Plastic sucks. The 20th Century’s miracle material has become one of the 21st Century’s biggest problems, and people don’t seem all that willing to accept that reality. Plastic is responsible for a sizable chunk of carbon emissions, both form production and by nature of being a petroleum product.
It’s also flooding the natural environment with toxins and garbage that literally will not degrade for at least a thousand years. Plastic kills wildlife and destroys habitats. There is no upside, save for making big corporations even richer. Sorry to be blunt here, but once you realize just how nonsensical our widespread use of plastic is, it’s hard not to be more than a little annoyed by it.
Even though plastic is everywhere, you’ll find that it’s much easier than you think to cut back on the amount of it in your life. By making simple lifestyle changes, you can reduce the amount of plastic in your life and your contribution to this global problem. As a bonus, you also stand a chance of reducing your risk for health problems stemming from the chemicals associated with plastic.
1. Plastic Bags
Plastic bags are garbage, quite literally in fact. At the time of writing this, everyone is well aware that they’re unnecessary and destructive, yet so few people are willing to do something about it. It’s so bad that state and local governments are stepping in to force people to do the right thing.
It’s all too easy to purchase reusable cloth bags and bring them with you to the store. Sure, you’re probably going to look like the one hippie weirdo bringing their own bags, but who cares? As more people catch on, it’ll become much more normal to show up to the store with your own bags.
As an added note here, it extends beyond the grocery store. I’ll admit that I’m quicker to turn down a bag than bring my own to other types of stores, but it’s a habit that we all need to get accustomed to.
Everyone should be aware by now that plastic straws are bad. They end up in the ocean and kill wildlife. Thankfully, here are plenty of much more sustainable options out there. You’ll have no problem finding quality glass, stainless steel, or even bamboo straws. Plus, you can actually find specialized brushes for cleaning and maintaining them, so there’s never a need to throw them away. Finalstraw actually created a collapsible straw kit, complete with cleaning brush, that you can attach to your keys.
Before I close this one out, I just want to address the nonsense false equivalency that climate deniers and people who think it simply isn’t their problem are throwing around in regards to plastic straws. NO ONE believes that giving up plastic straws is going to save the planet. NO ONE. It’s the right thing to do to save wildlife. That’s all. Stop trying to justify your own indifference.
3. Water Bottles
This one gets a decent amount of attention too, but that doesn’t mean that people are readily giving up their single-use water bottles. It’s pretty clear that the main factor here is convenience, but with the insane amount of water bottles being used every day, something needs to change.
In a lot of places here in the US, our crumbling infrastructure has lead to questionable quality tap water. That’s yet another reason why the plastic water bottle is so popular. The solution, though, is fairly simple: filters. Filters aren’t perfect, by any means, especially since they generate their own waste, but they’re certainly better than the bottles that they replace. That is, unless you use activated charcoal sticks, of course. You can start small with one of the popular pitcher brands, like Brita or ZeroWater. Both have available filters that remove lead. When you’re ready to step up to a serious solution, the reviews of the Big Berkey speak for themselves.
Whichever filtration method you choose, you’re going to need some way to take your water with you. There are plenty of great reusable bottles made from stainless steel, glass, or even renewable materials. Choose the right one for you, and get in the habit of filling it before you leave home.
4. Cleaning Products
Cleaning products are a multifaceted problem. You’ve probably thought about the chemical pollutants that come from common cleaning products, but those nasty chemicals come in plastic bottles too. Fun. First, stop using chemical cleaners. No really, stop. They’re not good for you, your family, or the environment. There are plenty of natural alternatives that are just as, if not more, effective.
With that out of the way, things get a little more complicated. You’re not going to walk into the local supermarket and pick up cleaning products that don’t come in a plastic bottle, even if they are entirely made from natural ingredients. It’s a shipping problem more than anything else. So, you’ll have to turn to more alternative options, like making your own or turning to zero waste shops.
Plenty of people make their own cleaning products. White vinegar is apparently the ultimate all-purpose cleaner. Vinegar and baking soda will clean the majority of your messes. Combine them with citrus essential oils for a natural clean smell.
That said, you can’t necessarily make everything, or maybe, you don’t want to. In those instances, you can find a wide range of soaps in sustainable and compostable packaging. Zero waste stores are still relatively uncommon in the brick-and-mortar space, but you can easily find them online. There you can find dish soap, laundry detergent, and other cleaning essentials that you may not necessarily way to make yourself. Pro tip: Castile soap is your friend!
