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Is a Plastic-Free Lifestyle Possible? Tips for Reducing Your Plastic Footprint

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14 min read
Summary

Plastic is a great example of a technological solution that created an even bigger problem. Plastic is cheap, versatile, useful, and convenient. And over the past hundred years, it’s changed our lives in ways almost too fundamental to register. But what are the costs to our health and to the environment? If you want to reduce the amount of plastic in your life (and in your body), where do you start, and how do you go about it?

Can you imagine going plastic-free? A life without plastic? In many ways, it’s the signature material of modern civilization. Plastic appears in our buildings, appliances, tools, computers, utensils, containers, athletic equipment, toys, games, art supplies, and clothing. It protects our produce and covers our leftovers. It allows us to transport and store cleaning supplies, skincare products, and beverages.

And it gets into our bodies, often through the water we drink and the food we eat. In 2019, a study by WWF International concluded we consume the equivalent of one credit card in plastic a week, with plastic infused drinking water and shellfish being the biggest culprits. The study also found that the average American, every ten years, consumes more than 5 pounds of plastic.

Plastic is everywhere because it’s so useful. The word means “pliable and easily shaped,” which is exactly what excited its inventors. Plastic can be molded into just about any shape; the only natural materials that can do the same are clay and glass. And they’re heavy, fragile, and labor-intensive to mold.

The first plastics were seen as environmental good guys. Celluloid, invented in 1869, met the demand for billiard balls that didn’t require the slaughter of elephants for their ivory tusks.

Over the ensuing decades, chemists searched for more miracle materials that could liberate humankind from its need to plunder nature. The first fully synthetic plastic, containing no molecules found in nature, was created in 1907. Bakelite (a much friendlier word than its chemical name, polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride) replaced shellac (a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand) as insulation for the growing electrical industry.

The plastic frenzy continued, with new formulations of polymers entering the industrial supply chain every few years. Now, as a result, we’re a world awash in plastic. Except instead of saving the world from human need and greed, our plastic proliferation now threatens to destroy biodiversity and poison the very environment we thought we were protecting. Not to mention what it’s doing to our bodies and our health.

In 2020, a team led by Emily Elhacham, at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, concluded that we now have nine gigatons of plastic on the planet — more than double the combined weight of all the animals on earth.

Why We Need to Reduce Our Plastic Usage

woman cleaning microplastics from sand
iStock.com/DisobeyArt

It’s so ubiquitous, it’s actually hard to conceive of a plastic-free life. Sadly, just when we all should be taking active measures to eliminate single-use plastics from our lives, the pandemic has dramatically increased their use. Masks and gloves, supermarkets requiring customers to use throwaway plastic shopping bags rather than bring their own, and the proliferation of take-out and prepared meals are all putting additional strain on the world.

Yet, if we don’t significantly reduce our dependence on plastic, especially single-use plastic that constitutes 50% of the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year, we face a future of increasing environmental degradation and compromised health.

Plastic doesn’t break down like other organic waste. Instead, it turns into microplastics. Some of these are eaten by tiny fish and travel up the food chain. Plastic waste kills up to a million seabirds, one hundred thousand sea mammals, marine turtles, and countless fish each year. Of course, this affects humans, too.  The 2019 WWF International study found that over a lifetime, Americans today each consume about 20kg (44 lb) of microplastic.

Plastic used for packaging also has deeply concerning endocrine-disrupting and carcinogenic effects. Packaging often contains BPA and other compounds, leaving us with a lot to be concerned about.

Since we really do have a lot to be concerned about, I want to focus this article on solutions. If you want to know more about how plastic harms your health and the environment, check out our in-depth article, “Why It’s Time to Move Beyond Plastic.” If you’d prefer a technically-written scientific article that uses words like “increased adiposity” to mean “putting on fat,” check out this 2011 “Public health impacts of plastics” overview from the Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

While it may be hard to go 100% plastic-free, we can each take steps to reduce our plastic footprint with innovative approaches to food, personal care, and cleaning. Meanwhile, a more environmentally intelligent science is looking to innovate new substances that biodegrade in a safe way.

