None of us by ourselves can solve the world’s problems. But we can each work to have a more positive and less negative impact. Plastic usage is one area. Our family probably uses 20% of what the average family uses, because we are aware of the issue, our kids care deeply about it and we make an effort to only use plastic when we must. What started out as using less plastic grocery bags has mushroomed into a big reduction in many areas. And none of these things have impacted our “quality of life.” In fact, in many ways it has improved our healthy eating habits and improved life.
Here is a long list of ways to reduce plastic waste in your life. The goal is not 100% elimination but significant reduction over time. Most people could easily cut plastic waste in half without feeling bothered, with these simple suggestions.
Grocery Bags – We are all aware of this one, but I frequently stop at the store for a few things and forget to take reusable bags. The solution? I simply do not bag the stuff. If I can carry it, I carry it out with a receipt in hand. If it is a little too much, the same thing. Just take the cart out to your car and put it in your trunk. You really do not have to bag small amounts of stuff. While this seems obvious, cashiers are always surprised, and I have never seen someone doing it other than me (Other than one or two items.) I think the fear is that they will get accused of shoplifting, but it has never happened to me and I always make sure I have the receipt.
Straws and Lids on Cups – This is a big one in the news in 2019. The real key here is do you need it or not. Don’t take them just because that is how you usually drank it. For example, if I am driving, I need a lid on coffee if I did not bring my reusable mug (I usually do, but sometimes you are not expecting to get a coffee when you leave home.) If we get drinks in a place with disposable cups, we drink it without straw or lid.
Plastic Utensils – We actually make purchasing decisions based on waste now. For example, milk shakes, Blizzards from DQ, parfait from McDonalds? No. Kids do not want things that require plastic to eat. Haven’t had them in years. I am not sure if businesses understand that waste is driving purchasing decisions. Maybe not enough people are doing it yet. Places like Panara use metal silverware that they wash if you eat at the store. It does impact where we eat. The added bonus is that places that care about less waste probably care about higher quality food and healthier options as well. That is the trend.
Lids on Food – I was recently surprised when I got a very healthy stir fry salad at an Asian restaurant in a good court. It came in recyclable bowls. Great. But most of the people who were buying it wanted plastic lids even through they were dining in. The reason was they wanted to shake the meal before eating it to get an even covering of the sauce. I have no doubt this tastes good. However, it only takes a tiny effort to stir it with the silverware. Basically, a big plastic lid is used for 5 seconds by someone and will lay around for hundreds of years on earth now so that dish could me mixed a bit faster. Classic dumb decision. Get them if you need them but try not to need them and do not be frivolous with waste.
Buy Loose Fruits and Veggies – It is very convenient to buy your fruits and veggies in plastic bags. In some cases, you cannot avoid it, or the price is so much better it just makes too much financial sense to buy the bulk bag. However, not that long ago most things were loose. It is often cheaper and better for you to buy loose fruits and veggies. One reason is that the plastic packaging gives you a false sense of food safety. If you buy loose lettuce, you are going to wash it well. Buying pre-cut and washed lettuce gives you a sense of security that is false. Bagged greens are one of the most common ways people get sick because they believe it does not need washed. So buying loose, unpackages foods have several advantages, one of which is not adding a plastic wrapping to the trash bin.
Cook More with Whole Products – This is harder when you have everyone busy, but I have a hack for you. But first, buying individual packaged meals might be convenient, but they are most likely not very healthy, and they produce unnecessary waste. Even though they seem like cardboard containers, they are often plastic-coated and probably cannot be recycled. Instead consider making food in batches and freezing them in reusable containers. This will give you the convenience of microwave food but reduce salt and reduce waste in landfills.
The hack is to buy an Instapot or similar pressurized cooking device. This is a great device to cook many dishes that can be stored or frozen in smaller portions and heated up later. If you do not have one yet, watch some YouTube videos and see why they are so nice.
Don’t Buy Trinkets – Want to save money, reduce clutter and health the environment? Buy less stuff. And teach your kids to buy less things. The proliferation of storage facilities shows you just how big the problem is. People have trouble saying no to buying things. But I have a secret for you. Go to very wealthy people’s homes. There, you will usually find nice things, but very few things. More money usually means far fewer things. It is the middle class and poor who are tricked into buying more and more things they do not need.
