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Plastic pollutes! Help spare the planet; here’s how to cut down on your plastic use

By Cynthia Tuthill, PhD, Guest Blogger; introduction by Erica Cirino, Safina Center Launchpad (“junior”) Fellow

Cover photo: Fishing community in Southern Myanmar. ©Erica Cirino

Step outside and look around, and no matter where you are, from a deserted beach to a tree-lined suburb to a bustling city, you’re extremely likely to see plastic trash scattered around. If you’re like most people, you probably use plastic—whether in the form of bags, bottles, food packaging, straws, or a combination of all these things and more—on a daily basis. Unfortunately, more than 30 million metric tons of the plastic people use annually is mismanaged, much of it finding its way into the natural environment where it poses a threat to wildlife. 

Hundreds of thousands of wild animals are killed and sickened by plastic each year, which is harmful to them both physically and chemically. It also appears that many of the chemicals in plastic have the ability to affect the human body’s hormones and harm human health.

Cutting down on your personal plastic use can help you reduce your ecological impact and also your exposure to plastic chemicals. What are you waiting for? Put down that plastic spoon and check out these easy ways to cut plastic out of your life:

  1. Bags
    1. Of course we all know that we should bring reusable cloth bags to the grocery store, but we should also bring them into EVERY store (Target, clothing stores, pharmacies, Home Depot, etc). And if you forget them in the car, simply walk back outside to get them! We can all use the extra exercise. If you’ve forgotten them at home, then carry your items outside in the shopping cart. There is absolutely no need to ever use a plastic shopping bag ever again.
    2. Another serious problem are the super-thin produce bags. These are the worst, as they easily fly out of landfill, and if they get into the ocean they are tragically thought of as food by many sea creatures, especially sea turtles, and swallowing one typically ends in death. There are MANY alternatives:
      1. Don’t put produce in separate bags, but simply put the produce items in the cart like all your other purchases.
      2. Bring reusable lightweight net or cloth bags.
      3. iii.Use small (3 gallon) “Biobags” (available at many supermarkets, including Safeway) or other brand of compostable bags. These can be reused, and then when they start to get too old and rip, they will biodegrade in landfill (or even better, in compost!).
    3. I also find there is no reason to use plastic for trashcan liners, with several other options:
      1. Don’t line your indoor trashcans!! Simply carry the smaller cans to your outdoor trash receptacle and up-end them; if the smaller can is soiled, wash it out in the sink.
      2. Line your trashcans with compostable bags. For bathroom trashcans, the small Biobags work just fine, but I find that the larger, 13 gallon Biobags brand (typically used for kitchen trash) can rip too easily. I’ve found that the Natur-Bag brand is VERY strong.
    4. Another use of plastic bags is for kitty litter or dog poo … and again, the 3 gallon compostable bags are a far better alternative.
  2. Foods
    1. I’ve also made a commitment to ONLY purchase food in plastic if there is no alternative. This is for health reasons as well as environmental, as plastics release “plasticizer” compounds that are endocrine disruptors and correlated with most chronic human diseases. 
      1. Peanut butter comes in glass; and I’ve noticed that the ones packaged in glass are typically the ones with no additives (which is also important for health!).
      2. Salad dressings also come in glass, although I’ve found that simply whisking together some olive oil (in glass) with a nice balsamic vinegar (also in glass) (I like a 40/60 ratio) and adding some spices, such as “Herbs de Provence,” is actually much tastier than store-bought salad dressing.
      3. iii.Lettuce, especially organic, can be purchased without any packaging … one simply has to take the time to wash, spin, and tear it up. This does take extra time … but it’s an important way to cut down on the huge “clamshell” containers that contain SO much plastic! It’s also something that can be done together, for more “family time” for food prep in the kitchen.
      4. Fruit does NOT have to come in clamshells either. I realize this means literally no berries can be obtained from supermarkets … but I think it’s time we got back to eating fruit in season, and IF there’s a farmer’s market in your local area, you can get berries in season in cardboard containers (or plastic baskets which can be given back to the farmer for re-use). In my family, we simply don’t eat berries unless we can get them in an appropriate container.