Reducing Plastic Outside the Home

plastic vs non-plastic, cotton grocery bags
iStock.com/Amax Photo

While it may seem like we have little to no control over our use of plastic outside our homes, there are actually a number of things we can do to significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce.

Buying groceries

Many fruits and veggies are sold in plastic bags or with plastic wrap over plastic or cardboard boxes. If possible, buy loose produce and place it in reusable produce bags. You can find organic cotton bags, or if you want to splurge, consider silicone bags. They can cost a dollar or two per small bag when bought in a set, and upwards of $20 for a half-gallon-sized bag, but can last a LONG time and are washable. They’re also see-through, like plastic, so you won’t have to guess what’s inside them.

If silicone bags aren’t your bag (pun intended), you can also reuse the regular plastic produce bags instead of throwing them in the garbage. Just rinse and dry them between uses. (You can also go down a deep arts and crafts rabbit hole by searching for “DIY plastic bag drying rack.”)

For fragile produce like berries and tomatoes, you can use recycled paper containers, paper bags, or store them in see-through glass containers with plastic lids.

You can also shop at establishments that don’t rely so heavily on plastic packagings, such as farmers markets, U-pick farms, and CSAs. More and more stores are offering zero-waste options for shopping (if you’re in the US, here’s a searchable directory for such stores near you).

In addition, many of the companies that deliver produce boxes use cardboard, which is recyclable, rather than plastic. And of course, the best answer is almost always (drum roll, please)… to grow your own in a backyard food garden. Or on your kitchen sink (see our article about growing sprouts in your kitchen, here).

Bagging groceries

When bagging your groceries, you have a few options other than disposable plastic bags. You can ask for paper bags, if the store carries them, which you can reuse, recycle, or even shred and compost for your garden. Paper bags are not an ideal solution, as their manufacture creates even more pollution than plastic, and uses trees, which should be left alone to absorb carbon, provide us with oxygen to breathe, and fight climate change. You can also keep some reusable bags in your car (or bike basket, if that’s how you roll) and bring them into the market.

Be aware that as of this writing, some stores are prohibiting personal bags for fear of spreading COVID-19. When Trader Joe’s doesn’t allow outside bags, they give you the option of returning all the food to your shopping cart so you can bag it yourself outside. Some stores, like Costco, offer cardboard boxes for carrying your haul from the checkout counter to the parking lot.

Packaging

Woman filling a glass container in the bulk foods section of a store
iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Even if you put all your shopping into reusable, organic hemp bags grown on the south side of a mountain and in the shadow of a vegan Zen monastery, you’ve still got to deal with the fact that most packaged items use plastic.

When buying liquids or spreads, look for options that come in glass rather than plastic. You should be able to find glass jars of tomato sauce, jam, salsa, and nut butters, among other things.

For dried goods such as pasta, beans, grains, and mixes, look for paper or cardboard packaging. If possible, shop at stores with bulk bins and bring your own reusable bags or containers for nuts, seeds, grains, dried legumes, cereal mixes, and dried fruit. Since you’ll be paying by weight, you need to subtract the weight of the container from the full weight of the container and the contents you’re buying. The simplest way to do this is to weigh the container while empty (this is called the “tare” weight), and make note of the weight so the cashier can subtract it from what you just filled it with.

Some brands have made a strong commitment to reducing their plastic footprint. If you like their products, consider becoming brand-loyal to these companies. Some names you may be familiar with include Loving Earth, No Evil Foods, Numi Tea, and Eden Foods.

The gold star approach here is to reduce your reliance on packaged goods as much as possible. You can easily make your own pickles, plant-based milk, dairy-free yogurt (VitaClay makes a mostly plastic-free yogurt maker), sauces, dips, condiments, and spreads. Not only are they better for the environment, but they’ll also be much tastier, and can be a fun, family-friendly project. Just make sure to store your creations in glass jars and use them up before they go bad.

