I hear you ask, “How’s your plastic-free life going, now you live in Brooklyn?” Well as it happens, I have written a whole post comparing my new American life to my old London one. What a coincidence!
For New Yorkers, this post will give you some great ideas for places to shop. For old friends in the UK, there’s plenty of useful info for you here too.
So, has America really been the land of opportunity? Well, for a plasticatarian (this should be a real word), not exactly…
CHALLENGES SO FAR
Buying food has been a little tricky.
The trouble with New York is that groceries are so expensive! So buying things plastic-free has sometimes been a luxury we can’t afford.
Take cheese for example: there’s this gorgeous little deli in our neighbourhood called Blue Apron Foods, with a such a great selection of cheeses. But I recently bought a tiny sliver of manchego for a painful $7.50. Which is fine for a special treat, but it’s not something you’d buy for your average cheese on toast.
And cheese ain’t nothing compared to olive oil!
Apparently, being really far away from the Mediterranean makes olive oil about as expensive as melted gold. When I found a barrel of bulk oil in nearby Meltkraft, I was really excited for about half a second, until I looked at the price. Eesh! I haven’t even been able to save up and buy any yet.
Olive oil refills at Meltkraft
The only place I can get olive oil so far is at Trader Joe’s - in a glass bottle but with a plastic pourer. Hey, I want to be plastic-free, but I also want to be realistic!
Frozen foods have been another point of concern. Back home, I was able to buy most frozen veggie burgers, sausages and snacks packaged in a simple cardboard box and nothing more. Ah, the lazy bliss of ASDA foods (there’s a tip for you, UK dwellers).
Frustratingly, I haven’t had the same good fortune here. Hidden inside all the innocent cardboard boxes have been plastic sleeves, which I was unable to detect until a quick dinner was needed.
Veggie burgers from the Park Slope Food Co-op, sadly wrapped in plastic
Also: Castor sugar. Impossible to find here. I don’t understand how Americans bake cakes.
This is such an important issue to me right now, it needs its own heading. It’s been about 35°C outside which certainly calls for regular frozen desserts. I’ve had a hard time accepting the fact that I can’t buy the delicious La Newyorkina paletas or People’s Pops ice lollies (so refreshing, so sad).
We had an evening of caramel-flavoured celebration when my other half managed to find a tub of ice cream with no plastic film over the top. But when I went to recycle the pot, I discovered it was entirely lined with a thin layer of plastic (a lesser-known fact: so are takeaway coffee cups).
But it’s not all woe in the frozen department - solutions will be discussed shortly (stay with me, it does get positive)!
Being a menstruating woman is harder here. Or maybe I just need to take a different approach. My favourite brands for pads (Natracare, Organyc) appear to have been European all this time. I can still find Natracare here, sporadically, but the price is about double. More incentive to use the Mooncup then!
Essential oils are another trouble. I use a lot of these, especially for making toothpaste and mouthwash. They’re also great for skin problems, for relaxing the mind and for mixing with Epsom salts for a soothing bath. I had discovered a completely lovely company in the UK called eNaissance, where I could buy large bottles without having to part with too many quids. They also shipped with no plastic, so I loved them. Sadly I’m finding online shopping for oils here is very pricy, so I’ve had to turn to Amazon - the land of plastic-filled, over-excessive packaging.
Ah, and the ol’ clogged drain problem. Our Victorian bathroom set-up here can’t handle much going down the plug hole. Which means my homemade coconut oil toothpaste could be an issue! I would prefer not to spit it into the bin, which wastes tissue paper (and is gross), so I’m going to have to find an alternative. I noticed some large aloe vera leaves for sale at our local Food Co-op. I feel a new recipe post coming on...
Our lovely (but impractical) bathroom
Another rather noticeable difference between here and the UK is that it’s sunny here!
This equals a need for sun cream. I thought ahead and brought an old one from home, but soon it’s going to run out... So that could be tricky. But yay for sunshine!
Making our apartment a home has been an interesting ride, especially starting from scratch and basically needing EVERYTHING. It took forever to find a totally plastic-free vegetable peeler (finally found one from Bowery Kitchen Supplies in Chelsea Market) and a cheese grater (found it in Tarzian West).
I’m still not completely sorted in the kitchen: composting has been a right pain in the arse! One thing I do really miss about London is the council’s ability to provide compost bins for curbside collection. Weirdly, we are supposed to have it on our street, but the Department of Sanitation seems very indifferent to the fact that we don’t have a bin outside.
Side note for anyone wanting to know why composting is so important: when food waste is trapped in plastic bin liners and buried deep in landfill, it can’t breathe. This means it doesn’t rot properly and actually creates loads of methane - not good. It’s nice to compost because it’s literally helping the circle of life.
I do have a solution, but it’s somewhat tedious (details later in this post).
Drinking straws - it should be the simplest thing, but they can be so unexpectedly hard to avoid. I’m putting it partly down to my accent, and partly down to bartender habits, but so many times I’ve been given a straw when I asked for my drink without. I also recently realised that, when making cocktails, bartenders use a straw to taste their creations. I’m wondering… is it insulting to ask them not to?