      5. Sliced breads come in an outer plastic wrap; I try to go to our local bakery when I can, and get bread in a paper bag. Ask them to slice it for you! I put it in a reusable compostable bag when I get home, to keep it fresher longer.
      6. Many foods are available in bulk; bring your own containers for these items!
    2. I also keep a full set of bamboo cutlery in the car for food-on-the-go, and a metal spork in my purse as well! Even though I carry a tiny purse, there’s plenty of room for a metal straw and spork.
    3. For parties, it’s best to use your own cutlery, plates, cups, and glasses; if the party has too many guests, then you can use paper plates and cups rather than plastic (and they can go in the compost). If you HAVE to buy plastic cutlery, get sturdy ones that can be washed and reused. Or, buy metal cutlery at the thrift shop! 
    4. Go through your fridge and pantry to see which items come in plastic, and whether you can replace them with a different kind of packaging, a different brand, or simply skip that item in future.
  3. Food storage
    1. Most of us have switched to glass “Tupperware”-style containers now, instead of the old-fashioned plastic ones, but I’ve also found great utility for these other options:
      1. Silicone lids that make an airtight seal on any glass, stainless steel, wood, or ceramic storage bowls (available online; Charles Viancin is a good brand). This allows us to cut WAY down on aluminum foil, and to get rid of Saran wrap (which is also plastic!). 
      2. Silicone containers, such as the ZipTop brand (also available on Amazon) which don’t have the extra plastic “zipper pull” that some brands have. 
      3. iii.Waxed cotton reusable sheets for wrapping up odd-sized bits of veggies and fruit (for example Bees Wrap). 
    2. My family does like to go out for meals occasionally. And so we keep a collapsible silicone food container in the car to bring in with us in case we have left-overs to bring home.
    3. I use Biobags brand compostable zip-top sandwich bags for sandwiches for hiking (I find glass containers a bit too heavy to carry in my backpack!). The waxed-cloth wrappers also work well.
    4. Also, if you do have the time to shop more frequently, don’t overbuy or prepare too much food. Apparently one of the largest contributors to our carbon footprints is wasted food. 
  4. Beverages
    1. Wine and beer come in glass! 
      1. Beer also comes in aluminum, but those cans are lined with plastic. So it’s best, if possible, to get beer in a bottle. Of course then my husband and I have the discussion of whether the shipping footprint of the heavier glass undermines the environmental benefit from the lack of plastic. I guess “it depends.” Perhaps try to buy local!
    2. One should always carry a metal water bottle and coffee mug. 
      1. If you find yourself at a coffee shop with no coffee mug (this DOES happen, of course), then ask for a “for here” mug if you have time to drink it in the shop. If you don’t have the time, then ask the barista to NOT put a plastic lid on the paper cup. Take a few sips before getting in the car, so you don’t spill.
    3. I purchased a “SodaStream” unit, to make my own bubbly water (and it came with GLASS containers, not plastic … although these units are harder to find). This is a better carbon footprint than, say, having large glass bottles of water shipped all the way from ITALY (or even WORSE, plastic bottles of water shipped from Fiji). 
    4. My husband and I have both committed to NEVER drink ANY beverage from a plastic bottle. This means sometimes we get quite thirsty … until we find a drinking fountain or get home from our errands or travel. But we’ve been pretty successful!
      1. If you love to have a soft drink now and then, buy ones in aluminum. It’s still lined with plastic, but much LESS plastic, and it’s not likely to get into the ocean.
    5. All kinds of “milk” come in recyclable waxed cardboard containers. Some brands of coconut or almond milk come in plastic … which is SO sad, as plasticizers readily leach into liquids, and there is simply NO reason why those manufacturers chose to use plastic. We don’t purchase those brands. 
    6. And speaking of drinking, if you do use straws, there are MANY brands of glass or stainless steel straws. I’ve even seen them for sale at our local Orchard Supply (metal with a flexible silicone tip). I keep one in my purse and several in my car (to offer to friends!). 
  5. Personal hygiene
