If you step back and take an inventory of plastics in your household, you will likely be stunned at how much comes in and goes out on a regular basis.
That’s what happened to Beth Terry, a self-proclaimed plastic addict. In 2007 while convalescing from surgery, she happened upon a magazine article that would change the course of her life. Terry was struck by an image of a sea bird’s carcass filled with plastic trash. She began connecting the dots between her own plastic consumption and the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution.
The following day, she gathered all her plastics and vowed to start acquiring less of it, rethinking how she shopped for food, cleaned her home and herself, and virtually every other purchasing decision. A few years later, she had winnowed down her plastic trash to a fraction of her former output, only 2% of the national average. More importantly, she had completely shifted her mindset from unquestioning acceptance of disposability to an unwavering commitment to showing the rest of us how we could live less plastic-filled lives.
She has shared her research on reducing plastic consumption in her blog, My Plastic-Free Life, and in her book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and You Can, Too. Carefully explaining the ins and outs of plastic’s ecological impacts and the limitations of recycling, Terry walks readers through the strategies she’s found for living with less dependence on disposable plastics.
Since beginning her plastic-free project more than a decade ago, Terry believes there has been progress in reducing certain uses of plastics. “I feel like there’s been a lot more public awareness, education, and movements to ban or tax plastic bags and other types of single-use disposable plastics,” she says.
Unfortunately, the tide of plastic pollution hasn’t turned. “On the whole it seems like manufacturers are just finding more and more uses for plastic, more and more things that maybe weren’t necessarily plastic before,” she says, especially single-use convenience foods. “It feels like today there’s a lot more disposable plastic out there than there was even 10 years ago.”
Once we commit to one change, we’ll develop habits over time that can radically change how much plastic waste we generate.
Even if you aren’t ready to eliminate plastic completely, there are ways to cut the amount you consume. Terry recommends collecting your plastic waste for a week or a month to see where most of it comes from. Choose something that will be easy for you to replace with a non-plastic option.
“There’s no one size fits all solution. Everybody’s different, and what’s easy for me might not be easy for somebody else,” she says. The resources for non-plastic shopping in your community will shape your decisions, but everyone can find something to shift. And once we commit to one change, Terry says, we’ll develop habits over time that can radically change how much plastic waste we generate.
What’s the Problem with Plastics?
The amount of plastic in the environment has skyrocketed in the last two decades. Since 1950, one study estimates, the world has produced more than 8 billion tons of plastics, more than half of it since 2002. Only about 9% gets recycled, and unlike materials like metal and glass, plastic cannot be recycled endlessly and winds up in landfills or loose in the environment.
Meanwhile, China has stopped importing the world’s recycled plastic, and the future of plastic recycling is uncertain. Recycling was always a last resort, anyhow, as the recycling process has its own ecological impact. Far better to not make all that single-use plastic in the first place.
Plastic pollution in the ocean harms sea creatures and wildlife, and also enters the human food supply. Microplastics have been found in our water, table salt, and fish. Hundreds of academic studies have pointed to health effects of exposure to plastic chemicals, affecting hormone function, brain development, and cancer risk.
What About Bio-Based Plastics?
Numerous alternatives to plastics are being developed from natural materials like mushrooms and waste products like prawn shells, which hopefully will help usher in an era with far less plastic pollution. However, while biodegradable, plant-based plastics are an improvement over petroleum-based plastic, they have some serious limitations. Bioplastics still take resources to produce, and they create pollution as the ingredients are farmed, processed, and shipped to you.
Further, they don’t break down in home composts and often get tossed in the trash, where they don’t biodegrade in the anaerobic conditions of the landfill. Many well-meaning people put bioplastics in with their other recycling, where they wind up contaminating batches of plastic that are rendered unusable.
Many well-meaning people put bioplastics in with their recycling, where they wind up contaminating batches of plastic that are rendered unusable.
The best solution? Avoid anything made for a single use, whatever the material. While a biodegradable baggie or bottle is better than a conventional plastic one, a glass or metal container is better still.
Below are a number of ways we can avoid plastic in our day-to-day lives. To get started, choose something that will be easy for you to adopt as a habit. Little by little, swap alternatives for the plastic you’re using. You’ll feel great about your progress, and you can take pride in modeling your habits for those around you.
Reduce Plastic Pollution with 15 Easy Swaps
1) BYOB (bring your own bag)
When purchasing food, lots of us have learned to bring our own bags and say “No, thanks” to the paper or plastic offered at checkout. If you haven’t yet jumped on the resuable bag bandwagon, keep a lightweight bag in your purse or backpack so you always have a shopping bag when you need one. These also work well for collecting fresh produce from your farmer’s market or grocery store.
2) Choose reusable produce and bulk food bags
Help cut this completely unnecessary use of plastic by bringing reusable produce bags and always choose unpackaged produce when possible. If you’re shopping the bulk aisle, don’t grab the plastic baggies they usually have there — instead, bring your own jars or containers from home or opt for cloth bulk bags. Simply weigh them and write the weight on a label, and the cashier will subtract the weight when you check out. Labels on mason jars will stay on so you don’t have to weigh them every time you buy more oats, nuts, flour, sugar, and so on. So many bags saved!
