10 Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Use Without Compromising Your Lifestyle
Your Personal Plastic Reduction Plan
The human race is losing the battle against plastic.
Our own technical ingenuity has become toxic to our planet and all its inhabitants, including ourselves. We have found plastic in every corner of every environment on earth. Microplastics are raining down from the sky as they get caught in the water cycle. Plastic has entered the food chain when accidentally consumed by the animals we eat. Enormous patches of floating plastic, the size of countries, have been formed by our ocean currents. Pre-pandemic, we were already fighting an uphill battle, but now, with the addition of billions of pieces of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), we are facing a global crisis.
For all the benefits that make plastic so prevalent in consumer products - it is lightweight, malleable, and cheap to produce - it has a critical flaw when it comes to its impact on the environment: it is practically indestructible. Even worse; half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year is designed to be single-use.
Recycling isn't the answer. Despite what we've been conditioned to believe, only 9% of plastics that are used end up being properly recycled. Our global recycling infrastructure isn't equipped to handle the diversity and sheer volume of plastic being produced. There is massive public confusion about how to properly recycle. Well-intentioned citizens are likely to make mistakes which cause contamination of recycling batches and thwart their good intentions. Contamination levels of non-recyclables have reached such high levels that for many communities, it is no longer economically sustainable to continue recycling programs. It is cheaper to simply “throw it away” and so collection programs are defunded and recyclable materials are sent to the landfill.
In the meantime, Big Oil is doubling down on plastics. With global fuel demand dramatically slowing, plastics represent their target growth market. As a result, plastic production is increasing - on its way to triple by 2050.
Our global addiction to plastic is steadily killing us, and is as much a threat to our way of life as climate change. Broad changes are urgently needed by societies, governments, corporations, and citizens. But mobilizing awareness, accountability, and action will require an unprecedented awakening on a global basis, and time is running out. Every minute we wait to take action, the equivalent of a full garbage truck's worth of plastic is dumped into our oceans.
Corporate accountability will need to be driven through policy changes at the government level, which takes time. In the meantime, we, as consumers - you - must take personal responsibility and reduce the amount of plastic consumed.
Because the use of plastics has become so prolific, it would be an impractical pursuit to try to eliminate plastic entirely from your life. To do so would be incredibly disruptive to your lifestyle and lead to drastic changes that would doom the effort to fail.
So, give yourself permission to start small. You don't have to drastically change your shopping behaviors or break the bank to start your unplastic journey. Find areas of your life where plastic is non-essential and where alternatives exist. Swapping out plastic products for non-plastic ones gets the ball rolling and builds confidence. Find the little wins in your life that will allow you to take progressive and compounding steps toward reducing your plastic footprint.
Here are 10 steps you can take this week that will reduce your family's consumption of plastic, without having to make disruptive or expensive lifestyle changes.
1. Add a recycling bin to the bathroom.
A considerable amount of domestic plastic is used for personal hygiene products found in our bathrooms, but only 20% of households have bathroom recycling bins. This is a major contributor to our dismal recycling record - only 9% of plastics are properly recycled. Add convenience to your daily routine and make recycling as simple as possible by having a small container to capture recyclables and keep them from the landfill.
Our favorite options:
2. Recycle plastic films
Plastic film is prolific in packaging. It is lightweight, cheap and flexible, which makes it a versatile choice for manufacturers to get their products to consumers. But they are essentially single-use, and worse - they can't be recycled in curbside recycling. Plastic film should be disposed at local bins (usually found at your grocery store). This extra step defeats most good intentions, simply because you don't have a separate bin to collect it in. This is easily correctable, and easy to bring with you the next time you go to the store (along with your reusable grocery bags).
Make it super easy on yourself by using a canvas grocery bag for to collect film ready for recycling, and then convert to bringing groceries home in after you drop it off. Our favorite option is Greenmile Organic Cotton Canvas Bags.
3. Say no to laundry detergent jugs
Laundry detergent jugs are not recyclable curbside. They are made from HDPE or "Number 3" plastic, which requires special recycling to accommodate. Most consumers dispose of them in their recycling bins, assuming that because they look like a bottle, they will be accepted. Sadly, they are sorted out, and most end up in the landfill. These jugs have a huge carbon footprint - their space and size make them costly to transport.
Thankfully, there are several affordable and effective non-plastic alternatives on the market that will do an excellent job of cleaning your clothes without the jugs. Our favorite is Dropps, and we highly recommend them to everyone open to change from the standard jugs.
