In my last post Plastic-free shopping 1970s style: Part 1 we went shopping with me and my late Nan on the bus (buz) into Hanley in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent in a bid to investigate the plastic-free food that went into her tartan shopping trolley in the 1970s. I was prompted by the thought that food packaging has changed so much, even since my childhood days. People are reacting and are signing petitions to supermarkets, asking them to go plastic-free. I fear , though, that the same old statements will be trotted out in response to these petitions about how plastic is needed in order to protect food from spoilage all through the supply chain, without criticism. But is it always needed?

I’m temporarily focused on consuming or buying, but I will come round full-circle to making and producing at home as these issues, like most in life, are related to some degree.  Come with me and my late mum shopping (1970s style again). We’ll leave Stoke behind now, and make it back to my home town, another Midlands town. There are no large supermarkets at the edge of town here either, but there is a small one in the centre of town. Sometimes we go on the bus, but today we head into town in the car, a British Leyland built Austin Maxi. Such a classy car! No comment I hear you say.

First we go to the butchers where I can just remember the meat being wrapped in butcher’s paper and tied up with string, just as it was when I went shopping with my Nan. We get the crusty bread from a bakers near the market, and only then do we head to the only small supermarket in town. What do we have in the shopping basket? We have card packs of cornflour, gravy browning and PG Tips tea. We’ll have a good look at the packaging in a moment. There’s an assortment of other items that wouldn’t look much different to today: a jar of Branstons pickle, a bottle of HP Sauce and a jar of jam. The only difference today is that pickles and sauces are increasingly sold in plastic rather than glass. There’s a pack of biscuits but I can’t recollect the packaging. What I remember, though, is my dad would sometimes drop by a factory shop on his way home from work and pick up a box of broken biscuits. We grew mainly green beans and carrots in the garden at home, but I don’t remember whether we bought fruit and veg from a grocers or the supermarket.

Delivered milk

Where’s the milk? There are no plastic bottles of milk in the basket because we have milk delivered at home from the milkman in reusable glass bottles. Milk could be bought at a supermarket or shop but only in glass bottles, and if I remember rightly there was a crate for empties in the store. My dad still has milk delivered today, and last week (2018) I’ve gone back to having milk delivered. I’m paying extra for organic milk: to see what this means in the UK, see here. As we head out of the small supermarket we pass by a pen holding a jumble of cardboard boxes, discarded from store goods. Should you forget your shopping bag, you could always pick one up.

Like last time, I have a distraction that blurs the memory of the food we bought. The market extends past the supermarket where mum decides to buy me some fabric for my first high school sewing project, a tunic top, then called a smock top. The fabric is a brown flowery Liberty-style cotton print, which I later wear with brown, flared crimplene pull-on trousers. You want an outfit like that don’t you….. So, again my memory is of a small number of items, but like last time I believe it leads us to some handy insights.

At home, I help mum unload the shopping. The card packs of cornflour, Gravy browning and PGTips tea sit on the kitchen table for now. A week or more ago now I was staring at that pack of tea in my mind, as I had just decided to turn a part-time loose leaf habit into a full-time one. The prompt was the recent news that tea bags contain plastic. Yes, plastic. Even in tea bags – you can’t escape the stuff, and so neither does the environment. I huffed and I sighed as I looked at the plastic inner from the loose leaf tea packet I’d just bought. I still can’t entirely escape the plastic. I was sure that the tea pack that I was staring at in my mind contained no inner plastic, so I sent out a tweet from my Go Homespun Twitter asking if anyone remembered, particularly tea retailers. Was I right? The answer came quite quickly from someone at work who reminded me that the tea was packed in a paper bag inside the pack. I tweeted the answer and a conversation ensued.

Tea by the fire


As sometimes I take a thread and run with it, my Twitter has become somewhat tea focused lately. It’s one imported product I’d find hard to give up. Three tea retailers replied. we are tea quickly replied to say that they’re phasing out plastic in their tea bags, and plastic from all packaging. Hurray! Yorkshire Tea  also quickly replied to say they are phasing out plastic from their tea bags but only after a little poke from a fellow Tweeter (Nicky Merrell @BeingKnitterly) about the possibility of returning to a paper inner did they reply to say that the plastic is the best option to prolong its shelf life all through the supply chain, making sure it can handle storage in lots of environments. I might have expected this answer as I know this is the argument most commonly used.

