In honor of Plastic-free July–the nationwide awareness of and attempt to purge the plastic in our lives–I am sharing tips on how to do just that in all areas of our lives where plastic is involved. And that comprises many.
The Invention of Plastic
I realize how hard it may be to believe this, but there was a time when Americans survived without plastic. There were no plastic shopping bags clogging our oceans. There were no plastic straws impaling our turtles. For every use that plastic now has, we either substituted something else or we lived without the use.
Plastic was invented in 1869 as a substitute for the elephant tusk ivory used in the cue balls of the popular game of billiards. Ironically, it was seen as an environmental act at the time since it was saving both the elephant and tortoise populations.
This invention was revolutionary in the way that humans were no longer completely reliant on the substances that nature provided us with. If only we were to know the true irony that this “environmental substance” would hold a century later.
We all have to eat, but doing it without consuming plastic right along with it is pretty close to impossible. There are zero waste stores popping up all over the country, but not everyone has access to them; nor are you typically able to obtain 100% of what you need for your diet.
Some grocery stores are better than others when it comes to using plastic packaging sparingly and finding alternatives. Aldi is at the top of the list right now, and they have plans to improve even more in the coming years.
And, of course, one of the best ways to reduce waste at the grocery store, is to bring your own reusable bags. This is a hot topic right now, as many stores and cities are phasing them out.
If you opt for one of the popular new delivery services, make sure you put a note in the comments that you would like them to use as few bags as possible.
Bakery & Bread
Most bread does come in a plastic bag. True, they are reusable, but the best thing to do is to avoid that plastic altogether. This can be done by picking up some fresh, even better bread at the local farmers market and then popping it into your reusable bag.
If the farmers market isn’t open, check your local bakeries, or simply find the bakery section in your grocery store and look for the fresh breads in the paper bags.
You can also give making your own a shot if you so desire. There are some reasonably priced bread machines that take the work out of this task, and what could be better than fresh bread every week? Sourdough bread from a starter is also a great option as you also receive the healthy bacteria in your gut from fermentation.
Meats & Seafoods
Meat and seafood options at the grocery store are notorious for being wrapped in plastic and placed on a styrofoam tray. However, if you saunter up to the meat counter, you can get the employees to place your selections in whatever container you bring along. They may give you a weird look, but whatever. You’re saving the planet, they don’t have to get it.
Or you can find out where your local farms are and what services they offer. Sometimes you can order whole or half cows, pigs, chickens or even lamb; and then have them cut it up however you like. You will probably need to invest in a large freezer for that option.
It’s a little trickier to find fresh fish outside of the grocery that is good for you, if you don’t live where they do; but you can always opt for canned (salmon, mackarel, anchovies, sardines) or jarred fish (herring).
Pasta & Rice
While pastas and rice products can often be found sealed in a plastic bag, I find them just as often anymore in a cardboard box. Choose the latter. That was easy.
Or if you are feeling really ambitious, make your own; there’s nothing like fresh pasta. If you get lucky, maybe you can even find organic pasta in bulk. This is why organic pasta is necessary.
Oils, Sauces, Salad dressings & Condiments
These items are generally found in both plastic and glass containers. Whenever possible, choose the glass option. As an easy plastic-free alternative, salad dressing, sauces and even condiments are relatively easy to prepare on your own.
Cereals & Breakfast foods
Breakfast foods are found in boxes with plastic pouches inside, most commonly. There are bulk options at some stores, but again try to find organic if you can. Bars, and even granolas can be made at home.
Soups & Canned goods
Soups can be found in cans very abundantly, so skip the tetrapaks to limit the plastic waste. That said, it’s better to make your own since cans do contain plastic linings. This is especially important if it involves a tomato base, since the acidic foods draw out the chemicals.
Unfortunately, this category is almost always limited to plastic pouches that are challenging to recycle. It is best to opt for fresh and limit prepared foods whenever you can, for multiple reasons. If you are freezing your own leftovers or fresh foods, simply select stainless steel or glass.
Dairy, Cheese & Eggs
Skip the plastic bubble paks and pick up your eggs in cartons, either at the grocery or the farmer’s market.
Milk doesn’t need to be purchased in a tetrapak or jug, find glass bottles that can be returned to a local farm or grocery. They will often offer a refund for a price they tack on to motivate returns.
Cheese, though often packaged in plastic, can also be discovered enveloped in wax or foil, or even sitting in a brine in a glass jar.
When it comes to yogurt, I really can’t think of a time I have seen it in anything but plastic containers. So if you have a few minutes and this is something your family regularly consumes, making your own from home can be very beneficial.
Snacks & Crackers
Snack foods are found in both boxes and foil bags. Both options have their negatives because the boxes typically contain a plastic bag inside; and the foil bags actually have plastic materials mixed in. Again, the best option is to make your own or find it in bulk somewhere.
