The Single-Use Plastics You Never Thought About, and 13 Simple Swaps

How to end that plastic addiction by following the principles of conscious waste

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Plastic cling-wrap: one of the many other single-use plastics that has found its way into our lives. Photos: Heidi Bischof

So you have a reusable water bottle and coffee cup and you take your own bags to the supermarket? Think you’ve ditched disposable plastic and got “green” all sorted? Before you tick that box I’d like to help you out with a little reality check. I want to challenge you to explore a little further into your plastic addiction and show you even more single-use plastics that are still lurking in the shadows and how you can weed them out. I’ll also give you some great ideas for things you can use instead. Unfortunately unsustainable habits like plastic are so embedded in our lives that it is impossible to get rid of them overnight, but if we tackle a bit at a time, and follow the principles of conscious waste, then we’ll be able to help the planet in a huge way!

Single-use plastics: Hang on, there’s more?

As the global plastic pollution crisis is really starting to sink in, single-use plastic bans are popping up all over the place. There is a lot of momentum out there and more and more people are saying no to plastic bags, bringing their own reusable bottles and cups. It’s easy to get excited about this (I did!) but before you sit back and think, “It’s all under control, the government is taking care of things; I have my reusable items and there’s nothing more to do,” there are some things you should know.

Single-use plastic bans are very piecemeal

Only a handful of countries have announced bans or taxes on single-use plastics (e.g. the U.K., Taiwan), but these bans only include a few of the most common disposable items like bags and straws. While bans on plastic bags are a bit more widespread, there are still many countries that haven’t taken any action. But plastic bags (and straws and bottles) are just the tip of the iceberg.

Single-use plastics actually include WAY more than the items covered by these bans

I pick up countless pieces of plastic litter off the street when I’m out running each week. But apart from the bags, straws, utensils, bottles, and coffee cups, there are a lot of other single use plastic items that a) you most likely didn’t realise are single-use plastic and b) you wouldn’t expect to find on the ground (from where they get washed into the stormwater system and then into the ocean).

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Some OTHER single-use plastics you might not have thought about.

Many of the items pictured are acutely hazardous to marine life if they end up in the ocean (which nine times out of ten they do if they are dropped on the ground). Hard and small/thin plastic items like cable ties, cotton buds, and dental flossers can be ingested by wildlife. If a turtle can get a plastic straw stuck up her nostril, then anything similar in size can also end up there. Soft plastics (balloons, gloves, cling wrap, food packaging) are just as hazardous as plastic bags, and wildlife can become tangled in long pieces of plastic (e.g., tape and ribbon). Since we can’t seem to keep these things out of the ocean, we need to get them out of production, and the only way that will happen is if people like you and me keep them out of our shopping trolleys! So think twice next time you go to buy these things.

Breaking it down…

Cotton buds

A lot of cotton buds (or Q tips) end up in the ocean, often from being flushed down the toilet. The stick is usually made from plastic, and they are really something we can do without. I used to use them to clean my ears but learned that you can actually damage your ear drum by doing that. Now I just use my pinky finger and wipe it on a tissue (my finger nail is about 3–4mm long which is the perfect length to reach whatever is blocking the opening. Sorry, I know that’s a bit disgusting!). The wax in our ears is actually beneficial and protects our ear drums from dirt entering, so we shouldn’t be removing any wax from inside our ears, only what comes to the surface. If you don’t have long enough fingernails or are a little bit precious 😊 then you might want to get a stainless steel ear wax remover.

Dental flosser

Lazy much??? Yeah, I guess this way you’re using less floss, but these contain more plastic overall than a 30–40cm piece of dental floss, and I never see dental floss in the gutter, whereas this is probably the 10th one of these I’ve picked up in 12 months.

Disposable shaver

I don’t understand why disposable shavers even exist, when you can get re-usable shavers with replaceable blades. SOOOO wasteful!

Disposable wipes (usually marketed as “wet wipes”)

Although these look like tissues, they are not biodegradable. They are made of synthetic fibers (i.e., plastic). The “wet” part is usually anti-bacterial but contains various chemicals that your skin would be better off without. We have gone a bit over the top with anti-bacterial stuff, hand sanitizers, etc., to the point where bacteria is now becoming resistant to it and we are creating more harmful “super-bugs.” So I would recommend reducing your use of these types of products, and if you do really need to sanitize something, put some white vinegar or ethanol in a small spray bottle, which you can keep in your bag or the car with some clean hankies. This is a great reusable alternative to single-use wipes!

Blister packs

These are used for many different medications, throat lozenges, etc., and I am always finding them on the ground. They are made from plastic and foil fused together so they are not recyclable. We are guilty of using these in our household, but they are pretty hard to avoid as they are used for so many things. The main ones we use are over-the-counter painkillers (not very often), but last time we went to buy some we discovered we could get them in bottles instead (which are recyclable). They also work out MUCH cheaper (bonus!). My partner takes prescription medication that comes in blister packs so we’re going to find out if that is also available in bottles.


