Simple Ways to Reduce the Amount of Plastic Waste You Generate

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

Plastic is found in virtually everything these days. Our food and hygiene products are packaged in it. Cars, phones, TVs and computers are made from it. You might even chew on it, in the form of gum! While most plastics are touted as recyclable, the reality is that they are “downcycled.” A plastic milk carton can never be recycled into another carton. It can be made into a lower-quality item, like plastic lumber, which can’t be recycled.

Of the 30 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2009, only 7 percent was recovered for recycling. Plastic waste ends up in landfills and the stomachs of sea turtles, birds and other animals, it litters our cities, beaches, rivers and oceans and contributes to the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex of garbage the size of a continent where plastic outnumbers plankton. Plus, most plastic is made from oil!

Here are some tips to decrease the amount of plastic waste you generate:

  • Use reusable shopping bags and avoid plastic produce bags: Although free to shoppers, plastic bags are one of the most ubiquitous forms of garbage. About 1 million plastic bags are used every minute, and a single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade. If possible, use cotton bags, instead of bags made from nylon or polyester which are also made from plastic.
  • Stop buying bottled water, unless there’s a contamination crisis: About 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed in the trash each year! Carry a reusable bottle filled with water, in your bag or car. If you’re concerned about the quality of local tap water, use a reusable bottle with a built-in filter, or bring filtered water from home.
  • Bring your own thermos for coffee to-go: Disposable coffee cups might look like paper but they’re usually lined with polyethylene, a type of plastic resin. While these can be recycled, most places lack the infrastructure to do so. Lids, stirrers, and coffee vendors who still use polystyrene foam cups create plastic waste which can all be avoided, if you use your own mug.
  • Choose cardboard over plastic bottles and bags: Cardboard is more easily recycled and made into more products than plastic, plus paper products tend to biodegrade more easily, without adding much weight to a product. If you have a choice, buy pasta in a box, instead of in a bag, or detergent in a box, instead of a bottle. Look for companies that source their cardboard sustainably.
  • Avoid using plastic straws when home or when ordering a drink at a bar, drive-thru or restaurant: Purchase a reusable stainless steel or glass drinking straw. Restaurants are less likely to bring you a plastic one, if they see that you’ve brought your own.
  • Avoid using disposable plastic razors: Use a razor that lets you replace just the blade, instead.
  • Use cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers: According to the EPA, 7.6 billion pounds of disposable diapers are discarded in the U.S. each year. Also, 80,000 pounds of plastic and more than 200,000 trees a year are used to manufacture disposable diapers for American babies alone. Switch to cloth diapers to reduce your baby’s carbon footprint and save money.
  • Minimize food storage using plastic baggies, plastic wrap, and plastic storage containers: Use a bento box, jar or glass container with a lid for your lunch, storing food in the fridge, and carryout foods, if your local restaurants permit it.
  • Buy in bulk: Consider the product-to-packaging ratio of items you buy often, and buy a bigger container, instead of several smaller ones over time.
  • When buying from bulk bins, bring your own bags, containers or jars, to reduce packaging waste: Many stores, such as Whole Foods, sell bulk food like rice, pasta, beans, nuts, cereal and granola, and bringing a reusable bag or container for these items will save both money and unnecessary packaging. Stores have various methods for deducting the container weight so check with customer service before filling your container. Many cotton bags have their weights printed on their tags, which can be deducted at the checkout.
  • Avoid disposable plastics: Ninety percent of plastic items are used once and then thrown out: grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Take note of how often you rely on these products and replace them with reusable versions. After a few times of bringing your own bags to the store, silverware to the office, or travel mug to Starbucks, this will become an easy habit.