In the produce aisle, it’s all about the reusable bags. Outside of that, avoiding the plastic in that area is a walk in the park!
Once you have your produce home, here are some good tips for avoiding plastic when storing it.
The number one rule of thumb in the drinks department is to carry along your favorite reusable water bottle and coffee thermos, because this habit alone can eliminate so much plastic waste.
Did you realize that those disposable coffee cups they give you have a plastic lining? How about teabags–they actually have plastic incorporated as well. Who knew we were drinking so much plastic when we enjoy what seem like harmless, even beneficial beverages such as these? Loose leaf organic teas are always best.
When buying other beverages, like juices and sodas, glass bottles are where it’s at. And try to avoid the individual size, especially if you have to resort to the plastic.
Food storage does not require plastic. Following are four alternatives that I have successfully tested.
- Silicone suction lids are great for storing leftovers in the fridge when your bowl, or even cup or jar, doesn’t have a partnering lid
- Beeswax wraps are the perfect substitute for plastic wrap, and you can even make them yourself!
- Parchment paper may not cling, but it can be placed on top of a container as a buffer to aluminum foil’s harmful chemicals.
- Mason jars are my favorite for their multipurpose fridge, freezer and pantry storing capacity.
Avoiding plastics when eating out can be challenging, but all it involves is a little preparation.
The number one rule is to remember your reusable straw. Because you know any server is trained to throw one on the table and even if you don’t open it, that straw will likely be tossed. So definitely remember to ask them not to bring them out.
Besides that, even if you forget your straw, is it really even necessary? How often do you drink from a straw when you’re at home?
Cup vs Cone
When taking the family out for ice cream, go for the cones, never the cups. Wouldn’t you know it, those cups are coated in plastic, too!
If you’re heading out on a road trip, double check your inventory of reusable utensils and to go containers. From personal experience, especially if you have children with you, there are going to be times you need to grab and go.
The fashion industry generates an astonishing amount of chemicals and waste. And sadly, Americans are tossing an average of 81 pounds of textiles per person annually!
Not only does new clothing often come with plastic hangers, tags and stickers attached; but it is also frequently made from plastic-based materials like polyester and nylon.
Don’t know of any clothing swap opportunities in your area? Host your own! I am holding one in my home tonight with my local Zero Waste FB group.
And when your clothing gains a hole, loses a button or gets a stain; try to find a way to either repair or reuse it. Even if that means putting it in the rag pile for cleaning, etc.
Fortunately, even for those of you who aren’t thrilled with the idea of being limited to used clothing shopping, new more sustainable clothing brands are popping up all the time.
The dreaded yet unavoidable task of housecleaning can also consist of a lot of plastic waste. Those swiffer cloths, disinfectant wipes, and microfibers that we love, all contain plastic polymers that end up in our oceans, choking our marine life. The plastic bottles that all the various cleaning solutions for every possible situation, really add up, too.
For this chore, you should avoid those popular polyurethane foam sponges that won’t decompose any time soon, and opt for a more natural loofah scrubber that is biodegradable.
In place of chemical-laden dish soaps, try substituting either eco-friendly dishwasher tablets that come in a box, or simple baking soda that most of us already have in our kitchens. You can even make your own soaps!
Those huge plastic bottles of liquid laundry soap are an environmental nuisance. Check out soap nuts, or use washing soda instead. MyGreenFills.com is also a wonderful alternative. It’s a subscription service for refills that are also non-toxic. Dropps.comoffers several options for plant-based pods, etc. So, yeah, tons of options!
Dryer sheets may make your clothes smell like flowers, but they leave just one more plastic to be discarded when you’re done. Not to mention the plethora of harmful chemicals that the wearer ends up inhaling all day.
Most cleaning tasks can be accomplished successfully with only baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice in one combination or another. Throw in a few drops of essential oil, and you’ve got yourself a multipurpose cleaning solution as good as anything storebought–and safe, too!
Over the years, microfiber cloths have become many people’s go-to for their absorption capacity as well as their scrubbing capabilities. However, the problem with microfiber is all of the tiny plastic fibers tend to break off and float away into our waterways, when laundered.
What you can do instead, is simply reuse old t-shirts and the like that have outlived their wearability. You kill two birds with one stone that way–reuse and plastic-free! Or you can pick up some old cotton pieces at a thrift store and use those.
If you really cannot bear to part with your microfibers, look into GUPPYFRIEND. It is a reusable laundry bag that keeps those microfibers contained, so that they don’t wander out into the ocean.
Beauty & Hygiene
Microbeads, a horribly wasteful trend added to enhance beauty products’ scrubbing abilities, has been phased out, thankfully. There are, however, so many other plastics left for user concern in this category. Nearly every toiletry and cosmetic available to us is packaged in the substance.
