Researcher Steph Northen at a municipal waste dump in South Africa

A researcher from our Revolution Plastics initiative took part in Plastic Free July — find out how the experience reflected the challenges highlighted by her research.

  • 11 August 2022
  • 6 min read

Steph Northen, researcher for Revolution PlasticsSteph Northen is a researcher for Revolution Plastics and an MRes Marine Biology graduate at the University of Portsmouth.

Steph recently set herself the challenge of avoiding any plastic packaged items for two weeks straight for Plastic Free July.

Here, Steph explains the easiest and hardest habits to change when going plastic free, and how this mirrored her research which explored plastic-related consumption habits in the city of Portsmouth. 

Motivated to change by my research career

As a marine biologist and research assistant for Revolution Plastics I’ve always had a great deal of interest and concern for protecting our environment. A lot of my concerns are emphasised by the research I’m involved with, which highlights our generation's relentless consumption habits and the damaging impact that human actions have on the natural environment. Unfortunately my chosen career path inevitably revolves around themes of pollution, climate change and regularly seeing devastating scenes on our planet, such as animals suffocating in endless waste.

Goats foraging among plastic waste in South Africa

Steph saw goats foraging among piles of plastic waste on a recent visit to South Africa for a research project.

The feeling of overwhelming helplessness to try and make so many changes to protect our planet alone, without the top-down support from governments and industry, can be tough but it also accelerates my personal motivation to be more eco-friendly — whether it is by using less plastic, reusing what I have, or choosing more sustainable lifestyle options.

The idea of joining a community effort to make a bigger difference together, such as the Plastic Free July, really inspires me. I took part for the first time last year and avoided single-use plastics for one week. This year I raised the bar higher and tried to avoid plastics for two full weeks.

The feeling of overwhelming helplessness to try and make so many changes to protect our planet can be tough but it also accelerates my personal motivation to be more eco-friendly — whether it is by using less plastic, reusing what I have, or choosing more sustainable lifestyle options.

Steph Northen, Researcher for Revolution Plastics and participant in Plastic Free July

The easiest and hardest plastic-free swaps

I’ve experimented with eco-friendly choices in the past to see how much plastic I can reduce by cutting out products which contain unnecessary plastic. I started with commonly practised eco-swaps such as a reusable water bottle and coffee mug, bamboo toothbrush, and reusable shopping bags. This led to a habitual spiral of discovering everyday swaps such as investing in a replaceable bamboo razor, washable face cloths, eco-egg for washing machines, reusable/washable sanitary products, soap and shampoo bars, refill toiletries and so on… This has cut down my waste production significantly in the last year and I will continue to stick by these changes.

I still struggle to cut out plastic entirely though, especially when it comes to food shopping. The cosmetics, toiletries and household product swaps mentioned become a more permanent investment once you have found what works for you — and prevent you from repeatedly buying disposable plastics. But trying to cut all plastic packaging out for Plastic Free July was still a big challenge. 

The cosmetics, toiletries and household product swaps mentioned become a more permanent investment once you have found what works for you — and prevent you from repeatedly buying disposable plastics.”

Steph Northen, Researcher for Revolution Plastics and participant in Plastic Free July

Shopping for plastic-free food choices

As a nation we are constantly buying food, and in convenience stores and supermarkets it is sometimes impossible to find fresh fruit, veg, meat, bread or dairy products that are not wrapped in plastic. This became the hardest thing for me to stick to during my two-week challenge. I had to seek out local stores, markets, bakeries, butchers, farm shops, zero-waste or refillable shops that offer fresh food, but these aren’t always available 24/7. For the average working person it’s not always easy to visit such stores within working life and a busy schedule.

Testing supermarket alternatives therefore kept me going. This included taking grocery bags and storage containers to fill with fresh food from deli counters and salad bars, and buying loose vegetables, nuts and olives, cheese in wax wraps, and fresh bakery goods. 

I am a vegetarian, and one of the biggest obstacles I encountered was buying my usual protein replacements. These products and meat-alternatives usually come in plastic packaging — after 2 weeks this became a barrier to my plastic-free lifestyle and is not necessarily always an option in the long-term. On the plus side, my lifestyle change definitely helped me to stop buying convenient, unnecessary or ‘less healthy’ packaged snacks!

50% of respondents in Portsmouth have tried to reduce their plastic consumption in recent years, and 60% would choose to buy alternative non-plastic packaged items with a shorter shelf life than plastic-wrapped goods.

Plastic purchasing habits in Portsmouth

In a recent research survey that Revolution Plastics conducted in Portsmouth, we found people tend to use less plastic bags and bottles compared with films and tubs (approximately 5-6 items each per week). I think this is reflected in the availability of fresh food in supermarkets that is often only presented in this type of packaging, such as butter, cheese, meat, berries and salad.

The survey also showed that over 50% of respondents in Portsmouth have tried to reduce their plastic consumption in recent years, and 60% would choose to buy alternative non-plastic packaged items with a shorter shelf life than plastic-wrapped goods. One of the biggest barriers identified to reducing plastic consumption was the lack of availability and affordability of alternatives to single-use plastics, which was a frustration that also resonated in my personal day-to-day challenges throughout July.

In our survey, one of the biggest barriers identified to reducing plastic consumption was the lack of availability and affordability of alternatives to single-use plastics, which was a frustration that resonated in my personal challenges throughout July.

Steph Northen, Researcher for Revolution Plastics and participant in Plastic Free July

Adapting to a plastic-free lifestyle

I’m determined to continue to avoid plastic items in daily life wherever possible and purchase refill options or alternatives in cosmetics and food shopping. I carry my reusable coffee cup, water bottle, utensils and Tupperware on the go whenever possible. I was very pleased and proud of myself to achieve two weeks straight of not buying any single-use plastic items.

After the first two weeks, I must admit to taking short breaks when some packaged items are difficult to avoid, such as group BBQs or lunches on the go, bottled drinks on holiday, and medical essentials. But overall, I used much less plastic at the end of July and into August with less hassle than when I started. Some behavioural changes have definitely stuck with me and would recommend trying these effective plastic swaps.


Learn about research from Revolution Plastics and discover more top tips to revolutionise your plastic use.