So you’re looking to whittle your waste, but unsure how to start. Reducing your dependence on single-use plastics – plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles – is an effective yet simple way to cut the waste.
Before we jump in, I want to clarify that not all plastics are bad. In fact, plastic is essential in a wide variety of areas, including life-saving medical devices, construction materials, and to reduce food spoilage. (You’ll see that some of my reusable suggestions, below, are made of plastic.)
What I’m zeroing in on here is a reduction in unnecessary plastic. These are the kinds of plastic items that you use once, as a matter of convenience, before tossing them in the trash. Worse, this plastic waste ends up as litter, polluting our environment virtually forever.
What can you do? There are so many simple ways to reduce unnecessary plastic use and, in the process, make a change in the way you live your life.
Table of Contents
- Understand the (Single-Use) Plastic Problem
- Bag the Plastic Shopping Bags
- Next Step: Bag Other Plastic Bags
- Plastic Straws Suck! Try Reusable Straws
- Plastic Bottles. Need I Say More?
- Coffee Cups Have Plastic? Yup.
- Bring Your Own Utensils
- It’s a Wrap, But Not With Plastic
- BYOC (Bring Your Own Container)
- Bulk Up
- Shop at Your Local Farmer’s Market
- Make it Homemade
- Party Without Plastic
- Still Have Plastic? Reuse and Recycle
- Spread the Word
Understand the (Single-Use) Plastic Problem
Just think about the last time you went to the beach. Most likely, you spotted plastic straws, bags, and other plastic debris. Plastic is everywhere. And although plastic is made from a non-renewable resource, only a small fraction (barely 6%) of plastic waste is recycled. The rest is left to pollute our waterways, oceans, and natural open spaces.
Understanding why there’s such a “fuss” about single-use plastic is essential. It’s also a motivator for making that change permanent instead of a temporary fad. So take a few minutes to learn the facts. The Plastic Bag Facts section in my post on Plastic Bag Laws will get you started.
Bag the Plastic Shopping Bags
Instead of accepting all those plastic bags at the supermarket, pop a few reusable bags in the back of your car. Even if you don’t have a car, there are an endless variety of collapsible bags that are small enough to fit in a purse or even a pocket.
- Shopping tote. Chico’s collapsible shopping tote has a handy carabiner clip to attach to your purse, backpack, or even your belt loop.
- Tote or lunch bag. Baggu totes are so pretty, with a pattern to suit every taste.
- Large shopping bags. For those big shopping trips, Bee Green foldable bags are a great choice.
- Net bags. Stoncel net bags are a stylish addition to your shopping trip.
Next Step: Bag Other Plastic Bags
You’ve remembered your reusable shopping bags. Terrific! Now take it one step further and tuck a few smaller reusable bags in your shopping bag. They’re a perfect alternative to the plastic film produce bags that you find at the grocer’s and can be used for produce, bulk items, or even to hold small non-food purchases.
Here are my picks, but some people (who are more crafty than I am) up-cycle their own out of old cloth.
- Cloth. Simple Ecology has a variety of different sized organic cotton muslin bags.
- Net/Mesh. My ChicoBag Produce Stand mesh bags have lasted for years. Although a bit more delicate, I also like Bewise Earthwise mesh bags.
Forgot your reusable produce bags? Just leave items loose and give them a wash when you get home.
Plastic Straws Suck! Try Reusable Straws
Plastic straws are one of those convenience items that we really don’t think much about. They’re often plonked into a drink at a restaurant and handed to the customer who may not even want it. Then what happens to them? Plastic straws can’t be recycled, so they either end up in the trash or join the hundreds of thousands of plastic straws found on beaches, in waterways, or as choking hazards for wildlife.
The good news is that it’s incredibly simple to just say “no” to plastic straws. Or, if you want or need one, to reach for a more durable alternative. There are so many options out there that I devoted an entire post to reusable straws with suggested picks.
Plastic Bottles. Need I Say More?
Along with plastic bags and plastic straws, plastic bottles are easy single-use items to swap out for reusable alternatives. There are countless options, but I list a few here to get you started.
- All-purpose glass. The LifeFactory glass water bottle with Active Flip Top Cap is my go-to reusable bottle.
- All-purpose stainless steel. The S’well stainless steel bottle comes in all shapes, sizes, and beautiful styles. The screw-top doesn’t work for me in the car, but it’s leak-proof and safe to pop in a bag.
- Glass tumbler with straw. Now that you’ve eliminated plastic straws, try the Ello glass tumbler with straw. It’s perfect in the summer to hold my favorite after-lunch treat of Grady’s cold brew coffee with lots of ice and oat milk.
- Bottle with sip straw. We have a bunch of Camelbak Eddy bottles, with a sip function that’s great for kids. Buy an extra pack of bite valves because they tend to get moldy.