Receipts

You might not think about paper receipts as a source of plastic, but since retail point-of-sale registers switched to thermal paper (that thin, slippery stuff that you can’t read 20 minutes after it was printed), you’re getting a dose of harmful BPA coating with every transaction. If you need a receipt, ask if they have a digital option. If you don’t need a receipt, let the cashier know as soon as they start ringing you up.

Restaurants

Plastic-free utensils and drinkware
iStock.com/Evgeniia Siiankovskaia

Here are some tips to help you cut down on packaging at restaurants. This is especially important if you are ordering take-out.

Straws

If you get a take-out drink, it probably comes with a plastic straw. Or several. While straw bans have been criticized for focusing on such a small part of the plastic problem (and for shaming individual consumers rather than the industrial giants who manufacture the stuff), it turns out that single-use plastic straws are in fact a significant part of the plastic waste problem, with an average of half a billion used — and tossed — each day in the US.

The solution is to specify no straw when you place your order. If you really want one, then see if they have paper straws. Or you can bring your own reusable straw, made of stainless steel or glass.

Coffee Cups

If you frequent coffee shops, see if they can put your drink in a reusable coffee cup that you bring with you. You can get a stainless steel thermos, a glass, or a mug. If they won’t fill yours, ask them to omit a plastic lid to avoid the waste. If they aren’t able to do that, then pour a hot drink into your container as soon as possible. You’ll want to keep the hot beverages from touching the plastic lid, which will leach nasty chemicals into the beverage.

Take-Out

Whenever possible, bring your own take-out containers to the restaurant, and ask the kitchen or wait staff to fill them for you. You can find such containers made of stainless steel, silicone (these collapsible ones are super convenient on the go), and glass. Here’s an article about food storage container recommendations.

Say no to plastic utensils when you order to-go, especially if you’re going to eat at home. For deliveries, many food apps allow you to choose “no utensils” to save on unnecessary single-use plastic. (As of this writing, many vendors still provide plastic utensils whether you want them or not. Beyond Plastics sponsored a petition asking delivery services’ default to be no added utensils unless requested. To sign the petition, click here.).

When you eat out, you can plan ahead and bring your own utensils (here’s a reusable bamboo travel set and some other options, including the famous spork), or keep a few packs of reusable chopsticks in your “glove” compartment.

Non-Food Shopping

When shopping for household, craft, or gift items, or apparel, bring your own shopping bags. You can use the same ones you bring to the supermarket or get sturdier and more fashionable tote bags. It can help to buy local rather than ordering online, to reduce the plastic shipping materials and other transportation costs. If you can source the item you’re looking for from an artisan market, craft fair, or small local business — bonus points! Handmade items are less likely to use plastic in their designs or packaging. And finally, consider shopping at (and donating goods to) thrift stores or making your own gifts. The craftier you become, the less plastic you use.

Reducing Plastic at Home

Woman making almond milk in a blender
iStock.com/Tatiana Chudakova

Reducing single-use plastic consumption outside the home can keep mountains of trash out of our landfills, oceans, and rivers. But if we want to protect ourselves from the ill effects of plastic on our individual health, we also have to pay attention to all the ways plastic can get into our bodies — even in our own homes. We have treated our oceans and rivers like garbage dumps, with the result that even wild fish can be heavily contaminated.  (And farmed fish is often worse.)

We can absorb toxic plastic in our food and beverages, as well as through personal care products. In general, the biggest problem is heat. When plastic comes into contact with hot food and drink, chemicals leach out of the plastic and can wind up in the body of whoever consumes the food or drink.

Appliances

Many appliances put plastic in contact with hot food. Consider investing in appliances that use safer materials in their construction.