    1. To save water, my husband and I trained our bodies to go longer and longer between showers, and now only shower/shampoo once a week. This took a few months of training, mind you! But we find that our bodies make less oils now, so even our hair stays lovely. A bonus to this effort is that we use WAY less shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion … all of which typically come in plastic containers. We also buy the largest sizes we can find when we DO have to replace these items, as that’s more product per bit of plastic. I’ve also just ordered a “shampoo bar” with no packaging, and will see if it’s a reasonable replacement!
    2. We use bamboo toothbrushes and get our floss in a metal container (a good place to get both of these is here).
    3. I’m happy that I have never used makeup, and therefore don’t have the plastic items from that industry to contend with. If you do like to wear makeup, perhaps consider only using it on special occasions. Or try to find brands that use as little plastic as possible.
    4. Instead of using a plastic razor for shaving, consider waxing instead. I started this practice decades ago, and now my leg and underarm hair is so soft (using a razor makes it sharper as it grows back) that I don’t even have to get waxed very often.
    5. My next purchase is to get a reusable silicone cotton swab for ear cleaning, and powdered toothpaste in a metal container (which I used when I was a child!).
    6. My husband and I buy toilet paper from “Who Gives a Crap,” which uses 100% recycled materials and comes with NO plastic wrapping (https://us.whogivesacrap.org). The paper wrap is also quite colorful and fun, with little jokes!
    7. For travel toiletries, I simply re-fill containers so that I don’t have to buy so many small plastic items.
    8. You could look through your bathroom shelves to see where you CAN cut down on use, or purchase alternatives. For example, I use a cotton pad to clean my face at night; I’ve found a reusable one so that I don’t have to purchase a sleeve of cotton pads wrapped in plastic. 
  6. Household cleaning
    1. Similar to toiletries, one can look in the cleaning cupboard and evaluate whether all those products in plastic containers are really needed, or whether you can buy alternatives or make your own when it’s time to refill those containers.
      1. I currently use Seventh Generation liquid laundry soap, which comes in a cardboard container. However, since that container is certainly lined with plastic (and it’s hard to find), I’ve decided to switch to powdered Borax (in a cardboard box) when the Seventh Generation runs out!
      2. For those who hand wash dishes, as I love to do, I have ordered a bar of soap to use when the current liquid runs out. I found one on Earthhero.com.
      3. I used to purchase Lysol for toilets, liquid Comet with bleach for sinks, Windex for windows, granite cleaner for counters, and wood soap for floors. They all come in plastic, and I have gotten rid of them all! I now use Meyer’s surface scrub for toilets and sinks, soap and water for granite counters, vinegar in water for windows, and water for floors. I just didn’t realize we don’t need to sanitize and be so frantic about germs! In fact, it’s healthier to challenge our immune systems. 
  7. Purchase less!
    1. My daughter has asked that my husband and I only purchase re-used or up-cycled gifts for holidays and birthdays. This not only cuts down on plastic, but also on the carbon footprint of manufacturing. 
    2. One has to be SO careful when purchasing online, as many items come in more plastic than you’d get when buying in a local store (and also there’s the added carbon footprint of the special shipping to your house, too). We try to do as little as possible; but sometimes the only way to get a plastic-free item (such as toilet paper) is to order on-line. Luckily, companies that are focused on cutting down on plastic typically DON’T include plastic in their shipping containers! But Amazon is usually quite bad. 
    3. Instead of plastic toys for kids, choose wooden or cloth alternatives (or rocks and shells, for that matter!). Jigsaw puzzles are great too! The company Melissa and Doug has many fabulous toys for kids, and these are usually “better” for childhood development as they can stimulate more cerebral and serene thinking than items with loud noises and blinking lights. Another issue with those plastic toys is the need for batteries. And never purchase something for a child with the TINY batteries that are used in, for example, birthday cards with music. Those are QUITE toxic if swallowed.  

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