Plastic can be found in just about anything and everything. Just take a look around you and you’re bound to see plastic of some type. In fact, you’re probably wearing clothes that are partly plastic, and that phone that you’ve got in your pocket or your purse is also made up of mostly plastic. Your hygiene and food products are packaged in it, your car and your computer are made from it too. You could even be chewing plastic, if you’re chewing gum.
While the majority of plastics are touted as recyclable, that’s not exactly true, because most can’t be recycled into a similar product – they’re actually “downcycled.” A plastic milk carton, for example, can’t be transformed into another carton, instead, it’s downcycled into an item of lesser quality such as plastic lumber, which can’t be recycled at all.
Some plastics get burned to make heat energy to power electricity generators. And some, just get thrown away, ending up in the soil on farms that grow our food, rivers, lakes and, the world’s oceans.
Tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of personal care products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes have even been found in the Great Lakes, which is the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth. Giant garbage patches, including one that’s double the size of Texas, are even floating around in the oceans. All of that plastic pollution is not only a problem for our planet and the animals who live here (a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year from ocean plastic), it’s bad for our health.
Just how big is the problem with plastic?
Of the 30 million tons of plastic waste that Americans generate on average, just seven percent was recovered for recycling, according to EPA statistics. That waste ends up on our beaches, in our rivers, oceans and in landfills. It contributes to devastating problems like the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.
It’s easy to see how important it is for each one of us to do everything we can to reduce our plastic use, even if it seems like a formidable task. Fortunately, there are many simple ways that you can do your part to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic waste that’s generated every year.
1. Give up those plastic grocery shopping bags
Many communities have banned the use of those plastic shopping bags, encouraging customers to bring their own reusable bags, but there are still said to be a trillion single-use plastic bags used every year, equating to two million each minute of the day. While they may be free to shoppers in most places, they come at a very high cost to the environment. Using reusable cloth bags is definitely the way to go – and, they’re actually much easier to fill and carry around too. It may be difficult to remember to bring them with you to the store initially, but once you get in the habit, it’s a no-brainer.
Another thing to think about at the grocery store is those plastic produce bags. They actually serve little purpose, so there’s really no reason to use them. Skip them altogether, or purchase some reusable produce bags instead to keep even more plastic out of the landfill.
2. Stop buying bottled water
Those plastic water bottles are another one of the worst environmental offenders. They’re one of the top five most common types of trash found on beaches. According to One Green Planet, the U.S. goes through about 1,500 plastic water bottles every second – and, it takes around a century for them to break down.
As it costs a whole lot more than water you get from the tap, you’ll save money by giving up that bottled water, and you’ll be potentially saving your health too, by avoiding the hazards of plastic toxins leaking into that drink. Instead, carry a reusable canteen or stainless-steel bottle.
3. Buy from bulk bins
Many grocery stores sell food in bulk, such as beans, nuts, rice and cereals. By filling up a reusable container or bag instead of buying items that are already packaged, you can save all of that unnecessary packaging, and money too. If you’re concerned about having to pay for the weight of the bag, your local store’s customer service desk will likely have a method they use to deduct its weight. Many cotton bags made for this purpose already have their weight printed on them, which makes it easy to deduct at checkout.
4. Take a thermos to the coffee shop
If you go to Starbucks on a daily basis, or any other coffee shop, you’re going through 365 disposable coffee cups every year. That’s a ton of plastic. Can you imagine how big that number is when combined with everyone else who has the same habit? In America alone, there are said to be 25 billion thrown away annually. While it may look like paper, those cups are typically lined with a type of plastic resin known as polyethylene. Some coffee vendors are still using polystyrene foam cups, which are even worse, and those lids and stirrers are all plastic too.
All of that plastic can be avoided just by bringing your own thermos, or a mug.
5. Change your food storage habits
Think about all of those plastic baggies, plastic storage containers and plastic wrap you use. All plastic, including those items, is made from chemicals that come with potentially harmful risks to one’s health, including BPA and DEHA – and, when food is stored in those plastic bags or containers, those chemicals can leach into it and then be ingested. Over time these chemicals have been associated with genetic damage, tissue changes, chromosomal errors, miscarriage, birth defects, hormonal changes and the early onset of puberty and hormonal changes. It can cause harm to a growing child’s developing immune system and can result in disrupted hormones and behavioral problems too.
We’ve been tossing our sandwiches and many other items into Ziploc bags and the like for years, which makes it hard to break the habit, but it’s surprisingly easy once you do. Instead of wrapping things up in Saran wrap or in those plastic zipper bags, use a glass container or jar. You could store leftovers that require reheating in a glass casserole dish, and some items can easily be stored inside a bowl in the fridge using a plate as a lid to cover it.
