The statistics are daunting.
Our plastic production has increased nearly 200-fold since the 1950s, with damaging effects on wildlife health and oceans. As a material typically made out of petroleum, plastic increases our emissions and takes hundreds of years to biodegrade.
And while plastic pollution isn’t a problem we can eliminate completely—sometimes plastic options are the only options—it’s empowering to know we can take simple steps to reduce the plastic in our purchases, thus doing our part for climate change.
The first step? Instead of thinking “reuse and recycle,” think “refuse, reduce, reuse!” Most plastic doesn’t get recycled, so everything we do to prevent it is a step in the right, package-free direction.
Here are 12 ways to avoid the low-hanging plastic fruit.
1. Ask yourself, do you actually need it?
The easiest way to get plastic out of your purchases is to stop buying it.
Do you really need that jumbo plastic swan raft? Are there plastic-free alternatives if you do? The best plastic pool toy is the one that already exists, so find ways to get what you want without buying something new.
Often, a quick search of your local Buy Nothing Group or Facebook Marketplace reveals that the item you’re looking for can be borrowed or bought secondhand from a neighbor, thus also reducing your packaging and shipping waste. Win win!
2. Bring your own tote bag.
Keep a reusable tote with you so you can avoid having to take a plastic one when you shop. It feels like a small thing, but Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, and that translates to the use of 12 million barrels of oil.
This tiny tweak in your shopping routine can have an epic effect.
3. Bring your own water bottle.
Disposable plastic water bottles became ubiquitous in large part because of a lie: people insisted that bottled water was best for our hair and skin.
We now know that packaged water doesn’t give us that glossy sheen, but the damage has been done—plastic water bottles are everywhere. Luckily, African countries like Kenya are getting ahead of the problem by instituting plastic bottle bans.
What can you do? Try to bring your own water bottle wherever you go. So easy, and you’ll save money, too!
4. Skip the plastic straw, fork, and spoon.
And all other superfluous plastic packaging when getting takeout or delivery. It’s just one straw, said eight billion people!
Add a permanent note to your delivery orders to remind restaurants not to add unnecessary plastic cutlery or disposables. And remove all the plastics you don’t need when picking up your takeout.
If you’re feeling extremely inspired, ask your favorite restaurants if you can bring your own containers.
5. Deplasticize your hair and beauty regimen.
Plus, loads of other household and beauty products can be purchased in bulk, and refilled at local dispensaries.
Even mainstream product producers are getting into the refillable act.
6. Pack a ready-for-anything bag.
Most of the time, we end up buying that plastic water bottle or saying yes to a plastic spoon because we forgot to pack our own.
Keep your water bottle, reusable cutlery set and totes on you (or in your office or car), so a spontaneous grocery shop or takeout trip won’t force you to plastic it up.
If you frequently remind yourself to pack your keys, wallet and phone when you leave home, simply add your go bag to the list.
7. Bring items you would otherwise buy.
Haste makes plastic waste. Before leaving the house, think about the things you may need to purchase while you’re out, and see if you have plastic-free alternatives you can grab before you go.
Take car trips: you set off and grow hungry along the way, which results in a car littered with gobs of overly packaged gas station snacks. Even if you’re in a rush, try to take a few minutes to pack for your day and you’ll cut the waste considerably.
8. Say no to shrink-wrapped vegetables.
Can you find produce that isn’t wrapped in unnecessary plastic or Styrofoam?
Ask your local grocery store if they can skip the plastic wrap and Styrofoam when putting out your favorite fruit and veg.
9. Skip the plastic produce bags.
No need to put three lemons in a plastic bag. Just wash them when you get home. Yes, there are germs everywhere, but a produce bag doesn’t absolve the need for washing, so toss it!
The farmer’s market is usually plastic-free. Bring your own bag and buy all your fruits and veggies sans packaging.
10. Do your research on plastic-free options.
More and more people are demanding plastic-free—or even package-free—goods, which means that, increasingly, there are zero-waste options that can help you get rid of plastic.
Always bought your laundry detergent in large plastic containers? Now you can switch to laundry tabs, flakes or strips, which don’t come sheathed in plastic and are just as good. (More than half a billion laundry jugs go to landfill in the US every year!) Refillable floss? Sure, why not.
Tired of all the plastic waste of home-delivery meal kits? Turns out, a lot of other people are, too, and there are solutions available if you start poking around.
11. Check the store’s return policy.
These days, some retailers toss your returns right into the garbage, which means your plastic goes directly to landfill.
Make sure to purchase goods from providers who offer reputable repair and returns policies, and good product stewardship. The best retailers buy back your goods and devices and divert them from landfill.
Increasingly, consumers are demanding right-to-repair legislation to discourage planned obsolescence, and to keep products that should be repairable from going to landfill.
12. Recycle when plastic can’t be avoided.
If you can find no alternative, aim for a plastic that your municipality can recycle. If your town can’t recycle black plastic, switch to the sushi place that uses compostable trays instead.
And don’t wishcycle. What’s wishcycling? It’s tossing things you’re not sure are recyclable into your bin in the hopes they’ll make the grade. Doing this incurs extra costs for your recycler. It also contaminates the stream, often resulting in more stuff to landfill.
None of this is easy, as we live in a plastic-coated world, with systems designed for maximum convenience.
But with a little legwork, we can divert a large chunk of our purchases away from plastic and towards sustainable, reusable options.
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