The three-way conversation included comments along the line of ‘paper was fine in the 1970s, so why not now?’. I’ve no idea what the rates of spoilage along the tea supply chain might have been when the packaging was all card and paper, but I wonder if the assertion that plastic is needed can be justified now that we know so much more about problematic plastic? Would it not be better to look at improving warehouse conditions through the supply chain? Clipper teas have also responded to me to say they would put my suggestions to their team, so maybe change might well happen. There are other important tea-related issues being debated surrounding ‘fairtrade’, but I’m going to stay packaging-focused today.

The reason why I digress is that it occurred to me that there are other dry foods that can still be bought in card packs, but the paper inner bags have now been replaced with plastic. Just as in the last post I mentioned the Birds custard powder in cardboard tubs that came out of Nan’s shopping trolley, the packaging of one or two food items has ramifications for several others.

meat wrapped in butchers paper

In the last post I said that lately I’ve taken to packing some pieces of greaseproof paper and some containers to take to a butcher’s counter in a bid to avoid the inevitable plastic-wrapped meat. I asked could we not ditch that plastic sheet that has to be put on the scales, the plastic bag the meat goes into, and the plastic gloves for handling the meat? With my greaseproof paper and container shopping habit, I expect to be treated like I come from planet Pluto. Sometimes I am, but it is getting better. I assume it is mainly food safety regulations that have brought about the ubiquitous use of plastic at butcher and deli counters. In a local butchers (which has now closed down), only in recent years food hygiene was dealt with by much wiping of surfaces and washing of hands, and I’m sure it sufficed. Have we let plastic take over unnecessarily?

Some might wonder why meat (or how much?) is in my shopping basket if I’m promoting a green lifestyle, as I realise that green-living and zero waste has become much associated with plant-based diets. However, next time I’m thinking about animal-based and plant-based food, and a holistic approach to farming and food.

Returning to plastic, if you’re wondering what you can do to cut your use and this post makes you feel completely at the mercy of food retailers, I suppose my message is that you can but ask and make suggestions. The more people that do, the more power we, as individuals, have. We can ask:

  • How about revisiting the paper, card and tin packaging options of the recent past?
  • How about re-thinking food safety procedures in the light of new knowledge about plastic as a problem?
  • How about bringing back cardboard box pens in shops and supermarkets,
  • Drinks in glass bottles with a return crate for empties?

What can we do in the meantime, whilst retailers take in the comments and requests from the general public via twitter and email? We can:

  • Take our own bags (shopping holdalls or produce bags)
  • Take, even, waxed or greaseproof paper and containers,
  • If you can budget for it, buy milk in reusable glass bottles through a milk man,
  • Make/grow your own to avoid packaging in the first place (probably the most important)

I’m going to be awkward now, and maybe even exasperating, and say that even though I’ve suggested a return to traditional packaging materials of the past (like paper, card and tin), is there not a limit to how much packaging we can produce and achieve sustainabilty? To tackle this question would be another blog post altogether.

I’m sure this blog post is long enough, but as I’ve had some feedback on questions I have asked lately about shopping habits, I list them below. They come from friends at home and fellow tweeters who have filled in gaps in my memory and answered inane questions such as ‘if you’re out grocery shopping with a string shopping bag, how do you avoid brussel sprouts and button mushrooms falling through the holes of your string bag?’…..

Helpful suggestions and insights from others:

Nicky Merrell @BeingKnitterly and Mrs  M #FBPE @meg_e_r both agreed on Twitter that a series of produce bags for individual types of fruit and veg were not needed in the 1970s. It was more common to be served by a greengrocer at a shop or market stall; your apples, carrots, parsnips and all being delivered into one shopping bag. This brings up the subject of shopkeeper served versus self-served.

Laura at a craft meeting at home on Friday night added that your goods would be tipped into your bag from the cradle on the weighing scales which looked like a mini-baby bath. Christine, at the same meeting said, to my question about brussel sprouts popping out of holes in your string shopping bag, that a grocer would be only too happy to provide a piece of newspaper with which you could line your shopping bag. Brussel sprout problem solved then…

Mrs M #FBPE @meg_e_r said that pasta and pulses were sold in cardboard boxes – something I had forgotten about. She also posted a photo of a type of shopping bag that looked like a deck chair here. I’m starting to think we had one in yellow. Am I dreaming now?