At home, consider investing in a water filter pitcher or water filter faucet instead of purchasing bottled. We installed an Aqua Pure under-counter filtration system a few years ago, but you can also get filters that mount directly on top of the faucet.
Coffee Cups Have Plastic? Yup.
You may not realize that those to-go paper coffee cups are also lined with plastic. And then there are the plastic stirrer and plastic lid. All these items, along with the cup, can’t be recycled. Instead they go straight to the landfill, the incinerator, or end up as forever-pollution.
The better choice? A reusable coffee mug.
- Ceramic. My preferred material for coffee mugs. I love the Ello Mesa travel mug, which also fits in car cup holders.
- Glass. I’ve used KeepCup’s glass cups over the years and like the shape, feel, and taste of coffee from them. Note that they do leak and lose heat faster than stainless steel versions.
- Stainless steel. I’m not wild about the stainless steel/coffee combo, but the easy-sip mechanism in Contigo’s Autoseal mug is perfect for the car and it’s completely leak-proof. I also love my new Ello travel mug, which is attractive and portable, but does occasionally leak.
Bring Your Own Utensils
At home, avoid disposable utensils as much as possible. When you’re out and about, pack a reusable utensil set for your bag.
- Bamboo. To-Go Ware’s bamboo utensil set includes a fork, knife, spoon, and chopsticks. The pretty case is made from recycled bottles.
- Metal. Teivio’s stainless steel set includes a fork, knife, small and large spoons, chopsticks, and straws with a cleaning brush. The entire set fits snugly in its own carrying case.
It’s a Wrap, But Not With Plastic
Plastic film is non-recyclable, yet it’s made from a non-renewable resource. Does that make sense? No! Instead of plastic, choose from one of the many reusable alternatives:
- A plate to cover leftovers.
- Beeswax. I use Bee’s Wrap brand and like their assorted sizes for different uses. Just wash and reuse.
- Stretch lids. Try these reusable silicone food covers on bowls, containers, and even to wrap produce.
- Parchment or wax paper. There are tons of brands to choose from. I like If You Care brand. The parchment paper is chlorine-free and certified compostable.
BYOC (Bring Your Own Container)
Heading to the grocery store? Going out for a meal? Packing a lunch for school or the office? Pack prepared foods, leftovers, and meals in reusable containers that you bring from home.
You can reuse old sauce or jam jars, or purchase containers and wraps.
- Food Containers. A basic plastic container with a seal top will do, but here are a couple that are stylish and practical:
- Black & Blum’s stainless steel lunchbox is leakproof and has a divider for different foods.
- For salads, Rubbermaid’s Brilliance Food Storage Salad Container includes a dressing container and removable insert tray to store toppings.
- Preserve 2 Go’s BPA-free food storage container is an excellent reusable alternative to their plastic counterparts.
- Wraps. Wrap-n-Mat instead of plastic wraps for sandwiches. These are cloth on one side and plastic, for use as a place-mat, on the other side.
- Baggies. Rezip storage bags. They look and feel like zip-top baggies, but they’re made from BPA- and lead-free materials.
Did you know that nearly 50% of the plastic waste generated is from plastic packaging? Instead of buying individually wrapped or packaged items, cut down on all that unnecessary packaging by making bulk purchases. With your reusable containers and bags in tow, stock up on food and household staples. Litterless and Zero Waste Nerd are two sites that list bulk goods stores, but a quick online search will also work!
Shop at Your Local Farmer’s Market
Shopping local will help local businesses and reduce the carbon footprint of your trip. And shopping at your farmer’s market is a good way to keep single-use plastic to a minimum. Most vendors keep their produce in open bins, so remember your reusable bags and stock up on delicious, fresh food.
Make it Homemade
Another way to reduce plastic packaging is to make meals from scratch. You’ll get the added benefit of using fresh ingredients while controlling what goes into your food. Consider making lunch for school or the office and packing it in your reusable containers. (Don’t forget your reusable utensils!)
Party Without Plastic
To be more accurate: party without single-use plastic. So, instead of disposable plastic straws, cutlery, cups, plates, decorations (including balloons), and party favors, opt for reusable alternatives. And if it’s a big event where disposable items are necessary, then choose biodegradable or compostable items.
Still Have Plastic? Reuse and Recycle
Still have plastic, despite your best efforts? Reuse when you can and recycle what’s left. Just make sure you’re recycling responsibly. Check out my Recycling Resources page for information on what can and can’t be recycled.
Spread the Word
Remember that the more of us who make these individual lifestyle changes, the greater the collective influence we’ll have in effecting broad, systemic change. To that end, help spread the word about plastic waste and the ways we can reduce our dependence on single-use plastic. Talk to your neighbors, volunteer, or simply vote for candidates with strong environmental agendas.