door. We said to ourselves “we’ll buy in greater quantities, we’ll buy less often, and at least this way the shopping will be delivered.” That was the period during which we started to see all the volume of plastic we were consuming.
By shopping in bulk (in larger quantities) taking it all up the stairs in enormous plastic bags (that we still have to this day to store quilts and bedding in), you notice the quantity of packaging that comes with each monthly shop for 2 people. It was really obvious when you stand there unpacking everything: the toilet paper, the kitchen paper, when you are putting things in the fridge and you took off the plastic packaging and then you could see it all there mounted up together… I don’t know, but suddenly you are presented with an image that surprises you. How can it be, that 2 people with a certain level of environmental awareness and respect can generate so much plastic, so easily? It was a pretty big slap in the face.
So, you are young and you don’t have a lot of extra cash and, particularly in the beginning, you get the feeling that everything is much more expensive when it comes plastic-free. Until you start looking into things and doing a little research. At the start you feel there is little room to move.
Then we moved to a new apartment, we stopped doing our grocery shopping online, we started shopping in local supermarkets in our neighbourhood and that already meant a significant change. You stop being a passive participant and you start to decide for yourself if you really need that bag or not. What we did in the beginning was to just get one bag, we would put our veggies etc. in the bag, weigh them on the scales, then take them out again and stick the sticker on one of the pieces of fruit or vegetables. That was the first step on our journey to stop using plastic.
We also felt a little scared with this voice inside saying: “what are they going to say at the check out when I present all my fruit and veggies without them wrapped in plastic bags” maybe they will suspect that I have taken more than I weighed. But later I thought, you could weigh the fruit in the plastic bag, print the ticket and then add more too if you wanted. It’s an unfounded fear really, that we think people are going to say something to us.
This next tale is about what happened last Christmas at my parent’s place. My parent’s are not very environmentally aware and I try to encourage them to be more so, but everyone takes these things on at different speeds. The first time I went shopping with my mother and I saw that she grabbed a plastic bag to put her fruit in I was shocked, it just doesn’t feature in my world these days. I said: “What are you doing Mum? Just put the sticker directly on the fruit and that’s it.” I was not successful in convincing her, she got very nervous, my first attempt failed. Later, I went shopping with her again and we went to use the autoservice check-out to be able to shop without using plastic bags and I told her it would be fine, that nothing would happen, but she thought that someone from security was going to come over and take her away. It was very funny.
At what point during your transition phase did you decide that you needed to find alternatives to make a switch?
When we were living in that 4th floor apartment we were able to see the reality. We realised that we were generating a tremendous amount of plastic but we were not very sure what to do about it. We just knew that it made us feel uncomfortable.
The real change began in 2016, I was diagnosed with autoimmune hypothyroidism and this meant various changes needed to happen: changes in my diet, changes in my health habits, a change in my sleeping habits, a change in stress management. It’s fair to say that we have never really eaten badly, but no longer eating ready-made products and starting to only eat food that already came in it’s own natural packaging sparked this all off.
Although, it also grew from a question in the back of my mind that had been hanging around for a while. I remembered years later, that when I was a teenager, in my home town, as a bit of a joke they used to call me Greenpeace because I was a real nag when it came to picking up your rubbish and taking it with you when we were out and about in the countryside. It was nearly an inert awareness and I have always been concerned about the environment.
Now as an adult, when they detected I had this disorder, I could see what changes I needed to make to my diet and how I had to stop eating certain products, in particular when it came to gluten. This switch couldn’t be to prefabricated gluten-free products, but instead it needed to be a truer change. At that point, is when it hit me that it no longer made sense to shop in the supermarket and we started going shopping at the local market. That’s when everything changed.
The market allows you a lot more freedom in that sense, apart from the fact that we now nearly always buy organic food when possible. Not always, because in the supermarket the majority of the organic food comes packaged in plastic, but when we can we go to organic supermarkets, small independent supermarkets or we head directly to the market.
This meant that everything changed because the organic supermarkets or wholefood stores were doing a pretty good job when it comes to the level of plastic and we are able to buy our meat for example using our own glass tupperware. There we don’t generate any waste at all.