3) Go homemade (or drink water)
You can save a lot of money and packaging by making your own nutmilks from coconut and almonds bought in bulk. Most nutritionists will tell you it’s best to skip other bottled beverages. Soda and juice are just sugar (and often chemical additives) without much in the way of other nutrients, and those plastic bottles and cans have a big environmental footprint. Enjoy the benefits of homemade herbal tea instead. Filtered water from your tap is a far healthier and more sustainable option than bottled.
4) Ditch the plastic wrap
Store food without plastic wrap or bags, in reusable containers or using reusable beeswax wraps. Glass or metal containers do a great job storing leftovers of all sorts and go easily in the dishwasher. Platinum silicone containers are another easy-to-use alternative. These contain no PVC, lead, latex, BPA, or BPS. And unlike plastic, they can be used thousands of times—even heated in boiling water. Repurposed glass jars or mason jars also work well, as do bowls with plates on top of them.
5) Choose reusable lunch containers
Lunches, snacks, and picnics don’t need single-use bags. Instead, pack in a sturdy, dishwasher-safe steel container and you’ll never have a smushed sandwich again. The metal lunch boxes I got for my kids years ago are going strong after daily use, and they also work well when we want snacks on the go. For something more compact, consider platinum silicone sandwich bags —100% plastic free, self-sealing, airtight, and reusable.
6) Plan for takeout
While not yet a common practice, some of us have been bringing our own containers to our favorite restaurants for years. Some restaurants will need to adjust to the idea: you may be the first person to ask them not to use disposables. But most places where I’ve done this have not only gone along with my request, they’ve rewarded us with extra food. I was pleased to discover recently that I’m not alone in my efforts to skip takeout plastic: there are now many options for eating without waste on the go.
7) Pack a travel set for eating on the go
8) Swap your straws for non-plastic alternatives
The popularity of on-the-go drinks has created a huge wake of plastic waste. The movement towards banning plastic straws in many communities is helping raise awareness of the ways our habits can have serious, unintended consequences. If you’re trying to cut your plastic footprint, saying ‘no’ to straws is a great start. Some restaurants put straws in your drinks even when you’re dining in, so be sure to tell them you don’t want one, and return any wrapped straws they place in front of you. Alternatively, consider packing your own straw in metal, glass, or bamboo. These are quick to clean at home and reuse thanks to the miniature scrub brushes that usually accompany them.
9) Take a travel mug for less plastic waste
For drinks to go, your best bet is a travel mug which can hold either hot or cold drinks—no plastic cap, cup, bottle, or straw needed. Many coffee shops will reward you for bringing your own cup and give you a discount. Over the course of a year, that can add up to a lot of free coffee—and a lot less plastic.
10) Brew and steep plastic-free
Those K-cup coffee pods that have become so popular have quickly emerged as a major source of plastic pollution. Make your coffee plastic-free with coffee bought in bulk and brewed in a metal or glass coffee pot or French press. Likewise, loose leaf tea allows you to skip all the packaging associated with tea bags (many contain polypropylene plastic) and cuts the footprint of your cuppa.
11) Try a shampoo bar
All those shampoos, conditioners, and lotions can add up to some serious plastic waste. Look around your bathroom with an eye for plastic, and you’ll be astonished how much is involved with cleaning our hair, teeth, face, and body! Try out some of the numerous shampoo bars that have hit the shelves in the last few years, and you’ll never look back. Add in a conditioning bar or a simple DIY conditioner, and the plastic in your shower drops significantly.
12) Use bar soap
If you use body wash or liquid handsoap, go back to a simple bar soap to slash the waste of your scrub. Bottled lotions can be replaced with lotion bars or coconut oil in glass containers.
13) Brush with compostable toothbrushes
North Americans throw away almost a billion plastic toothbrushes every year. That’s a lot of plastic. Thankfully more toothbrushes are now available made from compostable and renewable resources including bamboo. Other popular options include toothbrushes with replaceable, compostable heads, and chewable neem sticks.
14) Use plastic-free floss
Have you taken a look at the amount of plastic involved in flossing our teeth every day? The floss in that little box is likely made of plastic, and the box itself needs to be pulled apart in order to recycle any of it (some can’t be recycled at all). Instead, look into flosses made from natural materials like silk and packed in paper or reusable glass. Or try a water pik. And say ‘no’ to those mini-flosses the dentist hands out — the floss-to-packaging ratio is even worse.
15) Reach for reusable feminine products
Reusable sanitary product options have expanded in the last few years, with more varieties of menstrual cups and reusable cloth pads available every day. The added bonus? These options are less likely to cause the health concerns associated with disposable products containing chlorine bleach.
Reducing Plastic Pollution Step by Step
As more of us examine our habits and model sustainable choices, norms about plastics will begin to shift. Think how normal it has become in the last few years to carry a reusable water bottle or bring your own shopping bags.
Beth Terry notes that to really make a dent in the plastic problem, we need larger-scale changes than individuals can make on a day-to-day basis. “The system is not set up to make it easy, so it really takes a lot of personal commitment,” she says. “We have to change the system to make it easier for people to do the right thing.”
In addition to voting with your dollars for non-plastic options and teaching others to do the same, write the companies you buy from and pressure legislators to enact bans and impose fees on plastics. If we all work to reduce the amount of plastic being produced and tossed, together we may stem the tide of plastic pollution.