It's hard to get away from plastic. The easiest thing to do is to get serious about reducing your use of plastic, but after that, it gets trickier.
Recycling is important way to keeping plastics and microplastics out of landfills and waterways, where fish, birds and other creatures are likely to ingest them. However, there are plastics hiding in places you may not suspect. Once you know something contains plastic, you can be more responsible about avoiding it in the first place. Just like it took you a minute to embrace the reusable bag habit, these solutions just require a change of habit, but they're easy to do.
Paper cups are made of paper, right? Actually, most of a paper cup is made from paper, but disposable cups you'll get when you pick up a cup of coffee also frequently contain a thin plastic lining. It makes sense if you think about it. If a cup was 100 percent paper, it would buckle under the load of a very hot liquid. And while Starbucks gets points for recycling 25 million used cups into new ones, we still have a long way to go on this front.
What can you do: Take reusable water bottles and coffee cups with you whenever you go. At home, use real glassware.
Plastic could be hidden in two places in tea bags. The bags themselves may contain a small amount of plastic that's added to help them keep their shape in boiling water. Unfortunately, that handy bag is also the biggest source of the problem, as researchers at McGill University in Montreal discovered. The found that steeping a plastic tea bag in water heated to 203 degrees Fahrenheit (95 degrees Celsius) released around 11.6 billion microplastics into a single cup, according to New Scientist.
In addition the bag, the wrappers for individually wrapped tea bags may also contain a plastic lining.
What can you do: Purchase loose leaf tea and use a reusable tea infuser, which will eliminate the plastic waste and a lot of the paper waste, too. Or look for tea bags that aren't made with plastic, like Numi, Organic Traditional Medicinals or Tetley Black and Green Tea. (Clean Plates has a list with more options.)
Fleece clothing is made with plastic microfibers. Often fleece is made from recycled plastic, which seems like a good reuse for plastic bottles, but all fleece is bad in this regard. Every time a fleece item is washed, it releases thousands of microscopicplastic fibers into the environment. When those microfibers make their way into drinking water or into the ocean, humans and marine creatures ingest them.
What can you do: The jury is still out on how harmful these microfibers are to our health, but it's clear they aren't good, so choosing not to buy fleece is the best option as Starre explains in her handy guide to reducing your microfiber pollution. As she points out, you can purchase a filter for your washing machine that will remove many of the microfibers, but the easier option is to try something like the CoraBall, which simply goes into the machine with your clothes. It also helps to wash your fleece only when necessary.
One-time-use disposable wipes are so convenient. Baby wipes, personal hygiene wipes, antibacterial wipes, makeup removing wipes ... there are many types. They often come packaged in plastic, which is a problem itself, but at least those packages can be recycled. The wipes themselves are also frequently made with plastic — and they rarely get recycled. They end up in the trash or flushed, which really isn't a good idea — but I'll get to that in a minute.
Wipes contain plastic fibers that aren't generally biodegradable, according to The Guardian. Those that get flushed clog up our sewers and create fatbergs — giant chunks of wipes and diapers held together by fats like bacon grease that gets dumped down the drain. Wipes that end up in the ocean can be mistaken for food by turtles. These convenient wipes are turning out to be majorly inconvenient to the environment.
What can you do: Only use disposable wipes when absolutely necessary. Inconvenience yourself. Use rags to clean surfaces instead of anti-bacterial wipes (and wash the rag after one use). Ditch the disposable bathroom wipes and use toilet paper. For babies, make DIY reusable baby wipes and use them as often as possible. Take your makeup off with a washcloth. And, when you do use disposable wipes, never flush them down the toilet.
When people toss their butts on the ground instead of disposing of them responsibly, they end up in waterways. It's strange that so many people still find it acceptable to throw cigarette butts, which is why they are the most pervasive man-made pollutant. Yet it takes just one cigarette butt to contaminate a gallon of water, says Science Alert. Part of that contamination comes from plastic, which is used in the filter.
What can you do: It would be easy to simply say, "quit smoking," but there are very few smokers who don't realize they should quit for their own health, let alone the health of the planet. If you do smoke, don't throw your butts on the ground or in the water. Dispose of them in the trash or in a safe cigarette receptacle.
Glitter is so hard to get rid of, and here's proof: there are services that will send glitter bombs to your enemies. When the envelope is opened, glitter flies everywhere. The glitter will be on that person's clothes, carpet and couch seemingly forever. And, even if they do manage to clean it up and put it in the trash, it will live in the landfill for a very long time. So just don't.
Glitter is made from plastic that's bonded with aluminum. If it winds up in the water, it becomes part of marine plastic litter — consumed by plankton, fish, shellfish, seabirds and other creatures. Birds that have plastic litter buildup in their stomachs can die of starvation.
What can you do: At least this one is simple: Avoid all glitter.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published in February 2018.