You’ve likely heard that plastic waste is becoming a huge problem for our planet, but did you know that plastic can now be found in our food, water and even in the air we breathe?? Yep, there are plastics THAT small. Larger microplastics threaten entire marine ecosystems and cause tax-payers millions of dollars every year in clean-up costs. And to make things even more complicated, plastic production is set to double by the year 2040! It’s honestly hard to imagine life without plastic.
It’s Courtney here again (from McNaughts in the Wild) with more ideas on how to reduce the amount of plastic in your life. Last month we discussed “10 Zero Waste Kitchen Swaps” – definitely check that article out if you missed it – and this month we’re going to tackle some larger concepts + everyday life swaps to help you kick even more plastic to the curb!
* Here I am removing as much trash as I possibly could from this gorgeous coastline in Greece a couple of years ago 🙁
How To Use Less Plastic In Your Everyday Life
Recycling is NOT the Answer
If asked to recite the 4 R’s, what word would pop into your head first? If you’re like most people, you’d probably say “Recycle!” Many of us grew up reciting “Recycle, Reduce, Reuse,” the order of which seems to set recycling as priority numero uno.
Reality check: recycling is BROKEN! Did you know that only 9% of plastic gets recycled? It’s a complex issue, but the basic problem is that new plastic is cheaper to produce than recycled plastic. Since it’s more expensive, there’s just not much demand for recycled plastic so not many facilities in the US actually produce it. China used to accept almost all of the US’s recycling, but they’ve now stopped accepting it and we are stuck with mountains of plastic we don’t have the capacity to process. Recycling will not solve our plastic problems!
* Recycling facility in San Francisco – many recycling centers are totally overwhelmed with materials and are being forced to incinerate instead of recycle. (image source)
The 4-R Rule: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the new and improved R’s! You’ll notice that “reduce” is now first on the list, not “recycle.” Recycling is still important of course, but we need to attempt to reduce, refuse, and reuse plastic FIRST and save recycling as a last resort. Ok, let’s dive in to the details of what each of these new and improved R’s really mean…
Think of it this way – you need to “Marie Kwondo” the heck out of future purchases before they ever even end up in your literal or digital shopping cart! Ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” and “Will it truly bring me lasting joy?” before you let that item into your home! The vast majority of items we purchase in this country are either made of plastic (even most clothing is made of rayon, nylon or other plastic based, synthetic materials) or come packaged in plastic at some point (most food in grocery stores, cosmetics, toys, etc.) Slowing the flow of plastic into your life/home is a crucial first step.
***tip: reducing plastic doesn’t have to mean never buying anything new! Be more thoughtful with your purchases and invest in things you will really LOVE instead of throwing money away on cheaper items that will wear out or lose your interest quickly (I’m looking at you fast-fashion). If you really need something new, try shopping with a sustainable company (like Rothys or Christy Dawn) or give secondhand shopping a go (I love thredUP and Poshmark).
* wearing Christy Dawn at my sister’s wedding in May! Love this company <3
Just say NO to plastic the world tries to force on you! Swag bag at an event? NO! Plastic straw in your drink? HECK no! Plastic cup for water on the airplane? No thanks – brought my water bottle! Just last week my dentist tried to give us 3 separate plastic bags with plastic packaged, plastic toothbrushes/toothpaste/floss inside, guess what I said? NOPE. (check out this plastic-free toothpaste and floss and bamboo toothbrushes we use instead!) Just because something is free does not mean you have to accept it into your home/life. I love to use stainless steel containers or glass jars for things that would normally be in plastic. Something as simple as laundry detergent can be kept in glass jars. Teri loves Branch Basics as a clean detergent, and it doesn’t come in a huge plastic tub!
* buy your own bamboo toothbrushes so you can say “no way!” to plastic ones at the dentist’s office
One good way to avoid grocery shopping plastic right now is to try out your local farmer’s market for produce. Even though most grocery stores are still not allowing reusable bags in the store, I have found that farmer’s markets are more willing! Oh, and those reusable grocery store shopping bags? Keep them in your trunk and have the store clerk just put everything back into your cart, then when you get to the car put them in your bags yourself and avoid the paper or plastic bags!
* our local farmer’s market in Dunedin when we lived in New Zealand last year
***tip: Anticipating and pre-empting “extras” is the name of the game here.
Make it a habit when you sit down at a restaurant table to say “water with no straw please!” with a smile, before the waiter has a chance to bring you one. Put a set of reusable utensils in your purse or backpack so you always have them with you when you leave the house – planning ahead is half the battle!
If you do choose to accept plastic into your life, how long can you make it last? What else can you use that big yogurt tub for? Can you give it a new life containing leftovers in the freezer, holding homemade playdough, or sand toys for the park/beach? Got plastic utensils with your takeout? Keep ‘em as extras in the car so that next time you can say no because you already have some.
* reuse large yogurt containers as “buckets” at the beach or for storing leftovers in the freezer!
***tip: help an item be reused by buying second hand! There are so many great places to shop second hand online these days, which makes it so easy. I love using ThredUp for our kids clothes since they go through things so quickly anyway, and I’ve also done swaps with friends and come away with great “new-to-me” items.
Yep, it’s still on the list, and it isn’t all bad! Glass and metal recycle almost perfectly, this means they can be recycled over and over and very little material or integrity is lost in the process. Plastic can only be “downcycled” meaning that once it gets recycled it is downgraded to a lesser type of plastic and typically can’t be recycled again after that. Glass and metal tend to be widely accepted for recycling in the US, so when possible, purchase in those materials instead of plastic. For example – try investing in a metal safety razor instead of plastic ones. The stainless steel blades are easily recycled when they’re no longer sharp – which for me takes months!
* not only do safety razors give you a better, closer shave, they have blades that are easily recyclable (as is the razor itself if you could ever possibly wear it out!).
Most importantly when it comes to recycling – check your local recycling rules! If you don’t know which plastics are allowed, you may be unknowingly “wish-cycling” ie: throwing things in the recycling hoping that they might get recycled! This makes extra work for your local recycling depot that will have to hand sort out the things that don’t belong, or just send it to the landfill if there’s too much “garbage” in with the recycling! Know what goes in the bin and what goes in the trash.
***tip: print out a copy of your municipal recycling rules and keep it near your recycling bin! Rules can be complicated and change from city to city and even year to year, so having a quick reference guide nearby is very helpful.
There is Hope!
I know the data and statistics I cited up top can seem really overwhelming. Heck, I knew about the issue of plastic pollution and our broken “recycling” system for over a year before I decided to actually DO anything about it. The issue seemed too huge for one person to tackle. But the secret is that if more and more of us start using our consumer dollars for more eco-friendly purchases and refusing unnecessary and wasteful things in our life that is when the world will start to change.
I know that we can all work together to fix this problem, and it starts with one person at a time, making one change at a time. Maybe you will decide to forego plastic water bottles this month, or takeaway coffee cups! You don’t have to have a completely plastic free life right away. Choose one thing to change and smash that goal before moving on to another. You can do it! I believe in you 🙂
Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions! Happy to answer them as best I can.
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