"No Straw" requests don't always work
Straws aren’t the only problem either. A crazy amount of coffee shops and bars here serve drinks in plastic cups, regardless of whether you’re sitting in or taking it to go. Which shocks me because back when I was underage and partying hard, even nightclubs served drinks in real glasses.
Speaking of plastic cups, bubble tea is a problem area. I just love it, and can’t live in New York (the city where I first discovered it) without it! Trouble is, it always comes in a plastic cup, with a big wide plastic straw. Luckily for me, I do have a way around this (read on to find out)...
Whilst this post does soon provide a solution to the bubble tea conundrum, to baseball games it does not. Sadly these are truly impossible.
Watching the Yankees and trying not to think about plastic!
With basically any vessel or container banned from entering any stadium, there are only two ways to avoid plastic when it comes to these types of sporting events:
Thirst yourself to death by not buying any bottled water or drinks in plastic cups
Ok, ignore number two. Do go, and don’t beat yourself up about it. But you might want to note that the reusable souvenir cocktail cups they give you aren’t actually reusable until you get home. The staff won’t touch your stuff.
I’ve had the same problem with a lot of venues, when trying to use my Klean Kanteen reusable cup. They have this weird and quite wasteful “we're not allowed to touch your shit” policy. I’m looking at you, Bell House and Pret a Manger! Whatever happened to the “50p off if you bring your own cup” scenario? Grumble grumble.
Aanyway, with all that off my chest, let me escort you gently into the positive section of this post: things that have been easier on this side of the Atlantic! Thank god we made it, I was starting to get depressed.
THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN EASIER
In order to overcome grocery prices as high as the Manhattan buildings, we decided to join the Park Slope Food Co-op. It’s so great! You have to work the odd shift to be a member, but you can buy great quality, local, organic foods for a fraction of the price. And the shift is kind of fun.
The best thing about this place is that they sell loose grains, seeds, nuts, pasta, sugar, coffee beans and bagels in bulk bins - and they even sell reusable cotton produce bags to put them in!
Park Slope Food Co-op purchases
In fact, bulk bins are so much easier to find in Brooklyn. Whilst in the UK, you can find them in health food shops such as Planet Organic and As Nature Intended, here you can find them in your average corner shop. New York Wholefoods stores are also amazing for loose produce, whilst in the UK most of the Wholefoods I’ve been to don’t have anything in bulk bins.
Other things that have been easy to get here are: maple syrup, chocolate biscuits in a jar (Jane Bakes), cream cheese (it comes in foil inside a cardboard carton - so much better) and seasonal fruit and veg such as strawberries, both in the Co-op and in local farmer’s markets (of which there is an abundance).
Herbs, spices and teas have been easy to buy as well. I’ve discovered an amazing shop in West Village called Sullivan Street Tea & Spice Company, selling the best selection of loose teas, spices and herbs. They basically have everything I could possibly need, including lovely recycled glass jars to put them all in! Plus the staff are really friendly and knowledgeable.
Sullivan Street Tea & Spice Company
Another similar shop is called Radicle Herb Shop in Brooklyn. It’s closer to my apartment and they possibly have even more choice when it comes to tea (and any herbs and spices you’d use to make tea). They sell unusual things like Zhu Ling mushroom powder and White Willow Bark (don’t ask me what these are for!!) as well as Bentonite and French Green clay powders, which can be great for making facial products and even toothpaste.
They don’t sell plastic-free containers and the staff seemed a little tetchy when I went in, but… maybe they were having a bad day. Anyway, it’s really a handy shop to have around.
Buying lemon and ginger tea at Radicle Herb Shop
With the extra time I’ve had whilst waiting for my work permit, I’ve also started to make my own nut milk and granola. I’ve been able to find all the ingredients totally plastic-free, so I’ll give you a post on that soon.
Despite all my problems in this department, I have been able to find ways of being able to eat LOTS of ice cream. The best solution is to get scoops in a cone, because even if I bring my own spoon the little pots they give you are lined with plastic.
I’ve recently discovered this GREAT ice creamery called Van Leeuwen. Not only do they give you samples on metal spoons, but their little tubs are compostable. Of course they don’t give away the metal spoons, but I’m pretty sure their disposable ones are biodegradable. I bring my own spoon though, when I don’t fancy a cone.
Another ice cream shop worth mentioning is Ample Hills Creamery, who also serve scoops in compostable tubs.
Compostable pots at Van Leeuwen - photo from roaminghunger.com
Other fantastic options are Melt Bakery (on the High Line) and The Good Batch (Smorgasburg), who do paper-wrapped ice cream sandwiches to actually die for.
I know ice cream isn’t refreshing as it’s fruity, juicy popsicle counterpart. Thankfully I also just found some ice lolly moulds in a stoop sale, so I’m excited to make my own! Watch this space for plastic-free recipes.
New York has given some positive vibes in this area. First, shampoo bars are easy to come by, and the one I’ve tried doesn’t contain any Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (from Meow Meow Tweet, bought at Package Free Shop).