4. UNplastic your teeth
Plastic is everywhere in dental hygiene products. Toothbrushes, floss, mouthwash, toothpaste all produce tremendous amounts of plastic, most of which isn't recycled. Dentists recommend we switch out our toothbrushes every three or four months, which is great for our teeth, but is also why 1 billion plastic toothbrushes are disposed each year in the United States. Beyond the products themselves, the packaging for dental products is heavily plastic as well, adding massive amounts of plastic waste the equation.
Moving your dental hygiene habits to non-plastic alternatives isn't hard. Several alternatives have made strong debuts in the last few years. These are some of our favorites:
5. Say no to plastic utensils and condiments during take-out
COVID-19 has more than tripled the number of take-out and delivery orders from restaurants in the last year, and the most common destination is to our homes, where presumably, we have our own utensils and condiments. What was once casually tossed in the take-out bag, is largely unnecessary because we already have what we need in our own kitchens. Most people don't think to ask restaurants to hold these unnecessary items, and as a result, they often get tossed away with the rest of the take-out waste. 855 billion single-use condiment packages were sold in the year leading up to the pandemic. These can't be recycled because they are too light and food contaminated.
So the next time you order delivery, be sure to look for the option that tells the restaurant not to include these extras, or put the request in the special instructions. If you are doing take-out, make sure you remove any unnecessary items from the bag before leaving. Uber Eats and Postmates have already switched their default setting to make plastic cutlery "opt-in", but if you aren't using one of these delivery services, you'll need to remember to specifically request to opt-out when placing your next order.
6. BYO containers at the deli counter
As COVID restrictions have evolved, most grocery store chains are allowing you to use your reusable bags again, which is good news for the environment, but requires us to remaster the habit that we had worked so hard to build. One often overlooked area of the grocery store is at the deli counter. When we order our fresh deli meats, the first thing the attendant does is to put the slices into a small plastic bag. Reuse bags or cleaned out take-out containers instead of perpetuating this covert plastic culprit. Have a ready to go "grocery kit" in your car that includes reusable bags and containers to give to the deli counter to put your meats into.
7. Store leftovers differently
With the rise of in-home cooking during the pandemic, we are presumably storing more of our delicious left-overs than we ever have before. Over 1 billion plastic bags are used every year, and most are only used once. It's easy to upcycle your food leftover storage. Repurpose take-out containers, use glass bowls with silicon lids, or try Anchor Hocking or Nummyware glass and bamboo containers before you reach for a plastic bag. If you must use plastic bags, wash them out and reuse them. Most are sturdy enough for several uses. Stashers are a great alternative for dry, cold, and frozen storage. Don't forget the Floworks wooden drying stand.
8. Switch to reusable PPE
Wearing masks has been a necessary safety precaution in COVID-times, but has been particularly hard on the environment. Every month, 129 billion disposable face masks are used and 65 billion plastic gloves. Because of the nature of these protective materials, they can't be recycled. If you are still using single-use, disposable face masks, you should move to reusable, washable masks as soon as possible. There are a vast amount of options available now, as favorite mainstream retailers and clothing manufacturers commonly offer them as staple items now.
9. Online order responsibly
Online ordering has been dramatically accelerated by COVID, with many consumers turning to the safety of online ordering and delivery instead of in-person shopping. This is resulting in massive increases in household waste (up almost 50%) and packaging used for transporting all these goods. So before using the one-click option to place an order, stop and ask yourself if you really need the item, or if there is another way to purchase it. Reduce the number of orders you make. Make larger shopping carts and order less frequently. Ask to have items delivered on the same day in the same shipment. Reach out to Amazon customer service to ask that they use minimal packaging on all of your orders. When you do receive the package, make sure you recycle appropriately. Separate the plastic inflatable bags (see #2) and cardboard and make sure they get into the proper bin.
Buy locally when you can. Ask yourself, do I need to order this immediately, or can it wait until the next time I go to the store in person?
10. Go metal for shaving
Over 2 billion disposable plastic razors end up in the landfill each year. They are among the most wasteful products in the bathroom, lasting only a few weeks on average before needing to be replaced. To break from this cycle, convert to a "lifetime" razor, which is made from metal. The upfront price tag may feel jarring, but when you compare the costs over the span of years that they will last, (to say nothing of the benefits to the environment), they are entirely comparable to the cost per shave. In addition to swapping out your razor, use a gentle soap like Dove instead of shaving cream and skip the aerosol can.
Reducing the amount of plastic products in your life isn't impossible. In fact, by simply sharpening your awareness and finding low-impact products to swap out, you can make a massive difference in how much you are contributing to the war against plastic. Once you start, you may even find that it becomes a compelling part of your daily routine - finding small substitutions that add up to big reductions in the plastic that you use.
If these ten steps have gotten you excited about reducing plastic from your life, check our our UNplastic University and the great books to help you go even further.