It’s no secret that we have a problem with plastic pollution. In fact, a 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Advances found that humans have created 9 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s, when we started mass-producing it. And while we’ve made strides in reducing single-use plastic — such as by becoming well-acquainted with reusable grocery bags, water bottles, coffee cups and, most recently, straws — we still have a ways to go. And the key isn’t buying recyclable products, either — in part because, even when we do, they rarely actually get recycled. According to DoSomething.org, the EPA estimated that 75 percent of the waste Americans create is recyclable, but we only actually recycle 30 percent of it. “And recycling still requires tremendous energy and resources,” said Ashlee Piper, eco-lifestyle expert and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet.
“If we’re talking water bottles, we know that Americans use 167 disposable plastic water bottles each year on average, only 20 percent of which get recycled,” she continue. “So, it’s logical to conclude that we have a lot of plastic already kicking around; and continuing to patronize single-use plastic creates a burden on resources, generates more plastic that has nowhere to go, and also contributes to the phenomenon of microplastics in our waterways and invading the food and water cycles for earth’s inhabitants.”
It’s a big task, but everyone can contribute to cutting back on those jarring statistics. Here’s how:
Create a “reusable arsenal” for eating on the go
Whether you’re traveling through airports, eating casual meals out during the week or partaking in your office’s free-lunch-Friday, you’re likely to have to use plastic cutlery and disposable napkins unless you plan ahead. You may already have your reusable water bottle, coffee cup and straw at the ready, but you can easily carry the other things, too. “Take it a step further by packing a reusable arsenal that includes reusable cutlery, a takeaway container (I have a small stainless steel tiffin with me most of the time and it’s awesome for collecting leftovers if I go out to eat) [and] a cloth napkin,” Piper said. “It is a simple gesture that makes eating on the fly seem more civilized than ever while also reducing reliance on single-use disposables.” You can get a lightweight cutlery set like To-Go Ware’s Bamboo Travel Utensils and cloth napkins to keep in your bag at all times; and a stainless steel lunchbox (or any sort of reusable container that suits you) for when you know you’ll be taking food to-go.
Buy food in bulk
“A large source of single-use plastic is food packaging,” Piper said. “Those soft, crushable plastics that swaddle produce, cereals [and more] can often not be easily or ever recycled, and they’re pretty easy to avoid if you shop in the (often cheaper) bulk bins with your own containers and opt for produce, breads and other items that are as naked as possible.” For example, instead of buying prepackaged single-serving trail mix fill your reusable containers with the ingredients you like from Whole Foods’ bulk section and mix it up at home; and instead of packing up the fruits and veggies you buy in plastic bags the grocery store provides, use mesh produce bags (or no bag at all).
When you caffeinate, rather than use plastic coffee pods for a single-cup machine, opt for a reusable filter; and go with loose-leaf tea in a mesh strainer or buy from a company like Celestial Seasonings that eschews individual wrappers.
Shop in stores and avoid excess packaging
Shopping online is convenient, but think about all of the plastic packaging that often comes with it, like bubble wrap and shrink wrap. An easy way to cut back on those things is to shop in stores as much as you can (bringing your own bag when you do); and when you do shop online, try to give your business to companies that minimize packaging and focus on sustainability. For example, the personal care and cosmetics company Lush opts for “naked” packaging in 35 percent of its products and uses recycled, recyclable and compostable materials for the rest. And Package Free Shop sells a wide range of sustainable home, personal care and lifestyle products — even biodegradeable phone cases — shipped in minimal (if any) packaging.
Stock up on reusable storage
At home, ditch disposable plastic bags in favor of reusable storage solutions for leftovers and other food products. Not only can you find a huge range of glass and metal containers in pretty much every shape and size at stores like Package Free Shop and The Container Store; but you can also use beeswax food wraps instead of plastic cling wrap.
And when you’re not at home, you can pack your sandwiches and snacks in reusable bags like those from Planet Wise and Stasher; and bring takeout containers like a stainless steel tiffin (a la Piper) to restaurants if you think you’ll be carrying leftovers home.
Rethink your toiletries
Take a look through your bathroom, and you’ll probably see a lot of plastic, whether it’s your toothbrush or the shampoo and conditioner bottles that you toss and replace regularly. But you can “declutter your beauty and grooming...routine,” Piper said. “A simple shampoo bar, solid deodorant, or bamboo toothbrush can significantly reduce the plastic hanging out in your shower.” If you prefer liquid hair products, for example, look to buy large bottles that you don’t have to replace as often; or better yet, shop with a company like Plaine Products, which provides refills and refillable bottles (they give you return labels so you can send back the empties) on a subscription or a la carte basis. You can also replace plastic razors with metal ones, forgo tampons for menstrual cups and use bamboo pads or makeup removing cloths instead of disposable facial cleansing wipes. Many of these swaps can also help you avoid excessive plastic use when you travel, too.
Make your own cleaning products
Just like your toiletries, your home cleaning products are most likely in plastic containers, which you replace every time you need more. Some companies, like Seventh Generation, sell products in cardboard packaging instead of plastic; and for items you can’t get in that type of packaging, it may be easier than you think to make your own. For example, if you need a multi-use surface cleaner, “a glass bottle with vinegar, water, Castile soap and some essential oils can forever replace plastic-swaddled cleaners,” Piper said.