This post is brought to you courtesy of my mother. I was discussing the blog with her, brainstorming questions my lovely readers (hello!) would want answered. She asked simply, “How do I stop using so much plastic?”
And it’s an important question, because recycling is only one part of the sustainability triangle. We also need to reuse and, whenever possible, reduce. At least in my life, it’s easy to believe that the plastics I’m using aren’t hurting anyone as long as I throw them in the recycle bin rather than the trash can. But what actually happens with those plastics? Does my old concealer container become my next shampoo bottle? My old milk jug the next red solo cup? What about all those non-recyclable plastics?
So. Many. Questions.
But luckily, I am not the first person to ask these questions, and so I can plunder the internet and the library for the answers, then consolidate them in a nice little list for you, my lovely reader. After a discussion of how plastic recycling works, I’ll provide you with a pretty little list (complete with pictures) of 12 ways you can reduce your plastic consumption.
The best part? Many of these reductions are a one-time, budget-friendly purchase or even save you money in the long run! We love saving the planet while saving a dollar.
What Plastics Can I Recycle?
As you may know, certain plastics are recyclable, while others are destined for the dump. In order to help us distinguish, plastics are numbered. You can find your plastic’s number on a small imprint on the container, an imprint which 39 of the US states legally require manufacturers to include.
Type 1, polyethylene terephthalate (oof. Science words), usually makes up water and soda bottles. Type 2, high-density polyethylene plastics, are usually found in heavier containers such as milk cartons or those hefty laundry detergent bottles. Type 3 is vinyl, most commonly found in plastic pipes and medical tubing. All three of these plastic types are typically accepted by recycling plants.
Type 5, polypropylene, is often used in bottle caps and other sturdy plastics. These are also often recyclable.
However, type 4, low-density polyethylene, is found in plastic bags and thin, plastic liners. These are almost never accepted by recycling plants, but I sometimes sneak them in anyway, out of wishful thinking (don’t do this. It helps no one and creates more work for the plant workers). Similarly, type 5, polystyrene, found in packing peanuts and other Styrofoam materials, aren’t usually considered recyclable. But you can reuse those packing peanuts!
Whenever you’re recycling, though, it’s important to check what your local plant will and won’t accept. If you send them materials they don’t recycle, those plastics often head to a landfill. On the other hand, if you do a little digging, you might be able to find a nearby facility or alternative option that will allow you to recycle those products.
Do Plastics Actually Get Recycled?
In theory, the various types of plastic are recycled according to the chart below1.
|Type 1||Rope, beanbags, car bumpers, fiber fill for life jackets and winter coats, among other things|
|Type 2||Piping, toys, truck bed liners|
|Type 3||Vinyl flooring, window frames, piping|
|Type 5||Bottle caps|
While it would be wonderful if there was a 100% recycling rate on plastics, or even an 80% rate, this is not the reality. According to studies published in 2018, a mere 9% of the 8.3 metric tons of plastic humans have produced have been recycled4. Ultimately, this junk will find its way into the ocean or into the air.
The news gets even more grim, however. Not all the items we put in our recycling bins actually get recycled7. The US used to depend on China – among other countries – to purchase must of our unwanted plastics, since most plastic production occurs overseas. But China has restricted the quantity of plastics they’ll accept from us, and cities across the US have seen a spike in the cost of recycling.
Simply put, it’s cheaper to burn the plastics than recycle them. This, in turn, releases more toxins and pollutants into the air. Because of this “crisis” of recycling, we need to turn to another corner of the conservation triangle: reducing.
Reducing Plastic Use
The following sections break down a few different ways you can reduce your plastic consumption. I’ve focused on the home in this article, though I’m sure there are ways our work and travel lives can also be revised! Perhaps a future article idea…
reducing Plastic at the grocery store
1) Stop Using Single-Use Shopping Bags
Why? These can’t be recycled. Maybe they get a second use as your trash can liner, but that sends them straight to the landfill.
Solution: Invest in reusable bags. If you have a household with children, this will be a larger investment than it is for me and my one-person grocery trip. However, if you buy them gradually, you’ll only be adding a dollar or two to your bill each time.
Impact: The bags have their own carbon footprint, generated in the production process. The chart below shows how many uses the bag needs to have in order to offset its carbon footprint. Notice that cotton bags would need to last 10x longer than polypropylene bags in order to have the same positive environmental impact!
|Bag Type||No. of Uses|
2) Stop Using Disposable Produce Bags
Why? Again, these are very much single use.
Solution: I can’t believe I didn’t realize this sooner, but just like every other disposable item we own, there is a reusable, in this case mesh, counterpart! Walmart sells a variety pack of two each of three different sizes for $15.95, and Amazon sells a 5-pack of 12×14 bags for $12.99. If you can, though, try to find a local store that sells these! Local business, yo.
Impact: I haven’t been able to find exact numbers, but, like the above bags, these take several uses to offset their carbon footprint. Fortunately, unless you buy wayyyyy more produce than I do, one or two packs should be all you need to purchase.
BONUS: You don’t *have* to put all your produce in baggies. Buying a single onion? A bundle of bananas? They can sit free in your cart or basket.
3) Avoid Plastic Packaging
Why? First, your recycling plant may be picky about the types of plastics they’ll accept. Second, we’re working to push towards reducing rather than recycling.
Solution: This is tricky, and you’ll have to pick your battles. Plastic is pervasive because it’s inexpensive, and thus a lot of store brand items will be packaged in plastic, while more expensive brands may use glass or cardboard. That said, below are a list of ideas for reducing plastic. Pick and choose as your budget and lifestyle allows!
- Buy food packaged in paper, cardboard, or glass whenever possible
- Shop at a farmer’s market, where less produce is packaged
- Bring those cute little berry baskets back to the farmer’s market and reuse!
- Buy milk in returnable glass bottles (throwback!)
- Buy fresh bread that’s unwrapped or wrapped in paper
- Shop places with bulk bins, and bring your own reusable containers.
Impact: By the laws of supply and demand, a cultural shift away from plastics will result in less plastic production, helping cut back our need to extract more petroleum from the earth.
REDUCING plastic in your kitchen
“Kitchen” here is defined as “a loose category pertaining to food consumption.” So some of these tips don’t apply directly to your kitchen, but you get the idea.
4) Stop Drinking Bottled Water
Why? Studies estimate that between 35 and 50 MILLION plastic bottles are thrown away by American consumers each year3. Much of that number comes from bottled water.
Solution: Invest in a reusable water bottle. These come in a variety of sizes, styles, and material, so you can find one best suited to you. If you’re worried about your water’s taste or safety, invest in a Brita filter! The individual filters are also recyclable. Local water still nasty? In office environments, you can invest in returnable and reusable water jugs for a water cooler.
Impact: A massive reduction in unnecessary plastic use
5) Bring Your Own To-Go Containers
Why? If you know you’re going to have leftovers, why take them home in a single-use container? Even if it’s technically recyclable, most recycling centers won’t accept items with food residue.
Solution: As the heading says, bring your own! Are you going to the Cheesecake Factory? The local Chinese place that gives you way too much food? Or maybe you just don’t eat entire restaurant portions. Bring your own container, and you won’t be stuck with a styrofoam container that can’t be recycled.
You can also bring your own containers for takeout orders, though you will likely experience some resistance if this if the first time the establishment has been asked to use containers that aren’t theirs. Check out this website about this worthwhile cultural shift!
Impact: Shift the cultural mentality around sustainability and the convenience of single-use, disposable items.
6) Bring Your Thermos to the Coffee Shop
Why? Particularly at chain establishments, baristas won’t so much as blink when asked to use your (clean) thermos instead of their disposable cup. In fact, some places like Starbucks offer a discount (if you use their reusable mug. Go figure)!
Solution: Consider 1) what size and 2) what kind of coffee you usually purchase. Some thermoses are great for cold or hot beverages, while some are great for both. Consider your needs when investing in reusable coffee containers!
Impact: Though hot coffees are sold in waxed paper/cardboard, those summer beverages are sitting in plastic, and the lids of hot beverages are often plastic as well. Let’s eliminate this unnecessary waste.
7) Stop Buying Plastic Cooking Ware
Why? There’s a plethora of plastic goods you can replace with bamboo or glass, eliminating plastic use.
- Replace plasticware with a set of bamboo utensils that you can use on the go
- Replace plastic brushes with bamboo ones
- Replace plastic spatulas, spoons, etc. with bamboo
- Replace plastic cutting boards with bamboo or another wood
- Need plates children won’t break? Use bamboo or other woods instead of plastic!
- Replace plastic meal prep containers with glass ones
- Replace plastic mixing bowls with metal or glass
Impact: This is, in theory, a smaller scale impact, because most of the above-mentioned items are used for a long period of time. Still, reducing demand for plastic is a key part of our fight for sustainable consumption!
REDUCING Plastic in your bathroom
8) Stop Purchasing Bottled Product
Why? Soap, shampoo, and conditioner are products you’ll be buying until you die. Additionally, attempting to rinse out shampoo bottles in order to recycle them is, in my experience, a touch frustrating.
Solution: Bars of soap, and – wait for it – bars of shampoo and conditioner. Yes, they are real. Yes, you can buy them online, not just at specialty stores in Southern California shopping centers. Full disclosure though: I have not yet tried them. I have curly hair, and I am terrified of what a change in routine will do to it. BUT! I shall try them, and when I do, I will write a review and let you know my thoughts.
