You’ve heard of “golden age,” a ideal time that doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t know if we’ve ever known a true golden age, but now we live in the plastic age. It’s a wonderful invention but also an environmental menace. We have to find ways to use less plastic. It starts with reducing plastic waste.
Single-use plastic items, especially, create huge environmental problems. Recycling can never solve them.
The plastic industry consistently lobbies against legislation that would limit or ban them. Yet large corporations do pay attention to public pressure. More and more have vowed to switch to sustainable packaging and have even announced their self-imposed deadlines.
We as individuals do not lack power.
One way to exercise power is to opt out of accepting single-use plastic as a normal part of our lifestyle. And be vocal about it. Tell family and friends that you are choosing to reduce plastic use. And tell them why. A few thousand people won’t make much difference. Industry and government will notice if tens of millions of people change their habits.
Adopting a zero plastic lifestyle may seem like too much of a sacrifice, but we can all find a few ways to reduce plastic use. And then, when they become a habit, we can find more ways to use less plastic.
Here are some ways to start:
1. Take your own bags when you shop
When the store puts your purchases in a plastic bag, it’s useful for you as long as it takes you to get home and empty it. Then it becomes junk. In most places, you can return bags and other plastic films to the grocery store.
But isn’t it better not to take junk home in the first place?
If you haven’t already, get yourself a collection of reusable cloth shopping bags. Get in the habit of taking them into the store. Launder them from time to time and they’ll last for years. Each time the checkout clerk puts your purchases in your own bag, it’s at least one plastic bag you don’t take home. More if you have a really big cloth bag.
And nowadays, you can eliminate those plastic bags you fill while you shop for groceries. Get yourself a collection of reusable cloth produce bags. Use them for bulk bagels, rolls, and other items in the bakery department, too.
2. Buy produce and other foods in bulk—and take your own containers
You can buy a sack of apples in a plastic bag or you can buy them from the bulk display. And if you buy them from the bulk display, you can put them loose in your cart instead of using the plastic bags the store provides.
But that’s not the only way to reduce plastic waste. Some stores put, say, two bell peppers in a Styrofoam™ tray and wrap it in plastic film. If you come to a store that won’t let you decide how many peppers you want (even if it’s only one), buy them somewhere else. If enough people shun produce in those trays, maybe stores will stop using them.
It’s bad enough that meat comes in plastic trays. Even with meat, you can go to the butcher counter to buy meat. Ask them not to give you any plastic in the process.
More and more stores have bulk bins for things like rice, granola, or trail mix you would otherwise find in plastic bags. And they probably have plastic bags available for you to put them in.
Stores may even have different kinds of flour available in bulk bins that you can’t even find in packages.
You can use your cloth produce bags for at least some of these items. But you can also build a collection of different size jars, either glass or plastic. Have the store clerk weigh them, and then fill them with whatever you want from the bins.
3. Rethink convenience foods
Do you really need the store to boil and peel eggs and then sell them to you in plastic? Can’t you cut your own produce at home rather than buying cut fruit in plastic?
I have even seen cut avocados in plastic. Avocados spoil very quickly when exposed to air. So these containers must use heavier plastic than the normal clamshells. And they must be careful to make sure the cut side of the avocado stays in contact with the plastic.
This point is actually broader than food. If you can find products packaged in anything but plastic, prefer those brands.
It’s even broader than packaging. It’s about the cost of convenience. Whenever we pay someone else to do simple things we can easily do ourselves, such as boiling eggs or slicing fruit, it costs us. It costs us more money, of course, but it also has environmental costs. Think of the shipping and machinery it requires. All that extra plastic is only the tip of the iceberg.
When we find ways to use less plastic, we can help the environment in other ways at the same time.
4. Be careful about shopping online
Shopping online can be environmentally friendly or an environmental hazard.
If you have to go to four stores to get four items you can buy all at once from Amazon or someplace, it’s a waste of gas. In that case, buy online.
If you can find everything on your list at one store, though, it’s better to shop there. Take your cloth bags. They’re not just for groceries, you know.
Nowadays, however, too many people think of something they want and order it online. Then the next day, they order something else. Every box probably has some kind of bubble wrap or other plastic in it. A small box every day creates much more plastic waste than one larger box every week.
Whether you shop in a store or online, wait until you need several things and get them all at once. And when you shop online, keep in mind that two-day shipping or faster is very bad for the environment.
5. Shop at thrift stores
How often do you buy something new that comes in a box wrapped in plastic film? Or in a box with Styrofoam™ inside it?
Remember that the 5 Rs of sustainability start with refuse, reduce, and reuse. When you buy from a thrift store, you are reusing something that’s still in good condition. You’re also refusing plastic packaging.
Thrift stores often put purchases in a reused plastic bag, but you have that stash of cloth ones in your car, don’t you?
6. Just say no to bottled water
Do you know what’s in your drinking water? The bottled water industry wants us to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water. It’s a lie.
Tap water is more heavily regulated than bottled water. Any time it’s unsafe anywhere for a short time, it makes national news. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water. It requires testing it in a certified lab. Only the EPA requires disclosure of what contaminants are in drinking water.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water. It does not require testing. So how is anyone to know if bottled water is any safer than your tap water? And that’s only one difference.
So if you want cold water at home, keep a pitcher in the refrigerator. If you want to take water with you, get a stainless steel water bottle—or something else you can reuse.
7. Just say no to plastic straws and lids
A few years ago, I agreed to go to the zoo with a bunch of school children. We bought our lunches there, but the zoo made it a point not to provide straws. The kids complained. It surprised me, too.
But do we really need straws at all? People with some kind of physical handicap might. But most of us can just pick up a glass or cup and lift it to our mouths. If there’s ice in the drink, it may tickle, but it’s easy to get used to it.
If you really want to use a straw, you can buy reusable ones. Use them at home or take them with you. Just be sure you can easily clean them regularly. Here are stainless steel straws that come with cleaning brushes.
For that matter, you don’t need the plastic lid that you can put on soft drinks or coffee. You get use of them for less time than even plastic shopping bags.
These are only a few ways to use less plastic. Eliminating it altogether might require some serious sacrifices. Reducing dependence on it may require giving up some small conveniences. But try some of these suggestions. You’ll find that reducing plastic use doesn’t hurt a bit.
Suggested reading: More recycling won’t solve plastic pollution / Matt Wilkins, Scientific American. July 5, 2018