How I Can Help Reduce Plastic Waste
The growing number of plastics being found in our oceans, lakes, and rivers is alarming. Of all materials being littered or accidentally released into wildlife, plastic is the worst offender. Plastic leeches harmful chemicals in water and takes hundreds of years to decompose. There are varying plastics, but the average disposable water bottle will last 450 years. Some plastics can take over a thousand years to disintegrate, and even then plastic never really goes away, but merely breaks down to microscopic pieces.
And due to the flexibility of plastic and the varying shapes they come in, animals are getting caught in them, and mistaking them for food that often leads to complications in the digestive tract, killing them prematurely. It is up to us as individuals to combat the plastics problem. Here are the steps I personally take to help the environment from invading plastics, from the most effective to the least.
Avoid Using Disposable Plastics
This is the most effective way to combat plastic waste, hence this is number 1. Avoid using plastic when you can help it. I understand it is impossible for us not to use plastic on a daily basis, but by reducing the number of disposable plastics we use, we are decreasing the demand of it, as well as preventing one more piece of plastic from entering our wildlife. Here is what you can do:
Purchase Reusable Items
It's disposable plastics that are piling up in our environment. The top most littered disposable plastics in the world (in no particular order) are the following, along with their reusable counterparts you can find online, mainly Amazon and Etsy:
Shopping Bags < cloth/cotton shopping bags
You can purchase reusable shopping bags just about anywhere. Most of my reusable bags were bought at garage sales and thrift shops. Purchase cloth bags, like cotton. Avoid purchasing plastic (or plastic-coated) reusable bags, as these deteriorate faster and they are not machine-washable. However, any type of reusable bag for shopping is better than using cheap, disposable ones.
Water Bottles < glass/steel/silicone water bottles, filter pitchers
Water bottles are a problem, as many people believe it is healthier to drink bottled water than what comes out of the tap.
Bring your own reusable water bottle to work/school everyday, preferably the non-plastic variety. My favorite glass/steel bottles I've purchased I found at Target, but you can find these practically anywhere. Or purchase a collapsible silicone bottle from Amazon.
If you purchase water bottles to keep at home because you want clean water to drink, purchase a Brita (or similiar) water pitcher. It will filter the water, ensure your water is cold, and it reduces water output for filling up glasses at home (as people tend to turn the water on before placing the glass underneath). And of course, and reduce plastic waste of disposable water bottles.
Produce Bags < mesh/cotton bags
I love produce, but hate using a plastic bag when getting a bundle. Amazon and Etsy sell mesh and cotton bags of various sizes with the purpose of bagging produce. Or, you can choose to use neither and place produce in a separate reusable shopping bag.
Straws < thick BPA-free/plastic/steel
We may not burn through disposable drinking straws like plastic bags and bottles, but you'd be surprised how often straws wind up in our oceans. You could always choose to not use straws when given an option, but they make sturdier, reusable alternatives. You can purchase thick, BPA-free plastic straws, or steel/aluminum straws (the latter being ideal). Put them in a clean, cloth bag and carry them around in your purse, coat pocket, or car. The metal straws are perfect for cold drinks.
Styrofoam (BPA-free plastic/silicone/glass/steel containers)
Avoid purchasing Styrofoam when you can. This is the plastic that is often not accepted at recycling facilities. Instead, use plastic or glass containers when storing away leftovers. Just recently, I discovered collapsible silicone containers, which I keep one in my purse at all times so when I go to restaurants, I do not require a Styrofoam container.
These are just a few examples of plastics we throw away everyday with reusable counterparts.
Choose Alternative Materials to Plastic
Just about all disposable items are made of plastic, but there are some alternatives. Keep this in mind the next time you're running low on anything.
