Today is World Oceans Day, a day when we should all be thinking about what we can do to protect the oceans, so here are twelve ways you can refuse single use plastic and reduce your plastic consumption overall, because let’s be honest, we really need to (Americans create the most plastic waste per year, at 562 lbs / 255 kg per capita).
Seven single use plastic items you can easily refuse
Plastic shopping bags – Lightweight plastic shopping bags are now fully or partially banned in 77 countries, which is a great step forward for the world, but these laws are enforced with variable effectiveness worldwide. Remember to take your reusable bags when you go to the store (this means any stores, not just the grocery store), as most of us do nowadays anyway, and if you forget, opt for paper or just carry your stuff back to your car. Some ways to always have a bag on hand are to keep a couple of reusable bags in the back of your car or stash some little ones in your purse. The three reusable bags I carry in my purse are my main ones and get used all the time. Also, don’t just keep buying reusable bags, get a few and stick with those – a reusable cotton bag needs to be used at least 131 times to have offset the plastic and carbon used in its creation.
Vegetable bags – Spoiler alert, most vegetables last longer if they aren’t wrapped in plastic, so not only will you be saving the planet when you opt for loose vegetables or bringing your own mesh bags to put them in, but you will also be decreasing your food waste, thus saving you money. Some grocery stores are moving towards compostable vegetables bags and these are much better than their traditional plastic counterparts; however, reusable is always the best if you are able to bring your own.
Water bottles – Avoiding plastic water bottles is easy in the developed world and where the water than comes out of the taps is safe to drink, but harder where the water is not safe. If you are lucky enough to have safe water coming out of your taps then there is no reason to really ever drink bottled water; if you don’t like the taste of your tap water (some places have very hard water, which can have a strong taste), then install a filter for your home drinking water or, if you are renting and can’t change the taps, sign up for a water refill service where they drop off purified water in large plastic containers that you return to them to sanitise, refill, and repeat. Filters need to be heavier duty for places with truly unsafe water supplies (for example, when we lived in Guatemala even locals did not drink the tap water) and many people opt for water refill services as previously described. If you are only traveling through a place with unsafe water and don’t want to contribute to the plastic waste in that country try bringing a LifeStraw water bottle with you instead of your usual basic reusable water bottle.
Coffee cups – Disposable coffee cups don’t look like plastic from the outside, but, due to a plastic liner on the inside of the cardboard, they aren’t recyclable and it’s best to bring your own reusable takeaway coffee cup if you need it on the go or you can sit down to enjoy your coffee in a mug at the café. I know Americans are in love with their rush rush lives that leave them gulping caffeine enroute to work (don’t get me started on the inequities in the system that push so many to this frantic pace of life), but I have personally fallen head over heels in love with the Australian coffee culture that encourages staying a while to linger over your flat white while catching up with a friend or just having a wonderful, quiet ten minutes to yourself while you enjoy your caffeine fix in the present. Next time you get coffee out, try asking for it ‘for here’ if you have time; it’s more relaxing and far better than the 50 billion disposable coffee cups Americans throw away each year (Australians do better, but still could clean up their act too, at 1 billion coffee cups thrown away each year).
Straws – I picked up a shocking number of these when we collected 34 lbs / 15.5 kg of plastic waste at Double Island Point last week, so many in fact that I stopped counting in our mad rush to get as much plastic off the beach as we could before the tide came to call. Straws are necessary for some people with disabilities to drinking, but for most of us, they are a simple convenience that can be easily replaced with a metal, reusable straw (as I’ve seen many restaurants switching too) or forgoing the turtle nose stabbing items entirely, because, let’s be honest, humans have been drinking since the dawn of time and have managed just fine without plastic straws until their creation in 1937. If you want to be a part of the shift away from plastic straws, next time your order a drink specifically ask for no straw. The goal is to shift straws from a given for every drink, to a specially requested item for those who need them (we humans are very suggestable and just taking straws out of drinks and moving them to the counter can decrease their use by 50%).
Take away food containers – This one is admittedly harder, as ever since the pandemic even less places are accepting reusable containers for take away than before, so the best option I have found is to simply eat in when possible. Similar to the coffee up situation, eating in results in significantly less plastic waste and lets you have a nice moment of present mindfulness while eating, rather than eating on the go. My personal pet hate is places that still provide take away containers for those eating in, this one pisses me off so much that I will not return to a restaurant that does this (Snapper Jack’s Taco Sack I’m looking at you).
Disposable face masks – Now that we are two years from the start of the pandemic and everyone who wants to have been vaccinated is, my opinion is that, unless you are immunocompromised, there is no real reason to still be using disposable face masks. These disposable face masks are important in medical settings, but not in your local supermarket, unless, I repeat, unless you are immunocompromised or caring for someone who is. If you are immunocompromised, this does not apply to you and you need to make health decisions for yourself with the advice of your doctor. For the rest of us, the risk of COVID has fallen dramatically and it is high time we end the face mask onslaught into our landfills and environment (the world is throwing away 3 million face masks every single day). Face masks cannot be recycled and are a highly mobile littered item, which means that face mask dropped on the sidewalk outside the grocery store has a high likelihood of being blown into a marine environment where its break down will be further slowed and its impact on the environment increased. If you still want to wear a face mask, opt for a reusable one instead.
