As a society, we need to use less plastic, and especially to produce less plastic waste.
Of all the materials in the post-consumer waste stream, nothing presents as wide a variety of problems as plastic. Waste plastic lasts about forever. Lots of it goes to landfills. Too much winds up in waterways.
Little of it gets recycled. Recycling programs have recently had to scale back on the kinds of plastic they’ll accept at all.
Recycling, of course, does not stop when we separate recycling from trash and haul it to the curb. Nothing is actually recycled until someone makes a new product from it. And someone buys that product.
Therein lies much of the problem. We have too few economically feasible ways to use waste plastic to make it a valuable commodity. Recycling programs can’t get good prices for many kinds of plastic and have had to stop accepting them.
Some people have started to go to great lengths to avoid using plastic at all. If you’re interested in finding out what kinds of lifestyle adjustments they make, check out My Plastic Free Life. For most of us, we just need to reduce the amount of plastic we contribute to the waste stream.
It’s not as easy as it seems
Even eliminating single-use plastics is more of a challenge than it might seem at first. I have a diabetic dog. I have to give him insulin shots twice a day—with single-use plastic syringes. They become medical waste.
Of course, human medicine uses a lot of single-use plastic for all the same reasons.
Not only that but so far, no viable alternative exists to the plastic film around your package of meat. Someday, probably, scientists will find at least one. Until then, society can’t avoid some single-use plastic waste. But we can avoid most of it with a little effort and forethought.
Remember that the “3 Rs” of sustainable waste management are, in order, reduce, reuse, and recycle. To produce less plastic waste, we need to make a conscious effort to reduce what we take home in the first place and then reuse what we can. Here are some suggestions.
1. Use cloth bags for shopping
So if you haven’t already, get a collection of cloth bags and take them into the store—and not just the grocery store.
Cloth bags have their own environmental problems. Manufacturing a cotton bag has 171 times the environmental impact of manufacturing a plastic bag of the same capacity. So use yours more than 171 times. After that, your cloth bags have no environmental impact, unless you count laundering them occasionally.
2. Say no to produce bags
Before you even get to the grocery checkout, you have plenty of opportunities to buy (or refuse to buy) plastic waste. The produce department packages some things in plastic. Think those Styrofoam trays with maybe three green peppers wrapped in plastic film.
That’s easy to avoid. Buy the peppers in bulk. But then, the store offers plastic bags for you to put the peppers in. Don’t use them. Just put the peppers or whatever loose in your cart and from there into your cloth shopping bag.
Some produce, green beans, for example, need to go in a bag. But now you can get reusable cloth produce bags to take to the store.
3. Bring your own container for bulk foods
Even some ordinary grocery stores have started selling nuts, candy, granola, and other products in bulk. They provide plastic bags and containers to put them in.
I don’t know about the grocery stores, but food co-ops and health food stores will probably let you take your own container. They’ll weigh it and mark the weight. When you check out, the cashier will deduct the weight of your glass jar from what the scale shows. You use one less plastic container for every product you buy.
4. Don’t buy bottled water
Despite advertising and the rumor mill, bottled water is not superior to tap water. The EPA regulates tap water. It requires municipalities to tell you what’s in your drinking water. The FDA, which regulates bottled water, does not. It doesn’t even require bottlers to report problems to it.
So drinking bottled water simply wastes your money and the space it takes in your fridge. Pour water from the tap into a washable glass and enjoy.
If you take water with you, say, to the gym, take it in a reusable water bottle or canteen.
For that matter, don’t buy any other beverage in plastic containers if you can help it. Soft drinks taste better from an aluminum can anyway. And you can’t buy any kind of packaging more easily recycled than aluminum cans.
5. Say no to straws
I’ve seen reusable metal and glass straws advertised. Some manufacturers are bringing back paper straws. But why bother? Who really needs a straw? In any case, the real culprit is plastic straws.
But this issue brings up a painful point. As the Pogo strip on the first Earth Day, 1970, put it, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”
On another site that proposed avoiding plastic straws, someone commented with the complaint that business and government should be taking care of reducing plastic. Just don’t inconvenience the rest of us.
People with that attitude become part of the problem. Whether it’s using less plastic or any other green goal, we can’t make it happen unless ordinary individuals do their part. We all love convenience, but some of our conveniences have hidden costs. Giving up little conveniences can have big benefits, and not just for the environment.
6. Reject plastic containers for soaps, detergents, shampoo, etc.
Rejecting the containers means finding recipes online to make your own. You might not want to become a fanatic, but it’s easy and rewarding enough to take some steps in that direction.
Fortunately, the recipes use a small collection of inexpensive ingredients like soda, borax, salt, vinegar, and soap. The vinegar, alas, probably comes in a plastic jug.