Balloons kill so much wildlife, particularly turtles, and so many end up in the ocean, not just through the stormwater system but (mainly) from being released into the air. Balloons are really not a necessity in our lives, and there are plenty of safer alternatives for parties and other occasions.

Plastic ribbon and gift decorations

Aside from plastic bags, balloons, and straws, plastic ribbon is probably one of the next most hazardous items for marine life. The gift decoration (not sure what these are called) is just one long piece of plastic ribbon folded up. Jute string and raffia make great alternatives to wrap gifts.

Plastic tape

This is yet another form of plastic that ends up in the ocean. Both PVC tape (PVC is a toxic plastic that is best avoided anyway) and clear sticky tape can easily be replaced with masking tape, which is made from paper. Or try using removable adhesive (e.g. UHU u-tac), toxin-free glue, staples, pins or jute string instead.

Plastic cable ties

I find so many of these on the ground but we can easily live without them! We used to manage just fine with wire or string, so why don’t we go back to using those things again? Metal wire (the non-plastic-coated variety) is recyclable, and jute twine is 100 percent biodegradable.

Disposable gloves

I am constantly finding disposable gloves in the gutter. I have no idea where they’ve come from, but I know exactly where they end up, and they’re much the same as balloons in terms of their impact on marine life. Say no to disposable gloves and buy reusable ones instead.

Plastic wrap

This is really no different than plastic bags! It is designed for one use only, and it’s just as hazardous when it ends up in the ocean. Beeswax or silicone wraps are great alternatives to single-use plastic wrap. Pyrex dishes with lids are also useful if you have leftovers from a casserole or pudding. Just put the lid on it instead of covering it in plastic wrap. This sounds obvious, but we’ve been so brainwashed into thinking cling-wrap is the most convenient thing. When you actually think about which of these takes less time to put on, you’ll realize it’s the lid!).

Single-serve yogurt

This is something you might get as part of your weekly grocery shopping, but did you know you’re paying a double price for convenience? One price is the environmental one of creating more disposable plastic than if you bought a larger container, but the other is coming straight out of your bank account — single serve containers almost always work out more expensive than a larger size. If you like to take yoghurt to work for a snack (or pack it in your kids’ lunches) then buy a large tub (or glass jar if possible) and put some in a small reusable container.

Individually-wrapped snacks

If you have kids, snack bars and single-serve potato crisps might seem like an easy option for school snacks, but apart from the excessive packaging these are usually high in sugar and fat and not a healthy snack at all. A mix of dried fruit and nuts makes a great snack, and you can get both of these in the bulk section of supermarkets. Fresh fruit is also good, but make sure you buy it unpackaged and without plastic stickers. Some supermarkets also now have “imperfect produce” shelves, which are the same quality and freshness, they just don’t meet the strict measurements or shapes that the supermarkets claim consumers want. (Whaaaat? I don’t remember saying that to any supermarket!) So support reducing food waste and choose these over the perfect ones.

Swap the disposable plastics lurking in your home for these more sustainable alternatives

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  1. Metal wire (recyclable, sustainable alternative to plastic cable ties)
  2. Jute twine (biodegradable/compostable)
  3. Masking tape (recyclable — as paper, more sustainable alternative to plastic tape)
  4. Dental Lace plastic-free dental floss (biodegradable/compostable)
  5. Herron ibuprofen and paracetamol tablets (recyclable, better choice and value than blister-packs)
  6. Nalgene leak-proof jar (great for yoghurt and other snacks)
  7. Reusable rubber gloves (sustainable alternative to disposable gloves; can be washed and re-used many times)
  8. Pyrex oven dish with lid (great way to store leftovers without plastic cling-wrap)
  9. Agreena silicone wraps (reusable alternative to cling-wrap)

It’s great if you take reusable bags to the supermarket, and even better if you have a reusable bottle and coffee cup and say no to plastic straws. But these things are just skimming the surface of our plastic addiction, and as you can see, there’s a whole lot more stuff that you’d probably never thought about. Hopefully this has helped you begin to see just how dependent on single-use plastic we’ve become and how it is so embedded in our daily lives that we can’t even recognise it anymore until someone points it out. Once we can start seeing the single-use plastics that are literally everywhere, we’ll be able to start questioning the need for them. And if we can get these other plastics out of our life we’ll help to keep them out of the ocean too!

I’d love to hear from you…

Please let me know in the comments if you’ve discovered any other single-use plastics in your life (bonus points if you’ve found a more sustainable alternative!)

If you’d like more help to free your life from plastic, download my free pdf, 6 Ways to Conscious Waste. You can also follow me on Facebook for news, tips, and inspiration.

Written by

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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Written by

Heidi Bischof

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

A vegan magazine that’s hopefully devoted to delicious plants, liberated animals, and leading a radical, sustainable, joyful life

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