Five tips to reduce your plastic consumption
Choose products with non-plastic packaging and components – Once you start considering the packaging of a product before purchasing you will start to see more plastic than you ever thought possible. Plastic wrapped individual bananas are completely unnecessary given they make the dang banana rot faster and because nature already gave the banana packaging, a peel! Buy loose fruits and vegetables rather than pre-cut, pre-packaged options. Pick the spaghetti in a cardboard box rather than the plastic bag. Try the bamboo toothbrush instead of the traditional plastic one. Move away from convenience items that increase plastic packaging, such as picking the 1 kg bag of rice over the, more expensive, individual, pre-cooked rice packets. Try powdered laundry detergent in a cardboard box instead of liquid detergent in plastic, not only can it be cheaper, but your washing machine won’t clog up so much…I could go on, but you get the idea, there’s a myriad of easy, cheap swaps out there that can really help decrease your plastic footprint. In supporting companies that package responsibly you also help to shift the market towards less plastic usage.
Buy recycled products – 91% of plastic that gets thrown away every year is not recycled and the majority of new plastic products are made with virigin (aka not recycled, primary plastis) plastic. If we shift to supporting companies that use recycled plastic in their products we are supporting closing the loop to create a circular economy that increases the value of recycled plastics to help divert more and more plastics from waste, simply through making it economically sensible for companies to do so. There is definitely a big place for governments to support production with recycled plastic through things like a plastic tax on the creation of new primary plastics, but even without that the consumer still has a lot of power to vote with their dollar. Looking for products made with recycled plastic is especially helpful in areas that are hard to remove plastic affordably, such as in bathroom goods like shampoo and conditioner (though there are some cool no-plastic alternatives out there if you are able to pay more).
Buy less, but better quality – No one needs as many clothes as the average American or Australian owns, let alone throws away each year. Given most clothes these days are actually plastic in a different form (anything polyester is plastic), if we choose to invest in less, but higher quality, sustainable options in things like clothes, shoes, etc. we can live lighter on the planet and our wallet (tip – try tracking your spending, and I mean all your spending, for a year and you will see that those cheap, frequent purchases add up to the point that you likely could have bought one nice thing that would last). This goes beyond clothes, but fast fashion and the need to keep up with trends is a big contributor to this more, more, more mentality and, as such, needs to be discussed. One way to help you shift from lots of low quality items to a few high quality items is to really consider purchases on a need vs want. Try not to buy it if you only want it and wait until you really need it, or there’s a good occasion for a just want purchase, like your birthday. Honestly, just waiting a few days from the immediate “I want it!” momement will break the emotional hold that advertising has over you and allow you to think with a clearer mind about if that purchase is the right one, at the right time (and don’t feel bad if ads get you, they get me too, there’s a reason marketers gets paid the big bucks, they are very good at manipulating us to the benefit of their company).
Use what you have – Yes, I know that reusable water bottle with the dolphins on it is gorgeous and you just have to have it, but don’t you have a reusable water bottle already and why do you need two? This is a conversation I have with myself on a regular basis, and, no, I did not buy the dolphin water bottle, because I already had one. Remember, that every product created has a cost to that creation, in the power and resources needed to make it, the energy to ship it, etc., and the most sustainable option, often, is the one you already own. This, again, is also great for saving money – see a theme here? Save the planet and save money. Win win.
Try shopping in bulk – Bulk stores are great ways to decrease plastic, but do be careful to check prices before you fill up as the prices can vary widely from store to store. When I lived in Davis, CA, the co-op had a wonderfully affordable bulk shop, but I never could find one in Ventura. As for our time living in WA, Geraldton did not have a low plastic bulk store, so we would fill up on our bulk items when we went to Perth to visit Kane’s parents. We found that spices are great value in bulk, but there was less value in things like flour so we chose to buy that at the traditional supermarket (and flour comes standard in paper packaging so no problem there). Also, rather than buying special containers for your bulk goods, try saving and washing all the glass jars you get for free when doing your normal shopping – we eat peanut butter like addicts and found that the peanut butter jars are great for bulk shopping.
At the end of the day, refusing and reducing our plastic consumption is about shifting our mindset from seeing plastic as disposable to seeing it as a valuable, long lasting resource (a single plastic bottle will likely be around for more than 400 years). The way we do this is by first understanding the problem, seeing the alternatives, and committing to be aware of your plastic consumption. So much consumption in our modern world is nearly unconscious as it benefits those who make money off of us for us to stay unthinking, in automatic behavior mode. I challenge you to break the automation and have a think about how you want to live, do you want to blindly send your hard earned dollars into the pockets of a wealthy few making money at the expense of the planet or do you want to change the status quo? It’s up to you.
Also, as I have said before and will continue to say forever, do not let the false idea of perfection ruin the good. Our current consumer systems are steeped in plastic and a zero plastic lifestyle is unstainable at best and likely unattainable for most folks. The goal here is about reducing your plastic consumption where you can, one step at a time. I suggest picking a few tips from this post that resonate with you and focusing on those to avoid overwhelm (if you get overwhelmed you often experience stress which leads to avoidance of the problem, which doesn’t help anyone at the end of the day). Remember, the goal is a low, not no, plastic lifestyle. It also helps to get friends and family involved in any change you decide to make, because things are always easier with your trip behind you.