But here are a couple of ideas for rejecting plastic containers that don’t require the work of mixing ingredients:
- Use baking soda for deodorant and antiperspirant. It works every bit as well as the sticks, roll-ons, or whatever else comes in plastic. It’s cheap, too.
- Use bar soap instead of liquid hand soap. It’s hard to avoid the plastic film around packages of bar soap, but that amounts to much less plastic than the pumps.
7. Use your own take-out containers and utensils
When you eat out and need a takeout container, the restaurant will probably use Styrofoam or some other plastic. Get in the habit of taking your own reusable container and scraping the contents of your plate into it.
When you eat at a fast-food place, take your own table service so you don’t have to use the plastic it supplies. If you order your food to go, ask that the plastic table service not be included.
8. Prefer takeout pizza to delivery
When you have pizza delivered, there’s a little plastic thingy on top of it. It lets the delivery person stack pizzas without the top ones squashing the bottom ones.
If you call a local pizza place, say on the way home from work, and pick it up, you don’t get that little plastic thingy. If you don’t have pizza at home very often, you won’t use a lot less plastic, but every little bit helps.
9. Use cloth napkins, towels, and washcloths
This suggestion saves mostly paper—and a lot of it. But it also saves the plastic film around packages of paper napkins, etc.
In general, prefer whatever packaging uses minimal plastic. The less trash you buy at the store and take home, the less you’ll have to worry about throwing out or recycling.
10. Reuse plastic bags
No matter how hard you try to avoid plastic bags, you’ll get them anyway.
I have picked up plastic shopping bags off the street when I take a walk. Sometimes I can fill them with bottles and cans litterbugs have left along the way. But not necessarily all of them. And that’s not the only way I get plastic shopping bags.
My church collects canned goods for a food pantry. I take my contributions in a plastic bag. I could take them in a cloth bag and empty it into the bin, but that would make extra work for anyone who empties it.
You can find all kinds of craft ideas for using plastic bags. They can be made into plastic yarn, (called plarn). Among other things, plarn makes excellent bedrolls for the homeless.
If you buy regular grocery store bread, it comes in a plastic bag. Sometimes with a plastic liner. Here’s how to reuse the bag: If you buy artisanal bread from the bakery department or a bakery, you can ask that they not use a plastic insert in the paper bag. If you want to freeze the bread, dip into your stash of bread bags.
You can do the same if you buy bulk bagels from a deli or bagel store. If they ask if you want a freezer bag, just say no.
Ziplock bags, etc.
Speaking of freezer bags, you probably have a collection of boxes of various sizes of them. They’re good for more than the freezer, of course.
When you hand wash dishes, wash the plastic bags. You’ll probably never need to buy another box of them again.
Those plastic syringes for my dog come ten to a plastic bag. I don’t return them with the used needles. I could take them to a grocery store for recycling. But I usually keep them handy for when I have pork chops, chicken, or anything else with bones.
When I’ve got the bones in them, I take them to the garbage can outside. That way, I don’t have to empty the garbage can inside until it’s full. That is, the bones won’t start to stink up the whole house when there’s still plenty of room in the trash can for more.
I also use dog food bags to line my kitchen garbage can instead of the plastic liners I could buy at the store.
You might want to wash some plastic jars and take them to where you buy bulk foods. They’re lighter than glass jars and won’t break. There are all kinds of ways of reusing various kinds of plastic packaging.
11. Let vendors reuse plastic containers
If you buy, say, cherry tomatoes at a farmers market, they come in a plastic basket. The next time you go back, return the basket to the farmer.
Similarly, when you buy plants for your garden, you get all kinds of plastic. Return it to the store. It can reuse some of it and recycle the rest.
12. Give to thrift stores, buy from thrift stores
You probably have all kinds of plastic items that you use over and over. As long as you keep reusing them, they cause no environmental harm. At least, not beyond the environmental harm of making and transporting them in the first place.
Eventually, they’ll break. Good luck recycling them. Earth911 can give you options for what to do with whatever your municipal recycling program won’t take.
But you might want to get rid of a plastic item you just no longer want. Someone else will probably be glad to have it. Or you might want another whatever it is, or something different that’s made of plastic. In both cases, local thrift stores are your friend. They keep useful items out of the landfill.
The more ways to use less plastic you try, the more you’ll notice something to try next. Just think. Little by little, we could all join the ranks of people who work hard to avoid single-use plastic entirely!
Plastic pollution on Kanapou Bay. National Ocean Service Image Gallery via Flickr.
I am not a plastic bag. Source unknown.
Plastic bottles after the London Marathon. Some rights reserved by Paul Simpson.
Cleaning product aisle. Some rights reserved by David 23.
Plastic bag in garden. Some rights reserved by Julian Stallabrass.
Mountain of plastic trash. Some rights reserved by Shafiu Hussein.