Every single year, the USA throws out 32 million tons of plastic waste. This waste doesn’t go away, it doesn’t compost, all it does is either leach dangerous chemicals such as phthalates, BPA, and flame retardants into the ground or it turns into microscopic bits of plastic (called microplastics!) that are a nightmare for the environment.The problems associated with plastic start right away in the extraction of the raw materials needed to produce plastic. Non-renewables fossil fuels, like natural gas and crude oil, are brought out of the ground to be used as the building blocks of plastics. These processes require intense amounts of energy and in the process also release carbon dioxide and other noxious chemicals into the air and the surrounding landscapes.
Luckily for most of us living in the United States, we are given a chance to recycle those plastics when we are done with them, but we aren’t doing a good enough job of it yet. In 2015, the U.S. only recycled 9.1% of the plastics that we generated throughout the year. Additionally, due to the Chinese “Green Wall”, many American recyclers are having a harder time selling their collected recycled materials, moving much of that material into landfills because the value of the recycled waste isn’t enough anymore. So to help be a better global citizen, the best way to get started is to do what you can to avoid using plastics little by little. Here are 6 tips you can use to help ditch plastic!
1: Plan a plastic-free grocery store trip…
On your next weekly grocery haul, pay more attention to how much waste exists within the store. Notice the plastic wrapping around most products, especially pre-portioned ingredients or produce. Now challenge yourself to come up with some creative ways to reduce the waste coming from your shopping trip!
One of the best ways to reduce plastic waste in your grocery trips is to buy in bulk. Many items that you already buy such as peanut butter, snacks and candies, beans, grains, and much more can be purchased by bringing your own containers to the store so you won’t end up wasting the single-use plastics that normally come with those items. Want another helpful tip? Most of the time when you purchase chicken, bacon, or other meat products they come in a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. Next time, go directly to the butcher and you can usually get your meat wrapped in parchment paper instead!
When you are in the produce section getting your greens, onion, potatoes, and anything else that isn’t pre-packaged, use a reusable produce bag or convert some old t-shirts into bags. This way you can keep all your fresh produce together without wasting those small green bags they have in the produce section.
Lastly, when you are finished getting your weekly supply of goodies, treats, and other assorted items, make sure to say “no” to the single-use plastics at checkout. Bring your own reusable bags, or if you don’t have some yet, ask for paper bags that can be recycled once you are done using them. This is an easy way to get rid of some single-use plastic that you otherwise might use every single week.
2: Stop buying plastic microbeads…
Some plastics are so small you won’t be able to see them, or you may not even know they are in your products already! These little buggers are called microbeads, which are teeny tiny plastic pieces, usually two millimeters or less, that are made of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA0 or nylon (aka all plastic). We don’t really understand why, but many companies have added these to all sorts of products! Face wash, acne treatments, toothpaste, shampoos, conditioners, body washes, and many more products have these microbeads.
The issue with these microbeads goes beyond their mysterious purpose in your products. After you use them in the shower or head into the water after applying sunscreen, the tiny bits of plastic wash off and enter our waterways or oceans. The bits of plastic are so small that wastewater treatment plants can’t filter them out, leading to large amounts of small plastic heading to marine ecosystems downstream from us. From there, marine animals will start to consume the tiny plastics, voluntary or involuntary, and the plastic will build up inside of them. But it gets worse, as small fish consume microplastics, they will eventually be eaten by bigger fish, and the plastic will begin to bioaccumulate. By the time that humans end up eating the fish, there is a good chance that the microplastics are inside of the fish we eat too!
Fortunately for us and for the planet, many companies and even governments are putting their foot down and creating limitations for microbeads in our products. Check out this website to see if the products you use have microbeads in them already!
3: Use reusable food packaging…
What do you do with your food if you have leftovers or you don’t cook all of it? Common solutions include saran wrap or single-use plastic bags that you can zip up and put in the fridge or freezer. This old way of doing things creates lots of household plastic waste, but luckily for you, we have some great strategies to lose plastic in favor of much more sustainable alternatives.
Changing the way that store your leftovers, meal prep, and pack your school lunches will change how much plastic waste comes out of your home. Are you fed up with restaurants giving you large styrofoam containers to take home your leftovers? Bring your own toxin-free stainless steel container instead. Swap out your wasteful plastic wrap for a reusable (up to a year) beeswax wrap!
Start out by bringing your reusable containers in your car/purse/bike bag/man purse/whatever takes you from point A to point B. This way you will be prepared in whatever situation comes your way to choose the sustainable option. Make sure that when you are at home, you have all the reusable containers you need to be ready to go when taking food on the go or putting away your leftovers from dinner that night. Planning ahead can help you to prevent huge amounts of plastic waste from going to the trash!
4: Refuse single-use…
Recently, you have probably heard a lot about the war against single-use plastic straws. Every day, 500 million plastic straws are used and wasted each and every day. Let’s work to be part of the change by using reusable straws instead of single use. Start by bringing your own water bottle or coffee container with you and make sure you grab your own reusable straws along the way. Help to keep the plastics out of the landfill!
Check out our top 7 products to help you go from single-use to reusables here!
5: Stop wearing plastic…
Plastic truly is everywhere, in fact, many of the clothes you probably own and wear are made of synthetic fabrics like polyester. Polyester is a fabric made from small threads of plastic that can be woven together like normal threads, but with continued use and washing can release non-biodegradable microplastics into the water, similar to microbeads found in personal care products. The problems that come from microbeads and their effect on ecosystems and humans are very similar to the microplastics that are released from plastic clothing.
A study by the IUCN found that 35% of microplastic pollution comes from synthetic textiles being washed. Next time you are looking for new clothes try to purchase from ethical companies that use natural fibers instead of synthetic. Or you can use a Cora ball which helps to trap the microplastics before it heads down your drain!
6: Switch to recycled content, biodegradable or plant-based “plastics”…
Not all plastics are created equal, some types of plastics can be recycled, others cannot. Much of this distinction is dependent on your local recycling facility and the types of plastics that they accept. There will still be situations where you might need to use single-use products and there is nothing you can do to avoid that. Luckily for you, there are a bunch of companies that are making creative solutions to give you the convenience of single-use plastic, without the harmful side effects. From biodegradable trash bags made from plant resins to plant-based toothbrush bristles, and even non-toxic children’s building blocks made from sugarcane resin, “bioplastics” are sweeping the eco-industry. What do we think about them? Compostable and biodegradable bioplastics are a great alternative when produced the right way… but always try to look for a plastic-free or reusable option first before making that choice.
We do think it is important to include recycled content plastic, because it is better than virgin plastic, and it creates a system that makes our waste into a valuable resource. We have already created tons of plastic waste already, why not use that to create more products!
How have you gotten rid of plastics in your life? Comment below!
A version of this post was originally published on EarthHero.com.