Shampoo bar from Meow Meow Tweet
I might try and go one step further to being healthier by making my own make up. As I mentioned, you can get all sorts of weird powders from Radicle Herb Co, including beet powder. I’m thinking blusher?!
In other make up news, my tin of mascara from Twink Beauty will be much cheaper without having to pay the customs duty charges from shipping it overseas.
New York has had a couple more tricks up its sleeve. One being the availability of bicarbonate of soda (AKA baking soda) in large cardboard boxes. Yay for teeth cleaning, drain unblocking, stain removing, heartburn curing and mouth washing!
Oh yeah, and remember I said I needed to buy some sun cream? Well guess what, I can buy it in a tin at Package Free Shop! Problem solved (dusts off hands).
This wondrous shop also sells a strange new invention that I’m half-reluctant and half-eager to try: Thinx panties. For females. Could be another solution to my no.1 problem.
One thing I am LOVING here is Craigslist. It’s like Gumtree, to my UK pals. You can buy so much stuff second-hand, you can haggle like crazy, and so much of it is local to us for pick-up. We’ve managed to barter a coffee maker and grinder, a blender, a gorgeous solid wood dining table, four beautiful chairs, a huge rug, a TV stand… the list goes on.
Second-hand shopping is so great because it saves the need for plastic-packaged new things, but also keeps perfectly-good homewares out of landfill. And it saves loads of dollars! I’m obsessed.
Stoop sales are also a fantastic and fun addition to life over here. They’re like tiny miniature flea markets outside people’s apartments. We find them dotted around our neighbourhood on summer weekends.
I’ve managed to find some toiletries here that I couldn’t easily back home. My man prefers hand soap of the liquid variety. I do too, but don’t admit it. So far I’ve found three places where I can buy refills, which I’m totally excited to get when ours runs out.
3. Follian, Soho (this shop seems to have temporarily closed but I'm hoping it will re-open soon)
Soap refills from Follain - photo from lespetitsgazette.com
Another bonus here is toilet roll. Actually, when I first arrived, I thought this was to go in my ‘challenges’ category. I haven’t been able to find multipacks in biodegradable ‘plastic’ packaging, like back home. All I’ve been able to get my hands on is individual rolls wrapped in paper, which I initially turned my nose up at, thinking it was wasteful. But I’ve more recently learnt about the trouble with biodegradable plastic - it creates methane when it breaks down. Best avoided if possible.
It occurred to me that the extra paper used to wrap the loo rolls is insignificant when you think about how much paper goes into the actual roll. I just use one or two less squares each time and I’m pretty sure that almost makes up for it!
Plastic-free loo roll
Speaking of waste, recycling options seem to be vaguely better here. Our lovely Food Co-op has teamed up with Terracycle to create a great recycling programme, which really helps me in times where I’m forced to buy plastic. Twice a month, they collect plastic packaging that you can’t recycle on the curb, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, cereal bags, any plastic packaging from items bought at the co-op. I love it.
Thank-fuck-fully, there are also a few compost drop-off points in the neighbourhood (to help with my ridiculous lack of curbside compost collection). I can take my scraps to a local farmer’s market, or a community garden. But it does mean carrying a bag of rotting fruit and veggies for a 10 minute walk every now and then. Excuse me while I burst into Whitney Houston song: “it’s not right, but it’s ok”!
Compost being collected by NYC Grow at Forte Green Park. Photo from Bklynr.com
Oh and we don’t have a compost caddy for the kitchen. So at the moment we’ve got random bowls and punnets of food scraps piling up in the freezer, ready to be taken to the community garden! But I also sometimes use the good scraps to make veggie stock, which is so easy. Another post in the making.
Well, there is a piece of good news amongst the aforementioned drinking straw situation. I’ve discovered a really lovely cocktail bar in Prospect Heights called Weather Up. Owned by a Brit, they actually serve their cocktails with reusable metal straws. I suppose we Brits do sometimes know what we’re doing!
Cocktails with classy straws - photo from Weather Up's website
And I’ve found a way around drinking bubble tea: I now have a reusable cup and straw that I bring out with me when I think I’ll be buying takeaway drinks. I am so happy because the lychee and mango jellies that I love so much with my bubble tea actually fit through my little straw! Achievement of the year!
To make up for my complaining about not being able to use my own cup anywhere, I just want to say that Van Leeuwen (the ice cream place) do give you a discount on coffee for using your own cup.
Drinking bubble tea in Chinatown
So there you have it, a comprehensive comparison of New York to London plastic-free living.
Being in a new part of the world, I’ve had to do a lot of explaining about my lifestyle. I’ve realised that when it comes to being plastic-free, sometimes the positive reactions make up for the negative ones ten-fold. I have been enthusiastically saluted by a barman for ordering my drink without a straw at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park. And I’ve been treated to two free milkshakes and a burger at Shake Shack, just for ordering my drink in my own cup. It can take a bit of explaining, but in the end it’s all worth it for the the good reactions.
I’m not going to pretend it’s been a plastic-free breeze here in New York. But it’s been an enjoyable ride with plenty of positives along the way. And at times when I don’t quite succeed, I’m safe in the knowledge that I tried my best.