Did you know that every year, in 2018 alone, volunteers collected more than 23 million pounds of trash during the International Coastal Cleanup on beaches around the word? More and more people are figuring out creative ways to reduce plastic use — so that it never creates waste in the first place!
You may have heard the adage "reduce, reuse, and recycle," but it’s even simpler than it sounds. A few small changes to your daily habits can quickly add up to less plastic waste.
You can swap everyday items for more sustainable choices, like bags at the grocery store or toothpaste containers. After all, plastic waste is a human concern, which means we can contribute to the solution. Reducing plastic use is not only easy but great for the earth.
Why Is Plastic Bad?
Many people avoid plastic for various reasons, primarily for health and the environment. Plastic contains chemicals that can be harmful to human health. Moreover, it requires unsustainable fossil fuels to create it, releasing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.[2, 3] This release makes the climate warmer, causing global changes to weather patterns, storms, and serious risks to public health.
Plastic does not easily break down or biodegrade, which means you create hundreds of years of plastic trash for just a few minutes of use — especially for single-use plastics like straws, water bottles, or grocery bags. And when it does break down into tinier and tinier pieces, the chemicals leach into the soil and then get back into the food chain.
How Does Plastic Hurt the Environment?
Even though there’s plastic recycling, a lot of plastic ends up as garbage. More than 26 million tons of plastic went into U.S. landfills in 2017.[1, 6] Trash often flies out of garbage trucks — it does not always end up in the dump. Some of this plastic garbage gets into waterways where it makes its way to the ocean. The top 10 most-collected items during beach cleanups are plastic. There's so much oceanic trash that we have giant floating islands where plastics have accumulated — like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastic pollution is hard to get rid of because it sticks around for so long. Plastic breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastic. Some companies even make products with tiny plastics inside — avoid buying facial and body cleaners containing microbeads because these are plastic. They wash down the drain and out to waterways!
Making plastic also uses a lot of unsustainable fossil fuels. Up to 17 million barrels of oil were required to produce all the bottled water that Americans drink in a year. Imagine how much energy it takes to create all the disposable plastic bags, coffee cups, and take out containers around the world?
How Do Plastics Harm Human Health?
Plastics harm human health in various ways. Many plastic products can contain Bisphenol A (BPA), and phthalates, both endocrine-disrupting chemicals.[8, 9, 10, 11] Phthalates and BPA can leach out of plastic and into food, potentially harming still-growing children as well as adult reproductive health.[9, 11]
Choose products that do not contribute to your body's toxin load, like glass, steel, or organic cloth. Don’t get sidetracked by companies saying their products are "BPA free" because many of the alternatives have been found equally harmful.
Easy Ways to Reduce Plastic
Living without plastic waste is not hard, especially if you make just one or two changes at a time. Try these nine strategies to reduce waste, avoid harmful chemicals, and save money! Your choices will make a big difference.
Remember that you don’t have to make changes overnight. Let’s look at how you can start building a life without plastic.
1. Use Reusable Water Bottles & Coffee Mugs
It only takes a few minutes to drink a bottle of water or enjoy an almond milk latte, but that plastic bottle or cup could take hundreds of years to break down in a dump — or end up in the ocean.
If you stop for coffee on your way to work, try keeping a mug in your bag and take for your drink in a personal cup. Some places will even give you a few cents off your order!
The same goes for staying hydrated: make sure you have a reusable bottle to fill up at water fountains instead of buying bottled water. Opt for reusable glass or stainless steel bottles rather than plastic.
2. Swap Plastic Bags for Reusable Bags
Bring your own bags! At the grocery store, try shopping for produce without single-use plastic bags. You can either keep your fruits and vegetables loose or use reusable mesh or cloth bags.
When you’re ready to check out, pack your groceries into hemp or organic cotton shopping bags. They’re reusable and much less likely to tear. Each reusable bag helps eliminate hundreds of single-use plastic bags! Your small effort makes a big difference in waste reduction.
It might help you remember your bags if you keep them folded up in the backseat or trunk of your car — rather than at home. Or find one of those fold-up ones that you can pack in your purse, if you have one.
3. Pack Your Own Gear
It’s helpful to carry a set of silverware and a cloth napkin in your purse or briefcase. A fork, knife, and spoon are small enough that they don’t take up much space, but they have a big impact. You’ll never have to use another plastic fork!
Get matching bamboo or other travel cutlery sets for your family so everyone can reduce waste when eating out.
If you’re ready to go the extra mile, ask your office, community center, or place of worship to invest in silverware, glasses, and cloth napkins that can be used during events. It will save money and help the planet!
4. Stop Using Plastic Straws
Drinking straws are one of the most commonly collected items during beach cleanups. Most people don’t have to use straws, so they’re easy to cut out of your life. Instead of a straw in your iced coffee or tea, just forgo a lid and drink from the cup.
Better yet, bring your reusable coffee mug — you’ll be able to drink on the go without spilling or wasting a plastic straw.
