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bulk foods in jars alongside vegetables

There’s no shortage of plastic-free blog posts out there, but many of them can seem daunting or overwhelming—either because the list is so long (100 ways to go plastic-free) or because the suggestions on the list might seem unrealistic (make your own clothes). 

This post, by contrast, is intended to provide a digestible and actionable list of extremely easy ways to reduce the use of plastic (and especially single-use plastic) at home and in your everyday life.

And one of the takeaways should be that you don’t necessarily have to buy a ton of new stuff. The most significant step in reducing personal plastic use is shifting habits.

1. Bring Reusable Shopping Bags

A plastic grocery bag takes more than 500 years to degrade (not decompose, mind you, just degrade into microplastics). You’ve seen them flapping in tree branches and tumble-weeding down sidewalks. It’s long overdue we cut these plastic monstrosities out of use, and thankfully a good number of municipalities and even states around the U.S. are starting to implement plastic bag bans.

Reusable shopping bags are relatively cheap. Admittedly, the hardest part of this action item is remembering to bring them to the store. But once you’ve developed the habit, you’re home-free. Keep them in your car, or keep one stuffed in the bottom of your tote bag, and you’ll always be good to go.

Most grocery stores now sell branded reusable bags, or you could get some like these organic cotton bags from Simple Ecology (more on organic cotton later).

2. Get an insulated reusable coffee mug

This action item, too, is about developing the habit. But when you consider all the single-use plastic lids on the coffee cups you’re getting, it’s clearly worth investing in a travel mug and getting in the habit of bringing it with you. (Many coffee shops even offer a discount if you bring your own mug.) 

You can find cheap travel mugs, but we do recommend spending the extra few dollars to get a steel and insulated one. While there may be plastic included in its construction, the iconic Hydroflasks are durable and will last years, much unlike the single-use lids.

Find one on Hydro Flask’s website, where they appear to be cheaper than on Amazon or elsewhere.

3. Quit drinking bottled water

We’re generally realists when it comes to plastic-free lifestyle choices. Some people have the financial means to invest in glass alternatives, some don’t. Some have a yard to compost food waste in, some don’t. 

But when it comes to plastic bottled water, we’re frankly a little confounded. What’s the deal? It’s 2021. Stop it. 

Just stop it. 

Get a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap. Here’s one of the most popular stainless steel bottles.

And, if you’re concerned about tap water quality where you live, here’s our review of the different brands of countertop gravity water filters.

4. Choose plastic-free clothes with natural fibers

From polyester and nylon to spandex and acrylic, synthetic materials derived from petroleum abound in today’s clothing. It’s no wonder the fashion industry is grappling with issues of sustainability. Avoid buying clothes with plastic and synthetic fibers, and, if you need new clothing, opt instead for clothing made of natural fibers (cotton or wool).

Of course, a caveat here: sustainability issues in clothing are not just about plastic fibers and microfiber pollution. Cotton, as it’s conventionally grown, uses high amounts of pesticides and is one of the most water-intensive crops out there. It takes more than 700 gallons of water to produce a single t-shirt.

So, it’s good to prefer used clothing over new clothing, and organic cotton clothing over conventionally grown cotton clothes. There are also plenty of companies out there that offer recycled cotton clothing and even recycled wool clothing. Often, though, these recycled fiber clothes contain synthetics, too, so look carefully at the materials list. In some cases, if you can’t find it used, it may be better to buy a 100% wool sweater new than a “recycled wool sweater” with 30% acrylic.

After searching your thrift stores (online or in person), here’s just a very partial list of brands with good options for natural fiber or recycled fiber clothing: Toad&Co, prAna, pact, and more.

5. Get foods in bulk (with reusable containers)

More and more grocery stores and coops have bulk sections now. These are your friend. It’s cheaper, whether you’re buying rice or peanuts or olive oil. Just be sure that you’re bringing your own reusable containers to fill, instead of using the plastic bags most stores provide. 

We like these glass bottles for liquids, these glass spice jars for spices, and glass jars like these for pantry staples. Of course, the bulk section is a good opportunity to reuse plastic containers you already have that may otherwise get tossed. And if you don’t want to buy on Amazon, The Container Store has good options.

6. Make your own green cleaning products and use glass bottles

From wiping kitchen counters to cleaning bathrooms, most households really go through the plastic spray bottles. Add in the toxic nature of many cleaning products, and there’s plenty of incentive to find green alternatives to common cleaning products, and to reuse bottles or get glass bottles.

A number of companies have been born to address this issue. The basic model is that you get reusable glass spray bottles and concentrate or tablets, to which you add water and mix in the bottle. The cleaning product itself is eco-friendly and you’re reusing glass spray bottles instead of cycling through a bunch of plastic ones.

One of the best options is Blueland.

7. Stop chewing gum

Gum is made of synthetic, petroleum-based materials, specifically polyethylene. That’s plastic. Gum is made of plastic. There’s no reason to chew on plastic. (Looking at you, kid in geometry class chewing on your pen cap.)

8. Avoid frozen foods

While they are “convenient,” frozen foods are packaged in a ton of plastic. Even the cardboard used to package them is coated in plastic. Quitting frozen foods—or avoiding whenever possible—also has the added benefit of reducing your consumption of processed foods and support of the behemoth food giants.

9. Reuse plastic

To my mind, too much emphasis in plastic-free circles is placed on eliminating plastic from households. Out of sight, out of mind, it seems to go. But if you already own a bunch of clothing with spandex in it, don’t throw it away or donate it simply because you’re trying to go plastic-free (but do be mindful of how often you wash it, because washing releases microplastics). If you already own a bunch of plastic Tupperware containers for leftovers, there’s no need to toss them.

The whole point is to reuse what you already have and to be mindful of your choices and your consumption moving forward. Remember that producing alternatives to plastic, whether glass bottles or organic cotton clothing, also requires immense inputs of energy and resources. Be thoughtful, do what you can, and think holistically!

Bonus note: Let’s all be honest up front. There’s no way to live an entirely plastic-free life and still participate in modern society. Anyone who says otherwise is engaging in a delightful form of Plastic NIMBYism, ignoring all manufacturing plants, and transportation systems, and cloud servers, and on and on. 

It sucks, but it’s reality, and it’s important to understand—and incorporate into one’s worldview—that personal lifestyle choices cannot by themselves change systemic issues. But they can help, and they can help influence public awareness and public opinion on critical issues, like the terrors of plastic! 

So don’t get overwhelmed, but do do what you can!

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