  • Boycott microbeads: Much plastic polluting the oceans consists of microplastics, tiny chunks that are almost impossible to filter out. Microplastics can come from the breakdown of larger items, but they are also commonly added to consumer products. Plastic microbeads which function as exfoliators are found in many beauty products: facial scrubs, toothpaste, body washes. While they appear harmless, but their tiny size allows them to slip through water-treatment plants. They also resemble food to some marine animals. Choose products with natural exfoliants, like oatmeal or salt or biodegradable alternatives. Avoid items with “polypropylene” or “polyethylene” on the ingredients list.
  • Make meals at home, to improve your health, as well as, to avoid takeout containers or doggy bags: When you do order in or eat out, tell the restaurant that you don’t need plastic cutlery or ask if you can bring your own food-storage containers for leftovers.
  • Purchase items secondhand at thrift stores, neighborhood garage sales, or online, to save money and avoid the plastic packaging of new products.
  • Recycle: It seems obvious, but we’re not recycling enough. Less than 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled. If you’re confused about what can and can’t be recycled, check the number on the bottom of the container. Most beverage and liquid cleaner bottles are #1 (PET) which is commonly accepted by most curbside recycling companies. Containers marked #2 (HDPE; typically slightly heavier-duty bottles for milk, juice, and laundry detergent) and #5 (PP; plastic cutlery, yogurt and margarine tubs, ketchup bottles) are also recyclable in some areas. For the specifics on your area, check out Earth911.org’s recycling directory.
  • Support a bag tax or ban: Urge your elected officials to follow the lead of those in San Francisco, Chicago, and close to 150 other cities and counties, by introducing or supporting legislation that would make plastic-bag use less desirable.
  • Bring your own garment bag to the dry cleaner: Invest in a zippered fabric bag and ask that your cleaned items be returned in it, instead of in a plastic bag. Also make sure you’re using a dry cleaner that avoids perchlorate (PERC), a toxic chemical found in some cleaning solvents.
  • Give up gum: When you chew gum, you’re actually chewing on plastic. Gum was originally made from tree sap called chicle, a natural rubber, but when scientists created synthetic rubber, polyethylene and polyvinyl acetate began to replace the natural rubber in most gum. Not only are you chewing on plastic, but you may also be chewing on toxic plastic, since polyvinyl acetate is manufactured using vinyl acetate, a chemical shown to cause tumors in lab rats.
  • Reuse glass and plastic containers: Instead of throwing away or recycling glass jars emptied of their spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, salsa or applesauce, reuse them to store food or take them with you when you’re buying bulk foods. If you have plastic containers left over from yogurt, butter or other food, don’t throw them out. Simply wash them and use them to store food.
  • Bring your own container: Whether you’re picking up takeout or bringing home your restaurant leftovers, be prepared with your own reusable containers. When you place your order, ask if you can have the food placed in your own container.
  • Use matches instead of disposable plastic lighters, if you must light a candle, build a campfire or start a fire. Such cheap plastic devices remain in landfills for years and have been found in dead birds’ stomachs. If you can’t bear to part with your lighter, pick up a refillable metal one to help cut down on waste.
  • Don’t use plasticware: Avoid disposable chopsticks, knives, spoons, forks and even sporks. If you often forget to pack silverware in your lunch, or if you know your favorite restaurant only has plasticware, start keeping a set of utensils.
  • Return reusable containers to your local market: Since berry. grape and tomato containers are refillable, ask your local grocer to take the containers back and reuse them. If you buy berries or cherry tomatoes at a farmers market, bring the plastic containers to the market when you need a refill.
  • Make your own fresh-squeezed juice or eat fresh fruit, instead of buying juice in plastic bottles: You’ll get more vitamins and antioxidants and reduce plastic waste.
  • For house cleaning, use baking soda and vinegar or make your own cleaning products, instead of many plastic bottles of toxic products like tile cleaner, toilet cleaner and window cleaner:
  • Pack snacks and sandwiches in reusable containers, instead of disposable bags or saran wrap.

References:

  1. Badore, Margaret. “11 easy ways to reduce your plastic waste today.” Living/Green Home, 03/02/15.
  2. Sarah Engler. “10 Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution.” The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 01/05/16.

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