Packaging < glass/tin/aluminum/cardboard
Any time you make a purchase, see if there is an alternative to plastic wrapping or plastic containers. For example, I used to drink Folgers coffee. I remember back when they used tin cans with plastic lids, but over the years they have transitioned completely to plastic containers. McDonald's brand of coffee, however, come in cardboard/tin packaging. And so now I drink their coffee instead. It might be hard for some people to change a brand simply because of the packaging, but I believe it makes a difference. When choosing condiments, jellies, honey, I always buy from glass jars. Between a plastic bag of anything vs. cardboard or a paper bag, I lean toward the latter two. Not only does this mentality reduce plastic in our environment, but it can nudge us toward different brands that we otherwise would have ignored, and that we may like better.
Disposable Items < bamboo, wood, paper
Not all disposable items are just made of plastic. For example: toothbrushes. I am not a fan of electric toothbrushes as a green alternative. They take up electricity, and you still need to replace the head once the bristles are frayed, and that plastic is maybe a quarter of how much plastic is in a regular toothbrush. It's still better, I suppose, but I much prefer using disposable bamboo toothbrushes. You can only get these online, and they tend to cost more than a regular toothbrush, but I think they are worth it. Buy them in bulk and save money. Also, because people who buy them are environmentally conscious, companies that produce bamboo brushes are environmentally conscious too, and will send them in paper or cardboard packaging. Usually bristles are made of BPA-free plastics, which I don't love, but it is still a better alternative.
Bamboo is also my favorite material in general because 1) unlike glass and metal, it is 100% natural, and cannot hurt the environment or its animals. 2) bamboo grows fast compared to trees (a stalk can grow 4 feet in a day, if conditions are right), 3) they don't take up much space to grow in comparison to trees, and 4) they provide 35% more oxygen than the average tree, so the cultivation of bamboo gives back to the environment. It's because of these facts about bamboo that I'll purchase permanent items, such as a weight scale or hairbrush, over any other material.
Bamboo aside, research to see if the disposable items you use come in any other material besides plastic. To give another example, ear swabs are made of cotton with either plastic handles (colorful) or paper handles (white). Obviously choose the latter to reduce plastics. Also, for coffee stirrers, use wooden stirrers as oppose to tiny, plastic straws.
Just think of all the little plastics you toss everyday.
Eat Less Fast Food (and other Food Vendors)
And finally, for avoiding plastics, reduce your fast food intake. Not only is eating at McDonald's or Arby's unhealthy and more expensive in terms of how much food you're getting, these and the other fast food chains are wasteful for the sake of cheap, convenience for its customers. Fast food uses the most disposable plastics, such as plastic utensils, Styrofoam cups, plastic straws and cup lids, plastic or Styrofoam containers, etc. Sure, bringing your metal, reusable straw helps, but there's only so much you can bring with you every time you enter one of these places, and once they use a plastic item, you either use it or they'll throw it away.
For corporations, it's all about making money, and there's a reason why so many disposable items are plastic - it's cheap, not even a penny's worth. So they don't care about conserving. They even have small amounts of ketchup packed in little plastic pouches, whether you're on the go or eating at a table. So save your money, save your health, and save the environment by not creating a strong demand for these places that throw out plastics (and food) in mounds on a regular basis.
ReUse Your Plastics
Avoiding plastics in general, even for non-disposable items, is the most effective way to combat the plastics problem (hence why that section is so lengthy). But let's say you've purchased a plastic item intended for one-time use; you can still reuse most items, at least a few times, because the ultimate goal is to delay throwing away that plastic. If we reuse the said item, even once, that's one less item for the same use. Here are some common throw away items we can find uses for, in order to prevent them (or at least delay them) from entering our environment, and at a much smaller scale, decrease the demand of them.
Greatest example would be disposable water and soda bottles that we purchase from machines. However, we should only reuse a plastic bottle a few times, because after a while chemicals (especially in those marked #7) will start to leech out. Plastic also harbors a lot of bacteria so be sure to rinse with soap and hot water in between uses. If you are feeling creative, the following link shows many different, fun uses of plastic bottles:
These bags can be washed out and reused at least a few more times. If you have a rubber band, you can lay a zip lock over a covering of a bottle, jar, or bowl to keep it tightly shut for preserving food.