This has been a progressive change, one that anyone can do, but I also understand that sometimes and with certain items it means being prepared to pay more. At the same time, there needs to be a shift in perspective because I have stopped buying myself a lot of clothes and with the money I save I am investing in better quality food: in food that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic, that is pesticide-free, that is locally produced…
In your day-to-day life: how do you live plastic-free?
If I go through a regular day from dawn until dusk for example, in the bathroom all the products we use are either solid or come packaged in a little glass pot.
We use solid shampoo bars, which is a challenge because when starting out with solid shampoos you have to try a few out. It is a different way to use beauty products and one needs to get used to it slowly. I had tried about 4 different solid shampoos before I found the one that really worked for me. “What have I done?” I thought. When I saw that it didn’t work well for me as a shampoo I used it up as a regular soap for washing my body because it was nice and gentle.
We use solid shampoo, regular bars of soap… with my hair conditioner for example I didn’t get used to the idea of a solid variety until I found a shop that has a conditioner in a glass pot.
We did a similar thing with the cleaning products and stuff we use in the kitchen, we started buying them in bulk and refilling our own containers, it think this also started at the same time as all the other changes relating to my disorder.
Why go accumulating and accumulating so many containers, and you feel bad throwing them all away because: “they are so nice and big, surely I can use them for something” but later you realise that if you don’t refill them from a bulk store: “Why on earth do you want this empty softener bottle?” Or further down the track “Why do I even want fabric softener?”
It’s a continuous learning curve. When you take the first step, the next ones come to you on their own because you ask yourself more and more questions about whether things are really necessary. Then you realise that you need less things than you thought and that’s a very cool realisation.
And at work, what is your daily plastic-free life look like?
Well, once we leave the house I go to work by bike and Pere uses public transport. We don’t have our own car, we don’t need one. At work, I am the founder and director of a sustainable communication agency where we try to spread the word inside and outside the workplace.
When it comes to water, we have reusable bottles and there is a water fountain with hot and cold water in the office. At lunchtime we each have our own fabric napkin instead of a paper one that comes wrapped in plastic. We do our best to always have our own plates, cutlery and material napkin ready when eating lunch.
We also try to put these types of things into practice with our clients. We communicate this sustainable message on our social media. We talk about new initiatives, we try to promote and support companies that have positive practices when it comes to sustainability. We use ourselves as an example, so that everyone can see that it is possible for a small agency with 4 staff and 5 collaborators, to be all aligned in their thinking and we don’t go ahead with any projects that do not line up with this philosophy. We do our best to keep our personal life and our work life in parallel.
We are members of a social voluntary economic co-working group. There are work groups and we are in the sustainability group. So, that means we try to promote sustainable work practices within the co-working group such as ensuring there are recycling facilities. We came up with an initiative to create a sharing table: for tools/items we don’t all need all the time, so not everyone needs to have their own, such as staplers, pens, paper cutters, plastic folders, drawing pins, paper-clips etc…these are things that are being used less and less, so this way those who need them don’t need to buy new ones but can use those we share thereby making the most of our community’s resources.
As a couple, has it been easy to reduce your plastic use? Who’s idea was it in the first place?
It is true, that I took the reigns at the beginning, because as I mentioned my awareness for our planet had been an inbuilt part of my life. We only have one earth and if we destroy it, life will be worse than the crisis we are currently living through, it may sound frivolous but the truth is there are even more dangerous viruses out there and they could totally destroy the world we live in.
At the beginning it was me, however Pere is right behind me with whatever I suggest. He too, is a person that worries about those around him and for the environment and it was not difficult to both agree on buying and consuming less plastic.
But he did ask me, as I had more knowledge in this area because I know about millions of zero waste brands, about online shops like Sinplástico (I remember was the first place where I bought plastic-free products from as they were pioneers), he asked me to lead and that he would followed in my footsteps.
Nowadays the load is shared and the philosophy is mutual.
Has there been a point on your plastic-free journey when you have had disagreements?
I believe it was with the toothpaste, we disagreed a little because it is true that the toothpaste that comes in a glass pot or in a solid form doesn’t taste the same (because the regular stuff contains lots of other additives). Pere is now convinced and he loves the one we use, but we had to try out various types and brands before we came across the one that suited us.
What is the thing that has been the most challenging on this journey to living nearly zero waste?