6. Avoid frozen foods
Frozen foods are convenient, but they’re not only bad for your health as they’re typically highly processed and loaded with chemicals, but they tend to contain a lot of plastic packaging. Even so-called eco-friendly packaged items made from cardboard are still coated with a thin layer of plastic.
7. Stop chewing gum
Originally, gum was made out of chicle, a type of tree sap and a natural form of rubber. But after scientists created synthetic rubber, manufacturers also begin to replace natural rubber in gum with polyethylene and polyvinyl acetate. That means, if you chew gum, you’re chewing on plastic – and, it could very well be toxic plastic as that as polyvinyl acetate is made using vinyl acetate which is a chemical that’s been found to cause tumors in laboratory rats.
When you throw out that used gum, you’re also tossing out more plastic into the landfill.
8. Avoid using disposable utensils
Stop using those plastic disposable forks, spoons and knives. If you go on a picnic, bring traditional utensils instead. If you know you’ll be eating out at a restaurant that only has plasticware, bring a set of utensils with you. It’s not that difficult, and it’s a great way to lessen your carbon print.
9. Switch out your store-bought cleaning products with one natural all-purpose cleaner
All of those cleaning products you use are not only pricey, but they typically come in plastic containers – and they’re filled with chemicals that can harm your health and our planet. How many different ones do you have in your home right now? You can probably replace all of them with just one natural alternative. Vinegar is one of the best all-natural items for cleaning, you can add essential oils to get a pleasant scent, or use something like lemon peels for a wonderful natural citrus aroma. Of course, that vinegar probably comes in a plastic bottle, but you can buy it in bulk in glass bottles. Then, simply upcycle an old glass bottle and use one of the spray tops from an old cleaner (after it’s been rinsed thoroughly, of course) to make your own natural spray cleaner.
10. Exchange plastic room deodorizer for an essential oil diffuser
Those cheap perfumed room deodorizers are loaded with toxins, which means, every time you use them they’re dispersing them through the air you breathe in your home. Plus, they come in plastic packaging too. Essential oils are at least as effective, usually smell better than those artificial perfumes, and come without the toxins and all of that extra plastic.
Invest in an essential oil diffuser instead (here are five of the best you can buy), they’re inexpensive and will circulate the fragrance of the oil (and its health benefits) into the air in the room they’re placed in. Another option is to simply add a few drops of the oil in a glass jar mixed with water, or onto a cardboard toilet paper roll, and place them in various areas of the home to provide a fresh scent.
11. Trade your shampoo and conditioner for natural alternatives
Your store-bought shampoo and conditioner most likely comes in big plastic bottles, contributing to all of that plastic waste. Plus, most contain all sorts of chemical ingredients and things that aren’t so good for your hair or your health, like silicone, wax and plastic resin. In fact, water and harsh detergents make up nearly all of a conventional shampoo’s formula, with moisturizing emollients and plant extracts typically adding up to no more than 1 percent. Detergents from the sulfate and glycol families, particularly sodium lauryl sulfate, a suspected carcinogen, and propylene glycol, which can cause skin irritation like hives and allergic reactions, even in low doses, are also big concerns.
Many people don’t realize that there are a number of natural alternatives that can do a great job at cleansing your hair and conditioning too. It’s easy to make a good natural shampoo simply by mixing a quarter cup of liquid castile soap, a half teaspoon of olive oil (omit if your hair is very oily) and a quarter cup water. You can pour it into a reusable squeeze bottle, or one of your old, empty shampoo bottles. Coconut oil makes one of the best natural hair conditioners there is. It’s not only moisturizing, it’s filled with vitamins E and K. To use it, just massage a spoonful right onto your scalp and work it through the ends of your hair. For deep conditioning, don’t rinse. Leave it on and wrap your hair up in a towel, let it sit for about an hour and then wash as usual.
12. Say ‘no’ to straws
Straws are one of the most common items found on beaches, and in most cases, unless you’ve just undergone a medical or dental procedure that makes it difficult to drink normally, drinking out of a straw is totally unnecessary. And if you do really need one, you can buy a reusable stainless steel or glass straw. So, the next time you’re dining out, or at a drive-thru, tell the server that you don’t need that straw.
13. Switch to DIY toothpaste
Much of the plastic that pollutes our oceans is microplastics, and these tiny chunks are impossible to filter out. They are commonly used in products like toothpaste (as well as other personal care items such as cleansers and face wash). While those tiny beads are intended as exfoliators (for extra whitening in toothpastes), oftentimes, wastewater treatment facilities can’t stop them.
By switching to a DIY toothpaste, you’ll not only be eliminating the plastic microbeads, but you’ll also be eliminating that plastic tube. You can make your own by mixing up two tablespoons baking soda, a half tablespoon of sea salt, two tablespoons bentonite clay and 10 to 20 drops peppermint oil in a non-metal bowl or a small glass jar. Then, just dip your toothbrush into the mixture and brush.