Once you have your online item, what to do with the packaging material, like Styrofoam peanuts and other casings? Well, the most obvious way to reuse these items is to save them for the day you make a shipment. I do this for work when we make shipments once in awhile for equipment; we reuse the same material over and over. And when my work is running low on buffering material, I'll bring some from home from my online purchases. This material is also perfect for transporting fragile items, especially for moving.
Styrofoam padding also makes for great insulation, so if wanting to insulate a dog house, or a DIY cat shelter, this material will keep animals warm.
These bottles are sturdy and air-tight, so you can reuse prescription bottles for so many things. For example, paint. If you're an artist, you can create the perfect color and save it in one of these bottles for another day. You can also use these as travel containers for lotion/cream, ear swabs, cotton balls, ear plugs, etc.
If you have a dog, these are great for picking up after. No one wants to touch that stuff, and at least you are getting one more use out of the plastic bag. Plus, you can use the very same bag to tie up and dispose of the mess; quick, clean, and simple.
If you don't have a dog, plastic bags are perfect for transporting clothes and shoes. If you're a germaphobe like me - before I purchased cotton produce bags - I used several plastic bags to ensure my clothes stayed clean in transport.
Plastic bags can also be used to protect outdoor plants from frost.
Some people reuse these bags for little trash cans. However, I choose to either use a mini trash can that comes with a separate container, which I use to throw out the trash, or I just don't use bags at all.
Recycle Your Plastics
You’ve bought the plastic, and maybe you’ve reused it, but ultimately it needs to be pitched. Ask yourself if it is recyclable and if it is, do the obvious. Whether that means traveling to a Target to drop off recyclables or signing up for recycling pick-up at your home (the latter being ideal), recycle what you can.
When people want to help the environment and reduce waste, the first thing they think about is recycling, but there’s a reason why it is number 3 on my list.
First off, we can't recycle plastic forever. In fact, the same plastic can only be recycled a few times until it is unusable, where as other materials like metal, and glass can be recycled and reused indefinitely.
Plastic is also a complicated material. There are different types of plastics and as a result, recycling plastic is a long, complicated process that if often expensive. Styrofoam is the most complicated and expensive item to recycle, and that is why most communities do not recycle it.
It's also false to assume that recycling a plastic bottle will mean that plastic will return as a new plastic bottle. Again, because of the complexities of plastic (and companies not willing to pay for reused plastics for their products), only a percent of plastic actually gets reused, and in a different form.
This is not to discourage from recycling plastics. It is still a better alternative than simply throwing it away where it may end up in a landfill or in the environment, but this is why it's preferable to avoid the use of plastic, and to a lesser extent, re-purpose the plastic you currently have. Also, 91% of plastics don't even end up in recycling bins, so if everyone recycled their plastics, this would make a huge difference, so keep it up if that's what you've been doing. Not only is it important to recycle what you can, but also purchase recycled items, to show companies that yes, the public is willing to spend more for greener material.
Tips for Recycling:
- Cut down boxes - boxes take up too much room and prevents others from recycling
- Do not use plastic bags to recycle - like boxes, bags take up more space than necessary, and often they are not accepted for recycling anyway
- Know which plastics are acceptable - you can easily find out which plastic (often identified by their numbers listed on the item) is recyclable in your community by looking up your city's/town's recycling regulations
- Organics cannot be recycled. Throwing away food in a recycling bin or not washing out containers can actually prevent the other recyclable items in the bin from being recycled
Be Consciousness When Trashing Plastics
So, you've used a plastic, you have no further use of it, and it's not recyclable. You have no choice but to throw it away. But there are still steps you can take when throwing away plastics to help combat the plastics problem. Yes, it's supposed to reach the dump, but you have to pretend that it will wind up in our oceans, lakes, and rivers, because it happens. So here are some cautionary steps when throwing away plastics.
