BYO coffee mugs. Stainless or glass water bottles. Opting for paper bags — or better yet, reusable totes, which are stronger. These basic swaps for plastic products have been around for a long time, and they're more popular than ever. Many localities have already banned various plastic disposables like plastic bags, straws and other specific one-use items.
But there's so much more disposable plastic out there, meaning we have a lot more work to do — and not a moment too soon. Our plastic problem is growing, and it's ending up literally everywhere, from inside the fish we eat to microplastics in the salt we use to flavor our food. At this point, we've created a geological layer that will be left behind for tens of thousands of years. If we all disappeared tomorrow, aliens could land 50,000 years from now and find a geological layer of plastic 50 years thick. So that's our legacy? A layer of plastic blanketing the Earth?
As Annie Leonard, the founder of the Story of Stuff project writes, "We need corporations — those like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Starbucks and Nestlé that continue to churn out throwaway plastic bottles, cups, and straws — to step up and show real accountability for the mess they’ve created. Drink companies produce over 500bn single-use plastic bottles annually; there is no way that we can recycle our way out of a problem of that scale." (In fact, one of my favorite actions, besides those below, is to Tweet pictures of those companies' waste back at them when I pick it up, especially on beaches. Why aren't these companies held directly responsible in any way for the pollution they cause?)
Until corporations take more responsibility for their waste, the rest of us need to do what we can — and there's no better time than now to cut your own plastic consumption. The video below offers some basic swaps before we dig into the more surprising options.
I know change can be hard: During the transition away from plastics, you might feel frustrated, but here's a trick that has helped me: Simply hide whatever it is you don't want to use from yourself. I found plastic cling wrap to be a difficult item to avoid when it was right there in the drawer and I was used to grabbing it. So, I put it way in the back of the under-sink cabinet that's a pain to get to. If I really, really need to use plastic wrap for something (like wrapping my hair up when I henna it every six weeks), it's there. But it's so annoying to get to; I really have to put energy into it. Most of the time, I realize that using one of the swaps below is easier. A month later, habit broken!
Swap cling wrap to Bees Wrap or a plate
Speaking of cling wrap: Some people call it plastic wrap, but that's technically the stuff that's used in the packaging industry, and it's more like a sheet of plastic-bag material. Here I'm talking about wrap that's used in the kitchen to wrap up cut fruit and vegetables so they won't dry out or to stretch across the top of a bowl of leftovers.
The very stuff that makes it useful — the stretchy, clingy aspect — also makes in non-recyclable almost everywhere. Why? According to Recyclebank, "Not only is cling wrap usually soiled with food, contaminating other valuable recyclables, but like plastic bags, it’s also likely to jam the [recycling] machinery, costing processing time and money. Unfortunately, cling wrap can’t be recycled along with other plastic films such as plastic bags, either; the chemicals and resins added to make the cling wrap 'clingy' and stretchable cannot be removed, making it too complex a plastic to recycle."
If you grew up using cling wrap, it feels impossible not to use it. But remember: People were eating and storing things long before this stuff was invented. Something my dad taught me is to use a small plate (or a saucer) that sits on top of a bowl instead. This has the added bonus of making the bowl immediately stackable, which is useful for maximizing fridge space! You can't stack cling-wrapped bowls. There are also, of course, all kinds of reusable food storage systems, but most people have extra plates around already, which is why I like this hack. You can also find small random plates at Goodwill for much cheaper than any food storage system (and often they have plastic components, which means eventually they will end up at the landfill anyway.)
For my cut fruits, I use Bee's Wrap, which is a cloth that's coated in beeswax. It's easily washable and reusable, keeps food moist, and you can even seal off the edges by running your palms over the edge of the bowl or stick two edges of the wrap together — the heat from your hands will slightly melt the beeswax and result in a gentle seal. I've been using the same three wraps I got in my first package of them for over a year now.