Blenders

Blenders and coffee makers are two prime culprits. Many blenders have plastic containers because they’re shatterproof, and can handle the blades spinning at high speeds. While this might be OK for a frozen dessert or cold smoothie, it’s not a good idea to blend a hot soup or sauce in a plastic container. There are some brands and models that use glass containers, such as these. Vitamix also recently came out with a pricey but effective stainless steel container. Most Vitamix containers are made with a BPA-free Tritan copolymer. While this is an improvement over almost all other forms of plastic, BPA-free may not be helpful when it comes to avoiding estrogenic plastics. For blending hot soups, consider using a stainless steel immersion blender, like this one.

Coffee Makers

Coffee makers, likewise, pose the problem of plastic touching a hot liquid. Many drip coffee makers — the most popular at-home coffee appliances — use plastic parts. Here are a few coffee makers that use stainless steel and/or glass in place of plastic:

Electric Cookers

Electric cookers of various kinds can bring plastic into contact with heat. Most rice cookers, for example, have some form of plastic, non-stick surface on the cooker insert. This Aroma Rice Cooker is one of a few with a non-coated stainless steel interior.

Multi-cookers, which combine the functionality of pressure cookers, slow cookers, rice cookers, and so on, can also be a source of heat-transferred plastic chemicals in your food. Look for brands like Instant Pot, which offers stainless steel containers that are not non-stick coated. Likewise, VitaClay cookers don’t have the food touch plastic either, opting for a stoneware surface to come in contact with the cooking food.

Dishwashers

Dishwashers are also a source of plastic contamination if you aren’t careful. The two simple rules to prevent heated plastic particles from aerosolizing in the steam of a dishwasher cycle are: don’t put plastic in the dishwasher, and use plastic-free dishwashing soap. All plastic utensils, cups, and containers should be hand washed if reused, especially if you normally use a heated cycle in the dishwasher for washing or drying. And to replace those plastic dishwasher tabs that have become so popular, you can use liquid dishwasher soap, or Ecover makes a variety of dishwasher detergent tabs that come in a cardboard box.

If it’s time to replace your dishwasher, or you’re wanting to get one, look for a model with a stainless steel interior. Not only will this eliminate plastic leaching into the water and air, but they are quieter, and their drying cycles are quicker and therefore, more energy-efficient.

Refrigerators

For your next refrigerator, look for a stainless steel variety with glass rather than plastic shelves. These models are more expensive, but can actually be cheaper in the long run due to the longevity of stainless steel and glass vs plastic.

Plant Milk Making Supplies

Although not as common as some of the other kitchen appliances mentioned, you may want the option to reduce plastic waste by making your own plant-based milk. Most milk containers contain at least some plastic (including Tetra Pak cartons, which have polyethylene layers). And while there are a few brands that do offer old-fashioned glass bottles, like Los Angeles-based Mylkman, they’re not common.

Fortunately, there are plastic-free solutions to making your own plant-based milk at home. You can do the manual soaking, blending, and straining technique, which utilizes a blender and nut milk bag (choose cotton or hemp to avoid any plastic), or the faster and easier solution: a nut milk maker. Almond Cow offers a stainless steel plant-based milk maker. It can whip up five to six cups of milk from the nut, seed, legume or whole grain of your choice with the press of a button. They also offer glass milk bottles to store your homemade milk in. Check it out here. (Use the code FOODREVOLUTION for a special discount.)

Kitchen Tools

An easy and inexpensive way to reduce your exposure to plastic is by also replacing plastic utensils and kitchen tools. Look for stainless steel, silicone, or wooden spatulas, spoons, tongs, and measuring cups. They can significantly reduce the number of times your food comes into contact with plastic.

Food Storage

Stainless steel food storage container with fruit (plastic-free)
iStock.com/Liubov Gorosko

Food storage is another low hanging fruit when it comes to minimizing plastic. Since the age of Tupperware parties, people have been storing their produce and leftovers in plastic containers with “burpable” lids. While eliminating plastic entirely is ideal, if that’s not possible for you, then prioritize storing warm and hot foods in non-plastic containers. There are high-quality stainless sets, and lots of glass containers. These latter food storage containers often have snap-on plastic lids, but I think they’re pretty safe as long as the food has cooled down before you seal them, and the food doesn’t come into contact with the lid.

