The mound of rubbish before me reaches up to my thigh and is well over a metre wide.
It’s made up of a dozen concertinaed bottles (milk, fizzy water, orange juice, shampoo, shower gel…), as well as fruit cartons, swathes of plastic food packaging and bubble wrap from an online parcel.
I am mortified, because this is all the plastic I’ve used in a single week — and I’m pretty pernickety about recycling.
It looks like I’ve fed the 5,000 as opposed to a family of five. Only now does it strike me that we shouldn’t be buying so much plastic in the first place.
My sense of shame is timely. According to a study this year, more than eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the Fifties, of which 6.3 billion tonnes has become waste. Almost 80 per cent of that is in landfills or natural environments such as the oceans.
While plastic packaging has revolutionised the way we store and consume food, there is now so much of it that landfills can’t cope.
Somerset-based mother-of-three Alice Smellie (pictured) was mortified when she realised how much plastic she consumed in a week. Vowing to reduce her usage, she it cut it out completely for seven days
Some of it contains poisonous chemicals, some can take 450 years to break down, and some won’t biodegrade at all.
And then there’s the fact that only a third of plastic packaging is recycled — only about half of the 38.5 million plastic bottles used every day, for example, and only three per cent of the film on ready meals was recycled in 2015.
Most families in the UK are said to throw away 40kg of plastic a year (our week’s haul weighs 1.2kg, so that’s 62.4kg a year from our house alone, never mind school, work and snacks on the go).
The results for the natural world are now plain to see: in August, a study by Plymouth University reported that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.
Suitably horrified, I challenge myself not to purchase any products involving plastic — packaging or otherwise — for a whole week.
But how achievable is that, these days? In 2009, Rachelle Strauss and her family set themselves the target of filling only one bin of plastic in a year, which required ‘a complete lifestyle change’ that they document on the website zerowasteweek.co.uk.
According to a study this year, more than eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the Fifties, of which 6.3 billion tonnes has become waste. Almost 80 per cent of that is in landfills or natural environments such as the oceans. Alice Smellie is pictured with her local milkman in her bid to go plastic-free
She says it’s unfeasible to expect everyone to do this — but if you put the time in, you can actually save money. ‘
If you are considering everything you buy, it’s likely to be less expensive as you’ll only purchase what you think you need,’ she says.
I do most of my grocery shopping online, but this is a big no-no.
‘You need to look — in person — for things like butter wrapped in paper. Bring your own bags to the greengrocer, and deli counters will often let you use your own containers,’ says Rachelle.
The first item on my list is bread. Commonly wrapped in plastic, I opt instead for local Somerset bakery chain Burns The Bread.
Alice Smellie is pictured at her local cheese shop Godminster Farms, which encases its cheese in wax rather than plastic
‘We try to use as little plastic as possible,’ says retail support manager Casey Burns. I buy three loaves in paper bags, with each costing 75p more than my usual sliced, though it tastes delicious.
Milk is my second priority. With three children, aged nine, 11 and 12, we get through at least 16 pints a week. That’s eight plastic bottles, or 416 in a year.
Thankfully, the milk&more delivery service operates milk floats, delivering to 500,000 homes (milkandmore.co.uk).
And 60 per cent of its milk comes in glass bottles, which you can request specifically — you return them for reuse like the old days.
I’m thrilled to realise it also delivers orange juice in glass bottles, eggs and — most excitingly for a middle-class gin drinker — Fever-Tree tonic.
The children cannot get their heads around the milk being delivered. ‘How do I open this thing?,’ nine-year-old Lara asks me as she puzzles over a foil lid.
Some items prove easier to source without plastic than I had imagined.
The Frome mother (pictured) spent the week struggling not to reach for the cling film. Although there are ready meals in the freezer, she didn’t resort to them once (on account of the plastic film lids), so each meal is cooked from scratch
My local butcher Phil Day is perfectly cheery about me bringing in Tupperware boxes for my purchases.
‘We have a few customers trying to cut down on plastic,’ he says.
‘Just ensure the receptacle is clean, and check in advance in case your butcher isn’t sure about the idea.’
The total for my shopping is £16.58 compared with £18.94 at Ocado.
Encouraged, I head to my nearest town, Frome.
‘Why don’t we find you a cardboard box?’ suggests the lady in our greengrocers, SK Fruits.
Supermarkets do have initiatives to reduce plastic — Lidl has removed all single-use plastic bags, Waitrose is trialling a non-plastic punnet container and Sainsbury’s tells me it has reduced its own-brand packaging by 31 per cent since 2005, writes Alice Smellie
‘I come away with loose tomatoes, potatoes, onions and carrots. I can’t find loose strawberries, but purchase in-season plums instead.
‘I have a woman who makes me wrap everything in paper,’ says Paul Dumpton, at the Sagebury Cheese Delicatessen, as he folds up my cream cheese in greaseproof paper.
A wholefood store sells loose nuts, pulses and cereal, and the cheesemonger has pasta wrapped in paper — although it’s expensive at £6.50.
Godminster Cheese — a local company — encases its cheese in wax rather than plastic and a fish stall in nearby Bruton says I’m by no means the first customer to refuse plastic wrapping for salmon.
Things do cost a little more this way, but the main problem is time, since I have to travel to various small businesses rather one supermarket.
Of course, supermarkets do have initiatives to reduce plastic — Lidl has removed all single-use plastic bags, Waitrose is trialling a non-plastic punnet container and Sainsbury’s tells me it has reduced its own-brand packaging by 31 per cent since 2005.
But there is still a long way to go. When I attempt to shop plastic-free at Sainsbury’s it’s nowhere near straightforward, although the assistants couldn’t be more helpful.
I ask whether I can buy meat and fish using my own containers and am referred to a manager who says they will have to weigh out items and then pass them to me in case of contamination behind the counter.
As for yoghurt, I cannot find a way of carrying it home without plastic. So we do without. But you can buy a yoghurt maker if you really need to.
Beware: There is plastic lurking in places you’d never expect to find it, experts warn
I spend the week struggling not to reach for the cling film. Although there are ready meals in the freezer, I don’t resort to them once (on account of the plastic film lids), so each meal is cooked from scratch.
The family are pleased. But personally I feel life is a bit more effort, and everything has to be planned far more carefully.
But it really makes me think: even simple things such as taking a shower involve plastic these days.
I turn to Lush’s new Naked range, which is packaging-free and includes solid bars of shower gel and shampoo. These are pleasant but not quite as effective as my usual products.
The healthiest change is that I can’t snack when out and about. Normally I’ll grab a chocolate bar on the school run: not this week.
And when I go to London for the day I reluctantly take a home-made sandwich rather than visiting a chain for a tuna baguette.
The children don’t really notice — they’re more than happy snacking on nuts and fresh bakery goodies — and neither does my husband.
They’d all be happy to live a plastic-free life. As the main shopper, though, I simply don’t have the time to achieve this.
But at the end of a week, with an empty plastic recycling box, I swear I’m going to make permanent changes to our lifestyle.
Fizzy water in plastic bottles was my guilty pleasure, but after reading that a million are bought every minute around the world, I will never buy them again.
And I plan to shop locally far more. Adding up the costs, I only spent £1.86 more than my usual weekly shop, and there is less food waste due to planning so carefully.
So now I’m looking very hard at everything else we throw away in this house…