You dutifully set out a full recycling bin each week brimming with plastic, paper and metal. It's a good habit, but, unfortunately, recycling efforts aren't working as well as they should.
In the last few decades, for instance, the number of plastic products has exploded, but only about 9 percent of them are actually recycled, according to National Geographic. Meaning most of your plastic beverage bottles, single-serve food containers, straws and cups end up in the landfill — and ultimately, the ocean — where they take centuries to biodegrade and harm wildlife.
More bad news arrived in 2018 when China (the recipient of much of the world's recyclables) announced it would no longer accept many types of solid waste, including certain plastics, unsorted paper and steel waste.
As the world grapples with this latest recycling rough patch, municipal waste haulers are being forced to send even more recyclables to landfills. Learn more about the recycling crisis in this video.
So what, if anything, can you do? An important first step is to stop creating so much waste in the first place and start reducing and reusing more in addition. According to Kathryn Kellogg, author of "101 Ways to Go Zero Waste," "Recycling will not save us. It should not be our first line of defense, but rather a last resort … The goal of zero waste is to send nothing to a landfill. Reduce what we need, reuse as much as we can, send as little as possible to be recycled, and compost what's leftover."
Here are 19 simple ways to start breaking the recycling habit and live a more waste-free life.
When ordering out, always forgo stuff you know will end up in the trash. That includes plastic utensils, straws, napkins, carry-out bags and those little packages of condiments. If you're eating at home, you probably don't need any of these items. Tell the takeout restaurant not to include them with your order. Some delivery services like Seamless and Grubhub let you check a box when you order to forgo napkins and plastic ware.
If you're eating there, you can almost certainly do with less. For example, use bulk condiments (the kind you pump out into small refillable containers) instead of single-use plastic packages. Don't take a plastic spoon if you're ordering French fries. Don't grab a huge wad of napkins when you probably only need one or two. And say no to straws. Americans use up to 500 million plastic straws per day, most of which are tossed after a few sips. If a straw is a must-have, consider carrying a reusable one from home. There are lots of durable options, including stainless steel, glass and bamboo.
Bring your own ______. Straws aren't the only reusables you can carry with you. Simply fill in the blank with whatever BYO item you need. For instance, bring your own utensils and cloth napkin for munching on the go. Use them for meals at work, too. Some takeout places and college cafeterias even let you bring your own reusable serving containers, allowing you to bypass the Styrofoam or plastic to-go options available there. Better yet, carry your own healthy meals from home using a reusable bag or stainless steel tiffin. Avoid disposable plastic beverage bottles and cups by carrying your own refillable water bottle. Coffee shop lovers can bring their own mugs instead of using throwaways.
If you already know these tricks, dig deeper with this video about ways to reduce and reuse when you're out and about.
Enjoy ice cream in a cone. It's a small thing, but it means one less plastic or Styrofoam container you have to chuck.
Don't accept free promotional items. Giveaways at concerts, trade shows and festivals may seem enticing in the moment, but if you don't really need another beverage holder, lanyard or refrigerator magnet, don't take any home. Chances are they'll just collect dust and ultimately end up in the trash.
Don't take the bag when shopping. And be vocal about it so the next person in line will stop and think about it, too. Bring your own reusable shopping bags instead.
Shave sustainably. Wean yourself off throwaway plastic razors (2 billion are ditched each year in the U.S.), and opt for reusable metal razors with double-edge blades, a straight-edge razor or an electric razor.
Buy fresh bread at the local bakery rather than plastic-wrapped bread. Carry it home in a reusable bread bag. Likewise, visit a local butcher and bring meat home in your own container or bag. Expand your package-free shopping to include cheese, veggies, honey, eggs and as many other foods as you can.
Forgo plastic-wrapped bread from the grocery store. Instead, opt for fresh bakery bread wrapped in your own reusable bread bag. (Photo: Roman Kraft/Wikimedia Commons)
Don't purchase single-serve items. If you do occasionally need packaged goods, be sure to buy bigger sizes with the smallest amount of packaging, and avoid buying individually wrapped items like gum or granola bars. One large box, bag or bottle creates less waste than several smaller ones.