Impact: I’m ball-parking, because weirdly, I can’t find data on how many shampoo bottles Americans use in a year. I’m guesstimating we consume around 2 billion bottles a year, assuming women use 4 (large) bottles each of shampoo and conditioner each and men use 4 bottles of shampoo. (Big assumptions, as I know some men use conditioner, and if your hair is short enough, you as a woman don’t need it) If we could even cut that in half, it’d be an awesome step forward!
9) Reuse Trash Can Liners
Why? An unintended consequence of reusable grocery bags is an uptick in garbage bag sales. It’s estimated that in LA county, sale of small and medium liners went up 120% and 60% respectively after the plastic bag “ban”5.
Solution: Instead of tying off your bathroom trash and throwing it in the dumpster, empty the can into your kitchen trash before you empty it. This leaves the plastic liner of the bathroom trash to be used for another round of garbage.
Impact: It may seem minor, but this kind of reuse still helps you generate mindfulness around your consumption and disposal habits.
10) No More Plastic Toothbrushes
Why? According to our dentist, we’re supposed to purchase a new toothbrush every 6 months. That’s well over 100 toothbrushes per individual in a lifetime.
Solution: Buy bamboo! Lol you know I love a good bamboo promo. Bamboo toothbrushes run for about the same, if not less, than regular toothbrushes. So you don’t have to hurt your wallet in an effort to help the planet.
Need to get rid of your current plastic toothbrush? Colgate collects used toothbrushes, empty floss containers, and used tubes of toothpaste for recycling2. Through their partnership with TerraCycle, Colgate ensures the plastics get melted down and put into goods like plastic lumber (ie. Goods that won’t go near your food or your mouth).
Impact: Let’s eliminate the plastic waste of 300,000,000 Americans each using 100+ plastic toothbrushes!
REDUCING Plastic in your cleaning closet
11) Stop Buying New Bottles of Cleaner
Why? At this point, I’m coming up with new ways of saying “We should use less plastic.” But we should use less plastic.
Solution: Buy concentrated solutions. A common example is floor cleaner, which you then add to water when you’re ready to mop. This doesn’t eliminate my plastic use, but it does greatly reduce it (compare with Swiffer WetJet bottles). Another resource is Grove Collaborative. On your first order, they send you a glass bottle and a 2 oz concentrate of cleaner. You dilute the cleaner with water, and when you run out, they send you a new tube of concentrate, and you then have a 2 oz plastic tube to recycle rather than a 24 oz bottle!
Impact: This doesn’t fully eliminate plastic consumption, but it can greatly reduce the number of containers you purchase.
12) Make Your Own Cleaning Product
Why? You’ll know what exactly you’re spraying all over your surfaces, you can save money, and you avoid buying plastic bottles all at the same time!
Solution: My go-to is white vinegar mixed with water. Ratios vary widely, and I’ve linked an article below that provides a detailed breakdown based on what you’re trying to clean6. For my kitchen surfaces, I eyeballed a 5:1 vinegar to water ratio, and it’s worked like magic so far. Baking soda is also a fantastic tool. And of course, there are whole pockets of the internet dedicated to making your own cleaner.
Impact: Not only are you reducing the amount of plastic you’re using, but you’re also reducing the number of harmful chemicals that are running off into the water supply!
I realize I haven’t possibly covered all the tricks for reducing plastic. I would love to hear the innovations, shortcuts, and hacks you’ve found in order to reduce your consumption of plastic. Follow up questions, concerns? Put ’em in the comments below, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow my on Twitter: @Blog_D2Earth @AbbyHarrison33
1Beaudry, Frederic “How to Recycle Different Types of Plastic” https://www.thoughtco.com/recycling-different-types-of-plastic-1203667
2Bennett, Sophia “How To Recycle a Toothbrush” https://recyclenation.com/2015/06/how-to-recycle-toothbrush/
3“How Many Plastic Water Bottles Are Thrown Away Every Day?” Pristine Planet, pristineplanet.com/eco-info/How-many-plastic-water-bottles-are-thrown-away-every-day.asp.
4Parker, Laura “A Whopping 91% of Plastic Isn’t Recycled” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/#close
5Rosalsky, Gregg, and Stacey Vanek Smith. “Why Banning Plastic Grocery Bags Could Be A Bad Move.” Planet Money, NPR, 23 May 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/23/726035361/why-banning-plastic-grocery-bags-could-be-a-bad-move
6Seal, Jann “What is the Vinegar-to-Water Ratio for Cleaning?” https://www.hunker.com/13421645/what-is-the-vinegar-to-water-ratio-for-cleaning
7Semuels, Adam “What Happens Now that China Has Stopped Accepting Our Trash?” https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/