Toward a Life Without Plastic

5 Ideas for Reducing Plastic Waste for Wildlife

Our reliance on single-use plastic hurts the world’s wildlife. Plastic is a growing problem, affecting countless animals in oceans, rivers, and even on land. As a biologist, I’ve chosen to spend my career saving wildlife and conserving the natural world. For the last two years, I’ve also been working personally to reduce my plastic use so I can directly affect the species I work to conserve in my professional life.

Plastic bottle with sea turtle bites found on the beach. Credit: Gretchen Nareff / USFWS

Here are five ways I’ve reduced my plastic waste and some information about my experience navigating these changes. I hope these inspire you and provide insight so you can start your own plastic-free journey and help protect the species and places we all care about.

1. Plastic Packaged Food

Strawberries in cloth bag by Emma Nelson

I noticed quickly that one of the biggest sources of plastic in my daily life was coming from the food I buy.

I started to rethink grocery shopping and looked for ways I could buy in bulk and without plastic packaging. I immediately thought of my childhood and my excitement around crushing my own peanut butter with the machines at the grocery store. Could going plastic free be this but on a larger scale? For me, it definitely is.

Buying in bulk and using cloth bags by Emma Nelson

My first transition was buying food in the bulk sections. These are great for beans, grains, and other things I use on a regular basis. I’ve even found some surprise bulk items like nutritional yeast and grits. At first I used jars for my bulk items, but after a few spills trying to make a circular jar catch everything coming out of a rectangular spigot, I transitioned to cloth bags and use my repurposed jars to store my bulk items at home. For things I don’t have access to in bulk, like olive oil, I’ll buy the largest container I can find. It may be a larger upfront cost, but it generally ends up being less expensive, and I reduce the amount of materials used because I’m not buying multiple containers.

2. Plastic Bags

Cloth Bag by Emma Nelson

I’m not sure about you, but I have an abundance of reusable bags that I’ve received at booths or through donating to my favorite non-profit or charity. These are great to use for grocery shopping, and I make sure to remember them by leaving some by the door and in my car. Many grocery stores offer discounts for bringing your own bag, so not only am I helping to save sea turtles and other wildlife, I’m saving money too. After bringing my own grocery bags became part of my routine, I started bringing additional cloth bags for produce, like mushrooms and fruit.

Plastic Bags are the most commonly ingested type of debris by sea turtles. Image by NOAA

Approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide annually, more than one million bags per minute. Sea turtles often consume plastic bags because they mistake them for jellyfish when in water. This leads to stomachs full of plastic, leaving no room for food and essentially starving the turtles to death. Plastic bags don’t just affect individual animals. Multiple studies have shown plastic bags will restrict sunlight, oxygen, and nutrients from reaching the ground underneath them, affecting entire ecosystems. When we reduce our plastic bag use, we’re not only helping the species like sea turtles and seabirds in the forefront of conservation efforts, we’re helping the little guys: the invertebrates, whose role in the ecosystem is just as important but often unseen.

3. Dental Floss

Dental Floss by Emma Nelson

I never really thought what dental floss was made out of until I came across an alternative. Most dental floss comes in plastic packaging and is primarily made from plastic. It may seem too small to be a big deal, but the floss and plastic containers create a big plastic problem.

Because I didn’t want to just throw away the dental floss I already had without using it (I’m a big proponent of using up the things we have before switching to plastic-free or waste-free alternatives), I only bought my plastic-free floss when supplies were getting low. This floss comes in a glass bottle and I can buy refills (in paper packaging), so I can continually refill the glass container. The floss I opted for is made from silk that is compostable at certain facilities (check with your local compost facility).

4. To-Go/Disposable Cups

Glass cup by Emma Nelson

I love my morning beverage, but I don’t love disposing of to-go cups knowing they’ll most likely end up in the landfill (cups can’t be recycled due to their plastic lining, and a lot of our recycling isn’t being processed currently). I’ve started bringing a glass jar with me so I’m prepared whenever the desire hits. I prefer jars because I use them for everything: hot and cold beverages, water, or even food. I also didn’t have to buy anything extra since the jars I prefer are actually repurposed salsa jars. It took me some time to get comfortable asking the barista to use my own cup, but to my relief I found that most people are happy to comply, and more and more places are offering discounts for reusable cups/refills.

When I forget my jar, I will either forgo that day’s drink or not get it to go: no disposable cups if I have the beverage at the coffee shop. In a world where we’re running around from place to place, it can be nice to sit for a second and take a breath.

Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee every day. That’s the equivalent of more than 140 billion cups of coffee per year. Although reusable mugs are becoming more popular, I often notice that trash cans and recycling bins are still full of disposable coffee cups. That’s why I made this change, and I hope this inspires you to, as well.

5. Plastic Straws

Reusable straws and cups by Emma Nelson

The biggest occurrence of plastic straws for me is when I’m eating out. As such, this plastic-free step has become more of a practice in speaking up. Inconveniencing people is not something I like to do, so requesting no straws with my drinks has been challenging. It can also be difficult when out with a group of people as I feel that everyone is watching me. In my experience though, when I have spoken up, not only are the servers happy to comply, others in my group will follow with a “oh yeah, I don’t need one either”. And there’s something really rewarding when you are able to make the path easier for others to reduce their plastic waste.

For the times I do want a straw, I’ve invested in reusable metal straws that I absolutely love. I carry one with me almost everywhere. They come in various sizes with a small brush to clean them, and some even have cool pouches to transport them in.

Emma Nelson Pledges to End Plastic Pollution

I hope my experiences have provided you with some insights on how we can all make little daily changes that have a huge impact on the world around us. Also, remember that these are habits we’re changing, and that takes time. If, in your journey, you forget or aren’t able to go completely plastic free — that’s totally okay and normal. If you don’t have access to these alternatives or they’re not viable for you, don’t feel like you need to do the things mentioned here. You are a conservation hero regardless of the way you are able to help; by spreading the word, making yourself more aware, changing habits, or working on the ground. Your actions matter, and so do you.

If you have questions or would like to share your experiences and additional ideas for going plastic-free, please comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

By Emma Nelson, Biologist, USFWS International Affairs