Finally, some beauty companies like Beautycounter are stepping up to incorporate more glass packaging into their lines. Another great option is to learn how to make your own products. You could try making just one a month in bulk for the whole year and transfer a lot of your most used products over to glass that way.
Hair care is no less guilty of plastics overreliance. But it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to get your shampoo out of endless bottles of plastic–use shampoo bars instead! Check out this easy homemade recipe I use. You can also go “no poo” and save yourself a lot of money on hair needs. Plastic-free brushes and accessories are also available.
For your daily dental care, opt for a diy tooth powder. Even if you stick with the conventional tube, you can at least use one of these to ensure that not a drop goes wasted.
Most flosses are filled with plastic fibers, but an electric waterpik can not only avoid the waste, but it can save you money. There are more eco-friendly dental flosses out there as well. Just please do not use those plastic individual flossers. I can imagine that the sea is submerged in them by now.
And skip those plastic brushes, please! No need for them when we have access to some amazing biodegradable wooden ones.
Hand & Body soaps
Honestly, those bodywash and handsoap dispensers need to be a thing of the past. Why invest in them when you can find more eco-friendly wrapped bar versions? Or just make your own, like I do!
Contrary to popular belief, deoderant does not have to come in the same molded plastic container of our youth. Some of the more natural versions can now be found in a glass jar. You can also make your own, or just mix a little essential oil with some baking soda and dab on your pits; container-free!
Some people find that their skin is sensitive to the baking soda (like myself), so here is a good option for those that are.
Gone are the days of the straight-edge razor’s popularity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still purchase one(link). Not quite that confident with your steady hand? Try one of these non-plastic reusable kinds.
The shaving cream really isn’t necessary. All you need in its place is a bar of soap that gives a good lather.
Your monthly flow can be annoying in more ways than one. The waste that managing it with disposable options entails is ridiculous. Thankfully our bodies are no longer limited by disposable feminine care. Give reusable pads, period panties, and/or menstrual cups a try!
Don’t contribute to the endless sea of ink pens that flood our landfills each year–1.6 billion from Americans alone. Try a refillable option instead.
Same goes for printer ink cartridges as well.
Every business owner has to find ways to promote their products and services. I get that. But a major pet peeve of mine is to attend some kind of festival or other event and see table upon table full of plastic tchatckes that will only end up in the waste bin by day’s end.
The next time you feel the need to increase your promotional swag inventory, consider shopping for it on ethicalswag.com. They provide some great options that are also environmentally friendly such as reusable straws, reusable shopping bags and even business cards made from seed paper!
This category generates a lot of plastic due to all of the baby gear. Before making these purchases, sit on it for a bit. Try to determine if you can get by without it. If you do realize that you truly require it for your parenting lifestyle, try to either borrow it or obtain it secondhand somehow.
Diapers and wipes is another area of parenting that involves tons of waste. There are so many great options for easy cloth diapering in today’s world. However, if you find that’s not your thing, there are also many different brands that have cropped up with eco-friendly disposable options.
Once you have children, the toys will start to pile up inevitably. As an environmentalist though, you can select more high-quality wooden toys. There are also so many opportunities to buy toys secondhand.
Arts & Crafts supplies
If you visit any arts & crafts supply store, you’re going to find A Lot of plastic; so many slow-decomposing versions of it. The tape, the glue sticks, the foams, the googly eyes, the beads and so much more–all composed of some percentage of plastic.
But you don’t have to just give up on art projects with your kids. Shop for craft supplies at thrift stores, in Facebook marketplace groups and in your recycling bins, for free!
The family pet may bring us a lot of joy, but they can also add significantly to our waste load. Instead of scooping up their waste with the common plastic receptacle that just ends up off-gassing methane in a landfill, try carrying a reusable scoop and placing it directly into the trashcan.
Like children, pets can generate some gear as well, so always do a used search for those items first as well.
When it comes to holidays and other seasonal celebrations, we love to buy plastic tchatckes to express our joy. Commercialism is at an all-time high during those times, and fun decor and other unique items tend to draw us in. But think about where all that ends up when we’re sick of looking at it? Yep, in the landfills with everything else we no longer care for. So buy used or simply avoid whenever you can.
A lot of the waste can come from all the gatherings of family and friends that the seasons encourage. This is a positive, of course; however, the plastic waste that is generated from these gatherings can easily be decreased.
Shipping or Moving supplies
There is so much plastic waste when it comes to moving things from place to place. Sure, the boxes are cardboard, but what about all those plastic packing materials? They all become part of our single-use legacy. . or we can look into the more eco-friendly packaging materials that are now available.
That was a lot. Not one of us is ever going to be able to accomplish every last plastic-free switch on this list. But it does get us thinking about the areas in life in which we can make positive changes toward a more plastic-free planet. And when we work on this altogether it truly does add up to change.