Alternatively, some people use cotton impregnated with beeswax as a moldable lid. For vegans who don’t use beeswax, here is a good range of vegan beeswax wrap analogs.

Other plastic-free ways of storing food include reusable pouches made of silicone or cotton, Furoshiki wraps (which you can use for gifts, or to wrap sandwiches and other transportable meals), and cotton bowl covers.

Personal Care Items

As you’ve no doubt heard many times before, your skin is your largest organ. And it’s the one that has the most constant contact with your environment. Your skin has evolved over millions of years to deal appropriately with the materials around you. Some get absorbed, and others get rejected. But the synthetic polymers that make up the various kinds of plastic in our environment can fool our skin’s gatekeeper function, allowing harmful substances into our body. That’s why it’s so ideal to avoid personal care and beauty products that come in plastic containers.

Whenever possible, choose lotions, shampoos, conditioners, pastes, and creams in glass or recycled paper packaging. If you can’t find a brand you like, try making your own. DIY versions of lotions and toothpastes are easy to find online and can be made from common household ingredients like oils and baking soda. Here’s a homemade toothpaste recipe to get you started. (Disclaimer: It may be advisable to consult with your dentist before making changes to your oral hygiene routine.)

Menstrual products are another example of plastics — and even worse chemicals such as dioxins — coming into contact with body parts, not in a good way. The average menstrual pad contains as much plastic as four supermarket shopping bags, as well as other hormone disruptors. You can replace pads and tampons with reusable cotton fabric pads or menstrual cups made of food-grade silicone (Both are available for sale, or you can DIY your own fabric pads). Keep in mind that there is a chance of developing toxic shock syndrome with the menstrual cups, just as with tampons, if they aren’t emptied and cleaned frequently enough.

Cleaning Supplies

It’s ironic that the very products we depend on to clean our homes contribute so much pollution, both to our homes themselves and to the landfills where the empty containers end up. You can eliminate single-use plastic containers by making your own cleaning products, including bar soap, all-purpose spray cleaner, and laundry detergent.  You can also find plastic-free sponges and cleaning brushes.

Some companies, such as Supernatural, eliminate waste by selling cleaning products in refillable glass bottles. And some brands even offer refills for their cleaning products, so you can continuously reuse the provided bottle and further reduce waste. One such company, MyGreenFills, offers a non-toxic, multi-purpose, everyday cleaner available for online subscription purchase, as well as an array of additional home cleaning products. As of the writing of this article, they’re offering 63% off and free refills with every order — no subscription required. Check it out, here.

Going Mostly Plastic-Free

No plastic is fantastic paper bags
iStock.com/nito100

While it may seem daunting, you do have the power to go mostly, if not totally, plastic-free. I recommend scanning the suggestions in this article again and looking for the one or two changes you can make that will have the biggest impact on your plastic consumption. Maybe it’s finding a couple of brands of zero-waste laundry or dishwasher tablets. Perhaps buying a set of containers to replace all the plastic take-out packaging you now toss within 20 minutes of eating. And then look for the next swap. Apply the 80-20 rule, and aim to eliminate 80% of the plastic from your life with 20% of the effort or sacrifice.

Or, if you feel sufficiently motivated (perhaps by a combination of personal self-interest and environmental concern), go all the way. Sometimes it may require more research, or a small upfront investment in reusable products or DIY versions. But don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Start where you are. You don’t have to get rid of all the plastic in your life at once. Every step you take in that direction is better for both your health and the environment.

Tell us in the comments:

  • What information in this article surprised you the most?
  • What’s one simple thing you can do to use less plastic in your life?
  • What do you already have in your kitchen or home that you can use differently to reduce plastic waste?

Feature image: iStock.com/powerofforever