5. Personal Care
Guess what else comes in plastic… nearly all of your personal care products. Shampoo? Plastic. Toothpaste? Plastic. Body wash? Plastic. Soap? Paper coated in plastic(probably). Deodorant? Yep, that’s plastic too. Your toothbrush is plastic and disposable. Disposable razors are an plastic nightmare designed to be thrown out in huge quantities. No matter how you slice it, most people’s personal hygiene routines are dominated by plastic, and that’s a problem.
Like with cleaning products, there’s a major shipping problem in the personal care space. How do you ship shampoo if not in a plastic bottle? What about toothpaste? It’s not a simple problem. Thankfully, there are creative solutions.
First, soap is soap. It’s not too hard to find quality bar in paper wrapping, rather than plastic or plastic coated paper. When it comes to shampoo, there are two popular solutions. First you can make your own. Most people are probably not going to do that. So, you can buy shampoo in a bar, just like soap. When you think about it, it’s pretty obvious. Shampoo bars are readily available from zero waste shops, and there fairly easy to use, once you get used to it.
Now, brushing your teeth is going to be a bit different too. First, ditch the plastic toothbrush for one made of bamboo. There’s nothing to adjust to there. It’s just made of a more sustainable material. Then, toothpaste is something entirely different. Actually, it’s not toothpaste at all. Instead, if you want to eliminate the plastic, you’ll need to switch to tooth powder, tablets, or toothpaste bits. This one will take some adjustment, but don’t let it discourage you.
Deodorant is another problem, based on how we use it. Deodorant has almost always come in a plastic tube. Everyone is familiar with the way it works, and nearly everyone uses the same design. There are a couple of options to ditch the plastic tube. There deodorant cremes available that you can apply like any other lotion. If that sounds too messy, you can opt for deodorant in a compostable cardboard tube instead.
Razors also have a simple solution. Ditch the single use junk, and invest in a quality safety razor. Safety razors are an awesome retro option, and they use steel razor blades, which can be recycled in a specially designed blade bank. As an added bonus, they provide a much better shave than even the highest quality disposable razors or heads.
6. Food Packaging
Food packaging is a mess. Think for a moment about how many of the items you regularly purchase come in some form of plastic or another. It seems harder to think of things that don’t come in plastic, isn’t it? That, of course, is the problem.
Look, no one is going to tell you to give up everything that comes in plastic. That’s really impractical for most people. You should, though, be aware of how much plastic you’re buying and try to choose things not wrapped in plastic first.
The first, and probably easiest, thing you can do is ditch the plastic produce bag. They’re just as bad, if not worse, than the plastic bags at the checkout. Like those, the alternative comes from reusable fabric bags. You can find plenty of them online, and they’re fairly inexpensive. Pick a few up, bring them with you, and load up your produce. If you run out of space, just don’t bag the produce at all. Trust me, it’s fine to do. Sure, you might get an odd look from the cashier, but who really cares.
The next great option in reducing waste comes from bulk bins. Some stores offer grains and dried goods, like beans and dried fruit in bulk by weight. You can bring your own containers and fill them up, completely eliminating the need for plastic waste. Now, these stores aren’t everywhere, and you may not have one by you, but it’s worth a look. Celia over at Litterless has compiled a list of zero waste and bulk stores by state. You can also check if there’s a Whole Foods by you. They also tend to sell some items in bulk.
Beyond that, make conscious choices. Buy unwrapped produce, when possible. Choose farmer’s markets and smaller local businesses over supermarkets. Avoid the freezer section. Always choose food packaged in paper and cardboard over plastic.
7. Food Storage
The common ways we store our food are loaded with plastic too. Unlike food packaging from the store, we have much more control over how we store things, making it easier to make changes here.
First, lose the Tupperware and plastic storage containers. You can find glass and stainless steel ones that wont impart plastic chemicals or the associated “flavors” from using them. Mason jars are the ultimate old standby. You can use them for damn near everything, and they’re indefinitely reusable.
Choose paper or beeswax(obviously not vegan) wrapping in place of plastic wrap and sandwich bags. You can also choose a more permanent option in the form of reusable lunch and sandwich containers. There are plenty of great options made from stainless steel that can handle a beating without breaking. Bring them to work, the beach, a concert, or wherever you need to bring food, and don’t worry that they’ll get wrecked.
8. Chewing Gum
Alright, this one’s gross. Chewing gum is actually made from an artificial rubber, which is just a fancy way of saying plastic. That’s right; you’re gnawing on a hunk of nasty processed plastic with artificial flavoring. Sounds good, right? Better yet; let’s give it to kids! What could go wrong?
9. Coffee Cups
Coffee cups fall in the same category as water bottles. You can easily make your own coffee at home and use your own reusable container. At the same time, plenty of coffee shops would be happy to pour your coffee into a reusable cup you bring with you. Just don’t make the poor barista fill up a filthy bottle you haven’t washed in a month. That’s not right or fair.