If you have to use a straw for a health condition, try a reusable stainless steel, silicone, or bamboo one.
5. Shop the Bulk Sections at Your Grocery Store
Buying items like beans, rice, nuts, and seeds in bulk can reduce waste, including plastic packaging. You don't have to use the plastic bags the stores provide. Make your bulk food use more environmentally friendly by bringing your own container. Try a glass jar, upcycled coffee can, or something else.
Some stores even have freshly ground nut butter stations, where you can grind your own straight into the container you bring — yum!
If your grocery store doesn’t have a bulk section, you can reduce waste (and save money) by buying large packages of items, like cooking oil or cleaning solutions. You can then refill smaller containers, rather than buying lots of small ones. Look for food packaging that minimizes waste, and recycle what you can.
6. Make Your Own Toothpaste!
Most toothpaste tubes are made of multiple types of plastic and metal, so they’re not recyclable. To avoid that waste, make your own toothpaste at home with these easy recipes. To make zero-waste mint toothpaste, you only have three ingredients: baking soda, organic peppermint essential oil, and water.
If you want to brighten your smile naturally, try our turmeric toothpaste recipe. You can store your DIY toothpaste in a large glass jar. Take a small amount with you if you’re traveling — you don’t have to buy travel-sized toothpaste tubes.
7. Keep Reusable Containers Nearby
Plastic-free living is more convenient if your reusable containers are easy to access, so make sure you keep them in your purse, car, or at your office — all the places you spend time. That way, you’ll never have to use a disposable container while you’re on the go.
Try bringing a reusable glass container next time you go out to eat, instead of using a restaurant’s disposable ones. Although glass is a little bit heavier, it’s more durable and doesn’t contain harmful chemicals.
8. Swap Plastic Wrap for Plant-Based Wrap
Plastic wrap is a convenient way to cover up food, but it’s wasteful — you can only use it once, and it’s not recyclable. Instead, try a reusable plant-based wrap.
Plant-based wraps are pieces of reusable cloth that have been dipped in plant waxes, beeswax, or tree resin to make them pliable and slightly sticky, just like plastic wrap. You can use the plant-based wraps multiple times on leftovers, prepared meals, and other food products, so you’re not contributing to plastic pollution or food waste.
9. Dine-In Instead of Getting Food To-Go
When you get takeout at a restaurant, it gets packed up into multiple containers, many of which are plastic or styrofoam. They go right in the trash. Instead, eat at the restaurant so that you don’t generate any unnecessary food waste — or plastic garbage.
If you do want takeout, see if your favorite restaurants will let you bring a container for the food. Then you can order ahead and bring the food home in reusable containers. You get the convenience without the waste.
Points to Remember
Single-use plastic causes pollution all around the world, impacting both natural environments and our health. But there’s a lot you can do to decrease how much plastic you use. Simple changes to your habits make a big difference.
Start by carrying reusable containers when you go to a restaurant or coffee shop. Bring your leftovers home in a glass container, and ask for your coffee in a personal mug. Avoid getting takeout, and dine in instead.
Stop using straws, or carry a reusable silicone, stainless steel, or bamboo straw with you. You can also bring reusable cutlery when you go out. Shop in the bulk section to avoid packaging waste. Use mesh bags for fruits and vegetables and take your groceries home in cotton or hemp bags.
Try making your own toothpaste to avoid using non-recyclable plastic tubes. You can also try reusable plant-based wraps instead of single-use plastic wrap. Together we can make a difference!
- The Beach and Beyond. Ocean Conservancy. Updated September 2019. Accessed 11 March 2020.
- Climate Change: Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. Updated 3 Jan 2020. Accessed 16 Mar 2020.
- Climate Change. ToxTown, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Updated Oct 2019. Accessed 16 Mar 2020.
- Butler CD. Climate change, health and existential risks to civilization: a comprehensive review (1989–2013). Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Oct; 15(10): 2266.
- Geyer R, et al. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Sci Adv. 2017 Jul; 3(7): e1700782.
- Plastics: Material-Specific Data: Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Updated 30 Oct 2019;. Accessed 11 March 2020.
- Thompson RC, et al. Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Jul 27; 364(1526): 2153–2166.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) Factsheet. National Biomonitoring Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated 7 April 2017. Accessed 26 Feb 2020.
- Cantonwine DE, et al. Bisphenol A and human reproductive health. Expert Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2013 Jul 1;8(4):10.1586/17474108.2013.811939.
- Meeker JD, et al. Phthalates and other additives in plastics: human exposure and associated health outcomes. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Jul 27; 364(1526): 2097–2113.
- Endocrine Disruptors. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. Updated 5 March 2020. Accessed 11 March 2020.
- Moon MK. Concern about the safety of Bisphenol-A substitutes. Diabetes Metab J. 2019 Feb;43(1):46-48.
- Ten Ways to Unpackage Your Life. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed 24 Feb 2020.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.