When you buy things you do not need, you are encouraging more manufacturing of unnecessary items. It is not just a problem to have too much waste. It is also a problem to produce too many unnecessary things that require mining, drilling, transportation, chemicals, high temperature manufacturing and packaging.
Key Cards at Hotels – Small plastics are often considered worse than big plastics, so something thin and small like those plastic cards should be recycled or reused when they can be. If you stay in a hotel you can usually just drop the plastic cards off at the desk and many places claim they reuse them, which I hope they do. Saves the hotel some money and with a quick swipe, they can be reprogrammed.
Make Iced Tea, Lemonade, Juice at Home – Unless you are having a big birthday party and want a variety of drinks, you can make healthier, better Teas, Juices and Lemonade at home and avoid buying that big plastic container they come in when premade. You can make it with less sugar and with fresh fruit and/or veggies.
Refill Water Bottles – We all end up in situations sometimes when we need to buy a plastic bottle of water. Maybe you did not plan to be out in the heat so long and you are away from home. However, in most cases this does not happen by accident and simply taking a refillable water bottle with you greatly decreases plastic waste as well as saves you money because refilling at a water fountain is free. Where safe and possible, this is a decision that should be easy for everyone.
Change Your Gift Giving – Nothing can be more frustrating than getting gifts you do not want or need. It is so frustrating because you have to be gracious and accept the gift, and you most likely need to save it as well. If you get a gift you do not want or need, you can consider some options. You could return it and get something useful or convert to money if that is an option. You can give it to someone who needs it. You can donate it. And you can take it as an opportunity to get your gift giving circle of family and friends to agree on a nicer option than gifts that may or may not be suitable. It will not always make you the most popular, but if everyone agrees on less gift giving, maybe there will be less waste and less stuff clogging up your home.
Use Containers and Less Disposable Baggies – We used to use disposable baggies every day for lunches and saving small amounts of leftovers. Once we became more aware of how wasteful this was, we started using very small containers and lids we could wash and reuse. Now we do not even use a box of sandwich bags in a year. We still have them for very rare situations where being able to throw them away is a necessity, but it is almost never. The key is not to NEVER throw away plastic. Just to greatly reduce your plastic waste production.
Packing Lunch – It is a great move to pack lunch. You can make it healthy and save money. But back to those sandwich bags and plastic utensils. Buy a good lunch bag, locking containers and use real forks and spoons. You can wash it all in less than a minute at home and you will be saving a lot of plastic waste. Over time we went from bags we threw away and plastic silverware and baggies to zero waste other than the napkin. 250+ times a year that added up to big savings and far less impact on the earth.
Reduce Toy Purchases and Donate – Anyone who has several children will tell you that the first child ends up with a bunch of toys (most likely made of plastic) that they do not play with. Huge plastic houses, plastic cars you can drive, plastic kitchens, plastic balls in a plastic inflatable ball pit … the list goes on and on. Now if they give your child many hours of joy it is a good thing. But if they pile up and too much stuff makes them ignore it all, time to rethink what is best. Consider donating thing to others when your kids do not keep playing with them. Or swap toys with friends periodically to give your kids and their kids something new to play with. Buy less and get creative. Chances are some crayons will be more fun than all that other stuff anyway.
Buy Bulk, Split Up and Freeze in Containers – While it is possible to buy fresh meat from a butcher and have it wrapped in paper, I like to be a bit more practical. One way to reduce waste and plastic in your garbage is to buy meats in larger quantities and divide it up into reusable containers and freeze portions. They are often called “family packs” and offer a per pound discount. While you will still have trash from the wrapping, there will be less overall Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap to be discarded.
Athletic Drinks – If there is one area I still have trouble, it is when planning for athletic events with the kids. Hydration and proper planning are so important and nearly the only time I find myself with plastic bottles is the sports drinks for these events. I know there are mixes you can buy and mix your own, but at this point I have been too worried about proper care to experiment with alternatives. The key with the drinks is sodium and potassium to replace what you lose when you sweat. Consider mixes you can add to water and then get rid of the disposable plastic bottle. That said, this is one area I need to do better and experiment slowly in less intense situations first to see if you like the drinks. Health and safety are number one.
Remember that this happens over time, not all at once. The global community is working to reduce plastic waste and awareness about the problem is up. As you take a closer look at your habits you will find it is easy to reduce how much plastic and garbage you add to the problem.