Coffee containers usually fall into two categories; insulated bottles and reusable cups. The insulated bottles are exactly what they sound like. They keep your coffee warm and hold a lot, but they’re probably not the best to drink out of. The cups are pretty much the same as the disposable ones, but they’re made out of durable material for continued use. There are variants in between as well. No matter how you typically enjoy your coffee, you’ll be sure to find a more sustainable way to bring it with you.
10. Disposable Lighters
Disposable lighters are a lot like disposable razors. In theory, you’d think they could be recycled, but they’re more complicated than they appear, and those complications mean that they usually wind up in a landfill, not that all plastic doesn’t at some point anyway, but that’s beside the point here.
So, if you rely on a lighter on a regular basis, what are you to do? The lighter vs. matches debate has raged for a while, in regards to the environment. In truth, neither is great. Disposable lighters are clearly the worst, but matches have their own downsides. Unless the matches are made using recycled and sustainable materials, like some are, they might end up with an even larger footprint than the alternative. At the same time, even the most sustainable matches were likely made using several nasty chemicals and animal products.
Refillable lighters, like the iconic Zippo, are another better option. These lighters have been around forever, and they’re built to last. A quality lighter can last a lifetime or more, if you keep refilling it, so the only negative impact comes from the fuel itself. Butane, the most common fuel, is a petroleum product. It also comes in plastic bottles, which clearly isn’t great. Even still, this is a better option than the disposable ones.
Then, there’s the most modern option, electric lighters. They’re also known by a much cooler name, plasma lighters. If that doesn’t sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, I don’t know what does. Electric lighters use an arc of electricity to start a fire. They don’t have plastic bottles or petroleum based fuels. They’re actually rechargeable via a USB cable. That said, there’s still a downside. Even these have a limited lifespan, and rechargeable lithium batteries do have a fairly sizable footprint.
I can’t speak to whether refillable butane lighters or electric ones are better for the environment. I looked, and the electric lighters seem to be new enough that there hasn’t been any conclusive research done. My personal recommendation is to get a Zippo. You can swap out their internal mechanism, and both butane and electric versions are available. Most come with butane, but you can easily swap in an electric one, if you’d prefer that. Then, you always have the option of using one or the other, depending on which ends up the better choice.
I have to start by saying that I’m not a parent, so I don’t have personal experience here. So, I feel kind of like it’s not really my place to say anything definitive here. With that out of the way, disposable diapers are bad for the environment. There’s no getting around that. Old fashioned cloth diapers, like the ones that have been used for centuries, are the more environmentally sound option. Now, I know; they’re not the most pleasant thing to deal with, and they require a lot of washing and maintenance. This one’s up to you.
12. Your Clothes
Plastic fibers are nothing new, but they’ve gradually replaced their natural predecessors as the primary components in many fabrics. If you don’t believe me, go to your closet, and check the labels in your clothes. Look at how many contain polyester. It’s going to be a significant portion, and that’s certainly not the only plastic fiber you’ll find.
You may be wondering why this is such a problem. As long as you’re wearing the clothes and not throwing them away, what’s the problem, right? Sorry, but microplastics are a thing and a bad one at that. Tiny plastic particles leech off of just about anything that’s made from plastic into water and the environment around it. So, when you wash your clothes, microplastics are making their way from your favorite shirt into the water and eventually, the ocean.
Of course, these particles are toxic, and they build up in wildlife, especially within marine environments. To make matters worse on a personal level, microplastics inevitably find their way back to humans. Even if you don’t consume meat or the products which actually contain microplastics, you’re still probably going to ingest them from water, salt, or some other environmental source where they’ve wound up.
When it comes to clothing, there are a couple of really simple solutions. The most surefire thing you can do is to stop buying clothes made from synthetic fabrics and pick natural alternatives. Even though plastic fibers are all too common, you still shouldn’t have any trouble finding entirely natural ones. Stick to organic cotton, bamboo, and hemp whenever possible.
If you already have clothes made with synthetic fabrics or there’s something that you just can’t help buying, there are other ways to prevent micropastics from making their way into the environment. The Guppyfriend washing bag lets you throw your laundry all in one bag, then into the wash. The bag catches the microplastics while still letting water and suds past to clean your clothes. The Cora Ball is just as simple to use. Toss the ball into the wash, and do your laundry as usual. The ball will collect free floating microplastics. It will take a while, but eventually, fibers and lint will build up in the ball. Clean the ball out, tossing the lint in the trash(Not ideal, but the makers of Cora Ball are working on a solution), and you can go right back to using it as normal. Either way, the plastics won’t end up in the ocean, at least not directly.