Cut Up Plastics
I keep scissors hanging near my trash can because there is plenty of plastic that can do harm to animals if we leave them the way they were designed. For example, plastic trash bags have handles. Animals can easily get stuck in any hole of plastic, whether ridged or flimsy. I have seen too many birds with plastic bags hung around their bodies, preventing them from flying. So, I always cut the handles.
I'll also make one long cut down any type of plastic bag.
Be sure to cut up plastic mesh (like some prepackaged bags for produce), as well as flimsy plastic can holders. If you pretend it will wind up in nature, you can at least find a way for animals to escape the material if they happen upon them.
Seal Away Tiny Plastics
Any little plastic (plastic toothpicks, cigarette filters, candy wrappers) should be saved in a plastic bottle or ziplock bag (hey, reuse!) until it is filled up, and be sure the container is sealed tightly. This will prevent animals from eating the small plastics if they wind up in your trash bag/dumpster.
Cushion Sharp Objects in Trash Bags
This is how trash winds up in nature: a torn bag. Any time you are throwing away anything with sharp edges, cushion it using trash to prevent a tear.
Trash Bags are Plastic Too - Don't Waste Them
Obviously don't throw away trash until the bag is completely full. If your bag weighs too much, hence you throw it away before it is filled, ask yourself why it's so heavy. Liquids or frozen items that will turn to mush/liquid should be poured down the drain.
Food should be eaten, so if you're throwing away a lot of uneaten food, that right there is a problem for the environment. The plastic that you purchased with the food item wasn't even eaten fully - what a waste of food and plastic that are both going to the landfills.
Pick Up Trash
When you go on a walk, to the beach, to the park, or what have you, bring a little bag in case you find trash (ideally a reusable bag). While I wouldn’t expect even the die-hard environmentalists to stop what they’re doing every time they see a candy wrapper, do it as often as you can. This takes zero commitment.
But if you have that desire to be a part of something bigger, join a clean-up effort. Check your village or city hall for local clean-up efforts. There are some organizations that put together clean-up efforts globally. For example, the Surfrider Foundation organizes many beach clean-ups to keep shores clean.
Donate to Organizations that Perform Clean-Up Efforts
If you have a busy life, there are plenty of organizations that strive to clean up the environment that you may donate to. The ones that help with ocean clean-ups that I've investigated are the following:
Remember to check Charity Navigator and Charity Watchdog to ensure the organization you donate to are legit.
I've also noticed a trend of selling jewelry where a percent of the profits will go to an organization, but I think donating directly is the best bet. Stores that sell jewelry with an environmental agenda are more about making a profit, and if legit, usually a small percent will go toward that charity (1-10%). Why spend $20 on a bracelet and only $2 will go to that organization, when all of that $20 could go toward it instead?
This is tough, but when you see people litter, say something. Don't do anything to agitate the person, but if everyone simply commented on their behavior, I think this would lead to less littering, because of the social stigma. But if people ignore the behavior, then the litterer sees no consequence. You probably won't change their minds, but they may in the future fear the criticism of strangers. You never know.
Also if you see someone recycling an item you know isn't accepted, again, say something. Be polite, as they may not know.
If you vote people in office that care about the environment, there's more of a chance that laws will be passed to reduce waste. Some communities have either taxed or banned disposable plastic bags at stores. California is the only state in the US to ban plastic bags at big retailers, with 10 cents charged for paper bags.
This is the least effective way to help combat the plastics problem, but adding your name to a long list of people that encourage change could make a difference, depending on who will see the petition. Banning plastics is an endeavor worth signing. Even the smallest gestures can make an impact. There are plenty of online petitions, such as https://www.change.org/ and http://www.care2.com/ that are frequently creating petitions for the environment.