Swap ear swabs to biodegradable ones or tissue
Many ear swabs have a center stick made of plastic that's not recyclable. There are a few options on this one. The least-good one is simply to buy Q-Tips, which have cardboard sticks instead of plastic; at least they will eventually degrade. A better option is to simply use a bit of toilet tissue — the ear cleans itself naturally so you should only be using an ear swab to clean the outer parts anyway, which you can also get using your pinky and a tissue. You could even use a thin washcloth that can be thrown in the washing machine.
Swap plastic produce bags to cloth ones (or just skip them)
Here's a secret I've found to be true: 90 percent of fruits and veggies don't need a special plastic bag to go from the grocery store to your house. I see people bagging up oranges, apples, bananas, cucumbers, potatoes and other thick-skinned fruits and veggies all the time. Why? You're going to peel, cook or wash thoroughly before you eat them anyway! I haven't used plastic produce bags for over a decade now, and I've lived all over the United States. I've never gotten refused from a checkout line, and I've never gotten sick. Now, smaller items, like green beans, cherries, grapes and other fruits that can indeed get lost as you shop if they are not contained can get popped in a lightweight produce bag. There are plenty for sale online of course — I like these — or just use any old small bags you have lying around. They won't add much weight to your total order.
Swap dental floss with handles to straight dental floss and fingers
Nobody needs handles on their dental floss unless they have issues with their hands (arthritis) or are otherwise unable to use simple floss. For those people, the handy little plastic reachers are super-useful and they should keep using them. For the rest of us: Use your fingers like your dentist showed you. I get it; flossing is a pain. But you know what's worse? One of those plastic arms with floss on it getting stuck in a turtle's stomach. Use your hands, as long as you're able.
Liquid soap to bar soap
Bar soap is cheaper per use, lasts longer, doesn't spill, and depending on the store, you may be able to find it without any packaging whatsoever, or maybe just a simple paper ribbon around the middle with the name of the company on it. Compare that to a plastic bottle that has to be manufactured, shipped, filled with soap, labelled and shipped again to the store. And liquid soap is mostly water, so you're paying extra for your soap to be liquidized. It's ridiculous. I even use a shampoo bar for my hair now, saving another plastic bottle.
Plastic ribbon to real ribbon or raffia or string
Plastic ribbons are especially hazardous to marine life as they look just like food swimming by. I never buy this stuff and use real cloth ribbon instead. (I bought a big roll of red ribbon 5 years ago and it's still going strong; I also end up with ribbon from others' gifts that I save and reuse.) Raffia or string is another option, and looks great with newsprint or paper-bag wrapping paper for a minimalist-chic look.
Plastic sandwich bags to paper bags or cloth
I bought a box of recloseable sandwich bags three years ago and I've just kept reusing them. I still have more than 15 left out of a pack of 30. Like plastic wrap, you don't need plastic bags as much as you think; I use waxed paper sandwich bags if I truly need something to be disposable, but most of the time I just wrap sandwiches in a reusable napkin and then place them in the bag or box I'm using for transport. If you're used to storing stuff in plastic bags in the fridge, consider using reusable Tupperware or the bowl-and-plate method I mention above.
Of course there are plenty of other hacks for avoiding plastic waste, like swapping plastic straws for metal ones. Bringing your lunch instead of buying will save money and waste. If you menstruate, using Lunapads (which I've used for over a decade now) and/or a Diva Cup instead of plastic-based feminine products is a healthy choice that also reduces plastic. (And for those of you who are coffee-shop or espresso snobs — I confess, I'm one — check out Keep Cups as the beautiful and barista-friendly choice for takeaway coffee.)
For the majority of people, the swaps above are simple and easy to make. I can say that because I've made them and haven't suffered any loss of quality of life. In fact, using reusable items made from non-plastic materials is aesthetically enjoyable, as well as less-wasteful.
When you embark on this endeavor, realize that you're far from alone! There are many of us working for a close-to-plastic-free world. Check out this list of zero-waste Instagrammers for ideas, inspiration and community. And if you want more incentive to join the movement, this infographic ought to do it: