Think about how much plastic you have in your home. There’s packaging from the Amazon Prime order you got yesterday, plastic shopping bags from the grocery store, yogurt tubs, ketchup bottles – and the list goes on.
There’s also plenty of plastic in your body. Citing research published in Environmental Science and Technology, National Geographic reports the average person consumes 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles each year. It’s still unknown how consuming this much plastic affects our health.
The world is experiencing a crisis of excess plastic waste, which the International Energy Agency estimates will double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050, according to PRI. Yes, some of it gets recycled, but a large percentage ends up in developing countries, burned, or dumped. Increasingly, we’re running out of places to put it, and the most impoverished nations are shouldering the burden of First-World countries’ excess.
The good news is there are many ways to reduce our impact and use less plastic. It starts by better understanding how much plastic we actually consume and where it all goes when we’re done with it.
Plastic, Plastic Everywhere
The United States leads the world in plastic consumption. According to an investigative report by The Guardian funded by The Ford Foundation, the U.S. generates 34.5 million tons of plastic each year. That’s enough to fill the Houston Astrodome 1,000 times. And National Geographic reports that each year, 18 billion pounds of this plastic flows into our oceans from coastal regions. If the trend continues, UN Environment estimates that by 2050, our ocean will contain more plastic than fish.
Globally, it’s even worse. UN Environment also notes that worldwide, we produce 300 million tons of plastic waste. That’s almost the equivalent of the entire human population’s weight.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around such numbers. And alarmingly, the United States is about to start producing even more plastic. According to S&P Global Platts research, also cited by PRI, plastic production is set to increase by 40% by 2028. Companies are building many of these production facilities close to the oil refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana.
The Problem With Recycling
But plastic is easily recycled. As long as we put it in the recycle bin each week, it’s OK. It’s not like it’s ending up in a landfill – right?
On the surface, this sounds like a somewhat reasonable excuse. But when you dig down just a little bit, the truth is much more sobering. The Guardian’s report found that each year, the U.S. ships hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic to developing countries for recycling. But 70% of these countries mismanage the plastic waste.
The recycling process is dirty, time-consuming, and performed by locals paid a few dollars a day to hand-strip plastic waste into what’s usable and what isn’t. These countries – which include Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Senegal – have very few environmental regulations or worker protections. That means workers “recycle” our plastic in increasingly hazardous conditions.
One plastic sorter The Guardian interviewed in Vietnam admits she’s afraid of breathing the air. And no one will dare drink the water there. Environmental group Gaia released a comprehensive study in April 2019. It found the people living in the countries that import our plastics are experiencing adverse effects like skyrocketing respiratory illnesses and contaminated water supplies.
The photographs in The Guardian and Gaia reports are horrifying and illustrate the stark truth: The United States uses more plastic than any other country on Earth. And this excess consumption is literally ruining the lives of people in developing nations all over the world.
How to Use Less Plastic
The plastic crisis is a grim and depressing reality that affects us all. Making small changes in how we eat, shop, and live will help slow our consumption of plastic and make a big difference over time.
1. Recycle Intelligently
One big problem with recycling is what Gaia calls “aspirational recycling.” Aspirational recycling is throwing all sorts of things into the recycling bin hoping somewhere down the line someone will find a way to recycle it. These items include dirty plastic bottles and packaging, broken toys, plastic grocery bags, dirty to-go food containers, and even used diapers.
Plastics labeled No. 1 and No. 2 are in highest demand for recycling. But you need to rinse the containers out before putting them in the recycle bin. And those aren’t necessarily the only plastic codes you can recycle. Make sure you know what your local municipality will accept for recycling and what they won’t.
One item you can’t put in the recycle bin is plastic shopping bags. While these can be recycled, they can’t go through a typical facility’s single-stream sorter because they clog the machines. Take these bags directly to retailers for recycling. Walmart and many other large grocery store chains have collection bins at the entrance to recycle plastic shopping bags.
Last, check TerraCycle to see which companies they’ve teamed up with to reuse hard-to-recycle items, like juice pouches, guitar strings, and toothpaste tubes. You can send used packaging to TerraCycle for free, and they turn it into new products like backpacks.
2. Avoid Bottled Water
Bottled water is an expensive convenience, and the U.S. consumes a lot of it. Beverage Daily.com, an industry trade publication, reports we consumed 13.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2017, a 7% increase from the year before. But CBS News reports that 7 out of every 10 plastic water bottles wind up in a landfill or incinerator.
Plastic water bottles also leach microplastics, which we ingest every time we take a sip. Research from the study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that people who drink only bottled water consumed 90,000 microplastics per year, while people who drink only tap water consumed 4,000 microplastics per year.
Get out of this cycle by using a reusable water bottle, ideally one made from glass or stainless steel.
It’s not always easy to remember to bring water with you, especially when you’re wrangling kids or rushing off to work. Leave some extra empty water bottles in the car to fill up at a restaurant, convenience store, or water fountain. Or leave a note near the door to remind yourself to grab your water bottle.
3. Remember Your Reusable Grocery Bags
In the United States, we consume one single-use plastic shopping bag per person per day on average. That’s 365 bags per person per year. Compare that to Denmark, which consumes an average of four bags per person per year, according to National Geographic.
As of 2019, only two states, California and Hawaii, have a statewide plastic shopping bag ban in place. But the movement to ban single-use bags nationwide is growing. Some cities – such as Coral Gables, Florida; Anchorage, Alaska; and Greenwich, Connecticut – have citywide bans on plastic bags. Others, such as Chicago, impose a tax of anywhere from 5 to 10 cents on each bag to discourage use. You can see a full list of which cities have banned plastic bags on Forbes.
Switching to reusable bags makes a big difference in your plastic consumption. Reusable shopping bags are inexpensive, especially if you get them on Amazon, and come in a dizzying array of colors and designs. Keep them in your car or purse, and make it a habit to return them to your car or purse as soon as you’re done using them so they’re ready for next time.
Or let your kids help you remember to bring reusable bags to the store. Let’s face it: Their memories are often a lot better than ours.
4. Bring Reusable Cutlery
A visit to any fast-food or fast-casual restaurant often means lots of plastic and paper waste, from plates to cutlery. Reduce this waste by bringing your own reusable items, like stainless-steel drinking straws, bamboo cutlery, and a reusable cup. Or bring a set of cutlery you already have at home.
Keep your dinnerware in a small bag in your car, purse, or backpack so they’re with you when you need them most.
5. Rethink Oral Care & Beauty Products
Oral care products are hard to recycle because they’re often made from a variety of plastics. Toothpaste tubes in particular can’t be cleaned and often contain an aluminum coating.
Bamboo toothbrushes have a bamboo handle, which is compostable, and nylon bristles, which aren’t. However, most plastic toothbrushes aren’t recyclable at all – unless you use Colgate brushes, which you can recycle through TerraCycle’s program.
Another option is to use a Preserve toothbrush. They’re made with 100% recycled materials and come with a mailer to send your used toothbrush back to the company for recycling.
Many people also use disposable razors, which are mostly plastic. However, an increasing number of companies – like Parker and Vikings – make high-quality safety razors. They’re designed to be used for years and eliminate the need for plastic razors.
And that’s just a sampling of the green alternatives to disposable beauty products.
6. Try to Avoid Plastic Clamshells
Some fruits and vegetables come in plastic clamshells. These are hard to recycle because they’re made with different types of plastics. Thus, they end up in a landfill or shipped off to another country.
But avoiding plastic clamshells is sometimes easier said than done. So much fresh food comes in these packages, making a visit to the produce section of the grocery store a frustrating experience.
You can also make different choices at the market, like buying loose fruits and veggies instead of those wrapped or bagged in plastic.
7. Use Reusable Produce Bags & Wraps
Grocery stores keep a ready supply of plastic produce bags for people to carry fresh fruits and vegetables. But why do we need them? Produce won’t get that dirty on the way home, and it gets washed before we eat it, anyway.
Skip the produce bags and put fruits and vegetables right into your shopping cart. If that’s inconvenient, bring reusable produce bags, which you can buy inexpensively on Amazon.
At home, try reusable food wraps made of cloth and beeswax instead of plastic wrap to store a variety of foods, from fruits and vegetables to sandwiches. They typically last a year under normal use.
Read the product reviews carefully, though. There are plenty of options, but the less expensive wraps don’t always hold up well over time. Look into established brands like Bee’s Wrap.
8. Buy From Bulk Bins
Bulk bins make it easy to reduce your plastic consumption. Just bring a jar or bag and have it weighed at checkout.
There are plenty of bulk grocery stores in big cities like San Francisco and New York, so finding food in bulk there is usually pretty easy. But if you live in a smaller town or rural area, finding a store with bulk bins is almost impossible. To make it easier, use the free app created by Zero Waste Home to find one near you.
9. Make Your Own Cleaning Products
Walk down the cleaning aisle at the grocery store, and you’ll see a sea of plastic. Unless you find a specialty brand that packages their product in glass bottles, avoiding plastic here is almost impossible. But it’s easy, inexpensive, and healthier to make your own cleaning products using ingredients like baking soda, vinegar, and lemons. There’s even a way to make DIY laundry detergent, which is more effective and safer than commercial brands.
Store your products in glass jars – large Mason jars work well – or a reusable plastic spray bottle.
And instead of using a plastic scrub brush to wash dishes, opt for cloth dish rags instead. Plastic scrub pads harbor a ridiculous amount of bacteria. Researchers found an average of 362 different varieties on the average plastic scrubby, according to a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports, and a total of over 5 trillion bugs per sponge. Cloth rags are much cleaner as long as you use a fresh one every day.
If you need something with scrubbing power, opt for a cotton and wood pulp Skoy pad, which is completely biodegradable.
Another easy way to reduce your plastic consumption is to use bar soap for handwashing rather than single-use liquid soap pumps. Bar soap is less expensive, and if you opt for locally made or natural soaps, they’re plastic-free.
10. Rethink Feminine Hygiene
Feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons contain a lot of plastic that can’t be recycled. However, there are now plenty of options to reduce your environmental impact dramatically.
Try using reusable menstrual cups, such as the Diva Cup or Lena Cup. They last five to 10 years and save you $1,000 or more compared to buying disposable pads or tampons over the same timeframe. Make sure you find the right size for your body, though. It’s tricky if you’ve never used one before. The website Menstrual Cup Advice does nothing but reviews on menstrual cups, and they have an extensive Q&A section if you need advice on sizing.
Washable reusable pads are also an option for those who don’t feel comfortable with a menstrual cup.
Trying to reduce your plastic consumption may feel like a futile endeavor. After all, plastic is everywhere. How much of a difference can one person possibly make when it’s so prevalent in modern society?
Yes, it feels overwhelming, especially when you walk into the grocery store and see plastic everywhere you look. But no change, however small, is ever wasted. And when you multiply a single change by thousands or millions of people, it really does begin to make a difference.
The key is to avoid the throwaway culture that’s become so prevalent in our society. Simple steps might feel insignificant in light of the mountainous environmental problems we’re facing, but they’re not.
If you need some inspiration, check out Beth Terry’s blog My Plastic Free Life. Since 2007, Terry has been blogging about her mission to avoid using plastic in her life. Her website is full of tips to avoid plastics and clever products to help you reduce your consumption.
What tips can you share on how to cut down on plastic consumption?