Buy in bulk. Co-ops, farmers markets and locally owned grocery stores often let you fill your own reusable glass jars, bottles and cloth produce bags with bigger amounts so they last longer — everything from berries to olive oil to shampoo and laundry soap. Check here for stores in your state that allow bulk purchases.
Refill instead of tossing. Be sure to use the same containers over and over again when shopping. Other creative possibilities include using refillable K-cups for your coffee instead of disposables, joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) subscription service that offers milk in returnable glass bottles, and frequenting craft breweries that let you to refill glass bottles called growlers.
Make your own. DIY household products, like cleaners, toothpaste, sunscreens and shampoos, are fairly easy to whip up at home and store in refillable containers. They're mostly chemical-free so they're healthier than store-bought versions, and are usually easier on your budget, too.
This video will get you started.
Use wool dryer balls instead of single-use dryer sheets. Not only do they last for years, but they're not saturated with harmful chemicals. Dryer balls work by tumbling around and separating layers of fabric so air can circulate. Clothes dry faster and come out softer and less staticky. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil for fragrance. You can buy pre-made wool dryer balls or create your own.
Opt for plastic-free storage. That means no baggies, cling wrap or Tupperware, all of which can leach toxins into food and are slow to biodegrade in landfills. Instead, store food in eco-friendly containers, including glass Snapware, reusable silicone bags, stainless steel tiffins, or reusable food wraps made of jojoba oil, hemp and beeswax.
Forgo household paper products. Discarded paper accounts for whopping one-quarter of landfill waste and releases significant amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) as it rots. Even if you choose recycled paper products, they're still fossil-fuel-intensive to produce and transport. The idea is to curb paper use as much as possible, which has the added benefit of reducing deforestation. Instead of facial tissues, carry reusable cloth handkerchiefs, swap out paper towels for cloth kitchen towels and rags, use cloth napkins instead of paper, store documents digitally, and read books and magazines on an e-reader, online or at the library instead of buying hard copies.
Go for some toilet re-training. When it comes to taming your paper habit, you may draw the line at toilet paper. But that doesn't mean there aren't ways to tame paper waste when you've got to go. If you really want to go paper-free, consider installing a bidet, which strategically sprays a small stream of water where you'd ordinarily wipe. If you just can't imagine potty time without paper at least buy 100-percent recycled brands, preferably wrapped in paper (not plastic). Or try tree-free bio-based alternatives made of things like bamboo and sugar cane.
Say no to disposable chopsticks and toothpicks. An estimated 20 million trees are chopped each year to meet demand for single-use chopsticks, most of which end up being discarded right after a meal. Add in wooden toothpicks (not to mention Popsicle sticks and matchsticks) and you have a whole lot of trees coming down and wood piling up in landfills. The good news is most of these items come in reusable versions.
Instead of throwing things out, give them away. Don't dispose of stuff you no longer need (even things like a broken radio or an outdated phone). List them on sites like Freecycle or the Buy Nothing Project. Or donate them to a thrift store or nonprofit group that sends used items to people in need around the world. It's a great way to make sure stuff is reused again and again.
Fix, don't throw away. This old-school idea is enjoying a resurgence as repair cafes spring up around the world. The concept is simple: Instead of dumping a broken toaster, laptop, vacuum cleaner or lamp, learn to do what earlier generations did as a matter of course — make them work again.
Attend a repair café to give broken household items another (and another and another) chance at life. (Photo: Karen Blakeman/Flickr)
Trim waste during the holidays — and all year long. During the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, U.S. household waste balloons by more than 25 percent, mostly in the form of shopping bags, product packaging, wrapping paper and leftover food. Get a handle on that trash by following the low-waste shopping and meal-time tips above. Additional ideas include sending e-cards instead of paper, giving no-waste experience gifts like a class or concert, and making your own gifts wrapped in sustainable alternatives like cloth bags, silk scarves or newspaper.