A completely zero waste life is a utopia because, as the Japanese say, when something is perfect… that’s where chaos begins. It would mean having a huge pressure on your shoulders to not make a mistake or let the side down. That’s not human.
If everyone was just trying to get on board with what we are already doing it would be easy to notice a big change. Right now ,with everything that is going on, it is easy to see that your actions as an individual are extremely important for the community as a whole. Well, in the same way everything that you can do to help reduce plastic is extremely important for the community as a whole too.
What seems to be challenging us currently are some things that come wrapped in plastic and we cannot find them available plastic-free, such as rocket, basil…certain herbs that we have tried planting at home to see if we could grow our own, but they haven’t worked out. We love using aromatic plants, but at the moment we are having trouble getting these items plastic-free. So, we just tend to reduce the amount we eat. We don’t eat these things every week as we know it means we will have to buy it in plastic, but we haven’t cut it out of our diets completely either, because you can’t punish yourself and say: “that has to be perfect and not contain any plastic”, hopefully it will happen one day, but for now it is very difficult.
Another thing we have pending, as an objective for this year is to start to make our own plant-based milk and stop buying it in tetrapacks because we don’t drink dairy milk and we believe it is an achievable goal and that we should be able to slowly achieve bit by bit. We just need to buy the fabric filter and then slowly we can start experimenting with the milks we usually buy: oat milk, hazelnut milk, almond milk… we’ll see how it goes.
What is the thing you enjoy most or have enjoyed most during this process of reducing your plastic consumption?
I think the one thing I enjoy most is the realisation that we need fewer things, it’s like taking a load off: not needing to buy biscuits, not having to buy cereals… E.g. Our breakfast habits have changed completely, after all it’s just another meal, only in smaller quantities.
We also cook a lot more and we really enjoy that. It is an activity that has come about from reducing our waste. We cook on the weekends and we do what people call “batch cooking”, which essentially just means cooking ahead of time to have food available and reduce waste. I think that too helps to reduce plastic, because you buy what you need. You have a list of what you are going to eat during the week and you can plan better shopping at the places where you know you can get the ingredients that you will need without them coming wrapped in plastic.
However I think the thing that one enjoys most is the feeling that slowly you are able to reduce the weight of always needing things.
On the other hand, this journey has also meant an economic saving…
Yes, that’s right it can happen when it come to your monthly period. I have made a change to my menstrual routine that I am absolutely loving because of course periods are another issue when it comes to reducing plastic. Every month another lot of used menstrual products are generated, more waste.
When the menstrual cup appeared on my radar it was like my salvation, suddenly products like fabric sanitary pads, fabric panty liners and menstrual underwear started to become available… and at that time I had also started to research the idea of free bleeding, that is about being in touch with and understanding your own body. That sure is zero zero waste.
If you had to give some advice to someone starting out on this journey, what would you tell them?
Have patience. I think this word is key: patience and don’t be too demanding of yourself.
When you first start to become aware of the climate crisis that we find ourselves in (because this is not climate change it is a climate crisis) the sense of responsibility can be overwhelming. From telling yourself “Goodness, I’m not doing everything I could be doing” or asking yourself: “Am I doing everything I possibly can?”. You are never going to be doing absolutely everything that you could do, but it is important to make slow steady changes along the way.
So, I believe the easiest first step is simply to stop using plastic bags, it’s very straight forward because everyone has a fabric tote/ carry bags these days. I always take a couple of fabric bags in my backpack and in the handbags I use on a regular basis. My husband does too.
That way you are sure not to be caught out. If you have forgotten something and you say: “I need to buy a few things”, you have no need to use a plastic bag.
It is really easy to do and the reward for doing so is the satisfaction that comes when you think to yourself: “Hey, today I could have used a plastic bag and I didn’t, because I had my own with me”, I think this feeling encourages me to work towards making more changes.
Many thanks Eirene for sharing your experiences with us.
What did you think of Eirene’s and Pere’s plastic-free life? Tell us what you think in the comments section (with respect and without judgement).
P.S. Would you like to take part by telling us about how you reduce plastic at your place? We are looking for all type of households: single-person homes, single-parent homes, LGBT family homes, large family households, from small towns to large cities, flatmates, senior community members… even nomads!
We would like to tell your story, so if you are interested in getting involved, send us an email to [email protected] with the subject “Plastic-free homes” and we will get in contact with you.